The most common question at the annual AmericanaFest – an SXSW-style multi-venue music festival held in Nashville since 2000 – is “what is Americana?” “Miscellaneous” seems to be the answer, after decades of patronizing white male country singers.
At the event’s opening ceremony, which takes place at the Ryman, aka the “mother church” of country music, Canadian songwriter sensation Allison Russell picks up a well-deserved album of the year for her solo debut. enlightening. outdoor child. Other gongs go to bluesy husband and wife duo The War and Treaty, flamboyant gypsy jazz renegade Sierra Ferrell and Grammys-conquering LGBT+ icon Brandi Carlile. There is still room for the old guard too. Robert Plant, Chris Isaak and Lyle Lovett all make appearances, as does the great Lucinda Williams, while a tribute is paid to the late honky tonk singer-songwriter Luke Bell, who died last month aged 32 .
Along with the established names, AmericanaFest is also a hotbed of young talent. Arkansas folk singer and entertainer Willi Carlisle is this year’s most engaging presence, able to bring a crowd to tears as fast as he is to make them laugh. Its punk-rooted storytelling is cosmic, complex and emotional; one minute he’s making jokes, the next he’s calling out the Arkansas government for refusing to raise the minimum wage. Quoting the anarchist philosopher Emma Goldman, he explains that the playful and cheerful “Van Life” – taken from his remarkable recent album Individual, Missouri – concerns the hardships of late capitalism. But it’s his phenomenal, acapella version of Steve Goodman’s 1972 Vietnamese protest song “The Ballad of Penny Evans” that hits the hardest, half a century old but still able to bring the horrors of a war that has been going on for a long time.
Another eye-opener is Oregon-based Margo Cilker. There are hints of Dolly Parton’s cheerful rhythm in her clear mountain falsetto, and heavy doses of Gillian Welch’s well-versed traditional homages in the rolling writing of “That River” and “Kevin Johnson.” The soulful “Chester’s” packs a powerful punch, while the burnished stomping of “Tehachapi” draws boos from the audience for its scholarly interpolation of Little Feat’s 1971 country rock classic “Willin'”, which Lyle Lovett covered a few evenings later. early at the Ryman. .
California-born Jaime Wyatt brings a bit of 1970s flare to the proceedings. His electric twang, complete with flashy gospel flourishes, has a number of excitable couples starting to two-step during the heavy swagger of “Neon Cross,” from the 2020 album of the same name on which Wyatt came out as gay. Later, his guitarist offers himself as MVP of that week’s backing bands by nonchalantly playing slide guitar out of the neck of a beer bottle.
Other standouts include appearances by famed psychedelic bluesman Taj Mahal. At 80, he’s always up for a party, and for his long set he’s joined by a cross-generational group of renowned singers, including Rissi Palmer and Jim Lauderdale. He weaves flawlessly through his stack of instruments, from banjo and resonator to harmonica and back again.
Angel Olsen, performing solo after his recent tour with Sharon Van Etten, is an altogether more discreet presence. She performs in a converted church, whispering her magical cover of Bruce Springsteen’s “Tougher Than The Rest” and playing bruised love songs backed only by the fainting strumming of a Gibson Hummingbird.
If anyone still has any doubts about what Americana is after the last five days, it’s obviously not been paying enough attention to it.