For its 21st annual run and representing the largest music festival to grace Music City since COVID hit, Nashville’s be-kitsched and beloved AMERICANAFEST, sponsored by The American Music Association, assembled some 23,000 attendees from all pockets of the globe between September 22nd-25th. Presenting over 400 total performances, 200+ musical showcasing bands in approximately 40 local venues across 7 Metropolitan Nashville/Davidson County districts, 40 special events, and nearly 50 conference panels, nowhere is like Nashvegas during AMERICANAFEST. If you were a time jumper with 10 additional bodies, each dedicated to its own Flux Capacitor-fueled schedule, you still could not possibly take it all in. Therein lies all the fun and the fury!
This year’s Americana Honors and Awards ceremony featured electrifying performances by The Highwomen, Carla Thomas, Brandi Carlile, The Mavericks, Margo Price, Keb’ Mo’, and Allison Russell. Concluded by a gorgeous musical memorial to the late Don Everly sent up by the combined vocal and melodic union of Rodney Crowell and the white magic wonder that is Emmylou Harris, this annual event celebrating the contributions and creations of some of the Americana genre’s finest all-stars was one for the superstar story books.
The manic energy of AMERICANAFEST revolves centrally around the countlessly cool official showcases occurring across multiple nights and time slots at local Nashville venues of note to include The Basement, The Basement East, EXIT/IN, 3rd & Lindsley, Mercy Lounge, Musician’s Corner at Centennial Park, Cannery Ballroom, ONE at Cannery, City Winery, City Winery Lounge, Brooklyn Bowl, The High Watt, 6th & Peabody, and The 5 Spot. Daytime panel conferences abound on industry-related subjects ranging from the “Saying Goodbye to Formulaic Release Strategies” to “Rebuilding the Music Industry Out of the Pandemic” and “What Musicians Must Know About Copyright,” to reference but a tiny, brilliant smattering. Keynote conversations with the likes of Jackson Browne and Aoife O’Donovan make it entirely possible to attend Americana solely for the tuned-in educational party that the festival has always been.
Even the party parties were grounded this year in a collective spirit of inter-mutual exchange, albeit often beer- or espresso-soaked, and events like Tim Carroll’s Rock & Roll Happy Hour at The 5 Spot, the Independent AF Day Party at Tin Roof Broadway, Atomic Music Group’s 2nd Annual Uncanny Hootenanny at The Basement East, the California Country Show at ACME Feed & Seed, Gulch and Gulps with Kevin Daniel/Grandiflora Records/1888 Media at Fat Kat Slim’s, and Kirby Brown’s “Wrixlan, Americana” at City Winery Lounge were as much about writing, sharing, and exploring the many cobbled avenues of sound as they were about day drinking and sharing toe-curling tour stories.
Highlights of this year’s AMERICANAFEST included a collaborative performance entitled “Power to the Music: The Songs of 1971,” which took place at The Basement East and was hosted by Tim Jones of Whiskey Wolves of the West. A slew of Americana musicians served as impromptu house band and covered sonic salutes to the totemic tunes of icons such as Curtis Mayfield, Joni Mitchell, The Rolling Stones, Marvin Gaye, Carole King, and Loretta Lynn. Among the most memorable of the cache of chord curators treading the boards here was the incandescent Kashena Sampson. Her most current release entitled Time Machine is one of the more incisive audio takes on the entropy of love and the nature of our Frankenstein-stitched hearts in its wake since Linda Ronstadt’s Heart Like a Wheel. Sampson’s committed and intelligent manner of making her way around her guitar is also one of the more perfect examples of the practiced, understated artistry that so defines the spirit of AMERICANAFEST as a whole.
Violet Bell graced The Basement with their incredible vocal crescendos and equally leviathan lyrical imagery on September 23 to the delight of all ears present. With voices that are that particular kind of Carolina-clear unavailable elsewhere in this country combined with a quiver of hilarious quips about only being there “for the food,” Lizzy Ross and Omar Ruiz-Lopez made light of their unbelievable gifts at multi-instrumentation by joking about the “ridiculous ratio of instruments to people” on stage and captivated one and all with their selkie-inspired story songs. “The Fisherman’s Daughter,” about the miscues of marriage to one such selkie, should be on everyone’s night-time playlist wherever there are stars in the sky.
Just an hour later, down the road at City Winery, frolicsome soul truths were being sung by the one and only Marshall Chapman, the south’s own Patti Smith. Slim as a cigarette in black jeans and wry as any Appalachian Rasputin, Chapman’s witchy white hair and perennially bare feet lent whimsy to her willful and famously wanderlusted wordsmithing. Since 1977, no one in music has been writing like Marshall Chapman, and the insights provided by her songs will quickly teach any new listener that no one has lived like her either. To that end, any readers not having already drunk in and gotten drunk on her screamingly good memoir entitled Goodbye Little Rock and Roller should rectify that gap as early as five minutes ago. Or else start with her new release called They Came From Nashville if starting with her retellings of old Music City musings out of the mouths of a few of her less-famous friends, such as Willie Nelson, is preferable.
Likewise at City Winery, Kiefer Sutherland and his accomplished touring band offered an intimate and honest set of songs off Sutherland’s forthcoming album from a seated, carpeted stage setup that emanated the same kind of authentic essence as a Tennessee Williams play or a Robert Frost poem. Entitled Bloor Street and set to drop January 21st, 2022, the latest record by the multi-hyphenate artist has been named for the main artery of Toronto, his treasured childhood home. Infused with improvised asides about Johnny Cash, prison dignity, moving on from mistakes, and writing the song “Two Stepping in Time” for his girlfriend in real time as she watched at the kitchen island (no pressure!), Sutherland wowed onlookers with both his easy musicality as well as his affable Renaissance-man repose.
The autumnal songs of Steve Forbert rang out from his strum-worn guitar on that same stage on the same night, and his stomping, Joe Cocker kind of body quake made the nascent earnestness of his delivery just that much more endearing. It is easy to see why Cyndi Lauper had him cast as her bouquet-bearing boyfriend at the end of her ineffable video for “Girls Just Want To Have Fun.”
Though Mr. Sutherland may well have been Canada’s most well-known export at AMERICANAFEST this year, he was by no means its only. By far the most moving and exceptionally impressive event this wandering writer attended was the private listening party for a breakout artist off the Thirty Tigers label called AHI. Warmly hosted at the stunning private residence of universally-respected producer Paul Mabury, this shared audio experience was narrated track-by-track by AHI himself and animated by the artist’s careful explication of the revelatory emotions that led to his creation of this heart-soaring record, entitled Prospect and set for a November 5 release. Discoveries like AHI happen about once per decade if one is well and truly searching under every rock. The opportunity to stumble upon something as captivating as AHI in such a special and sensational atmosphere? Only possible at AMERICANAFEST and probably once in a lifetime.
Any avid readers of mine know that if there is an Australian wonder to be found anywhere within 500 walkabout miles of the mix, this madling minx will bloodhound him or her down about as fast as any speed freak can say “Sydney.” The victor/victim this time, however, deserves to be on every radar, Roo-oriented or otherwise, and promptly. Wesley Dean not only rocked the ever-living sugar out of The Basement on the final night of AMERICANAFEST 2021, but also brought a brand of bleeding-edge songcraft engrafted with decades of DIY, guerrilla-gigging musical experience across Ozland that has produced a sound unlike anything else currently available for pouring into the ears. It is rare indeed that an outlaw spirit can be re-prismed through something as timeless as the archetypal stories and characters that Wesley Dean conjures, writes, and sings about. “Gypsy“ and “Never Thought of You,” in particular, should be moved to incessant rotation for their way of bringing his uncommon alluvial elements into the pieces of earth from his own life which form the terra firma of these tuneful tales. Look out for Dean’s forthcoming record full of more such healing balsams in 2022.
Standout performances were likewise given throughout the long weekend by Nashville’s “psych-bloos” boos: The Minks, Third Man’s own surfragette: the Cleopatran Olivia Jean, and Austin’s flame-haired dream: the unearthly Grace Pettis.
The major beauty and boon of AMERICANAFEST every year is that it zooms until pixelated on the American music industry from all its many variegated angles and allows monumentally productive elbow-rubbing to occur between sets of creatives that might never have otherwise had time or place to meet and mingle. Nashville houses a naturally communal music scene unlike any other in the world on any given Monday, and that city’s unique connection to music history means that AMERICANAFEST lands in a place uniquely designed to foster the magnetism of such a special gathering of guitar-slingers and other harmonic heroes. Nowhere else can any festival-goer find a four-day musical event featuring hundreds of showcases that feels like everybody already knows everybody, or at least knows somebody cool that might already be a friend of their cool friend. What AMERICANAFEST 2021 brought for all and sundry was both a welcome return to at least partial normalcy for industry interaction as well as a continuously evolving, deeply meritable pledge to unify and fortify the American musical landscape from every conceivable vantage point. If you have never been, go. There is no chance of coming away with anything but heart and mind quite brimming full in the best sense, and a trove of ear-experiences comparable to none.
AMERICANAFEST 2022 is slated for Sept. 13-18, all pandemic gods and Nashvegas ale-nixies willing.
-words & photos: Dana Miller (save: Kashena Sampson photo, Scott Lukes; Wesley Dean (first), Justin Essink; Wesley Dean (second), Eddie Schaechterle)