If there was ever a time to clone yourself, AMERICANAFEST (AF) would be the time.
Every year in September, a whirlwind touches down in Nashville in the form of a 5-day long music experience like few others, bringing music fans and industry heads together from across the globe.
Just about all of Nashville’s 3,489 venues curate showcases (along with the help of others) featuring various performers in the folk, country, and rock sphere, along with an array of day parties and industry panels usually held at the Westin Hotel. From roughly 9:00 AM to midnight there are dozens of happenings taking place.
It’s a lot.
And while it’s always a treat to check out the standard performances by said artist on a given night, the steak and potatoes of AF lies in the various day parties and panels.
Whether it’s WMOT & NPR’s day party held at Eastside Bowl, the California Country Show at Acme Feed and Seed, The Commonwealth of Kentucky at The Basement, The Gospel Brunch at City Winery or the numerous others, those are where it’s at. (they often have free food/drink/swag to coincide with the music)
This year was another dizzying yet extraordinary experience with much left on the table as always (re: cloning), and again served as both one-of-a-kind entertainment, education, and fun.
For the sake and structure of a list, here are the Top Ten things we endured at AMERICANAFEST 2023, though these could be shaken or stirred in a number of ways.
10. Brennen Leigh, Rachel Brooke, & Others @ Standard Hat Works by Paul Howard
The last event for me of the busy week had me on a bustling Wilburn Street at The Standard Hat Works Day Party presented by Atomic Music Group. Just outside the entryway to the new establishment, a mustached man tended to a beautifully crafted cowboy hat, rotating it over a steamer presumably shaping it just right for a patron. Quality craftsmanship was on display in a few ways on this day.
The small, elegant hat shop was popping with eager fans and guests alike to bear witness to the likes of The Wilder Blue, Brennen Leigh, Dallas Burrow, Rachel Brooke, and more. Brooke performed solo, delivering a mighty set of traditional country tunes chock full of tongue-in-cheek lyrics, delighting the standing room audience. Leigh had a small band with her, and equally delivered old timey country music that sounded like it was straight from a smokey Texas barroom circa 1962. The badass hats on the wall along with the exposed brick and wood made for a killer little spot for this Saturday soiree.
9. Medium Build @ Exit/In by Blakely Otto
Having been on my wishlist to see live for quite a while, Medium Build began my week with his own words about Americana music: “What is Americana, anyway? Country music that doesn’t get played on the radio?” He proved himself to be far beyond that simplicity, offering an emotionally riveting set charged with his brutally honest and magical songwriting skills. Medium Build knows how to captivate an audience with just himself, as he performed solo on stage and didn’t lose my attention for a minute.
The rising young artist just released his single, “Cuz of U”, a sweet nod of gratitude to the family, friends, and hometown that raised him, and this show at the famed Exit/In was a brilliant start to his almost entirely sold-out tour that will expand overseas.
8. Commonwealth of Kentucky Day Party @ The Basement by Paul Howard
An event I went to last year, this fun day party acts as a celebration to the rich musical culture of Kentucky, chock full of modern Bluegrass State artists who are currently crushing it. I was able to catch Boa Boys – a trio of rock n’ roll rippers who reminded me a bit of Natural Child – as well as Leah Blevins who delights with her one-of-a-kind traditional country voice. She was flanked by her fiddle player and acoustic guitarist, and sung many a sweet melodies.
And naturally, the event had vats of free Kentucky Fried Chicken, Ale-8-One soda, (made in Kentucky), a bourbon tent, and a table full of swag from various Kentucky organizations. I swear I didn’t just go for the chicken.
7. Michael Cleveland & Flamekeeper @ Analog by Paul Howard
If there’s a better fiddle player than Michael Cleveland, I’ve yet to see them.
The phenom plays and has played with a who’s who of A-listers in the country and bluegrass world, and on Thursday night he and his band, Flamekeeper, torched the roof off the Hutton Hotel. The fire and ferocity Cleveland omits from his fiddle would be impressive in any capacity, but the fact that he’s blind adds to his virtuosity and achievements. Always with an uplifting smile and spirit, Cleveland not only could out-duel the devil, but he’s got a rich sense of humor, and always has the crowd grinning and marveling.
His band is pretty good too.
6. Musicians’ Corner @ Centennial Park by Mikayla McGrory
The vibrant, energetic scene at Musicians’ Corner in Centennial Park was packed with live music, food trucks, vendors, and hundreds of Americana enthusiasts. Presented by New West Records in partnership with TIDAL, musicians and fans came from far and wide to celebrate the label’s 25th anniversary.
Stacked with top tier performers like Buddy Miller, Esther Rose, North Mississippi Allstars, Emily Nenni, Rodney Crowell Trio, and The Wild Feathers, the party was lively and bumping from 3:00 PM until 9:00 PM. I had the pleasure of watching performances by Nenni and Miller, both of whom were electrifying, supremely talented, and endlessly entertaining. In addition to just being plain good, both acts wonderfully embodied both New West Records and Americana as a genre.
In addition to the spellbinding performances, the warm energy and vibe of the event as a whole was palpable. You could just as easily sit and enjoy the show as you could eat, shop, and stroll along the pathways of Centennial Park, enjoying the scene and the beautiful Nashville weather.
5. Interstate 88 Day Party @ The Eighth Room by Paul Howard
Perhaps I’m a little biased here, as I had the pleasure of opening and co-emceeing this event on behalf of 1888 Media and Charlotte Avenue Entertainment, but this showcase was a vibe. The Eighth Room itself offers a rad and retro-like setting, and the hosts not only offered a spread of eats for those who attended, but even went as far as having the drink menu made to reflect each artist with a coinciding booze, i.e. Paul Howard’s Buffalo Trace, which I may or may not have gotten into before noon.
The theme of “8” was strong, as there was even a Magic 8 Ball on the food table for those with pressing inquiries. If I were a betting man – which I am – I would’ve ridden the ocho on this day. The afternoon saw many a killer act, including Parker Millsap, Jaimee Harris, Caleb Caudle, Afton Wolfe, Hannah Connolly, Jeshua Marshall, and several more. There’s something special and intriguing about seeing numerous consecutive 20-some minute acts perform one after another. Outlook was definitely good at the Interstate 88 Day Party.
4. Industry Panels @ The Westin by Paul Howard
This was my first year indulging in the numerous panels and conferences held at The Westin Hotel, and I found some of them to be priceless. Aside from the deeply educational and informative panels that help aspiring and seasoned artists alike navigate today’s industry landscape, for me personally, it was the opportunity to see and hear legends talk about their lives and careers.
In the same day, I got to listen to Noel Paul Stookey of Peter, Paul, and Mary in one panel (he sang a capella too), and Emmylou Harris and Rufus Wainwright in another. A couple of serious legends in the span of a few hours. Stookey is a board member for the Folk Americana Roots Hall of Fame in Boston, and it was their panel that I saw him, which also featured Mary Gauthier, Fiona Prine, and moderator and museum curator Deana McCloud.
I would learn of the cosmic connection between Harris and Wainright, as she was friends and songwriting cohorts with his mother, Kate McGarrigle, and essentially watched Wainwright grow up and emerge into the star he is today. Simply walking and loitering through the halls and floors of the Westin is exhilarating enough, as you’re bound to brush shoulders with any number of bigwigs.
3. Dan Tyminski @ Analog by Paul Howard
The Soggy Bottom Boy himself, in the flesh. Yes, I had the pleasure of sitting as front and center as it gets at the Analog music room in the Hutton Hotel to experience the incredible talent that is Dan Tyminski. If you’re one of the six people who hasn’t seen O Brother, Where Art Thou, you should make it a priority, as Tyminski is the epic voice emanating out of George Clooney’s mouth in the iconic performance scene. I didn’t expect he would play this classic, but I’ll be damned if it wasn’t the second song he played.
While this is one of his biggest claims to fame, it’s far from the only thing. He slayed with Alison Krauss and Union Station in the 90s and beyond, and has been an A-list bluegrass and roots songwriter and performer for some time. He also told an interesting story about being approached by the late Swedish DJ Avicii’s team about linking up for a song, “Hey Brother,” and while at first being reluctant, his daughter’s enthusiasm about it eventually swayed him- and it was a hit. Loaded with between-song zingers, Tyminski was an A+ performer as a whole.
2. Jessi Colter w/ Margo Price & Shooter Jennings @ 3rd and Lindsley by Paul Howard
Any time I have the chance to see a living legend, I will take that chance. Such was the case Wednesday night, when Jessi Colter, the iconic “I’m Not Lisa” singer and widow of the late Waylon Jennings, sat at a piano at 3rd and Lindsley. But before she did that, her son Shooter sat at it playing and making sure it was ready to roll for mom.
Colter was full of glistening smiles and charming audience talk, and effortlessly swooned the crowd, who of course was merely swooned by her presence. I almost got the impression she was maybe high or tipsy as to how much she was smiling and getting loosey goosey, which made her all the more endearing as I stood mere feet away.
She rattled through new and old songs alike with her stellar band which included Craig Smith on the Tele, Lillie Mae on acoustic, and others, but the surprise moment of the night was Margo Price popping over after the Americana Music Awards and singing with Colter. The last song of the night saw Colter, Price, and Shooter all throwing down on a banger to close things out. The energy was high, and Miss Colter might’ve been too, God bless her.
1. Songs of 1973 @ The Basement East by Paul Howard
As someone who got swallowed into the world of music at a young age via my dad’s record collection and my brother’s love of The Doors, Zeppelin, Hendrix and all things classic rock, a night of music from a peak year in music – 1973 – was a must see.
Things got started with Steve Miller Band’s “The Joker,” performed by Christian Lopez, and it was off to the races after that. The house band consisted of maybe 6-7 top tier musicians, including lead guitarist Griffin Winton and emcee Tim Jones, and with each song, Jones brought out a new singer/performer.
Cat Clyde sung the hell out of Marshall Tucker’s “Can’t You See,” Ashley Ray got tipsy on Willie Nelson’s “Whiskey River,” Boy Golden was definitely in the right place for Dr. John’s “Right Place, Wrong Time,” Jaimee Harris paid the piper (at the gates of dawn) on Pink Floyd’s “Money,” Andrew Leahey ripped through T-Rex’s “20th Century Boy,” and to wrap up the whole shindig, the gang flew high with “Freebird.” These among many other iconic tracks were performed in the four-hour window, and made you marvel at the fact all of these classics came out the same year. These Basement East jamborees are some of the best to-dos at AMERICANAFEST.
Featured photo: Jeshua Marshall @ Interstate 88 Day Party // Photo by Adrienne Pacheco