The Highwomen at The 20th Annual Americana Honors & Awards – Ryman Auditorium, Nashville, TN September 22, 2021. Photo by Alisa B. Cherry
September was a month of festival frenzy, but in the midst of it all, AmericanaFest, in is home environs, Nashville Tennessee, still managed to stand out above all. Organized and operated under the aegis of the Americana Music Association, it is the gathering place for the best the genre has to offer. Given the fact that more than 200 artists take part every year, it’s fair to say that it’s also the most expansive musical gathering in the nation today.
AmericanaFest kicks off in a big way with the annual awards ceremony that takes place Wednesday evening. It not only offers an opportunity to celebrate the best efforts of the past year, but also to recognize those artists whose indelible contribution to Americana music drives the genre forward and continually brings it to a higher plateau. In addition to those who were recognized for their recent work, several significant artists were given lifetime honors — including Carla Thomas, who was recognized with the Inspiration Award, Trina Shoemaker for production and engineering, Keb’ Mo in the field of performance, The Mavericks, who were given the Trailblazer Award, and the Fisk Jubilee Singers who were honored with the Legacy of Americana Award. Brandi Carlile was recognized as the Artist of the Year, a nod clearly deserved, as reaffirmed by the discussion she shared at the Country Museum Hall of Fame a day later.
Other artists who performed during the awards extravaganza included Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell offering a touching tribute to the Everly Brothers, Jason Isbell and Amanda Shires, Steve Earle, the Highwomen (with special guest Yola), as well as Carlile herself.
While the awards ceremony gives a taste of what’s to come in the days following, courtesy of those singular performances that take place throughout the evening, the choices can be maddening throughout the rest of the week. Indeed, it’s difficult to choose between shows when so many A-list artists are involved. So too, running between venues was challenging enough, given that the shuttles weren’t operating this year in deference to covid protocols.
The solution of course was to pick a venue that offered an entire evening of entertainment, providing a place to stay stationary and not have to hurry from place to place. Naturally, Nashville has no shortage of outstanding lounges, listening rooms, clubs, and concert halls, ensuring that wherever one opts to go, the experience will be exceptional. We chose City Winery the first two nights and managed to get a table perched on the very edge of the stage, allowing for an ideal vantage point from which to enjoy performances by Riddy Arman, Steve Poltz, Pete Muller and the Kindred Souls, Marshall Chapman, Kiefer Sutherland (yes, the Keifer Sutherland), Steve Forbert and Jason Ringenberg. While the sets were abbreviated in order to accommodate all the acts, the close proximity and opportunity for a meet and greet at the merch table more than made up for any brevity.
That said, there’s also ample opportunity to mingle in the off hours as well, whether it’s the lobby at the host hotel, the Westin, or simply to the side of a show. The stars were hard to miss, even while wearing masks (which most chose to do.) Over the course of an afternoon, we spotted Amy Ray, the Mastersons, Tim Easton, Kevin Daniel, Patterson Barrett, David Mansfield, Korby Lenker, Cidney Bullens, and any number of others with whom there was an exchange of mutual recognition and fond greetings on the way to our respective destinations.
Still, that didn’t negate the need to continue to sort out our options for the evening. It was difficult enough to choose between the various afternoon panels, which offered all sorts of essential information on a range of subjects including touring, legalities, copyrights, airplay, songwriting and the like, but when it came to deciding on a destination for hearing some music, it never proved less daunting. The Basement, the Basement East, Brooklyn Bowl, 3rd & Lindsley, Exit/In, and the Cannery complex are all ideal settings to hear music, although some are more crowded and confined than others. Given the concerns about covid, the choices were often as much about comfort as they were about the musical agenda.
With that in mind, outdoor venues often offered the most appeal. The all day Under The Sun event that took place on the roof of the Westin was especially alluring, especially given a line-up that included performances by such notables as the Delevantes, White Buffalo, Great Peacock, Maggie Rose and Ruthie Foster (in her first AmericanaFest appearance), among others. Significantly, half of the artists involved were women, furthering the notion of inclusion that had been a priority early on. Nashville radio station Lightning 100 broadcast the event live, and garnered a record numbers of listeners in the process.
There were any number of other special showcases as well. The California Country Show at Acme Feed & Seed featured the Whitmore Sisters, Ted Russell Camp, a female super group dubbed The Wild West, the debut of a soulful revival act called Ladycouch, the exceptional blues singer, Chris Pierce, and a brief appearance by Aaron Lee Tasjan. Gulch and Gulps, presented by 1888 Media, offered impressive performances as well, including sets by Kevin Daniel and Alton Wolfe with his eight-piece band.
Musicians Corner provided a perfect park-like setting for families to share time in the sunshine and enjoy the likes of the ever-soulful Ahi and the equally compelling Langhorne Slim. Both artists conveyed some inspirational insights while helping to realize many of the most emotional moments of the entire four day festival.
Naturally, there were any number of individual shows that stood out as well, with Joshua Radin, Roanoke, Jim Lauderdale, Claudia Nygaard, Hogslop String Band (don’t ask!), the Brother Brothers, Jenni Muldaur, the Dead South, Tim Easton, and Paul Thorn all offering exceptional entertainment entirely on their own. It was a lot to absorb, and it was often overwhelming, but it was worth every ounce of energy expended in the process.
Ultimately, one has to accept the fact that there’s no way to take it all in. So while there are inevitably some regrets about an artist that might have been missed, there’s plenty to be grateful for, given those artists that one did get to see and especially enjoy.
Besides, as many folks say once another AmericanaFest wraps up — “there’s always next year…”