AmericanaFest & Awards Highlights, and the Bustling Melting Pot That Is Americana

Photos and Words by Max Stewart

Americana. The word itself has some teeth to it, don’t ya think? Do you picture yourself on a porch in rural Georgia swaying back and forth on a rocking chair with a banjo on your knee? Maybe in a quiet coffee shop somewhere in Brooklyn with an acoustic guitar? Or how about down in the French Quarter of New Orleans marching through the streets with a brass band in a second line parade? All scenarios would qualify by the genre’s loose definition.

Music critics and fans alike have scratched their heads while trying to nail down what Americana truly is, as the genre no doubt casts a wide net. I would argue that Americana can be defined as American roots music that does not surrender its substance in order to gain “mainstream” appeal. Because they prioritize the music and not the record sales, many Americana artists sometimes do not have the luxury of millions of Spotify streams and arena-filled tours, but they do have the respect and admiration of music fans and musicians. Nashville’s AmericanaFest is the perfect chance for these musicians and their fans to congregate and cross-pollinate for a week.

img_9170Tonight, at 9:00 ET on Country Music Television (CMT), the network will actually be airing the 2018 Americana Honors & Awards that took place in September at the famed Ryman Auditorium. Although the mainstream country music machine is oftentimes less than willing to allow formats outside of their typical ‘country’ sound into its tight-knit circle, it is refreshing that the awards will air in prime time and it should be a great opportunity for many musicians to reach a wider audience. Some of the artists you should hopefully hear about in tonight’s broadcast include, but are not limited to: Brandi Carlile, Fantastic Negrito, Margo Price, Daniel Donato, Jason Isbell, I’m With HerLukas Nelson, Molly Tuttle, and Tyler Childers.

img_9050The awards ceremony is just a portion of the greater AmericanaFest, a week-long event that takes place in Nashville every fall. The festival is a diverse and reasonably-priced event which allows listeners to see some of their favorite artists in unique venues and discover a range of new musicians.  AmericanaFest is structured like that of Austin’s SXSW, with a multitude of musicians being scattered across Music City in a variety of venues.

Hats off to you, AmericanaFest, for allowing so many great musicians from a wide range of stylistic backgrounds to get their name out there.  Highlights were abound at the 2018 event earlier this year, but a few come to mind after having some time to reflect on the festival:

  • Catching Margo Price perform on the roof of her record label Third Man Records, with special guests Brandi Carlile and Lilly Hiatt, as the sun was going down over the city.
  • Legendary record producer Dave Cobb (Jason Isbell, Sturgill Simpson, Chris Stapleton) discussing the album he worked on with Brandi Carlile, By the Way, I Forgive You, in the room where it was recorded (RCA Studio A.) This was coupled by Carlile’s performance of “The Joke,” which was by far and away the most emotional song I heard all week. The ghosts that haunt the studio were even tearing up.
  • Watching blues legend Buddy Guy receive a Lifetime Achievement for Instrumentalist award, and performing “Damn Right, I’ve Got The Blues,” showing he hasn’t lost an ounce of swagger in his older years.
  • Americana’s Godfather (John Prine) and Torchbearer (Jason Isbell) racking up the awards throughout the night, all the while bringing poignant reflection during their individual performances of “Summer’s End” and “White Man’s World” in the original Grand Ole Opry venue.
  • Irma Thomas showing the audience why she is the “Soul Queen of New Orleans,” with a performance of “Time Is On My Side” (she also received the Lifetime Achievement for Performance.)
  • The Spirit of Americana Award being presented to Rosanne Cash on the anniversary of her father Johnny Cash’s death, with her earnest acceptance speech evoking a standing ovation.
  • Witnessing Alejandro Escovedo perform at Nashville’s much-loved record store Grimey’s New and Preloved Music, in one of its final in-store performances at the store’s old location.
  • AxeMen and Women: Admiring Tommy Emmanuel rip it up on his acoustic guitar at the grungy 5 Spot in East Nashville. Also seeing a jaw-dropping performance from the up-and-coming Hannah Wicklund that showcased both her songwriting acumen and her ability to play lead guitar like the vets.
  • Tyler Childers, who won the Emerging Artist of the Year award, acknowledged some of the core issues at the heart of country in his speech: “As a man who identifies as a country music singer, I feel Americana ain’t no part of nothin’. It is a distraction from the issues that we are facing on a bigger level as country music singers. It kind of feels like ‘Purgatory’.”  Childers certainly has a point, but I firmly believe that without an event like AmericanaFest, many artists that may steer outside of the traditional country lane would not have a platform. Either way, Childers taking a stance against the watered-down country radio format gets my blood flowing with excitement, especially in this era of music (akin to “Waylon and Willie and the boys”).
  • Jackie Greene‘s soulful & twangy show, complete with slide guitar, harmonica-filled ballads, and infectious new material (check out “Crazy Comes Easy”).
  • An all-star collaboration from Fantastic Negrito, Lukas Nelson, and Nathaniel Rateliff, covering Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Fortunate Son” during the awards ceremony.

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