Just like the city that hosts it, the Americana Music Festival and Conference has grown exponentially; now in its 17th year, AmericanaFest, as it’s beome known, had more showcases and parties at more venues than ever before. Just a few years ago, showcases were held in five venues; this year, 17 presented Thursday-night programming (counting the evening Billy Bragg-Joe Henry train-song recital at Union Station). According to the Americana Music Association, the total showcase number reached 300. There were more people, too; attendance rose 24 percent, to 2,270.
More showcases obviously pull in more musicians. But AMA also reached out to organizations such as the Austin-based House of Songs, inviting the international songwriting collaborative’s founder, Troy Campbell, to craft a conference presentation. Held Friday afternoon at the Sheraton Downtown Nashville conference headquarters, the inspirational offering featured artists from Adelaide, Australia and Austin, Texas, presenting songs written from unfinished lyrics by Albert Brumley, author of the Americana touchstone, “I’ll Fly Away.”
Brumley’s granddaughter, Betsy, runs the Bentonville, Arkansas-based I’ll Fly Away Foundation, which partnered with House of songs for the project — for which they recruited another Americana touchstone, Jim Lauderdale.
“It’s a really interesting process to look at lyrics on a page and then have a melody come out,” said Lauderdale, who’s written songs with Buddy Miller and Grateful Dead lyricist Robert Hunter, among many others. Lauderdale may produce a Mermaid Avenue-style album of the artists’ Brumley-inspired work. Campbell said a tour and documentary also may materialize.
Later that day, Henry and Spirit of Americana Free Speech Award winner Bragg celebrated the release of their new album of train songs by performing several at Grimey’s. Mentioning yet another Americana forefather, Lead Belly, Bragg called him “the presiding genius of this record,” along with the Louvin Brothers. Recorded during a trans-continental train trip, Shine a Light: Field Recordings From the Great American Railroad, bears thematic resemblance to the Grahams’ Glory Bound, also inspired by Lead Belly, Woody Guthrie and other rail-riding roots-music reference points.
Singing “The L&N Don’t Stop Here Anymore,” Bragg expressed shock that Nashville no longer has a passenger train stop. He also said he didn’t realize the John Hartford classic, “Gentle on my Mind” was a railroad song until they recorded it. Their live rendition, on which Bragg took the low notes while Henry sang high, was sublime.
While the rambling spirits of President’s Award winner Woody Guthrie and riverboat pilot Hartford permeated the conference/festival and its performers, there was an unmistakably soul-centric vibe this year. Muddy Magnolias, the hot Nashville band fronted by wailin’ soul sisters Jessy Wilson and Kallie North, tore up the stage of Communion Presents at the Anchor, a church-turned-performance-venue. Not even 100 people witnessed their powerful set, which included a cover of former tourmate Gary Clark Jr.’s “Church” and the Doobie Brothers’ hit, “Jesus is Just Alright,” but that will change following the Oct. 14 release of their debut album, Broken People. One of the most exciting aspects of attending any music conference is catching new talent ready for wider recognition, and this band clearly is.
Later that night, William Bell, the Americana Honors & Awards Lifetime Achievement – Songwriter award winner, schooled audience members at the packed 3rd & Lindsley about subjects more aligned with Saturday night than Sunday morning. Backed by a 12-member band, his full-on soul revue still felt like a revival—and it was; Bell celebrated his return, after 40 years, to the resuscitated Stax Records label with his new album, This is Where I Live.
Mixing tracks from that release, including a moving “Mississippi-Arkansas Bridge,” with medleyed references to late contemporaries Sam Cooke (“Cupid”) and Ben E. King (“Stand By Me”) and his own classics, he had fans dancing with abandon before ending the night by reclaiming ownership of “Born Under a Bad Sign” with a barn-burning jam.
Over at the Cannery Ballroom, Buddy Miller got a bit funky himself, aided by drummer Brady Blade (who even came up front to sing), a couple of McCrary sisters, multi-instrumentalist Fats Kaplin and a parade of guests including Aaron Lee Tasjan, Wynonna Judd and Lee Ann Womack. Then he called out, “Wagonmaster, are you in the house?”—a reference to the award presented Wednesday to Lauderdale for outstanding contributions to the genre. The old friends did “Hole in My Head,” clearly having a fine time on what Miller aptly called “an amazing night of music.”
Saturday highlights included a terrific performance at The Groove by Teddy Thompson and Kelly Jones, who harked back to the heyday of ‘60s male/female duet teams Ian & Sylvia and Mickey & Sylvia with sweet harmonies on songs from their album, Little Windows. Over at the Filming Station, Music Export Memphis presented more soul with Scott Bomar’s Bo-Keys, fronted by dynamic singer Percy Wiggins, and the Rev. John Wilkins & His Three Daughters, who brought the gospel.
That night at the Luck Reunion at the Nashville Palace, Margo Price paid tribute to Levon Helm with “Dirt Farmer,” and performed — on drums — with Shovels & Rope as they all pounded out a cover of Concrete Blonde’s “Joey.” The husband-wife duo also played songs from their album Little Seeds, releasing Oct. 7, which they’d been “shamelessly promoting” all week, according to Cary Ann Hearst. With good reason, if songs like “Botched Execution,” “I Know” and “Mourning Song” are any indication.
Gospel soul filled several Nashville venues on Sunday, from City Winery, where the McCrary Sisters hosted the gospel brunch featuring Luke Bell, Lori McKenna, Sons of Bill, Bonnie Bishop and CeCe Winans, to the Family Wash, where Sarah Potenza led Sunday school. Channeling Rosetta Tharpe and Mavis Staples, she slayed the crowd with Staples’ inspirational “You’re Not Alone.” Lilly Hiatt knocked out some divine gospel blues, Julie Christensen sang a lovely cover of former boss Leonard Cohen’s “Anthem” and Meghan Linsey, Potenza’s fellow competitor on “The Voice,” brought down the house with “Amazing Grace.”
“When I heard Meghan do her blind audition, I said, ‘Oh, shit, this girl’s gonna be a problem,” Potenza joked. Clearly, both have incredible chops; as Potenza proved again when she duetted with Mary Gauthier on “Mercy Now” and “Saturday Night Live” house band vocalist and “beehive queen” Christine Ohlman on “Wade in the Water.”
If Sunday School were really like that, kids would clamor to attend. But this version was a fitting finale to a fine AmericanaFest.