AmericanaFest 2016 may be wrapping up, but more than ever, we took this year’s gathering as a battery-charger and an inspiring star map for what lies ahead. Hearing kind words about our new Roots Radio initiative on WMOT 89.5 FM certainly helped rev our enthusiasm from high to higher for the prospects of sharing and spreading the music and the stories of its makers. I had an interesting but sobering experience on the weekend teaching a seminar about the origins and legacy of Music City to a group of 50 adult learners enrolled at Bethel University. These were folks from outside our industry/music nerd circles, but I was surprised to survey them and learn that ZERO of them had heard of the concept of “Americana” music. Yet this is music for everyone. It’s our shared, connecting heritage in a divisive time, so I took this as a personal challenge.
Due to the unique time crunch of AMA week, I offer my annual condensed survey of last week’s action and this week’s show, which looks just splendid with an MCR debut by Austin “Ameri-Chicana” fiddler/singer Carrie Rodriquez and a celebrated blues guitar slinger. But as I sit quietly thinking about these recent days, I’m swimming in the echoes of some absurdly excellent performances: William Bell singing “The Three of Me” at the Honors & Awards show with staggering grace and candor, Aaron Lee Tasjan’s psychedelic country glam and River Whyless (MCR alums) playing sparkling, surprise-filled alt-folk.
And of course we threw a showcase on Thursday and couldn’t have been happier with our roster. Willie Watson opened as a solo singer but he had total control of the crowd. They sat hushed during “Rock Salt And Nails” and sang the response chant to an old work song. Willie’s strong tremulous voice and dynamic banjo and guitar picking packs and emotional punch. Then it was on to a very different young guy doing his own solo things as Sean Watkins took the stage with a tidy trio of Dominique Arciero on keys and vocals and Tristan Clarridge on cello. It was sophisticated and tuneful with cracking bluegrass flatpicking and smart songs from the Nickel Creek alum.
I could write a whole column about my excitement and pride at seeing the Del McCoury Band on our stage. But I can’t, so let’s just say they were their consistent brand of amazing and that Del’s interpretations of Woody Guthrie songs were riveting. After the set, the band’s managers said the closing “All Aboard” was the hottest version they’d heard (and they hear it a lot), and I can’t deny it. It was spectacular. And it was complimented nicely by the warmth and mellow tone of Timothy B. Schmit who, with a tip-top band, featured songs from the new Leap of Faith album, plus his Poco hit “Keep On Tryin’” which soared with ensemble vocalists gathered around one mic. Pretty awesome to have an Eagle fly through.
But hey, the weeks roll on and another show is at hand. I alas will miss this one for the World of Bluegrass in Raleigh. And I’m especially sad to miss the show debut of Carrie Rodriguez. I’ve loved her voice and song sensibility for a decade now, including her long-running duo with friend of the show Chip Taylor. She’s a Texas original and utterly top shelf in every aspect of her musicianship – fiddling, singing, writing and conceptualizing. Her new concept, a hybrid Spanish-English album Lola, which has already been named a favorite of the year so far by NPR.
Returning as one of our earliest and favorite regulars is Miss Tess with her swinging and snappy band The Talkbacks. The Bostonian turned Nashvillian splits the nostalgia atom by throwing back and forward simultaneously, and she’s a slick lead guitarist too. Her new album Baby, We All Know sounds like her best yet. And we’ll hear from a guitarist even more steeped in the blues – a guy so good and so directed that the rhythm section of the late great Stevie Ray Vaughan wanted to play with him in the 2000s. His name is Albert Cummings, and he proves that a “Swamp Yankee” (his term) from Massachusetts can play searing, heart-rending blues with the best of them. B.B. King called him a “great guitarist,” so there.
And while it’s rare to announce a young folk singing duo with credentials, Anna Roberts-Gevalt and Elizabeth Laprelle have them. Performing as Anna & Elizabeth, the 28-year-olds have already earned a State Department fellowship (Anna) and an award from the Library of Congress (Elizabeth). They’re label-mates at Free Dirt Records of stars like the Hackensaw Boys and newcomer Dori Freeman. They take on conceptual projects, working from first-hand research and oral history, and they recently recorded with the great Alice Gerrard.
So that’s a pretty refined and exciting lineup – a veritable continuation of AmericanaFest that speaks to the variety and quality of artistry in this musical world. It’ll be our honor and sacred mission to broadcast and celebrate these musician and their compatriots in hopes that those Americans who aren’t in the know yet will hear the word and hear the sound and start looking at a new horizon for themselves and their loved ones.