AmericanaFest closed out on a high note Saturday night with a lineup of master songwriters. Around 8 p.m., Rodney Crowell kicked things off at 3rd and Lindsley with an acoustic guitar and a minimal but potent band setup of stand-up bass, percussion, keyboard and fiddle (played by Eamon McLoughlin, who plays fiddle in the Grand Ole Opry band) that amplified Crowell’s contemplative voice and lyrical finesse. Alongside songs from Crowell’s latest album Triage, highlights included “It Ain’t Over Yet,” a tune about resilience that he wrote with former wife Rosanne Cash and John Paul White. The all-too-brief set wrapped with a riveting, high-class folk cover of Waylon Jennings’ “I Ain’t Living Long Like This” that got the crowd in a rowdy and chatty mood.
A bit later, after a set from Evan Bartels, Emily Scott Robinson managed to silence the room with a selection of emotionally potent story songs that was the highlight of the evening. The tunes preview her forthcoming album American Siren out in October via the late, great John Prine’s label Oh Boy Records. Robinson and her band got into an upbeat groove with “Cheap Seats,” her ode to the Mother Church and the legion of musicians in this town hustling in the service industry while waiting for their big day to come. She pivoted with ease between acoustic and electric guitar and keyboard. Toward the end of her set came songs that brought a tear to many eyes in the room. “Let ’Em Burn” and “Hometown Hero” relayed deeply personal stories in a way that was universally relevant — much like Prine himself.
Brandy Clark took the stage like the seasoned pro she is, backed by a full band whose cellist’s melodic accompaniment added a Randy Newman-esque element to the set. The long-delayed celebration of her excellent LP Your Life Is a Record, released just as the pandemic took hold in 2020, continued with her performance of songs like the stinging breakup ballad “Long Walk.” The songwriter’s songwriter had the crowd singing along to fan favorites including “Get High” from her lauded 2013 album 12 Stories and “Love Can Go to Hell” from 2016’s Big Day in a Small Town as she closed out the night.
Just over the Cumberland at The Basement East, country-rock insurgents Sarah Shook and the Disarmers laid down their scruffy, elegant take on Americana. Shook wields a scowling presence in her vocals that links her to punk and New Wave stylists, and her take on country singing borders on something truly frightening — with a purpose. Her band is anchored by her guitarist Eric Peterson, who's been playing with Shook since 2010, and they synthesized Elvis Costello-style rockers, 4/4 stomps and indie-rock-country tunes. The songs had a cumulative effect: When Shook sang about not giving a fuck, or declared that she was to blame, the effect was devastating, because she's the person implicated in all her troubles. The music, which folded in pedal steel along with Peterson's guitar, crashed through the barriers that exist between, say, country decorum and rock excess. But it never felt excessive, though the emotions were raw. Shook told the crowd she is readying a new album for early 2022, and her new songs sounded great. In her closing number, she sang about a lover who takes up with a big country star, leaving her alone with her whiskey. It was heartfelt and angry, like much of Shook's music. She didn't prettify the message, but the care with which she delivered it revealed Shook's big heart.
Up next was Lilly Hiatt, whose approach to rock-influenced Americana bears similarities to Shook's. In a big-tent genre that’s at least as much a marketing scheme as it is a musical designation, Hiatt stands out because of her devotion to rock. Specifically, she evokes both the 1960s and the ’80s — Hiatt, who happens to be the daughter of singer-songwriter John Hiatt, has very definite affinities with the British Invasion and the New Wave era. Her songs are sleek and Bowie-esque, not to mention a little like, say, Roxy Music. Her set featured her electric rhythm guitar, and she rocked back and forth as she laid out the architecture of her tunes, and her backing band chugged along in similar fashion.
Hiatt focused on energy rather than fine modulations, and it worked — especially when she and the band laid into a tricky, Television-like riff on "Drawl," one of the most affecting songs in her set. She also played “Been,” a tune from her forthcoming album Lately that was even more ominous and Bowie-esque, with Hiatt really laying into guitar. Hiatt has evolved in recent years, and her command of her idiom has gotten even stronger. She proved herself adept at the dynamics of rock-Americana, and the set contained virtually no traces of “Nashville,” or “country music,” as those admittedly nebulous entities are often conceived of in the abstract. She sang the titular tune from her 2017 breakthrough album Trinity Lane, and you got the sense that she occupies a unique vantage point in a wildly syncretic non-genre. Like all good songs, “Trinity Lane” has a built-in viewpoint — a sense of how place skews perception — that makes it both personal and wide-ranging.
“I won't talk as much as I normally talk, which is still a lot, anyway,” said Carlene Carter, beginning the final set of the night. She could have talked all night, because she had the audience in the palm of her hand with her stories about ex-husbands (one of whom is Nick Lowe) as well as her badass acoustic guitar performance. The set started off with some sound problems that got fixed as it went on, and it ran a little late. None of that mattered to Carter, whose enthusiasm was amazing to behold. A highlight was her reading of “Easy From Now On,” a now-classic country song she wrote with Susanna Clark in the 1970s — a living history lesson. Carter played what you might call traditional rock ’n’ roll, but nothing about it felt canned or nostalgic. With a superb band that included guitarist Chris Casello, Carter did it all, essaying one-chord rockers that turned the beat around, swung like crazy and never let up for a second. It was like catching a handbill that advertised the mastery of the rock-country past in a newly developed Nashville neighborhood. It was the kind of set that reaffirmed your faith in music.