Once a year, Nashville becomes the literal mecca for American music. If you thought to yourself, "Oh, that must be a reference to CMA Fest," then SHAME ON YOU! CMA Fest is the furthest thing from American music. If anything, it's an excuse for a small subset of American culture to over-aggrandize its influence on the zeitgeist, but I digress. The cultural flashpoint that's actually being alluded to (and simultaneously being buried in this precarious lede) is Americanafest.
We'll skirt around a deep dive into the (presumably) robust history of Americanafest so as to maintain some written transience (on a long form publication, mind you) , but for the sake of brevity (and rational behavior), let it be known that Americanafest is truly a one of a kind festival. In fact, the term "festival" should be used in its absolute loosest sense, if for no other reason than the notion that at no point does Americanafest feel like a "festival."
Realistically, Americanafest is a convergence of a like minded (and occasionally self ascribing "high minded") constituency of NPR listeners and folk fanatics. And convergence is certainly no conflation of the term - A large portion of the attending "hordes" (again, another very loose interpretation) travel from Ireland, UK, Australia, and Scandinavia in order to witness the spectrum of American music in none other than our fair city of Nashville. But what would draw such an eclectic crowd to a "festival" that most people in Nashville are otherwise unaware of?
In short, anything from Iron & Wine, John Prine, Lucie Silvas, Sam Outlaw, Natalie Hemby, David Ramirez, Darlingside, Zach Schmidt, Lydia Luce, Lukas Nelson, Hiss Golden Messenger, Michaela Anne, The Secret Sisters, Zephaniah Ohora, The Texas Gentlemen, Erin Rae, Joshua Hedley, Courtney Marie Andrews, Steelism, Wynonna Judd, Paul Cauthen, Yola Carter, Blank Range, okay, you probably get the picture. Americanafest's lineup is perpetually unbounded and entirely beguiling (how many "festivals" do you know of that would receive such a descriptor?).
Anyway, for the uninitiated, Americanafest is an almost surreal experience in terms of show-going. In short, every music "club" (i.e.: not honky tonks or Bridgestone) is fair game, including ones that are otherwise closed or underutilized during the rest of the year - looking at you, The Anchor - and on any given night, five acts that you'd be interested in seeing could be in use. So in that sense, it kind of becomes a music fan's version of some dystopian young adult novel with regard to the notion of choosing whether or not you'd be willing to skip Iron & Wine for Hiss Golden Messenger in order to be in attendance for the entirety of Blank Range's set (that was an actual dilemma for the writer).
So now that the scene has been set for Americanafest 2017, if the reader (you) would indulge the writer (me), now would be the moment in which some opining will occur. Americanafest is a particularly enthralling experience, if I do say so myself. Going from The Anchor to Mercy Lounge to Cobra to Third Man Records in order to see Darlingside, Sam Outlaw, Cale Tyson, Hiss Golden Messenger, and Blank Range respectively is nothing short of Baby Driver-esque. Attempting to weave in and out of traffic (but in a safe manner - hi mom!) just to see fifteen minutes of set can be surprisingly invigorating.
While driving perilously in and out of the downtown and East side locales can be just as much of a draw as the showcases, music comes first and foremost. There were plenty of acts that I managed to see and in turn became blown away by as well as some absolutely pleasant surprises. Gun to my head and my only saving grace being a top three list (I hate listicles) of my favorite sets from the fest would be as follows (in no particular order) -
First and foremost, Zephaniah Ohora at Mercy Lounge, due in large part to his excellent debut LP This Highway and the dancehall dynamic of his Americanafest set, which became something more akin to a scene out of Urban Cowboy instead of Nashville. All in all, a near transportive set that harkened back to the Nashville of the late 70s, when honky tonk culture was still a fledgling counter culture. If that's a sign of what's to come with Zephaniah Ohora's future iterations, then you're damn right I'll be at the front of the line, ready and waiting.
Second would be none other than Now/It's interview alum, Lydia Luce. As referenced in her interview, Luce had the distinct pleasure of performing at the legendary Station Inn (another venue that's criminally underutilized throughout the rest of the year). Full disclosure, I was not fully familiar with Luce's oeuvre of work outside of her 2015 EP The Tides in addition to her string work alongside Sam Outlaw and Peter Bradley Adams. In short, the tunes Luce has in the can for her upcoming release are nothing short of captivating - "Helen" as referenced in her interview is a new personal favorite.
And finally, the third set that stuck with me from Americanafest was Doug Seegers. You might not be familiar with the name, and that's totally fair, because he's only been making music for the better part of the past four years. Pretty standard, right? Well, there's one small detail that remains (purposefully) absent - Seegers is well into his sixties, and making some of the best country music out there. If anything, he's well on his way to becoming the Charles Bradley (get well soon!) of country music. Songs about drug afflicted lovers and some killer melodies to boot, Doug Seegers was by far and away my best discovery of Americanafest 2017.
So with all that to be said, there were plenty of other sets that would have easily made their way into a top ten had I felt so inclined - The Deep Dark Woods, Blank Range, Becca Mancari, Forlorn Strangers, Michaela Anne, Zach Schmidt - the list could go on and on. But after spending time with a much older crowd (average Americanafest goer is somewhere north of 45 years young) into the wee hours of the morning, it's nice to find some respite. Then again, there's always something going on here in town, and before you know it, Americanafest 2018 will be here once again.