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.

5. HIT: Who’s No.  1? Sierra Ferrell, Hogslop String Band

3rd and Lindsley, Friday, 24 September

Anyone who was inside these comfy confines that serve a mighty fine southwest burger saw the future of Americana staring them down from the stage. Yet this act wasn’t a bunch of good ol’ boys who try to intimidate elderly customers out of their chairs and onto the dance floor (though a couple of old-timers did manage to cut a rug quite nicely without provocation). 

No, the winner in this battle for supremacy while orbiting outside the authentic country-western world wears a furry hat, face tattoos, and prominent nose ring, originally hailing from a small town in West Virginia. She may look like a precocious kid, but Sierra Ferrell has the heart, soul, and voice of a seasoned country queen, and her old-timey but fresh-as-a-daisy songs are guaranteed to make you bend a knee. Barely a month after releasing her Rounder Records debut, Long Time Coming, Ferrell held the enchanted crowd in the palm of her hands by warbling original tunes she wrote, starting with “Bells of Every Chapel”. 

Sierra Ferrell
Photo: Michael Bialas

Following up with others such as “Give It Time”, “At the End of the Rainbow”, and “West Virginia Waltz”, Ferrell was in total command as the leader of this late-night serenade parade. The joint was so sultry that by the end of the third song “Why’d Ya Do It”, the quirky musician who plays a toy piano and saw on Long Time Coming, brought attention to that fashionable but impractical accessory on her head. Admitting she felt “a little warm” and “I didn’t think this through,” the latter observation drew the biggest laughs of the set, endearing her to the crowd even more if that was possible. 

Sierra Ferrell
Photo: Michael Bialas

She certainly made the audience forget about the men-behaving-badly group that preceded her only hours before. While Nashville’s Hogslop String Band brought energy and musicality — along with a fine Grateful Dead cover (“New Speedway Boogie”) — to the stage reminiscent of outfits like Old Crow Medicine Show, Trampled by Turtles, and the HillBenders, their novelty act soon wore off. A slap-happy, beer-guzzling, bass-humping guy who goes by the name of Pickle amused for a bit. But brawny frontman Gabriel Kelley might not have been joking when he warned to steer clear because, “There are some rashes that don’t go away, folks.” 

Pickle’s antics grew tiresome when he delivered a fake karate kick a bit too close to the head of a photographer at the front of the stage. Kelley tried to win over the crowd by yelling and screaming when he wasn’t playing the guitar or harmonica yet made an insightful comment about halfway through their set. “We’ve been pickin’ and grinnin’ for quite a while, and for some reason, Americana decided they wanted to call this Americana. Hey, why the fuck not, y’all,” he exclaimed. “Who knows what it means anyway. But we’re here, and we’re happy to be playing music. Really, all it’s about is playing music from your heart and that you mean what you say and it’s medicine. Right?” 

Hogslop String Band
Photo: Michael Bialas

That’s right. So maybe they’ll learn a thing or two from Sierra Ferrell and let their music do the talking. She wins my award for Best of the Fest Showcase of 2021. My personal list of runners-up include: 

2. Ida Mae (Mercy Lounge, Thursday, 23 September)

3. Maggie Rose (though this was the Under the Sun event before her Saturday, 25 September showcase at Cannery Ballroom)

4. Suzanne Santo (Cannery Ballroom, Thursday, 23 September and Under the Sun)

5. Jackson+Sellers (Cannery Ballroom, Thursday, 23 September)

6. (tie) Lilly Winwood (Exit/In) and Lilly Hiatt (Basement East), both on Saturday, 25 September

7. Rodney Crowell (3rd and Lindsley), Saturday, 25 September

8. Jim Lauderdale (replacing Teddy Thompson)  & Jenni Muldaur (3rd and Lindsley), Friday, 24 September

Hogslop Swing Band
Photo: Michael Bialas

6. HIT AND MISS: Entertaining During a Self-Quarantine Upstairs – Rodney Crowell

3rd and Lindsley, Saturday, 25 September

It was no surprise that Rodney Crowell packed 3rd and Lindsley the next night as AmericanaFest was coming to a close. The veteran singer-songwriter, a two-time Grammy winner and AMA Lifetime Achievement honoree who runs a ship as tight as his band’s harmonies, closed the awards ceremony on Wednesday with a moving tribute to the Everly Brothers, singing “Let It Be Me” with Emmylou Harris before wrapping up with a verse of “Bye Bye Love”. 

On Saturday, he sang numbers from Triage, the July release that’s the 18th album of the 70-year-old’s prolific career. After surviving a scary health experience last October, Crowell told Billboard magazine about the crisis and how the pandemic has changed him. 

Rodney Crowell
Photo: Michael Bialas

“I jokingly said in the beginning about social distancing, I’m a songwriter,” Crowell offered. “I’ve been social distancing for 45 years. I’m mostly introverted, but I do get on stages and play for people and try to entertain them with how funny and witty I can be so there’s an extroversion there, but I’ve known for a long time that without a song it’s not going to happen. It all starts with a song, and my songwriting comes from this introverted part of myself.” 

Now following health and safety protocols at festivals and showcases is certainly important, but in a jam-packed venue were few seats were to be found before Crowell came on stage, one female attendee sitting upstairs took the pandemic aftermath a bit too seriously. 

Positioned at a high table, the mask-wearing woman surrounded herself with at least four empty stools, refusing to let anyone use those open seats so she could maintain social distancing. Though no one openly complained or asked for a waiter or manager to rectify the problem, it was difficult to tell which act she was enjoying more — watching Crowell perform or holding those chairs hostage.

Rodney Crowell band
Photo: Michael Bialas