If asked to describe the admittedly capacious genre of “Americana music”, most folks would likely conjure any or all of the following: the sounds of softly plucked acoustic guitar strings; lyrics about leaving home, coming home, and/or trains, rivers, and penitentiaries; the ubiquitous twang of a banjo; and the occasional ballast of an upright bass. During the six-day Americana Music Festival and Conference in Nashville each year, these sonic signifiers float through the air of most venues, be they record stores like Grimey’s or the Groove, dives like the Basement, or upmarket NPR-friendly establishments like the Listening Room or City Winery. If you do some research and choose your itinerary wisely, however, you’ll be pleased to find shocks of unfamiliarity abounding amidst the beards and banjos: a jazz arrangement here, a squeezebox solo there, a donkey jawbone played percussively, or a chest-tightening moment of lyrical confession.
This writer spent the weekend hoofing it across Nashville in comfortable boots (in addition to the occasional Uber ride), explicitly seeking out new, often unsigned artists whose available tunes on Spotify demanded to be seen and heard live. In addition to well-known headliners including Lee Ann Womack, Patti Griffin, and the Dave Rawlings Machine, a slate of up-and-comers lingered in the ear drums and continued to pull on the heartstrings long after the festival’s closing night. Since it was impossible to narrow the field to ten favorites, you can check out a more expansive Spotify playlist below. In the mean time, here are some unquestionable standouts ready to receive your love and affection—and in certain cases, if you happen to own a record label, your next recording contract.
1. John Moreland
Rarely do artists playing 40-minute festival sets return for an encore, but when Oklahoma singer-songwriter John Moreland walked off the Mercy Lounge stage for the first time, the packed late-night crowd wouldn’t settle down without hearing more from him. A former denizen of the Tulsa and Oklahoma City hardcore scenes, Moreland writes lyrics with an efficiency that cuts to the quick and plays guitar with steady power, plucking his strings almost percussively as if each note still needed to rise above the maelstrom of a plugged-in backing band. Using the most basic musical toolkit there is—an acoustic guitar, a half-dozen chords per song, and unflinching emotional honesty—Moreland had multiple audience members visibly wiping their eyes after songs like “You Don’t Care for Me Enough to Cry” and “Break My Heart Sweetly.” Watching him play live feels like a devotional exercise, dedicated not so much to Moreland himself but rather to the rends and rips that all of our hearts bear, and to one human’s ability to bring them right up to the surface. Start with Moreland’s spare folk album In the Throes, graduate to his more filled-out 2015 release High on Tulsa Heat, catch him live somewhere, and get ready to bleed a little.
2. The Wild Reeds
Off the bat I’ll show my hand and admit that few bands fit more snugly into my personal wheelhouse than the Wild Reeds do: the band includes three women singing gracefully in harmony, songwriting that reflects each member’s singular perspective, ample switching between instruments, and dynamic shifts happening within any given song. That said, the Wild Reeds check these boxes with a kind of ferocious glee, clearly stoked to be unspooling the complex ideas that have lived inside their heads and their rehearsal rooms before a crowd of new listeners. From the slowly building “Let No Grief” to the triumphant kiss-off “Where I’m Going,” the Wild Reeds sent bolts of lightening through the Basement bar, making new fans of smiling audience members hanging on every harmonized note.
3. Madisen Ward and the Mama Bear
As its name suggests, Madisen Ward and the Mama Bear is a family affair, composed of Ruth Ward, a longtime songwriter and performer, and her youngest son Madisen, who mainly sings lead and complements his mom’s guitar picking like a dutiful yet appropriately boundary-testing son. Following their performance at Americana Fest last year, the duo garnered media attention and cut a deal with Glassnote Records, but even if you’ve heard their recorded tunes before, you’ll likely be blown away by the power and range of their live show. “Silent Movies” prances along at a front-porch clip, while gospel-derived “Sorrows and Woes” slows down to showcase Madisen’s robust vibrato and Ruth’s lilting accompaniment. Mother-song bonding has rarely sounded this good: the duo writes and plays with clear reverence for their shared history, but also with the carefree delight that springs from creating music with the person whom each knows best in the world.
4. My Bubba
When Swedish/Icelandic duo My Bubba plays live, its audience leans in close. The aesthetic is quietude, stillness: nearly whispered vocals, careful guitar and antique zither plucking, and lyrics wherein boats, slit throats, and knitting can coexist eerily in a verse. My Larsdotter Lucas (“My”, pronounced “me”) and Guðbjörg Tómasdóttir (“Bubba”) sound like a single voice split in two, so seamless are their harmonies and musical sensibilities; their song “Dogs Laying Around Playing” consists of doubled vocals layered above a stomped/slapped beat that they create with their hands and feet moving in tandem. Their album Goes Abroader, produced by Noah Georgeson, works equally well as a soundtrack for fireside snuggling or as a rich poetic text worthy of careful and sustained study.
5. Lewis and Leigh
When beloved folk duo the Civil Wars self-combusted in 2014, a vacuum opened up in the space previously filled by that band’s tight harmonies and potent onstage chemistry. Lewis and Leigh, comprised of Welshman Al Lewis and Mississippian Alva Leigh, possess an early history that’s strangely similar to the Civil Wars’: they met at a songwriting session, felt an immediate symbiosis take hold, and, as they say onstage, “the rest was history”. Lewis and Leigh’s cross-cultural collaboration draws variously on British neo-folk and Southern blues traditions, fusing two musical origin points that nonetheless share a lot of common real estate. They introduce “Rubble” as “a song about where we’re both from”. While those locations may be continents apart, their common characteristics, like the duo’s musical stylings, suggest that onstage, together, is the destination they were both always meant to reach.