Americanafest 2017 is special for the city of Nashville. In a city known for country music and Broadway honky-tonks, the festival brings out the best of Nashville musicians to celebrate the true music scene that makes this city the musical destination that it is.
People come from all over the world to celebrate a genre that is easy to spot, but not always so easy to explain, creating a diverse lineup of artists in country, blues, bluegrass, indie, singer/songwriter, and of course, americana.
However, it’s not just the hundreds of live shows that have put this festival on the map. Daily conference sessions feature prominent authors and musical pioneers, along with informative sessions on thriving (or surviving) in music business in today’s climate. Secret shows and private parties are non-stop, giving attendees the opportunity to see acts up close and celebrate successes of different artists and record labels. The lineup of nightly shows present an amazing (and honestly overwhelming) variety of national and local artists, playing 30-45 minutes sets all across the city.
BLANK’s main goal in our coverage of Americanafest 2017 is to provide a glimpse into all aspects of this city-wide festival. Let’s get started!
Wednesday, September 13
We began our day at the beautiful new Westin hotel in downtown Nashville for conference sessions, which provide detailed discussions on a wide variety of topics on both the artist and business side of the music industry.
Holger Petersen kicked off the morning with a discussion on his new book, Talking Music 2. Petersen is Canada’s leading blues “activist,” serving as the host of Canada’s longest running blues radio program, Saturday Night Blues, since 1987. Throughout his career, Petersen has developed relationships with artists from around the world, resulting in terrific interviews and colorful stories from the likes of B.B. King, Allen Toussaint, Townes Van Zandt, and more. Petersen went through many of these stories, reflecting on his career and time with these artists, and providing tips on interviewing and maintaining relationships with legendary musicians. Petersen’s storytelling is captivating and we highly suggest you pick up his book here on Amazon.
We then headed over for Jonathan Taplin’s session featuring his new book, Move Fast and Break Things. However, Taplin is much more than just an author. His early production work included producing concerts for Bob Dylan and The Band, including The Last Waltz, and he has continued producing both film and television ever since. However, Taplin’s current focus is on the future. Yes, that may seem broad, but his current research focuses on monopolies, their impact on democracy and capitalism, and how technology is affecting it all. It’s no easy subject, but Taplin has done the research and is using his knowledge warn of the dangers of technological addictions and how certain monopolies are targeting those. This session was highly informative and I can’t wait to read Taplin’s new book. You can find it here on Amazon.
Our final session at the Westin was a big one. The Lumineers and their entire team were gathered for a panel, hosted by Bruce Warren of WXPN, for a discussion on their sophomore album, Cleopatra. This panel took an in-depth look at how an album is made and released, including writing the songs, creating publicity, releasing to streaming services, choosing a single, and booking the first shows. With insights from manager David Meinert and Paul Roper (President of Dualtone Records), this session ventured into parts of the music business some of us never think of, and provided a successful example of how everyone and everything must work together to take a band from small venues to arenas.
It was then off to begin a night of incredible live music. We ventured down to Broadway to check out Jon Latham at Acme Feed & Seed. Latham’s new album Lifers was just released and he is once again creating buzz around Nashville. Along with his band of established musicians (including one of our favorites, Andrew Leahey), Latham powered through his best tracks to a mixed crowd of Americanafest attendees, tourists, and his own fans. Although Latham may be from East Nashville, his band knows how to take command of a room all across the city, and you can check out both Jon Latham and Andrew Leahey in different shows throughout the week.
After the Americana Music Honors & Awards, Cannery Row was the place to be.
The night began at Mercy Lounge with the young, guitar virtuoso, Billy Strings. Leading his impressive group of bluegrass musicians, Strings incorporates multiple musical influences to create a progressive string-band sound, featuring fast solos and impressive jams. In addition to being a highly skilled guitar player, Billy also has a powerful voice, delivering his twangy, front porch style with confidence and swagger. We expect to see Billy Strings mingling with the masters very soon.
Lukas Nelson & Promise of the Real packed out the Cannery Ballroom to deliver their unique mix of tunes that transcend the boundaries of rock and roll and country. Nelson is an extremely talented songwriter. From the catchy, radio sound of “Find Yourself” to twangy ballads such as “Forget about Georgia,” Nelson shows his range both musically and lyrically, and the crowd at Cannery Ballroom was hooked. Promise of the Real are as good as it gets musically, and Nelson’s songs seem to fit their style perfectly. We only expect Nelson’s popularity to rise and are certain that he will have no problem living up to the expectations that comes with the name.
The Wood Brothers have become a staple of Americanafest, performing the last 3 years in different venues across Nashville, and there’s a reason why. Oliver and Chris Wood, along with multi-instrumentalist Jano Rix, are compositional geniuses, but their individual talent still shines through. Chris Wood continues to expand his talent, swapping out electric and upright bass with ease and adding harmonica whenever possible. Oliver’s voice is scratchy, yet powerful, and this crowd knew every word. The Wood Brothers have built a diverse following in the last 10 years and Americanafest seems to be the perfect place to bring them all together. We look forward to seeing the group here for years to come.
Our night ended with the now Nashville-based Deer Tick. Hailing from Rhode Island, Deer Tick now calls Nashville home and continues to expand their one-of-a-kind style of indie rock, which incorporates folk, blues, and country influences, making them a perfect fit for this festival. With the standard 45-minute set, John McCauley led the group through some of their biggest hits, including “Ashamed” and “Twenty Miles”, but it’s their heavier songs that bring out their best, such as the “Look How Clean I Am,” which proves just talented each member is. Deer Tick was the perfect ending to an extremely diverse night of music, and it’s important to note that diversity is the whole point of this festival. There is a reason it’s hard to define americana music, and we like it that way!
Thursday, September 14
Forget that you may be tired because Deer Tick played 1am, because Americanafest starts up strong the next day, jam-packed with conference sessions, musical showcases, radio broadcasts, record label parties, and much more.
We began our second day of Americanafest with a taping of the increasingly popular Acoustic Cafe, hosted by Rob Reinhart, featuring The Secret Sisters at Sound Stage Studio. The sisters, Laura and Lydia Rogers, have a love/hate story when it comes to their career and it was enlightening to hear them share this story for this nationally syndicated show. Performing 5 songs off of their new album, the sisters show just how much power and emotional their voice have. Although playing to a room of 25 or so fans, you could see that the room was shocked and mesmerized at just how well their voices connect to people. Most of their songs are developed through challenge and heartbreak, and the emotion they bring to their art is contagious. This was a unique experience that only Americanafest offers, and we were thrilled to be a part of this intimate recording.
After leaving Sound Stage Studio, there was no reason to go far, as we were invited to a private event at BMI across the street to celebrate the incredible career of The Lumineers. We didn’t intend to focus so much of our coverage around the band, but with mayor Megan Barry officially declaring this day “Lumineers Day,” we just couldn’t resist. The band has really accomplished some amazing things in a short amount of time, and it’s encouraging to see a group of musicians, who deserve every piece of it, recognized for their achievements beyond sold out shows. They seem like truly humble people and we can’t wait to see what the future holds for them. We even got to meet them!
After leaving the BMI offices, it was off to Little Harpeth Brewing for the New West Records showcase! We walked in to a packed room (well, brewery) to JD McPherson commanding the stage with his retro style of rock and roll. McPherson has the rare ability to take you back in time with a sound influenced by rock, R&B, rockabilly, and authentic bar-hop music. It’s truly hard not to move your feet and he has collected an incredible group of musicians to execute his vision. McPherson soon begins a co-headlining tour with Nashville favorite, Nikki Lane, and we highly suggest you catch them out at a city near you.
Americanafest took us back to the Cannery Row on Thursday night for another jam-packed night of diverse music from across the states.
We kicked off the night with Nicole Atkins, an incredible lyricist, who has spent much time and energy in perfecting her craft. She is a natural in front of the stage, with near perfection vocally, along with a full backing band that is extremely tight and seems to enjoy every minute. Her voice is powerful and confident, yet her demeanor is natural and humble. Atkins is hard to categorize, putting her in a league of her own, and a perfect fit for the festival.
As Cannery Ballroom filled to capacity for The Lumineers acoustic set, we were unable to check out Cordovas at Mercy Lounge. However, we just caught them at Barleys a few weeks ago and they are an impressive collection of talented musicians. We highly suggest seeing them whenever you get the chance.
Next up was one of the most highly anticipated shows of the week. Wesley Schultz, Jeremiah Fraites, and Neyla Pekarek (the original Lumineers) took the Cannery stage for an acoustic set that the band seemed just as excited about as the crowd. Multiple times during the set, Schultz commented on just how excited they were to be doing this, primarily because “we are performing these songs much closer to how they were written.” The band powered through stripped-down versions of hits like “Ophelia” and “Ho Hey,” in which the band completely unplugged, stepped out to the front of the stage, and had the crowd provide the vocals on a truly stripped down version of their biggest hit. It was one of those moments that every festival hopes to have, a moment of cohesiveness and presence in the moment by every member of the audience. Another highlight included a cover of Tom Petty’s “Walls,” which is a perfect fit for the band’s sound. The Lumineers won’t be playing any small venues like Cannery anytime soon, making this show extremely special for fans, and the band itself. Multiple times throughout the week, Schultz has mentioned how surprising and life-altering their success has been. For 45 minutes on Thursday night, The Lumineers got to feel like a smaller band again, and it was apparent they loved it.
There has been a ton of buzz lately around Charleston-based band SUSTO and now we know why. Lead singer Justin Osborne is an alt-country guy with a punk rock spirit. The band goes from heavy americana sounds, such as emulating pedal steel on guitar, to guitar-loaded endings with impressive guitar work and stage intensity. The strong structure of their songs are only enhanced by their stage presence, and individually they are terrific musicians. I expect to see SUSTO on festival lineups next year.
Word came earlier in the day that Buddy Miller would no longer be performing at Cannery. However, his band was ready to go and Miller was replaced with The War & Treaty, which apparently are loved by many, including Emmylou Harris who came out just to introduce the group. This husband and wife duo created the greatest dance party of the week, with some help from Buddy Miller’s incredible band (still trying to confirm the members). The set was filled with funk and soul inspired originals, along with some unique covers. Michael Trotter Jr & Tanya Blount-Trotter have incredible voices and are thrilling to watch. Miller even appeared to play guitar for one song. This was one of those sets you only get at Americanafest.
Futurebirds closed out Mercy Lounge with a 2 full sets featuring every song I knew, many I didn’t, special guests and friends, including members of SUSTO. I’ve said it a lot in this review (because it’s true), but every member of this band is incredible skilled and talented in what they do, including sharing vocal duties. The change in singer/writer creates a unique dynamic that results in different compositional styles, while still holding true to the band’s sound. Most importantly, these guys know how to write songs and maximize their live version of them. Futurebirds transform into a full on rock and roll band at their shows. Plus they have killer mustaches.
Friday, September 15
Friday began back at the Westin hotel for conference sessions and panels regarding the current and future state of the music industry from different perspectives. Two sessions focused specifically on music law, including recent judicial decisions that are affecting the music industry and how better laws can help shape a better future for music. We also used our time today to check out the Exhibit Hall, featuring multiples organizations and companies working to modernize the industry and keep it thriving.
After a happy hour set at Family Wash from Beaver Nelson, we headed on over to The Basement East, a venue that has quickly become a staple for the best of East Nashville music. The lineup for the night was full of terrific guitarists and songwriters.
Friday’s Basement East lineup began with banjo virtuoso Eddie Berman. The L.A.-based musician, alone with his banjo on stage, captivated the small audience with his lifting harmonies and melodic finger picking. Berman is not your normal fast, driving banjo player, but rather uses the instrument to create beautiful songs about his life.
Next up was Cafe Rooster’s and Aaron Lee Tasjan guitarist Brian Wright with his unique, Waco-influence style of americana rock and roll. Cafe Rooster is still relatively new and is putting out up and coming artists such as Jon Latham, Darrin Bradbury, and Wright’s own music. Wright plays most of the instruments on his albums, but assembles a skilled and exciting live bands for his shows. Songs such as “We Don’t Live There” show his true strength as both a songwriter and guitarist. Wright does not succumb to the standard when it comes to song structure or lyrical subjects, just one of the many skills that have developed his overall success.
After witnessing Berman and Wright’s excellent musicianship, it was time for some piano driven americana music from Little Bandit. The group is a collection of local musicians who perform the songs of Alex Caress, former member of Nashville group Ponychas. Caress’s songs have a classic country feel, but is modernized lyrically, recalling the wit of Stephen Merritt with the sound of Dolly. This group creates a big sound that perfectly matches the powerful voice of Caress, proving that Little Bandit is a band that can grab and keep the attention of an unknown crowd.
The night’s headliner was Nashville’s fastest rising americana sensation Aaron Lee Tasjan. Tasjan is an entertainer. As a songwriter, guitarist, storyteller, dancer and dresser, Tasjan focuses on every detail of his performances, always appearing humble and happy to be where he is. He seems to have solidified his lineup and each song is more polished and captivating as ever. New album highlights such as “Till the Town Goes Dark” and “Ready to Die” are even better live, and “Bitch Can’t Sing” is still one his strongest tracks, especially with Brian Wright on lead guitar. Tasjan and Wright have a special dynamic that gives them increased credible as a guitar duo. Regardless of how much you may like (or dislike) Tasjan’s music, there is no question of the reasons for his rising success and Nashville is proud to call him their own.
Saturday, September 16
Saturday was full of daytime parties, record label showcases, and dozens of “off campus” events. Cafe Rooster records hosted their showcase at Little Harpeth Brewing with Aaron Lee Tasjan, Darrin Bradbury, Jon Latham, Brian Wright and more.
Grimey’s hosted Americanarama in their back parking lot, with Old Crow Medicine Show closing out the day at 5pm. The Groove hosted a U.K. artist showcase, the Filming Station hosted a picnic showcase for Memphis artists, and InDo Nashville showcased the best of Canada’s americana scene. It’s these events ( and much more) that make Americanafest so special. There were multiple comparisons to SXSW this week, and that may be true, although there is much more intimacy, community, and structure at this festival.
After another day of celebrating the best in americana music (and a break to watch the UT-Florida game), we geared up for one last night of incredible music at multiple venues. Our first location was 3rd & Lindsley to see a woman who sets the standard for women (and men) in this genre.
Elizabeth Cook (aka The Sheriff) hurried down from the Opry to 3rd & Lindsley, arriving to a crowd eagerly waiting to see the “daughter of a hillbilly singer married to a moonshiner who played his upright bass while in a prison band.” Cook is delightful to watch for so many reasons, but primarily for her twangy country accent and captivating storytelling. She’s been known as the darling rebel of East Nashville, explaining during her set a rumor circulating that her and Todd Snider snuck into the Belcourt and stole some stuff. She surrounds herself with the highest quality of musicians, including members of Steelism, that compliment her style and tenacity perfectly. Cook ran through popular tracks from her 2016 album, including “Evacuation,” a timely personal story of Cook’s, which highlights her strong writing and amazing vocals. She debuted 3 new songs in this set, which ranged from a fast, foot-stomping rock song to a slow, pedal-steel ballad. Cook represents everything that is right about modern country music, providing one of our favorite sets of the week.
No one sticks to the original sound of country music like JP Harris. His classic style of country is an ode to the legends, influenced by his personal experiences and time on the road, creating that nostalgic desire for more artists like him. Harris is no exception to the importance of utilizing Nashville best musicians and it seems he has found the perfect combination. At a festival where classic country music influences so many artists, it was a treat to be reminded that real country music still exists.
Over at The High Watt, Steelism wrapped up a busy week with their one-of-a-kind pedal steel-driven, instrumental sound. Jeremy Fetzer and Spencer Cullum Jr. are some of Nashville’s busiest musicians, constantly performing with popular local artists, including Elizabeth Cook’s band that we saw earlier in the day. However, their original music has gained popularity as well, displaying their skill at creating unique instrumental compositions, while still highlighting their skills as independent musicians.
Cannery Ballroom’s headliner to close Americanfest was an unexpected booking of Jamtown, featuring Donovan Frankenreiter, G. Love, and Cisco Adler. The group is joined by the incredible Duane Betts, the son of Dickey Betts, who shreds his way through flawless solos and rhythms in each song. The set began with originals from the group, with Frankenreiter and G. Love swapping vocals, accompanied by G. Love’s skillful harmonica. The three experienced songwriters/performers create intricate harmonies and arrangements and every song brings that optimistic feel that each of them has been known for. It was evident this was one of the week’s special performances once G. Love began inviting their guests on stage. The band was joined by Lilly Hiatt, Charlie Mars, Sam Lewis, Ray Wylie Hubbard, Jack Pierson, and Devon Allman for a set including songs from the artists’ originals to popular cover songs. The real highlight of this set was seeing (and hearing) Betts and Allman side by side, trading solos at every turn, and reminding us that legends often produce some talented children. This was a great booking by Americanafest. They brought together an all-star jam that not only celebrated the entire week, but paid tribute to the style of rock and roll that has so strongly influenced americana as we know it today.