Since the new old-school acoustic scene has been steadily gathering steam for a good while, it shouldn't come as a big surprise that a small army of acoustic-leaning bands is showcasing at the Americana Music Festival this year. There's the sanguine Mexican-tinged sound of The David Wax Museum, the hot hillbilly dance music of Pokey LaFarge and the South City Three, the rock-driven bluegrass of The Packway Handle Band, the intricately arranged string pop of The Greencards and the astral indie folk of Elephant Revival (the latter two were slated to play Oct. 12, the opening night of the Americana Music Festival), as well as The Farewell Drifters — who've carved out marvelous middle ground between bluegrass and Pet Sounds — contemporary bluegrass's leading young light, Sierra Hull and Highway 111, and the early rock 'n' roll-style youthful heart-baring of The David Mayfield Parade (who was also scheduled to play Wednesday).
There's strong representation, too, from acts who are tweaking the singer-songwriter model as we know it — Jessica Lea Mayfield, purveyor of captivatingly caustic yet country-informed confessionalism, being one, along with Ben Sollee, who specializes in cello-driven soul narratives. There's upright bass-playing Amy LaVere, who makes the most of the contrast between the innocence of her vocal timbre and the bite of her lyrics, and Amanda Shires, a fiddler with an imagination rich in tangible imagery. Matraca Berg — the writer of songs lithe and tuneful enough to work as a Kenny Chesney cut and fit on her own Southern roots-pop album — is back in the spotlight this year, while Brigitte DeMeyer — who just put out a country-blues-steeped singer-songwriter set — is newer to it. And Lucinda Williams, who's spent three decades rewriting the rules of singer-songwriterdom — refining her lean storytelling, visceral language and from-the-gut expression — will be the first recipient of the Americana Lifetime Achievement Award for Songwriting who also happens to be a woman.
There are others in the festival lineup who've been soldiering on since the '90s or earlier and are still among the best at the style that started out as Americana's bread and butter (alt country). Take The Jayhawks, who laced their new album with particularly bright Midwestern hooks; Will Kimbrough, the noted sideman who deserves attention for the self-deprecating power-pop sensibilities in his own bag of tricks; The Bottle Rockets, a reliable source of street-smart, riff-powered roots rock; and Blackie and the Rodeo Kings, who released a truly great male-female duets album this year. Though more young bands are going the unplugged route in the wake of Old Crow, the Avetts and the Mumfords, there are a couple of notable exceptions this year: Henry Wagons, a Nick Cave-inspired singer with a gonzo, rock-fueled take on outlaw country, and The Deep Dark Woods, who share Deer Tick's reverence for The Band, The Byrds and Gram Parsons.
Speaking of history, the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum is presenting a panel well worth hearing on Thursday afternoon: "Land of 1,000 Dances: The Groundbreaking Sounds of Muscle Shoals." Gathered there will be FAME Studios mastermind Rick Hall and essential players and writers like Dan Penn, Spooner Oldham, Donnie Fritts and Jimmy Johnson. It's really quite fitting, when you think about it, that the Americana Music Association would be honoring a recording center that was situated well outside the mainstream, yet ultimately spread its fingerprints far and wide.
If it's not far and wide that you're after but bang for your parking buck, Cannery Ballroom will be home to one of the festival's most well-rounded lineups Friday night: sweet-sounding vintage country revivalists The Secret Sisters, followed by rootsy R&B singer-guitarist Keb' Mo', Jim Lauderdale and Buddy Miller — a good-natured, soul-deep, stone-country pair, if ever there was one — and kings of hill-country blues jamming, The North Mississippi Allstars. And, of course, there'll be more going on just upstairs in the Mercy Lounge.
Saturday's best hang is hosted by Grimey's and The Basement, Nashville's foremost advocates for big or small, local or not, just plain interesting music. Americanafest will be going on all day in the parking lot out back, featuring Glossary, whose brand-new Long Live All of Us is rich in sinewy Southern boogie; the refined singer-songwriter introspection of Amy Speace; Derek Hoke, who blends country and pop in ways the descriptor "country-pop" can't capture; Paul Burch, who's recently put his songwriting gifts on the backburner and turned his attention to brilliantly reinterpreting Buddy Holly; and a host of others. Oh, and beer. Lots and lots of beer.
See americanamusic.org for showcase and daytime panel information.
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