BRANDI CARLILE / Photo: Jason Kempin / Getty Images for Americana Music Association

Eight AmericanaFest Best (and Not So Great) Moments

There were hits and misses at AmericanaFest 2021 in Nashville, but organizers made a valiant effort to ensure the festival allowed us to hear live music again.

Every music festival has its hits and misses. AmericanaFest 2021 is not exempt from that line of thinking. The idea — as in baseball — is to make contact more often than not, but in that sport, batting 1-for-3 is better than average. An event that proposes to bring 240 of the best roots music acts in the business can’t afford the luxury of striking out twice in three at-bats. While Nashville’s AmericanaFest was missing a few heavy hitters in its lineup this year, there were some power players who connected with the fans. 

Pulling off an event of this magnitude in the aftermath of COVID-19 (is it over yet?) is quite a challenge, and the Americana Music Association should pat itself on the back for making the situation safe for music lovers who followed the guidelines and wore masks when required. 

Some success must be celebrated, though Jed Hilly, Executive Director of the Americana Music Association, isn’t ready to assess the economic impact just yet. He’s probably breathing a sigh of relief after pulling off this event without any major problems. “Honestly, I haven’t thought about attendance figures compared to previous years,” Hilly wrote in an email response to several questions on Thursday. “No question we were down, but our focus relating to attendance wasn’t about numbers, rather how to keep folks safe.”

He also admits later in the email, “Producing AmericanaFest this year was the most stressful of my tenure. Right now I’m just hoping folks are staying safe and remain healthy. I was literally sick to my stomach in fear that someone might get sick. “So far the reviews and responses have been positive, and I’ve never gotten so many “Thank You’s” from attendees, grateful for bringing the community back together. I know we could have done some things better, but I’m hopeful that we have offered other producers, artists, and venue owners a roadmap for returning to music safely.”

Let’s stay in this positive vein (at least for a moment) while keeping in mind that for every hot streak, there’s often a brutal slump waiting to happen.

1. BIG HIT: Americana Honors & Awards Show

Wednesday, 22 September, Ryman Auditorium

Some artists I chatted with during the week admitted they didn’t attend Wednesday’s bash, with one preferring to watch the live broadcast from City Winery, which held the official viewing party, rather than “sit three hours on a wooden church pew.”

The overall presentation occasionally dragged a bit, but it held my interest throughout, especially the live performances. Songs by Artist of the Year Brandi Carlile (recent single “Right on Time” was goosebump-inducing) and Lifetime Achievement honoree the Fisk Jubilee Singers (“I Believe”) were among the highlights. The warm tribute by Carlile, Amanda Shires, and Margo Price on “I Remember Everything” in memory of the late John Prine (with his wife Fiona Whelan in attendance) was especially touching. 

VALERIE JUNE, CARLA THOMAS, VANEESE THOMAS / Photo: Jason Kempin / Getty Images for Americana Music Association

Other fantastic collaborating performances included Shires with husband Jason Isbell, Valerie June with Lifetime Achievement honoree Carla Thomas and the Highwomen with Yola. The house band directed by Buddy Miller was impressive, too, starting with a wonderful warm-up cover of the Rolling Stones’ “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking” sung by Aaron Lee Tasjan

Since none of the choices on my nomination ballot were winners (maybe next year, best artist nominee Kathleen Edwards?), I couldn’t get too pumped up. But moments like the speech Americana Award-winning producer Tony Brown made in presenting the Lifetime Trailblazer Award to Raul Malo and his Mavericks’ bandmates were still enjoyable. Even the list of presenters included some cool names: Old Crow Medicine Show’s Ketch Secor, Sheryl Crow, and … actor Kiefer Sutherland? Since he played a showcase the next day at City Winery, I have to ask: What are the odds that he’ll win an Americana Award before an Academy Award? 

Tony Brown and Raul Malo
TONY BROWN AND RAUL MALO / Photo: Terry Wyatt / Getty Images for Americana Music Association

2. MISS: Brandi Carlile Interview, Album Preview

Thursday, 23 September, CMA Theater, Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum

While the Ryman show didn’t seem as long as its three-hour advertised slot, the coronation for the newly crowned Artist of the Year the next day seemed excruciatingly overbearing and underwhelming. Even for a singer-songwriter whose long list of accomplishments includes six Grammys and a No. 1 memoir on The New York Times’  best-selling list.  

Attendees not only were required to follow the usual proof of vaccination or negative COVID-19 test within 72 hours to gain admittance but also were subjected to having their phones secured in a personal Yondr pouch before the event, with access available only in “designated Phone Use Areas within the venue.”  Using it without following the proper guidelines meant taking the risk of getting tossed out of the facility by security. Practicing social distancing within the venue was also encouraged, though some brave souls took the chance to sit next to each other. 

Brandi Carlile screen
Photo: Michael Bialas

If the advertised one-hour time allotted for this event had been followed, all the required hoop jumping would have been worth it. But when NPR Music’s Ann Powers begins the “interview” with what seemed like a ten-minute soliloquy, all bets are off. 

Even a live performance of a song or two by Carlile from her new album In These Silent Days would have eased the pain. That, apparently, wasn’t considered. And when she mentioned battling “a very unfashionable, inconvenient non-COVID cold,” all hope was lost. Instead, the music video of the lead track “Right on Time”, which many of us already had seen this summer, played on the big screen in this beautiful theater. But then ticket-holders were subjected to watching Carlile and the collaborating pair of twin-brother bandmates Phil and Tim Hanseroth bob their heads and wiggle their crossed legs to the remaining nine songs from the album.

Though Carlile told a few entertaining stories, including getting Joni Mitchell’s reaction to the new album song “You and Me on the Rock”, another reunion with the Highwomen could have helped save the day. 

Photo: Michael Bialas