AmericanaFest Recap: Music That Works
For one four-day period in September, Nashville sheds its commercial country image and Americana Fest banners dot the lamp posts along Music Row. During that time, the words, sounds and melodies take the place of image, dollar signs and auto tune–and Nashville becomes the envy–not the perceived antithesis–of the roots music world.
Over the next several days, I’ll be jetting back and forth between five unique Nashville venues, attempting to bring you, the reader, a snapshot of the side of Nashville that mostly exists in the shadows.
The Basement—located below an indie record store just south of downtown—is a lot different from the venue Hayes Carll played the last time he was in town. Carll opened for Dierks Bentley as part of his “Up On The Ridge Tour” at the Ryman Auditorium back in May.
In fact, both shows were quite similar. Carll balanced, almost equally, songs from his critically acclaimed Lost Highway debut album Trouble In Mind with new songs from his upcoming release–supposedly due before the end of the year.
“Drunken Poet’s Dream,” “Bad Liver and a Broken Heart,” and “Faulkner Street” were all reminders of Carll’s mastery of sometimes-witty, always real storytelling tactics. But the highlights of the show were the promising new tunes he had in his recently-expanded repertoire.
In one instance, Carll bantered back-and-forth with bass player Bonnie Whitmore on “Another Like You,” a Republican-Democrat love song that inevitably ends in an elevator. Then, he displayed a stark vulnerability on “Chances Are,” a self-reflecting ballad that plays one-part Conway Twitty and one-part Bruce Robison.
After a short drive to the legendary Station Inn, it was time to hunker down for the rest of the evening. First up was Elizabeth Cook, who was particularly interesting to hear directly after Carll’s performance. It might be possible that the two are secretly related—perhaps even separated at birth.
Cook’s songs were equally witty and packed the same poignant punch. She stuck strictly to songs from her two latest albums, Welder and Balls. She showed true versatility throughout the night—for instance, seamlessly transitioning from “Yes to Booty” to the gut-wrenching “Heroine Addict Sister.”
Cook followed later with the equally emotional “Mama’s Funeral,” which held extra meaning because she was standing on a stage that she had shared with her mother. Her vocal tendencies and husband Tim Carroll’s mean guitar-picking made for a highly enjoyable set.
If Cook and Carll had their hands running through Southern soil, Abigail Washburn would be running her hands through a fresh mountain stream. She has a new album coming out in January that features her progressive folk sound. She takes full control of that sound with haunting vocals and proficient banjo-picking—like found on the album’s title track “City Refuge.”
In addition to filling the air with beautiful tones and a fresh sound, Washburn also expanded the boundaries of the Station Inn far beyond Nashville. “I think there should be a new rule that every Americana artist should do at least one song in Mandarin,” she remarked. With that, she launched into a traditional Chinese folk song—likely a first for the historic Nashville venue.
Washburn had steel guitarist Carl Broemel on loan from rock band My Morning Jacket and put him to good use on a song a bit closer to home called “Last Train.” Towards the end of the set, she brought up a makeshift chorus of friends to sing with her on self-written gospel tune “Divine Bell.” The whole venue clapped and stomped along, which spoke solely to Washburn’s talent and infectiousness.
At about half-past eleven, Guy Clark hobbled on stage, using a cane for support. Except for two microphones, the stage was bare, but then again, for a man who is one of Americana’s legendary songwriters, what more does he need than just his voice and guitar?
On this night, Clark did have some accompaniment. Fellow songwriter and instrumentalist Shawn Camp dropped by to assist him on guitar. From the very start, it was clear that there was no game plan. The eager crowd yelled out requests; to the one for “Texas Cookin’,” Clark responded “There’s no way in hell I remember that one.”
But he still delivered Texas gold through well-crafted tunes like “Out In The Parking Lot” and “Dublin Blues.” At times, Clark’s fingers didn’t hit the right strings, but the intimate crowd still clung to every word. Whether he was giving advice on life (“Cape”) or teaching a history/English lesson (“Texas 1947”/”Hemingway’s Whiskey”), he was doing it with the confidence of someone who had lived every word.
When Clark sings the lines “stuff that works, stuff that holds up…stuff that’s real, stuff you feel/the kind of stuff you reach for when you fall,” it’s clear that his songs fall under the category of “that stuff.”
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