This past week, I had the pleasure of experiencing my first AmericanaFest. This city-sprawling event brings together hundreds of music industry veterans, artists and newcomers alike into Music City for a festival like few others. This year’s event spanned from Tuesday September 13th to Saturday the 17th.
This melting pot of music is brought together by the theme of Americana music, which is a genre that is of debatable characteristics, however is objectively a melting pot of American music. The shows I was fortunate to see certainly displayed that, as I endured everything ranging from acoustic folk to gospel, and hard rock to bluegrass.
The performances amazed and enthralled, and the diversity in the expansive lineup created an event that could be enjoyed by everyone. The amount of shows can be chaotic, therefore making it hard to pick which to attend, but I found myself in key Nashville venues that lent itself to exciting and captivating performances.
Tall Heights @ Riverside Revival
Taking the stage at the newly renovated Riverside Revival in East Nashville, the Boston-based duo Tall Heights left a lasting impression on the crowd Wednesday night. Tall Heights is composed of singer/guitarist Tim Harrington and cellist/singer Paul Wright, who were both ecstatic to play at AmericanaFest. They reflected on their past few years during the pandemic, where they would play small backyard shows for friends and family to make due.
The performance was laden with stories of how the songwriters penned their songs. The story behind “The Mountain” was an emotional retelling of a grandfather’s photo book. A lover of mountains, the singers reached out to fans to ask for photos of loved ones doing something they loved. Wright shared that he still has all of the photos in his attic, and apparently his cat enjoys sitting in the somewhat haunted space.
After playing many beloved originals, the singers unplugged their instruments and allowed their voices to shine during a Leonard Cohen cover. The duo’s harmonies and falsetto vocals induced goosebumps as we all listened carefully, the sheer strength of their vocals not needing a microphone to ring out over the old church.
Perhaps the most exciting component of the show was the audience participation element for one song. The duo asked the audience to call whoever was next to them and then put both phones on speaker. This created a feedback loop that echoed across the reverberant space, resulting in an ethereal sound effect that played throughout the duration of the song.
Angel Olsen @ Riverside Revival
After Tall Heights left everyone serenaded and eager for more, the anxious and growing crowd awaited Angel Olsen to take the stage. At only 35, Olsen has had an impressive career selling out shows nationwide and releasing six studio albums, with genres ranging from rock to art-pop to folk.
The St. Louis native decided to embrace an acoustic folk set for her AmericanaFest debut much to the enjoyment of the crowd. The old church was most fitting for the intimate solo set, with the large stained glass windows on the wall pouring in light from the street covering the enamored crowd. The only thing on stage beside the singer was a small barstool holding an untouched glass of water.
Olsen’s on stage presence was comical and confident, slightly awkward and charming, entertaining the late night crowd with her true personality. The genuinity of the performance was one that could only be experienced in an intimate space such as that of Riverside Revival.
Every time her mouth opened the audience fell to a hush, the only other noise in the room were the popping of beer can tabs at the small bar behind me. Her hauntingly beautiful vocals echoed around the chasmic space and charmed the listeners. Halfway through the set, she announced that she’d be performing a few unreleased songs, since “it is AmericanaFest after all.” She closed the set with a couple covers, one being a Bruce Springsteen classic.
Rissi Palmer @ Basement East
Rissi Palmer was the first show I hit Thursday night, taking to the iconic Basement East in East Nashville. Palmer is a country singer and songwriter who has pushed the envelope for African American women in country. Her single, “Country Girl,” in 2007 earned a spot on the country music charts, allowing her to become the first African American woman to be featured on the country charts since 1987. The show was early in the evening, but people were already deep in the groove she provided as they danced to Palmer’s upbeat energy.
Hailing from Pittsburgh, PA, Palmer told the story of her southern roots and heritage. Her connection to the small town of Summerville, GA, lies within her grandmother, a person who is very close to Palmer. Her grandmother was a big influence on her musical career, as she encouraged her to sing and use her voice. The song that followed the sweet story of her family was an emotional ballad that had the audience hooked to every line.
While her music is considered country, it is no doubt that Rissi Palmer’s music is influenced by southern blues and gospel. She joked about taking the crowd to church, initiating call and response with the Basement East-goers.
She also invited fellow AmericanaFest performer Miko Marks to the stage, where they sang a co-written song together for the first time live. The song showed off both Palmer and Marks’ vocal abilities, creating an exciting energy throughout the venue. The pair also announced that they would be embarking on a tour together in the coming months.
Leyla McCalla @ Station Inn
From the Basement East, I traveled to the Gulch to the legendary Station Inn. I arrived early to the venue, as I wanted to get a good spot for the Black Opry Revue; little did I know the best surprise of my AmericanaFest experience was waiting inside.
Leyla McCalla is New York-born and of Haitian descent, and honors her heritage through her music and performance. Commanding her quartet, she played cello, banjo, and guitar throughout her set, playing each instrument and singing with a level of mastery.
Each song featured lyrics containing Hatian-creole, one of two of Haiti’s national languages. Some of her songs were entirely composed of Hatian-creole; in this case, McCalla would explain the story behind each song, taking the audience on a historical journey through the Haitian Revolution.
Despite being in the Station Inn, I felt as if I was transported to a smoky lounge somewhere outside of Nashville. This is what was so exciting about AmericanaFest in general; the performances from all over the country allowed traditionally country music venues to take on a whole new life.
A notable song of hers was entitled “You Don’t Know Me”, where the instrumentalists really got to shine. The audience sat still and captivated by the unique performance. McCalla performed with the intent of more than just having a good time. While she was having fun on stage, she also educated the audience on an important historical movement that can be applied today. She reminded the audience of this piece of wisdom: “You have to keep fighting wherever you are.”
Black Opry Revue @ Station Inn
Following Leyla McCalla was a showcase of talent from the Black Opry Revue. Founded by Holly G., the organization features black artists working in Country, Americana, or Roots, giving them the space to have their voices heard. The Black Opry Revue drew quite a crowd, with other members of the Black Opry coming to support their fellow members.
The Black Opry Revue had three members play three of their songs, telling the stories that inspired the songs. Up first was Jett Holden, whose witty lyrics were inspired by dark moments in the singer’s life. Sharing vulnerable stories such as losing a friend to suicide, coming out to an unreceptive family and more, Holden laid everything out on the table in the historic listening room.
The revue also featured artist Nicky Diamonds, whose country twang matched the cowboy hat on his head. Diamond’s writing was heavily influenced by country, as well as blues. During this set, people flooded in through the doors, creating a packed house in the intimate venue.
Nikki Morgan closed out The Revue, taking to the stage with a charismatic energy. Growing up a preacher’s daughter, Morgan was used to having to say things in a roundabout way; this inspired her writing heavily, and got the crowd laughing and clapping along to all of her lyrics. Her song “I’m Goin’ Home” caused the listeners to get up from their plastic tables and chairs to dance and clap along to the swinging finale. As she sang her final notes, the crowd gave Morgan – along with Holden and Diamonds – a rightful standing ovation.
Sister Sadie @ Station Inn
After being entranced by the previous night’s Station Inn showcases, I made a return to see what Saturday night had in store.
Sister Sadie would take the stage, and it certainly wasn’t the first time that the legendary bluegrass group performed at the iconic Nashville venue. The original members of Sister Sadie played Station Inn for the first time a decade ago in 2012, where the performance was supposed to be nothing more than a jam session. Upon the first few notes being played, they realized that the magic being created on stage was more than just a single performance.
After 10 years, original members Deanie Richardson (fiddle), and Gena Britt (banjo, harmony vocals) are still playing for the group, while Hasee Ciaccio (bass), Jaelee Roberts (guitar, lead vocals), and Mary Meyer (mandolin, harmony vocals) have joined the now acclaimed group.
The door to Station Inn had a small paper plate that read “sold out” on it, and a long line waiting to get inside- this is often par for the course there. Luckily I made the cut, where the five ladies on stage sounded more like a record than a live performance. The audience was clapping and dancing along to the Appalachian-inspired bluegrass tunes while the fiddle and banjo solos poured over them. They announced their new record would be coming out soon, as well as some exciting nominations and accolades the different members received that year.
One of my favorite songs was titled “Free”, one of the only slower tunes performed by Sister Sadie. This gave the chance for the tight harmonies and skillful playing to really shine through. In their final song, the audience took to their feet, clapping along to the expert soloing done by Richardson. Sister Sadie definitely stood out as a favorite among the showcases I’d witnessed.
The McCrary Sisters @ Station Inn
My final showcase experience of AmericanaFest was The McCrary Sisters, a gospel-infused soul act who grew up in right in Nashville. Adorned in matching outfits, the three sisters walked on stage to some groovy entrance music performed by their on-point backing band. They wasted no time getting into their set, which started out with the rich vocals of the three sisters blending together. Ann, Regina, and Alfreda were later joined by their brother Allen for the second song, which he took the lead on. The more the sisters sang, it seemed like the walls of Station Inn melted away and the walls of a church were being put up. It was a set full of praise, tambourine playing, and hymns.
They dedicated the song “Amazing Grace” to their late sister Deborah, the fourth member of The McCrary Sisters who passed back in June. They also paid tribute to the fourth singing sister by performing a song she had written herself, and invited her daughter on stage with them to sing. It was a touching performance that pulled the heartstrings. At the end of the set, the crowd let loose, dancing to the sounds and clapping along with the tambourine. Each band member got to take a solo, each one more exciting than the last.
The magic and soul of The McCrary Sisters was on full display, and as a whole, this rich collection of music could only be found at one place during one week out of the year: AmericanaFest.