Like the city in which it takes place, the Americana Music Festival & Conference has metamorphosed into a different entity in the past few years. It’s now a nearly week-long affair so filled with places to be and people to see, it’s impossible to enjoy the whole cake. You have to settle for slices.
But no matter where you wind up, you’re likely to find equally thrilling rising stars and veteran artists, sometimes performing in once-in-a-lifetime configurations.
That was certainly the case as the 18th annual AmericanaFest powered through a packed weekend to its Sunday-night close. Friday afternoon’s highlights included a moving retrospective of Gregg Allman’s career and his final album, Southern Blood, at the Country Music Hall of Fame & Museum, at which brothers Luther and Cody Dickinson recalled their first meeting with the late blues legend.
He asked them if they were brothers. When they said yes, the Allman Brother who had lost his own brother far too early responded, “Take care of each other and make every day count.”
Manager and album executive producer Michael Lehman also described how the expressive Allman portrait displayed on an easel came to be; the image, painted in blood, inspired the album title and was supposed to become the album art. Allman had supplied three vials of his own blood to artist Vincent Castiglia, but eventually became too ill to sit for a portrait. After his death, however, his family decided to do the portrait from a Neal Preston photograph, but the artist didn’t have enough blood. So they donated theirs. (It’s included in some versions of the Sept. 6 release.)
Though Gregg’s son Devon missed the session (as did John Paul White and Buddy Miller, who was sick all week), Joan Osborne and Aaron Lee Tasjan — who may have racked up a record for AmericanaFest appearances — performed moving versions of “Ain’t Wastin’ Time No More” and “Sweet Melissa.” Even when she had to scat after discovering she was missing lyrics for the final verse (eventually supplied), Osborne handled the moment elegantly.
That night, another legend’s body of work was celebrated — though Graham Nash, fortunately, was very much alive and present to take part in his Skyville Live “An Evening with Graham Nash & Friends” recording session. The studio vibe is like Austin City Limits’ old Studio 6A; intimate, like a club, but with first-class production values. Nash’s session included friends Ricky Skaggs, River Whyless, Lee Ann Womack, the Secret Sisters and Milk Carton Kids. The sisters expressed how honored they were to perform with Nash in front of their father, who had introduced them to the Hollies/Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young vet’s music.
When he introduced Kids Kenneth Pattengale and Joey Ryan, Nash said, “Really, when it comes to contemporary folk music, these guys are the keepers of the flame.”
We need the young kids to keep coming up and kicking ass, he added, before reprising “So Sad,” the Everly Brothers song they performed together Wednesday when he received his Spirit of Americana Free Speech Award.
They thanked him for giving them “the moment of our lives” that night, before harmonizing flawlessly on “Just A Song Before I Go.”
A dozen afternoon parties created a happy dilemma for festivalgoers, but the day had to include the granddaddy of Americana parties: Grimey’s Records and the Basement’s Americanarama, celebrating its 10th year. Tasjan and the Texas Gentlemen were among the attractions, and Will Kimbrough manned the DJ booth for a bit. The Gentlemen, who also seemed to be nearly everywhere this week, played tracks from their just-released album, TX Jelly, along with “The Shape I’m In,” one of two Band covers they were heard to perform on Saturday alone.
They played the second, “Ophelia,” at WMOT’s first-birthday bash at the Yee-Haw tent it shared with Music City Roots, where Lilly Hiatt appeared (again); Tasjan also made his fourth appearance of the day, and Paul Thorn’s tricked out Airstream provided the “Trailer Park Philosopher Experience” for those inclined to sample SPAM sandwiches while checking out his artwork and artifacts.
Other notable afternoon moments included performances by Mark Huff and Tommy Ash at the hatWRKS Happenin’ and Grace Askew at the Memphis Americana Picnic.
But Memphis soul was really dripping Saturday night, when Don Bryant delivered a 12th & Porter set, backed by Scott Bomar & the Bo-Keys, that will be talked about indefinitely as a 2017 AmericanaFest highlight.
“I love you! I love you! I love you!” the 75-year-old repeated, between bouts of showing the kids how it’s done — with incredible range and power —on spellbinding renditions of old nuggets (“Don’t Turn Your Back on Me”) and tracks from his recently released album, Don’t Give Up on Love, his return to recording after decades out of the mainstream. The thrill of hearing him do “I Can’t Stand the Rain,” which he co-wrote with his wife, Ann Peebles, was shared by every goose-bumped listener in that crowded club.
Bettye LaVette, who burnished her soul in Detroit, was equally funky — and feisty. But her knockout punch was turning Paul McCartney’s poignant “Blackbird” into a song sung from the perspective “of the person it was about … me.” With the nation nearly as divided by racial unrest as it was when the song was written, her version gave the classic even deeper resonance.
She followed it with Lucinda Williams’ “Joy,” which she ripped apart ferociously, then reconstructed into a version all her own.
AmericanaFest used to wind up with the Thirty Tigers’ gospel brunch, but this year, options stretched from morning to night.
Hosted by the McCrary sisters at City Winery, the gospel brunch paraded a spectacular array of talent, from amazing newcomers Yola Carter, Priscilla Renea and Rev. Sekou to Bonnie Bishop and Paul Thorn. By the time Thorn led the entire group — and audience — in a gospel version of “Love Train,” even heathens couldn’t help but feel inspired.
The mood continued at the Family Wash, where Sarah Potenza once again led Sunday school with help from Tasjan, Luke Bulla, Nicole Atkins, Lisa Oliver Gray, Christine Ohlman and others. Americana Music Association board member Mary Gauthier spoke for many when she enthused, “What an incredible AmericanaFest this year!”
Then she made it even better by turning her own “Mercy Now” from a folk song into a gospel song, sharing its beautiful verses with Potenza.
But it wasn’t over yet. Over at Fond Object Records in East Nashville, the Wild Reeds, Band of Heathens, Hugh Masterson, the Texas Gentlemen and Brian Wright (with Tasjan making yet another cameo in the backing-band collective) heated up already sun-warmed outdoor minglers while Robyn Hitchcock and other shoppers made vinyl purchases inside.
AmericanaFest finally wrapped (officially) Sunday night at 3rd & Lindsley, where the Bluegrass Situation and radio station Lightning 100 sponsored performances by Emily Saliers and Shawn Mullins. Each performed solo, accompanying themselves on acoustic guitars.
Their sets served as wonderful reminders that it all comes down to the power of one person with a voice and something to say in a song — whether it’s grounded in country, folk, soul, blues, bluegrass, jazz, rock or all of the above; whether it’s funny, serious, affirming, disturbing or simply entertaining — as long as it comes from the heart and reaches the soul, that’s Americana. And even if it sprawls well beyond anyone’s comfort zone, that’s OK, as long as that evolution means making room for everyone who wants to join in.