The Americana Music Association’s annual conference and festival is just about to descend on Nashville, America’s roots music city (starts Tues 09/15), and we’re gearing up to head over their ourselves. To soak in the sounds of new generations of roots musicians, to try to figure out what the hell Americana is exactly, and to eat as much delicious food as possible. But first, here are 9 Artists We’re Looking Forward To at AMA. Dive deep with us!
Friday, Sept 18, 10pm – The Listening Room
As the name suggests, Session Americana is perhaps more of a gathering than a band. With some of the best roots musicians in the US coming onboard for touring and recording (Jefferson Hamer, Eliza Carthy, Laura Cortese, Adam Moss, Dietrich Strause), the core group of Billy Beard, Ry Cavanaugh, Dinty Child, Jim Fitting, and Jon Bistline seems to be always well supported. Which means they can jump on their crazy eclectic vision of Americana with great confidence. Like Tim O’Brien, each song is a subversive original idea set into a carefully crafted genre cradle. That’s the real virtuosity here: beyond the power picking and vocals, it takes skill and taste to put together a different genre for every song, and that seems to be exactly what Session Americana has done on their newest album, Pack Up The Circus (2015). “Notary Public” swings with Bob Wills’ vocals and Texas twin fiddles, “Pack Up The Circus” taps the further edges of progressive roots à la Joy Kills Sorrow, “Vitamin T” sounds like a lost café song from a Beunos Aires-based American ex-pat (or Brazilian choro mandolin), “You Always Hurt the One You Love” burbles with vintage jazz basslines in the background, “Lucky” has a bit of an arena folk anthem feel (but with more dobro), “All For You” is remarkably beautiful–a pop song wrapped up in folk trappings–, “It’s Not Texas” has a coolout jazz feel. Jeez, how many genres can one band fit into an album!?! What I love is that the live show seems to be the heart of Session Americana’s work, despite the excellence of their newest album. I’ve yet to see them live, which is why I’m looking forward to seeing them at AMA, since the press materials talk a lot about their modern “hootenanny” onstage and how they pass instruments back and forth throughout the show. I get the impression that this is really a loose collective of good friends and great musicians, each looking forward to jamming out on stage. What’s surprising is how cohesive the album is, a testament to their vision for the music and a great sign that their live show should not be missed at AMA!
Friday, September 18, 9pm – The Station Inn
It’s great to see such forward-thinking instrumental roots music getting love from AMA, and actually ChessBoxer were a new discovery for me. A trio of insanely great pickers–fiddle, banjo, bass, ChessBoxer rose out of renowned progressive bluegrass band Cadillac Sky, of which Ross Holmes (fiddle) and Matt Menefee (banjo), were both founding members. As Chessboxer, their mission is boundary-busting roots music, and on their upcoming EP, Apollo, they mix up devilishly-complex arrangements with powerhouse performances and vocal harmonies. It’s all original, and it’s all really beautiful, which is actually kinda rare. There seem to be more and more artists coming out of the progressive bluegrass end of things and cutting albums that follow long, meandering, somewhat improvisational compositions. It’s all quite complex and virtuosic, but also kind of cold and boring sometimes. The labyrinthine melodies and overly wrought counterpoint can kind of weigh the listener down. Not so with ChessBoxer! They’ve got a firm grasp on melody throughout their new EP and there are some surprisingly beautiful and touching moments. And what players! Ross Holmes keeps flipping the fiddle script around as I’m listening, and I’ve listened to a lot of fiddlers try what he’s going for and not quite succeed. He nails it every time. No surprise that Mumford & Sons snapped him up as their fiddler on tour! He’s got a soft touch on the lovely melodies and wicked hard crunch in the bow when he needs to kick ass. Bassist Royal Masat is totally on point here, growling through huge bowed bass lines behind Holmes/Menefee and nailing every change with the kind of precision that comes from VERY careful listening, and banjo player Menefee is endlessly inventive. They’ve only 4 tracks on Apollo, but they pack a lot of energy into each one and are poised to be one of the best instrumental roots bands out there.
Friday, Sept 18, 10pm – The High Watt
I keep thinking, over and over, where the hell did Cale Tyson come from? I’ve been hearing his name a lot now and it’s my bad I didn’t know more, but his debut album in 2015, Introducing Cale Tyson, a compilation of his well-received EPs, is a home run for roots country’s true believers. Who the hell else has the balls in 2015 to come out the gate on a debut album with a song that pays homage to the vocal breaks of Jimmie Rodgers, almost yodeling at points? Rodgers may be the father of country music, but he’s got a distinct sound that at times seems far outdated among even the rootsier country bands in Nashville. Further into Tyson’s debut full-length, and he’s moved beyond the pure roots sound, bringing in shimmery psych-steel lines, heavier drumbeats, and more modern vocal harmonies, but he holds on tight to his songwriting, the key to any great country artist. He’s got that knack for the quick, biting line, like “I was feelin’ so blue/’til I woke up not missing you,” or “Now the whiskey’s running dry, and I can’t rest my eyes/I’m the loniest soul in this hear bar.” He can channel the world-weariness of the old Nashville songwriters, who used to gather at the local bar hoping to drown their sorrows and overhear some useful snippets of other sad souls they could swipe for their own songs.
Friday, Sept 18, 8pm - The Listening Room
When you hit play on Eddie Berman’s new album, Polyhymnia, on Bandcamp, it starts up the last track on the album, "Wherever We Go," which seems a bit strange. But oh god what a track. I find myself clicking play over and over again, immersing myself in the uplifting harmonies, heartworn lyrics. And when the chorus joins in behind Berman, mmmm. It reminds me of the best parts of the Lumineers, that blend of earnestly gorgeous songwriting, old-timed imagery, and soaring vocal parts. This one song must be Berman’s magnum opus, his statement on the album, and it certainly holds up under this weight. Rewinding now to the beginning, each song unfolds like a vignette, packed with carefully chosen phrases parsed by a man clearly in tune with songwriting for a higher purpose. This is the kind of album you listen to carefully, and hope to learn from. The songs seemed rooted to the earth and the sky, tied to clouds coming in, relating back to our natural world in a deeply spiritual way. I’m personally not good at parsing lyrics, so usually I just scoot on to the next song, but here I found myself rewinding constantly going over and over the words. This is some seriously great songwriting folks.
Thursday, Sept 17, 11pm - The Basement East
Memphis guitarist and bluesmonger Luther Dickinson may be the most eclectic artist on this list. He's certainly made a career out of redefining roots music, and I'm constantly discovering new outfits of his. Just in the past few years, he's released a new solo album, 2014's Rock 'n Roll Blues, reformed his band, The Word, with Sacred Steel guitarist Robert Randolph and John Medeski from Medeski Martin and Wood, cut an album with his ensemble North Mississippi All Stars, toured with the Black Crowes, cut an album with David Hidalgo of Los Lobos, and, what I find most interesting, has been performing with the children/younger relations of hugely respected blues artists, like Garry and Duwayne Burnside, and Sharde Thomas. Sharde herself is the grand-daughter of the great Othar Turner, whose otherworldly Mississippi Fife & Drum music is an amazing tradition. Dickinson's career is dizzying, and few other artists at the heart of Americana have the connections to tradition that he does. But he's got no interest in playing it safe, rather looking to meld tradition with punk aesthetics, lofi jams, and new, cutting lyrics. Dickinson has to be the perfect example of what Americana means, so it's great he's at the center of the festival this year!
Saturday, Sept 19, 2pm - Musician's Corner at Centennial Park
Nashville country singer Nellie Clay’s got a great back story, and if the samples on her Soundcloud are to be believed, one hell of an interesting country album coming down the line. There’s not much about her online, but according to her sparse website, she’s from deep in the wilds of Alaska. She doesn’t say where, but she lived for years in cabins in the Alaskan wilderness without electricity, living an isolated life that undoubtedly made for great songwriting conditions. I’ve heard of a well-known indie band in which the lead singer went off to a cabin retreat for a month and wrote every song the band’s been using for going on three albums on major labels now, so it’s certainly possible that the Alaskan bush became a kind of muse for Clay. But then there are tantalizing glimpses in her online bio of other factors, like a background as a visual artist at the Museum of Russian Art in Minneapolis. In any case, she’s in Nashville now and strutting with the cold ease of a powerhouse country songwriter comfortable in her own boots. Her voice is husky, almost angry, on the tracks from her new album, especially when she sings about dancing on your grave and kicking up her heels. I can’t wait to find out more about Clay at AMA, she’s clearly a major talent in the making. There’s a razor-sharp edge to her songwriting that paradoxically draws the listener in.
NOTE: I reached Nellie via Facebook to ask her more about her upcoming album. This is what she had to say: "All I can promise you, is that every word of my record is the truth-exactly how it happened. Telling it like is and calling things by their rightful name- I'm a hip shooter ;)"
...I like her.
MINDIE’S SHORT CUTS
by Mindie Lind
Lewis & Leigh
Friday, Sept 18, 8pm - Mercy Lounge
With weightless harmonies, old fashioned songwriting and bold brass breaks, Lewis & Leigh are truly the bright side of Americana. The duo is made up of Alva Leigh, from Mississippi and Al Lewis, from Wales… it’s really no wonder that listening to the duo’s three EP’s feels like flying somewhere high above the sea. In deep anticipation of Lewis & Leigh's first full length album, I'm looking forward to seeing these two perform live at AmericanaFest.
Friday, Sept 18, 11pm - City Winery
Margo Price’s aching voice is pure, no frills country, coming in as strong as her legendary Nashville female counterparts like Loretta, Tammy and Dolly. Woefully wrapped in heartache and a healthy dose of reality, Margo is the icon we’ve been waiting for. Margo’s weariness and The Pricetags' vintage tones could easily transition from a dusty old motel all the way to the Grand Ol Opry and we hope to be with them every step of the way.
Laney Jones and the Spirits.
Friday, Sept 18, 8pm - The Station Inn
Laney Jones and the Spirits have a kind of lonely Victrola sound that is pure acoustic magic. Laney’s vocals are lonesome, troubled and simple; musical purity wrapped in real craft. The band, a smooth, genre crossing multi instrumental powerhouse (banjo, ukulele, tenor guitar and harmonica), is definitely a treat and I'm sure looking forward to hearing them play tracks from their upcoming 2015 release, live!