On the drive down through the hills on the way to the Austin City Limits Festival, I was reflecting how satisfying it would be to see young guitar slinger Gary Clark, Jr. ride back into his hometown, triumphant in front of 75,000 or so, and take his rightful seat as the new king of the blues. To be honest, it’s been too long since a young, preternaturally talented African American blues guitar player reclaimed that title.
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.
Andy Shauf‘s most recent album The Bearer of Bad News was released in his home country of Canada in 2012. Yet it was only released in the United States this year. I first heard it ahead of Newport Folk Festival and I immediately recalled the music of Elliot Smith and Nick Drake. Almost the entirety of the album is depressing, but his songs and stories are well crafted. Shauf created Bearer with his modest means, in his own home.
During his set at Newport, Shauf admitted that most of the songs on the album were kind of “downers” before he did one of the happier tunes. While that one ended up receiving a lot of applause, the entirety of his solo set was enjoyable. People raptly listened, sad tunes and all. Afterwards, PopMatters had a chance to speak with Shauf about his songwriting and recording processes after his Newport set, learning a little about this modest musician from Canada.
José González is an indie singer-songwriter from Sweden and, with the release of his first proper album Veneer in 2003, he found a lot of fans, particularly as his songs “Crosses” and his cover of the Knife’s “Heartbeat” got a lot of buzz. The album was successful enough that he ended up not following through with his pursuit of a PhD and he has continued to work on a variety of musical projects since then, most recently another solo release, 2015’s Vestiges & Claws. I’ve followed his musical career since that album and, having seen him perform a couple of times in the past year, was looking forward to his Newport set.
Unfortunately, his Harbor stage slot on Saturday 25 July conflicted with Sufjan Stevens on the Fort stage so I knew I couldn’t see it all of González’s performance. But I did get over in time to watch him perform “Line of Fire”, a song he did with Junip, and one of Vestiges’ singles, “Open Book”. The next day, it turned out he was to do a surprise set at a corporate sponsored stage but I arrived there to find a large crowd already spilling out of a small room. I could neither see him nor hear his delicate music very well in part due to louder music from the Quad Stage. The two Newport sets were more intimate than the two recent performances I saw of his in New York, so it would have been a treat to see them entirely. But fortunately, I had spotted González lingering back stage (and talking with Jon Batiste at one point) and had arranged to speak with him about his various musical interests, projects and his birthday show last year.
A rare live performance from UK electronic duo Basement Jaxx, packed in as much wild fun as they could before a 10pm curfew in Central Park. Apparently the band hadn’t performed live in New York for at least ten years (though they have come around for a DJ set at least). But unfortunately, for whatever reason, three openers (Fei Fei, Masters at Work and the Internet) were allotted time before Basement Jaxx, cutting into what could have been a longer set from the duo. When they finally went on around 8:45, Basement Jaxx had the crowd going crazy (one woman in the front row wore a unicorn horn). But for all the craziness offstage, there was more on stage, with outlandish costumes (including multiple gorillas at the end) and multiple kinds of dancers (including a ballerina) instead of the standard, trippy projected visuals other acts use.