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Americana Music Festival 2013 Highlights

See also: our cover story on Americana act Shovels & Rope.

Thursday, 19th

It was clear years ago that Justin Townes Earle is talented, but given his personal demons early on, his rise to become one of Americana's leading ambassadors is impressive — as is his increasing maturity as a songwriter, evidenced on last year's Nothing's Gonna Change the Way You Feel About Me Now. Black Prairie began as a moody, bluegrass-influenced side project for several members of The Decemberists, but the band has since become a force on the roots-music circuit — they've had two albums hit No. 4 on the bluegrass charts, and they played the Newport Folk Festival in July. Willy Mason's atmospheric music straddles the line between Americana and indie rock — not surprising, since he was discovered by Conor Oberst. Songs like "Restless Fugitive" from Mason's new album Carry On recall the hushed, otherworldly grandeur of Alejandro Escovedo's music. Brooklyn band The Lone Bellow worked with Civil Wars producer Charlie Peacock on their 2013 debut, and they look like they hired Mumford & Sons' stylist while they were at it. Those reference points serve well to describe their music too, which is well-rendered but not particularly original. Speaking of the Mumfords, their fellow Brits and sometime tourmates Bear's Den round out the bill. This one starts early, with doors at 3:30 p.m. JACK SILVERMAN

Courtney Jaye
  • Courtney Jaye

A trad-country-styled chanteuse who put in time in California, Texas, Arizona and Hawaii before settling in Nashville, Courtney Jaye tops a bill that stretches the definition of "Americana" perhaps more than any other lineup on Thursday night. Jaye's smoldering demeanor and powerful set of pipes have earned her comparisons to Dolly Parton, and Love and Forgiveness is full of the sort of big-hearted, sharply constructed pop anthems that — if all was right with the world — would be topping the country charts as we speak. Another standout on The High Watt's bill is New Orleans' Alynda Lee Segarra-led Hurray for the Riff Raff, whose latest release, My Dearest Darkest Neighbor, features beautiful folk renditions of songs by John Lennon, Joni Mitchell, Billie Holiday and more. Rounding out the bill are Southern songster T. Hardy Morris, known for his work in Dead Confederate as well as the genuinely excellent rock supergroup Diamond Rugs; stomp-along, ramshackle old-time string band Spirit Family Reunion; and Canadian alt-country outfit NQ Arbuckle (think Sun Volt, Drive-By Truckers or Lucero). D. PATRICK RODGERS

Rosanne Cash
  • Rosanne Cash

The Steep Canyon Rangers are the cream of the new bluegrass crop with or without Steve Martin, and their Nobody Knows You won the 2013 Grammy for Best Bluegrass Album. The Wood Brothers' take on Americana is refreshingly free of self-conscious old-timey shtick or textbook reverence, and Oliver Wood is one of the more soulful roots-music singers out there. His supporting cast — brother Chris Wood (of Medeski Martin and Wood) on bass and Jano Rix on anything that isn't nailed down — is spectacular. Brits Richard Thompson and Billy Bragg are two of just a handful of folks who can hold a room rapt for hours with nothing but an acoustic guitar. Rosanne Cash has a golden voice, a Grammy and a great catalog, plus she called John Boehner an asshat — that's enough to make her royalty in our book. This lineup could very well sell out the Ryman, so if you want to get in to 3rd & Lindsley, you'd better get in line as you're reading this. JACK SILVERMAN

North Mississippi All Stars
  • North Mississippi All Stars

Not that we blame anybody for staking out the amazing bill at 3rd & Lindsley — one of the coolest, most American things about Americana is that it isn't just open to Americans — but if you really want an immersion in the genre, from honky-tonk legacy to tent-revival folk to gravel-spraying peel-out Southern boogie, this may well be the club you want. "Don't call me an outlaw, I'm a motherfuckin' gunslinger," Shooter Jennings sings on the epic closing song of his most recent album The Other Life, and he spends the previous 10 earning that right. Fresh-faced up-and-comers Buddy and Jim — last names Miller and Lauderdale — come on like a two-man Traveling Wilburys on their immensely enjoyable duo record, laced with rock licks, screechy organ and lots of tossed-off wit, while Grammy-nominated Oklahoma folksinger John Fullbright captivated a Station Inn crowd at last year's Americana gospel brunch with his swampy odes to sin and salvation. But the night may belong to brothers Luther and Cody Dickinson, whose latest album with the North Mississippi All Stars, World Boogie Is Coming, serves up one pyrotechnic display of roiling grooves and guitar acrobatics after another while staying firmly planted in Delta grit. JIM RIDLEY

It takes a set of brass balls to drop a lyric about surfing the Internet into an outlaw country number. These days, most gruff, traditionalist singer-songwriters croon about the lives they might have led were they 1950s barflies, but Sturgill Simpson tells tales of the working-class world he knows and lives in now, and does so with a full-bodied, deep, drawling voice far too distinctive to justify comparisons to other singers. Recommended if you like Dwight Yoakam, who took Simpson on a nationwide tour this year. Equally impressive, Nashville's own The Howlin' Brothers — a harmonizing trio of storytellers wielding mandolins, banjos and upright basses — present a reverent-but-relevant conflation of Dixieland instrumentation and roots-rock songwriting styles. ADAM GOLD

Friday, 20th

Buddy Miller
  • Buddy Miller

Do you know what they call a Canadian Americana artist? That isn't the setup to a joke — I'd really just like to know. Anyway, Ontario native Daniel Romano may not have the most recognizable name on this bill, but a performance by the country traditionalist — who's been known to dress the part, frequently donning old-school suits with rhinestones and chain-stitched embroidery — is a great way to end the evening. The biggest names on this lineup are, of course, those of established bluesman Delbert McClinton and Americana guitar-slinger Buddy Miller, each of whom has teamed up with a longtime collaborator to release a well-received album over the past year — McClinton's Delbert & Glen with Glen Clark, and Miller's Buddy & Jim with Jim Lauderdale. (How's that for symmetry?) Anyhow, this bill is about as stacked as any this weekend, with further performances from The Devil Makes Three, Max Gomez, Howe Gelb, Austin Lucas, Ben Miller Band and Randall Bramblett. D. PATRICK RODGERS

Be sure to get to this show early or count on getting shut out. And definitely plan on staying all night to take in a bill boasting big-tent American bloodline royalty like Lisa Marie Presley and Holly Williams, each of whom has the musical prowess to surmount the legacies overshadowing their unshakable names. Add in an appearance from Station Inn regulars Tim O'Brien and Darrell Scott, two of the most respected names in bluegrass. The duo's effortless harmonies never fail to sit comfortably atop the symphony that arises when the pair plucks their guitar and mandolin strings together. By contrast, count on heartland-rock outfit Andrew Leahey and the Homestead to crank up the distortion and Hammond organ and channel influences like Tom Petty, Whiskeytown and Old 97s. Pop-savvy, playful folkies Nora Jane Struthers and the Party Line round out the bill with their rousing, convivial neo-grass. ADAM GOLD

Rumor has it Americana was invented so that finally somebody would have a clue what to call Kim Richey. That's just for the sake of merchandising — anybody who's encountered her sparkling country-pop-folk-whatever since her Nashville days in the '90s calls her a gift, and that goes literally double for her latest album Thorn in My Heart, which issues the same (first-rate) set of songs with spare, sympathetic production and then as skeletal work tapes. Its producer, Neilson Hubbard, applied a similar approach to How to Sleep in a Stormy Boat, the latest release from acclaimed singer Amy Speace — wisely reckoning that Speace's dramatic, startlingly clear voice would fill plenty of surrounding space. We saw Chelsea Crowell pull off an extremely emotional gig performing in front of her entire family at The Stone Fox earlier this year, and wanted more of her: Her bruised, sultry, steadfast songs kinda suggested what Sueleen from Robert Altman's Nashville might've been if she could actually sing. Field Report, led by Christopher Porterfield — Justin Vernon's bandmate in the pre-Bon Iver group DeYarmond Edison — plays atmospheric space-folk that changes your living space to a car cruising rural Nebraska at 3 a.m. Closing the night: Nashville's The Farewell Drifters, whose mix of bluegrass instrumentation, winning pop melodies and Simon and Garfunkel harmonies will likely send you smiling into the September night. JIM RIDLEY

What do you call a show that features a neo-blues band, an indie-pop siren with Ronstadt-by-your-man country roots and a throwback troubadour with jokey-poignant honky-tonk chops? Well, in 2013 you'd call that an Americana show, and by any other name it'd be just as sweet. Luella and the Sun appeared in local newsfeeds a lot after a fire ravaged their home studio, but the band had already grabbed national attention at SXSW for their elemental riffs and frontwoman Melissa Mathis' forceful vocals. Caitlin Rose's The Stand-In is one of the best records, Americana or otherwise, to come out of Nashville this year, and finds her once again in fine form, with twang-pop reveries for days. 'Tis literally the season for Jonny Fritz's "Goodbye Summer," but his Dad Country is a collection of smart-ass boot-scootin' convoy jams fit for any time of year. STEVE HARUCH

Alanna Royale
  • Alanna Royale

This bill has no shortage of outliers for festivalgoers and conference-heads looking for something a little bit different and a lot less earnest than your average Americana fare: the surfy instrumental spaghetti Western experimentation of Steelism (which undoubtedly comes closer to the borders of progressive rock than any other band on the Americana Fest lineup); the sometimes-old-timey, other-times-neo-R&B stylings of Alanna Royale; the greasy, Shoals-style R&B of J.C. Brooks and the Uptown Sound; Andrew Combs' freewheeling blues-rock; and Treetop Flyers' penchant for melting CSNY-style harmonies with R.E.M.-inspired Southern jangle. ADAM GOLD

Saturday, 21st

Y'all are goin' to church at midnight, and not a minute too soon. OK, the show's listed at 11:59 p.m., but you heathens are missing the point: Mike Farris and the Roseland Rhythm Revue are gonna save your souls with rock 'n' roll, with former Screamin' Cheetah Wheelies frontman Farris making Neil Diamond's Brother Love look like one weak sister in the testifying department. Since you've gotta have something to atone for, show up early for the Pistol Annies' Ashley Monroe, whose "Weed Instead of Roses" may be the year's most hilariously, er, blunt honky-tonk anthem, and Levi Lowrey, the Georgia-born singer-songwriter who's won over Zac Brown audiences with songs like the rowdy "Uneasy Rider" update "All-American." Of special note: early Americana rocker Scott Miller (of V-Roys and Scott Miller and the Commonwealth fame) and Melody Pool, the Australian vocalist who cut her album The Hurting Scene here with producers Jace Everett and Brad Jones. JIM RIDLEY

If you go to the daylong annual Americanarama celebration in the Grimey's/Basement back parking lot, you should probably just stay for the evening showcase. Expect the room to be packed for Tim Easton, whose superb, blues-infused recent release Not Cool leans more toward the rock end of the roots-rock spectrum and was produced by Nashville's own Brad Jones and Robin Eaton. You'll also want to catch singer-songwriter/violinist Amanda Shires — also known as Jason Isbell's better half — touring in support of her latest, Down Fell the Doves. Parker Milsap starts the night off, and Hymn for Her and '80s cult favorites The Del-Lords round out the evening. ABBY WHITE

Longtime Scene favorite Nikki Lane has a forthcoming album produced by Black Keys frontman Dan Auerbach, and word on the street is it's the shit. With any luck, AMA peeps will get a change to hear some new Lane jams, along with smoky, cinematic neo-country faves like "Lies" and "Gone, Gone, Gone." Without a doubt, Rayland Baxter will also dazzle with his meditative troubadour tunes and cutting, assertive vocals. Portland, Ore., indie troupe White Liars and veteran Australian singer-songwriter and roots-rocker Paul Kelly (see Critics' Picks on p. 31) round out the bill. ADAM GOLD

Lindi Ortega
  • Lindi Ortega

The smallest venue in the Cannery Row complex packs a considerable punch for the closing night of the festival with Los Angeles singer-songwriter Jake White (better known as The White Buffalo), local alt-country songstress Lindi Ortega and Raleigh rock group American Aquarium. A must-see on this bill is Austin-based actor/musician Alejandro Rose-Garcia, better known as Shakey Graves. He'll look familiar if you watched Friday Night Lights, and he'll win you over with his aggressive mix of folk and blues rock. But the best-kept secret in this lineup — and dare I say the whole festival — is Canada's Matt Mays. A household name in his home country who fetches frequent Petty and Springsteen comparisons, Mays rarely makes it to Nashville, and his Southern-infused rock just might blow out the High Watt sound system. ABBY WHITE


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