2019 AmericanaFest Offers Another Astute Example of True Roots Relevancy

A look at some of this year’s biggest highlights

Bela Fleck and Billy Strings at AmericanaFest – performing at Concord Unites: Rounder Records Event on September 12, 2019 at The Ainsworth in Nashville, Tennessee by Alisa B. Cherry

There are few festivals with the expanse and variety that AmericanaFest offers its participants.

A celebration of all the Americana Music Association has achieved in the past 20 years, it gathers artists and admirers who find a common bond under that sprawling banner Americana music has come to encompass, While it may not be the biggest musical gathering that occurs worldwide, it ranks among the most significant. With hundreds of performances by a like number of artists spread across several dozen venues throughout host city Nashville, it continues to dazzle those who attend, not only due to the sheer number of shows, but also by virtue of the diversity and dedication that accompanies it.

Amanda Shires nominated for “Album of the Year Award” at The Americana Music Honors & Awards Show – September 11, 2019 at Ryman Auditorium in Nashville, Tennessee by Alisa B. Cherry

That, however, belies the fact in finding an exact definition of what the term “Americana” entails can be elusive. This writer hosted a panel dedicated to that very purpose, one that took the title of my book, Americana Music: Voices, Visionaries and Pioneers of an Honest Sound as its premise, and in so doing, shared the thoughts offered by such notables as singer/songwriters Scott Miller and John Lilly, Compass Records co-founder Garry West and respected publicists Rob Evanoff and Lellie Capwell. We didn’t come up with a precise definition — that’s elusive at best — but we did have a lively discussion, at least until a fire alarm went off and we were told to disperse. (It was a false alarm BTW).

PANEL: Americana Music: Voices, Visionaries, and Pioneers of an Honest Sound – Rob Evanoff, Garry West, Lellie Capwell, Scott Miller, John Lilly, Lee Zimmerman

Perhaps the most succinct summation of what the Americana brand has to offer was relayed through the 18th annual Americana Music Honors & Awards ceremony held Wednesday night at the Ryman Auditorium in downtown Nashville. An extraordinary salute and showcase for the talented individuals that have contributed to the Americana pastiche both past and present, it recognizes the artists, instrumentalists, albums, songs and newcomers whose work has graced stages and recordings while also making significant contributions to Americana music over the course of the past year. At the same time, it pays homage to those musical forebears who helped establish the lingering legacy and indelible identity that still serves as a timeless template for today’s provocateurs.

The 2019 ceremony, hosted for the second year in a row by the always entertaining Milk Carton Kids, proved especially inclusive, and, notably, emotionally resilient as well. That was evident not only in the honors given those for lifetime achievement —  songwriters Felice & Boudleaux Bryant, Elvis Costello, Rhiannon Giddens, African American musical forebear Frank Johnson, Delbert McClinton, Maria Muldaur and Mavis Staples — but also in the backstories that told of of how the struggle for racial equality found a fit with the trajectory of American folk and roots music. So too, the stunning array of one-off performances, given musical support by Buddy Miller and his all star stage band, took top honors of their own. 

Joe Henry, Rodney Crowell & Buddy Miller perform “Girl from the North Country” at The Americana Music Honors & Awards Show – September 11, 2019 at Ryan Auditorium in Nashville, Tennessee Photo by Alisa B. Cherry

Joe Henry and Rodney Crowell shared a stirring duet that reprised Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash’s pairing on “Girl From the North Country,” one of many monumental tracks captured on Nashville Skyline. Bonnie Raitt and multiple honoree John Prine offered a touching take on “Angel from Montgomery.” Best Emerging Artist nominees for Yola, J.S. Ondara and The War & Treaty reminded all those present that soul music still follows the paths first paved by Stax and Motown, while the ovation accorded Mavis Staples confirmed the fact that the era of Civil Rights, and those who led the way towards equality, are as vital today as they once were a half century past. Other offerings, courtesy of Lori McKenna, Mavis Staples, Brandi Carlile, I’m With Her, Ruston Kelly and Mark Erelli, served as reminders that the music of today is as vital as it’s always been.

Bonnie Raitt & John Prine sing “Angel from Montgomery” at The Americana Music Honors & Awards Show – September 11, 2019 at Ryman Auditorium in Nashville, Tennessee. Photo by Alisa B. Cherry

The Awards ceremony was one of several highlights included in a week of extraordinary encounters. Others included:

● An opening night line-up of remarkable performances at The City Winery, kicked off with a reunion performance by the Delevante Brothers and given added momentum courtesy of sets by hippy troubador Grayson Capps, the ultra upbeat Shinyribs, Joachim Cooder and his dad Ry Cooder, and capped by inventive pop purveyor Jonathan Wilson…

● An event that’s a festival mainstay, “Hillbillies & Hotdogs,” held once again at Compass Records and featuring a line-up of label acts that included Steve Poltz, Molly Tuttle, Old Salt Union, Laura Cortese and the Dance Cards, the Small Glories and Rob Ickes and Trey Hensley…

Molly Tuttle at Compass Records’ Hillbillies & Hot Dogs at AmericanaFest on Wednesday, September 11, 2019. Photo by Alisa B. Cherry

● The Rounder Records party, which paired The War and Treaty with Della Mae, Bela Fleck and Billy Strings, and Andrew Bird with actor/musician John C. Reilly. It was there that we had opportunity to get reaction from the War & Treaty’s Michael Trotter about their win for Best Emerging artist. “When you carry on in the spirit of Nat King Cole, Louie Armstrong and Frank Sinatra, and relate to what people are going though, that spirit comes through,” he mused. “We are the last piece of that puzzle…”

● Yep Roc Records’ salute to North Carolina featuring, among others, Chris Stamey, Daddy Longlegs and Jack Klatt…

● The Mavericks’ Friday night show at the Ryman Auditorium celebrating their 30th anniversary. There may be no better live band than the Mavs these days, and judging by the enthusiasm of the audience, many of whom danced and boogied without regard to those sitting behind them (your’s truly being one such individual), you’ll find few other groups able to keep up with their pace. In addition, a couple of solo songs from erstwhile singer and frontman Raul Malo underscored the fact that he has still one of the strongest singing voices found today…

● The Australia, Canadian and the U.K. all day events featuring exceptional Americana artists of overseas origins. Special kudos are due the Aussie duo known as The Falls, thanks to a performance backed by a string quartet that was stunning to say the least…

Allison Moorer & Hayes Carll at AmericanaFest – performing at Basement East on September 14, 2019 in Nashville, Tennessee by Alisa B. Cherry

● Allison Moorer’s discussion of her new autobiography, Blood, and its accompanying album of the same name, which also included a solo acoustic performance and revelations about a life spent balancing early tragedy with ultimate triumph…

● Hayes Carll making a point to share the stage with his new wife, Ms. Moorer and Canadian cowboy troubadour Corb Lund, who earlier, gave a superb show of his own.

● The dozens of individual artist showcases featuring, among others, the Marcus King Band, Yola, Josh Ritter, Amy Speace, theAmy Ray Band, Tami Neilson, Drew Holcomb, Ted Russell Kamp, Nicki Bluhm, Scott Miller, Amelia White, and the Gibson Brothers. Buddy Miller’s set at the Basement East, featuring a guest appearance from Maria Muldaur and her daughter Jenni was a particular highlight, one that found Emmylou Harris watching from the wings…

● An array of newcomers that provided promise for the future, among them, The Ghost of Paul Revere, Rising Appalachia, Roanoke, Logan Ledger, and Dee White. All of them ought to be considered contenders for top honors as best emerging talent at next year’s honors & award show…

● An impromptu jam featuring Rhiannon Giddens, Dirk Powell and Mark O’Connor who were found sitting, singing and strumming on the back stoop of the Station Inn following a performance by the aforementioned Scott Miller.

● The Sunday morning Gospel Brunch, which provides the traditional celebratory send off. Hosted by Elizabeth Cook, it included special performances by Lifetime Award winner Delbert McClinton, 85 year-old bluesman Bobby Rush, Drew Holcomb, and others of equal aplomb.

Bobby Rush performing at AmericanaFest’s The Ninth Annual Gospel Brunch presented by Thirty Tigers on September 15, 2019 at City Winery, Nashville, Tennessee by Alisa B. Cherry

Needless to say, the sheer expanse of the festivities and its striking number of musicians from practically all over the world makes it absolutely impossible to see even a small percentage of all those one might hope to catch in concert. Best then not to lament the inability to see some, but celebrate instead those that were witnessed throughout this remarkable week. Next year’s event can’t come soon enough.


AUDIO: AmericanaFest 2019 mix

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Lee Zimmerman

Lee Zimmerman is a writer and columnist based in beautiful Maryville Tennessee. Over the past 20 years, his work has appeared in dozens of leading music publications. He is also the author of Americana Music: Voice, Visionaries, and Pioneers of an Honest Sound, which will be published by Texas A&M University Press early next year.

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