Live Review

John Prine Rocks, Bob Weir Rolls — 25 Reviews From AmericanaFest 2016

AmericanaFest 2016 on October 3, 2016

Armed with six notebooks and a few gallons of coffee, music journalist Skip Anderson reviewed 25 AmericanaFest 2016 shows over five nights.

NIGHT 1 of 5
Tuesday, Sept. 20, 2016

On any given night, Nashville can an embarrassment of riches when it comes to entertainment options. And this week AmericanaFest compounds that “problem” for fans of roots-rooted music. Take opening night for the annual conference and music festival, which brings headliners and up-and-comers to stages across the city for five nights. Right off the bat, we passed on seeing the first of two shows Americana superstars The Lumineers with BØRNS and Rayland Baxter at Ascend Amphitheater, for the eclectic offerings at The Basement East, Acme Feed & Seed, City Winery and other spots big and small here in Tune Town.

So we started a night at the Basement East, dead set on catching the bulk of a bill that included Chuck Mead, Aaron Lee Tasjan, Buddy Miller, Lee Ann Womack and Patty Griffin, plus “lots of great surprises!” as we were advised upon entry. The first great surprise was seeing the resurgent Robyn Hitchcock in the audience. Actually, the British cult hero has become East Nashville club fixture since moving here, but that’s something we’ll never complain about. Filled to capacity (with a sizable one-in-one-out line stretching out the door), and with Tennessee mugginess in full effect, the club felt small. Mead, the former frontman for BR5-49 and a founding father of the East Nashville music scene, rolled out a set list of covers that included rock-a-billy versions of the Who’s “I Can’t Explain” and Blondie’s “Heart of Glass.” One of the promised surprises included Country Music Hall of Famer Charlie McCoy, who pulled off the damn-near impossible — making a harmonica sound sexy as he smoldered his harp through a retro-cool Henry Mancini medley.

Next up, emerging singer-songwriter Aaron Lee Tasjan, sporting a suede coat with enough fringe to hogtie a lesser man, a Neil Young-esque flat-brimmed cowboy hat and windshield-wide thick-framed glasses that would’ve made Harry Caray proud. It’s a bold look the East Nashville transplant (and former New York Dolls sideman) pulled off. Tasjan shared the stage with Darrin Bradbury and Brian Wright at the start of his set, giving AmericanaFest an idea of at what the starting lineup might look and sound like for the next wave of New Nashville. And that’s hard to walk out on, especially knowing Miller, Griffin and Womack were still waiting in the wings. Not to mention a surprise appearance from Americana first couple Jason Isbell and Amanda Shires. C’mon, door guy! That’s not a “great surprise!” That’s a mind-blowing occurrence and today we’re left hating ourselves for having missed it.

Our next destination: City Winery, where caught Colvin & Earle and Sam Bush. We arrived to find this joint was also totally packed, and that we’d already missed sets from Tim O’Brien, Paul Burch and guest spots from Billy Bragg and Fats Kaplin, filling us with the despair of a hundred Townes Van Zandt songs.

The duo of stripped the stage bare, leaving plenty of space for the duo to float their well-worn harmonies through their hour-long, 11-song acoustic set. The highlight — alongside spartan versions of “Sunny Came Home” and “Copperhead Road” — was a cover of The Rolling Stone’s “Ruby Tuesday.” The pair’s vocals on the familiar chorus floated so transcendently, it made us ponder our place in the universe. But master mandolinist Bush brought us back to reality with his flying fingers of bluegrass royalty to close out the night. Wearing a white T-shirt that said “Peace” on the front and “Freedom” on the back, Bush and his band flew through a 10-song set highlighted jam-tastic versions of “Transcendental Meditation Blues,” “Bowling Green” and a cover of Jerry Lee Lewis’ “Great Balls of Fire” so good it caused us to briefly forget what pompadours look like.

NIGHT 2 of 5
Wednesday, Sept. 21, 2016

Margo Price had a much-deserved day of recognition Wednesday. It included a standing-room-only Q&A with NPR’s Ann Powers at the Country Music Hall of Fame’s Ford Theater, as well as winning Emerging Artist of the Year and performing at the Americana Honors and Awards show at the Ryman. Today she graces the cover of the Nashville Scene (and on Page 10 literally flips the bird to every misogynistic industry insider who snubbed her on her long road to success).

In between Powers’ questions, the breakout artist performed with a litany of folks who helped her develop her career, including her husband and sometimes bandmate Jeremy Ivey, Lilly Hiatt, Erin Rae, Aaron Lee Tasjan, Darrin Bradbury and legendary guitarist Kenny Vaughan, who a while back offered words of encouragement to her after she performed “for the hundredth time” at The 5 Spot. That compliment from Vaughan, “kept me going for a week and five months,” Price said. The highlight of the 90-minute appearance came when Price, who previously played drums behind Hiatt, hopped behind the kit as fellow emerging singer-songwriter Darrin Bradbury performed his tune “Life is Hard.”

“You can tell from outside the club if the drummer is bad,” Price told Powers when asked about the role of handling the sticks in a country song.

Price’s uncle, songwriter Bobby Fischer, jumped in to answer a question or two about his niece, as well. Price performed her independence anthem, “Four Years of Chances” to close out the event.

Chris Gantry at Bobby’s Idle Hour

You want old school? Chris Gantry‘s got your old school right here. We happened upon the O.G. Outlaw singer-songwriter late Wednesday afternoon as he paced the sidewalk minutes before his unofficial AmericanaFest performance at Music Row’s best hole-in-the-wall bar, Bobby’s Idle Hour. That’s old school. Years ago, Gantry used to work out new songs — some that would eventually be recorded by Johnny Cash or Dolly Parton — at the long-gone Music Row dive Tally Ho Tavern, similarly casual, he said, to Bobby’s. Back in the day, Gantry says, you might have found Kris Kristofferson, Shel Silverstein, Chet Atkins or the Man in Black himself in the audience waiting for a little stage time, too. Wednesday, Gantry worked out new material and closed with his biggest hit, “Dreams of the Everyday Housewife,” made famous in 1969 as recorded by Glen Campbell.

Americana Honors and Awards at the Ryman
In between the necessary back-slapping and attaboys germane to any awards ceremony came a host of notable performances by Americana legends and rising stars alike at the Ryman. The four-song show-opener was an immediate high note — a tribute to Guy Clark, Merle Haggard, Ralph Stanley and Allen Toussaint, each of whom died in the past year. Melonie Cannon,Stuart Duncan, Alison Krauss and Buddy Miller stunned on an a cappella run through Stanley’s “Glory Land.” Joe Henry did the same singing Toussaint’s “Freedom for the Stallion.” Steve Earle silenced the room with a rasping quiver on Clark’s “Desperados Waiting for a Train.” And Grateful Dead legend Bob Weir (who would receive a Lifetime Achievement Award later in the night) wowed with a potently honky-tonk-rock take on Haggard’s “Mama Tried.”

Those were just the first of several memorable performances at the awards ceremony and TV taping. Nathaniel Rateliff performing “Wasting Time” was the first big moment from the Americana freshman class. Lifetime Achievement Award recipient Shawn Colvin’s “Diamond in the Rough” was made special by co-writer John Leventhal accompanying her on guitar. Bonnie Raitt brought much of the crowd to its feet with “Gypsy in Me,” and Dwight Yoakam ably strutted his bluegrass chops in skinny jeans.

The Milk Carton Kids’ straightforward rendition of “Memphis” inspired the younger portion of the audience to give up a deserved standing ovation, while Emmylou Harris’ high harmonies were downright angelic with Rodney Crowell on “Bring It On Home To Memphis.” Amanda Shires and her violin shined with her husband Jason Isbell on “If It Takes a Lifetime.” Margo Price tipped the scales toward the new guard — the microphones were necessary for TV, but her powerful pipes didn’t need amplification to fill the Mother Church with “Tennessee Song.”

Other allies in last night’s youthful surge included The Lumineers, who by the time the week is over, will have performed at least three times in Nashville in four days — twice at Ascend Amphitheater. Parker Millsap’s slow-and-quiet-to-gospel “Heaven Sent” was downright reverent. Organizers probably wanted the closing number — everybody to the stage to sing “May the Circle Be Unbroken” led by the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band — to anchor the evening. But, Stax Records legend and Lifetime Achievement honoree William Bell may have won the night for the old guard. Out came the horns, out came the B3 organ, out came Raitt, out came Leventhal, out came the McCrary Sisters, and out came Dave Cobb for a pulse-pounding rendition of the soulful “Three of Us.” And it would be a sin not to report how hard Lucinda Williams slayed with the haunting “Dust,” or how George Strait rocked the famed A-framed roof with the Jim Lauderdale-penned classic “King of the Broken Hearts,” rousing famed producer Tony Brown to jump onstage and hug Strait and Lauderdale during the bridge.

Darrin Bradbury at City Winery

After leaving the Ryman confident that the circle will indeed be unbroken, we hopped over to City Winery to catch up-and-comer Darrin Bradbury play perhaps one of his most high-profile gigs to date. The affable, aw-shucksy singer-songwriter won the crowd early, singing about dregs, near-do-wells and other colorful characters he so memorably drafts into his songs. The three-quarters-full audience responded soundly to “Life Is Hard,” his current best show-stopper.

Dwight Yoakam at Mercy Lounge, Infamous Stringdusters at Cannery Ballroom

The line at Mercy Lounge was unrelenting and the space upstairs crammed to capacity for Dwight Yoakam’s outstanding Bakersfield-style bluegrass AmericanaFest take-over. We made it in, but were only able to take about 20 minutes before being sandwiched between sweaty festivalgoers forced us outside for oxygen. This isn’t Bonnaroo after all.

Luckily the Infamous Stringdusters soon brought at damn fine set of their own downstairs on the Cannery Ballroom stage. By no means was this plan B a compromise — those fellas jammed hard well past midnight and had the audience dancing in the space made available, at least in part, by the Dwight die-hards dutifully waiting and hoping in a one-in-one-out line at the bottom of the stairs at Mercy.

NIGHT 3 of 5
Thursday, Sept. 22, 2016

AmericanaFest continued to torture fans of roots music on Thursday. That’s thanks to an impressive lineup chock-a-block with Sophie’s choices. But day 3 of the festival and conference — which continues through Sunday — contained a couple of no-brainers for wristband and badge holders willing to stand in line a bit. First up, Grateful Dead co-founder and 2016 Americana Lifetime Achievement honoree Bob Weir sat down with Nashville’s own Buddy Miller for a Q&A session in the Country Music Hall of Fame’s Ford Theater that included live acoustic performances of songs from his first album of all-new material in 30 years, Blue Mountain, released Sept. 30.

“Two pieces [of vinyl]?” Weir asked Miller, holding up a hard copy of the double-album. “I’ve not seen this yet.”

Wearing black jeans, a grey T-shirt, a rumpled black sport coat and Birkenstocks, the Rock and Roll Hall of Famer explained that the new record is a collection of 12 “cowboy songs,” he co-wrote with Josh Ritter.

Weir and producer Josh Kaufman listened as the final mix of “Only a River,” the first song on the record, played over PA for the overflow crowd — and it’s a beaut. With a tip of his hat to the folk song “Shenandoah,” the song gorgeously aches and rolls with remorse.

Only a river gonna make things right
Only a river gonna make things right

When developing the album’s “cowboy” concept, as he calls it, Weir drew upon his experience after running away from home at the age of 15.

“As a kid, I was drawn to the cowboy culture,” he said, “and ran away to be a cowboy and got to Wyoming and worked on a ranch. In the bunkhouse, we’d pop a cork, tell stories and sing songs — and I was the kid with a guitar.”

Weir and Kaufman also performed acoustic versions of several songs, including the poignant “Lay My Lily Down,” with Kaufman offering supporting guitar reminiscent of Jerry Garcia’s playing. The limited songs played at the event hint that the work is contemplative, patient and gentle at times, packed with energy at some points and spare at others, showing that the silver-haired rocker can still, well … rock.

“These songs seem timeless,” Miller said.

As an aside, we were impressed with just how many AmericanaFest events we’ve spotted Nashville Mayor Megan Barry attending this week. Indeed, it appears Nashville’s Madam Mayor is a bit of a Deadhead.

Typically, we prefer to band-hop its way through festivals — a little of this, a lot of that, a shot of this, a sip of that. But what may prove the performance of the week required a nightlong commitment. With apologies to The Lumineers (yet again), John Prine performing at Station Inn required us to wipe clean our Thursday night calendar. And the commitment paid off big time. But before the legendary songwriter would take the stage, so would three other acts. Kelly Jones and Teddy Thompson impressed the (obviously) capacity crowd with their harmonies and banter. And Teresa Williams and Larry Campbell — a contemporary (and childhood neighbor in NYC) of the A-list studio cat and multi-instrument impresario Fats Kaplin — brought enough energy to entertain the folks lined up outside, drawing a roar from beyond the door after Campbell revved up his Tele and ripped through one of several world-class solos.

Amanda Shires took the stage next, dressed to impress in the otherwise hyper-casual listening room — a sign of things to come. Playing songs from My Piece of Land, her folk-infused record released last week, the Texas native won the crowd early — accolades her performance commanded with or without her husband Jason Isbell on stage, which he was. To his credit, Isbell laid back in a supporting role, playing guitar as Shires strutted and shined, bouncing between a fiddle, a guitar and a four-string tenor guitar from song to song.

“Amanda Shires! Amanda Shires! Amanda Shires!” Isbell crowed at the end of her set. “She can do what she wants!”

Isbell won Album of the Year honors for Something More Than Free from the Americana Music Association Wednesday night. The couple performed at Mayor Barry’s inauguration last fall, and there she sat stage left smiling through the set. So many questions for Her Honor, but there was no time — a living legend just walked in the door.

Prine, who sold out consecutive nights at the Ryman in March (and is primed to do so again this fall), was all smiles, seeming right at home on the humble stage.

“Good evening,” the singer said, holding up a vinyl copy of his eponymous first album. “I had to pay $87.50 to get this thing.”

The Station Inn asked the audience to stay seated with cellphones tucked away, especially during the first set while Prine performed his first album in its entirety. Likewise, the venue shut down bar service until the intermission.

“We’re going to play this real fast so we can get the bar back open,” he said before leading his five-piece band into “Illegal Smile.”

More hits from the watershed record followed. “Spanish Pipe Dream” (“Everybody calls this ‘Blow Up Your TV,’ he said, referring to the song’s sing-a-long chorus), the poignant “Hello In There,” (Old trees just grow stronger … old people just grow lonesome), the Vietnam-era “Sam Stone” (“When I write something this sad, I hate to be right,”) and “Paradise” (sometimes erroneously called “Muhlenberg County”).

Although the aforementioned Kaplin drew applause several times for his work on the fiddle, pedal steel guitar (most notably on “Far from Me”) and on the button accordion (“Lake Marie”), Prine left plenty of room for Jason Wilber (guitar, harmonica), Pat McLaughlin (mandolin, guitar), Dave Jacques (standup and electric bass) and Kenneth Blevins (percussions) to show why they belong on stage with him.

Prine seemed to grow in strength and voice as he rolled along. After a 20-minute break between the two sets, Isbell and Shires joined him for three songs, including “In Spite of Ourselves” and “Unwed Fathers,” in which Shires softly cooed — almost whispering, at times — her part of the poignant duet.

“I love these two!” Prine exclaimed.

Prine closed the 23-song performance with a truly rousing rendition of “Lake Marie,” the longest, most eclectic song from his 1995 release Lost Dogs and Mixed Blessings.

If you weren’t one of the lucky few to make it into the hallowed hole in the wall last night, there may still be hope. Oh Boy! Records, Prine’s longtime record label, filmed the performance.

“We are definitely going to do something with the video footage,” said a rep from the label. “But we haven’t decided quite what it will be!”

Prine, released his 22nd album, For Better or Worse, Sept. 30.

NIGHT 4 of 5
Friday, Sept. 23, 2016

Our Friday night AmericanaFest sojourn began at Acme Feed & Seed, for a happy-hour set by Pittsburgh native and East Nashvillian  Zach Schmidt. The tourists that filled the bustling room, however, were blissfully absorbed in their conversations and food, and largely uncaring that a good singer-songwriter was on stage five feet from their plates of fries and glasses of beer, and equally unaware that a scene like one that could be a part of the recently resuscitated TV show Nashville that was playing out. As Schmidt hustled through as many of good tunes as he could in 45 minutes, we saw Los Colognes loading in for their set that would follow. The fella lugging in the hard-shell case? That’s journeyman keyboard player Micah Hulscher. As keyboardist for the Americana Music Association's 2016 Emerging Artist of the Year Margo Price, Hulscher has played the Ryman, Farm Aid and Saturday Night Live in the last six months alone. A pair of industry insiders were listening at the bar while more than one journalist milled about the room, all while Schmidt smiled and ably plied his trade. The fact that the crowd seemed more interested in Googling “pedal tavern” than catching a talented up-and-comer isn’t Schmidt’s fault — any room can be tough like that, especially when you’re in the heart of a tourist district and playing anything other than “Wagon Wheel.”

Meanwhile, a few blocks south, Applewood Road, stepped onto the stage at City Winery. The trio is relatively new to the scene, having written their first song together the very same night they met in a Nashville coffeehouse a year and a half ago. Members Emily Barker, Amber Rubarth and Amy Speace offer songs with arrangements so stripped down and bare, they nearly sounded a cappella — their three-part harmonies effortlessly floating through the room. The effect was reverent and powerful — think: Alison Krauss’ version of “Down to the River” from the O Brother Where Art Thou?

At Cannery Ballroom we once again caught Aaron Lee Tasjan. But unlike at The Basement East the other night, the ready-to-launch tune-smith jettisoned his acoustic guitar and plugged in his Fender Jazzmaster, taking the spartan stage with flashy lights for a full-band rock show. Out was his suede cow-poke jacket from Tuesday night, in was an avocado-colored mirrored coat that could easily once hung in David Byrne’s dressing room. It was a pounding set that had Tasjan trading piercing guitar solos with Waco, Texas badass singer-songwriter Brian Wright.

“Holy shit!” said an out-of-towner who hadn’t heard the buzz that’s been steadily swelling since the release of Tasjan’s In The Blazes last year. “Who the fuck is this guy?” said another in the group. They told us they came to The Cannery to hear Wynona and Womack. Before they could clarify the confusion on exactly who the fuck this guy was, Tasjan tore into “[This Love is] The Dangerous Kind,” an infectious, speeding rocker from Blazes that steeped in cool and swamped in groove.

Don’t let his boyish grin fool you, Tasjan is a non-conformist who keeps dangling his toes further and further over the ledge. With Wynonna and the Big Noise and Lee Ann Womack on deck to follow, Tasjan invited “Nashville royalty,” he announced, to the stage: drag-queen versions of Wynonna and Womack, who strutted and danced to “Success,” from his forthcoming album Silver Tears, to close the set.

“Jesus Christ!”
“Who is he?”
“Is that guy famous?”

Almost, lady. And maybe soon.

After a quick stage changeover, the real Wynonna strutted out.

“Welcome to my party — this is my coming out,” she announced. “Is it hot in here, or is it just my career getting ready to take off?”

Her band — anchored by Cactus Moser, her husband, on the drums — dressed in matching black suits and skinny pink ties, kept her party rolling through her 45-minute set that’s been a long time coming from the quiet-of-late country star.

Upstairs, Will Hoge was cranking up the crowd that filled Mercy Lounge.

“Ya’ll put your hands together for me,” he said as he introduced himself and sprung into “Little Bitty Dreams.”

We respect any performer who starts a set with a baseball metaphor, especially when it’s at the hands of a master like Hoge (and especially as we head into October and post-season baseball).

“My apologies to any Klan members who may be in here tonight,” the original New Nashville singer-songwriter said before launching into “Still a Southern Man,” which embraces Southern culture while forcefully denouncing the confederate flag and the racists who wave them. “But fuck ya’ll.”

Back downstairs, the real Lee Ann Womack was taking the stage.

Womack cranked up her set with a soulful groove that led into “All His Saints,” from her Grammy-nominated 2014 release The Way I’m Livin’. Womack’s voice pierced through the packed room.

“This is one of my favorite songs I ever got to cut,” she declared as she introduced a song about hooking up with an ex: “I May Hate Myself in the Morning.”

Perhaps inspired by hearing her booty-call song, several couples took advantage of the limited room available in the in the back to dance as Womack built the alluring-but-remorseful “The Way I’m Livin’” to a crescendo.

NIGHT 5 of 5
Saturday, Sept. 24, 2016

We decided to start AmericanaFest’s climactic Saturday night at Bobby’s Idle Hour in the company of a songwriting legend. Americana icon Townes Van Zandt ranked David Olney alongside his three other favorites: Mozart, Lightnin’ Hopkins and Bob Dylan. And Olney, classically understated (and often overlooked), quieted the crowded Music Row dive with a new song, “This Side or the Other,” a gentle waltz he co-wrote with veteran songwriters John Hadley and Anne McCue. Olney, whose songs have been recorded by Emmylou Harris, Linda Ronstadt and others, hushed the crowd a second time with “The Women Across the River.”

We pulled ourselves away from Bobby’s at the set break, trying to wedge as much variety into its all-too-short Saturday night as possible. We stopped at City Winery to catch heavyweight songwriter-turned-performer Ruston Kelly’s sold-out showcase. Having penned cuts for Tim McGraw, Kenny Chesney and others, the Nashvillian sounded like a seasoned veteran of the big stage himself, rather than someone who delivered his first EP less than a year ago.

A hurried Uber ride to The 5 Spot — thanks David in the Nissan Altima! — We got our hands stamped just as East Nashville fave Jon Latham delivered a full-band set that we’re convinced is a sign of good things to come from the South Carolina-via-Atlanta transplant. With Sean Quinn, Raun Shultz and Aaron Lee Tasjan backing him, Latham showed insightful sensitivity as a songwriter, and the ability to steer clear of sentimental traps that younger talents sometimes latch onto. Sure, it was definitely a hometown crowd of friends and family packing the small club, but Latham’s nimbleness in skipping from ballad to rocker to weeper and back, genuinely elevated the room. Latham closed with “Anesthesia,” drawling like a young Steve Earle as he built toward the song’s powerful Arcade Fire-worthy sing-a-long crescendo. In short, the kid smashed the kind a homer — one he appears capable of repeating time and again.

Taking the stage immediately after a hometown up-and-comer scorches his set isn’t necessarily the ideal lead-in to your AmericanaFest showcase, especially for out-of-towners. But Hollis Brown isn’t a band of carpetbaggers blowing into AmericanaFest as point of order — Hollis Brown is a hard-driving, road-seasoned rock-and-roll machine capable of steamrolling through amphitheaters and intimate venues alike. Despite being geographically removed from Music City — frontman Mike Montali and guitarist Jonathan Bonilla are each from Queens, N.Y. — HB told us that they’re well aware of East Nashville’s heady music scene. Toward that end, the band came off the road Friday night to check out Aaron Lee Tasjan’s roof-rattling set (see above) and the pair said they were also hip to Latham, impressive given that the emerging singer/songwriter’s reputation has only begun to penetrate the mainland (aka non-East Nashville). None of that mattered, however, when the five-piece band revved up the aforementioned hard-driving, road-seasoned rock-and-roll machine, opening with “Ride on the Train” the title cut from their 2013 LP.

There’s a reason Counting Crows’ guitarist Dave Immerglück jammed for an hour with Hollis Brown at BB Kings basement after the band opened for the veteran rockers at Ascend Amphitheater in 2015. Immerglück told us at the time that he typically wasn’t in the habit of playing with opening acts. But, he said, the HB fellas’ musicianship was too good to pass up. Plus, he said, they are a blast to watch on stage. We found that to be case, too, each time we’ve seen them.

At The 5 Spot, Hollis Brown kick-started a slow-build garage-grunge zombie-apocalypse with its reliable show closer, “John Wayne,” a loud and relentlessly pounding song that delivers punch after swaggering punch well after the song seemed to be fading out. As those at The 5 Spot last night found out, Hollis Brown delivers a gritty, jaw-rattling show (not to mention a helluva terrific way to close out our coverage of AmericanaFest 2016).

Skip Anderson, formerly of Nashville, is an award-winning music journalist based in Bozeman, Montana.

Nice, we overlapped just a bit.

I always heard Muhlenberg as New Lindburgh.