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.

7. HIT: Lillys of the Field – Lilly Winwood / Lilly Hiatt

Exit/In / Basement East, Saturday, 25 September

The stars must have aligned perfectly to catch this double billing that (probably?) was unintentional. Otherwise, they would have played back to back in the same venue instead of making curiosity seekers take the four-mile drive to see two artists making it on their own who just happen to be daughters of music legends. Besides, I was eager to finally check out for the first time a couple of Nashville’s most recognized music clubs. 

Lilly Hiatt
Lilly Hiatt / Photo: Michael Bialas

Both the artists and the clubs exceeded my expectations. Though we missed the start of each showcase, the mad dash to try and get there on time was certainly worth the effort. Winwood, the daughter of Steve Winwood (the English multi-instrumentalist with the Ray Charles-like voice who I’ve adored since his days with Traffic and Blind Faith), has found a home in East Nashville. In January, she released her debut album (Time Well Spent), so watching her perform songs that are just a little bit country like “Whiskey” and “California” was a treat. An added bonus — besides Winwood’s 26th birthday celebration — was when she brought out LadyCouch co-founder Keshia Bailey for “Few More Records”, an early single with its music video making its way onto CMT Edge. Their collaborations (LadyCouch’s Allen Thompson later joined them) seemed as natural as Winwood’s dreamy voice. 

Lilly Winwood and LadyCouch's Keshia Bailey
Lilly Winwood and LadyCouch’s Keshia Bailey / Photo: Michael Bialas

On the other hand, if Americana likes it rough and tough, Nashville’s Lilly Hiatt will deliver. The daughter of veteran roots artist John Hiatt is nearing the 15 October release of Lately, the new album she co-produced with her drummer Kate Haldrup. Two early songs — “Imposter” and “Drawl” — were actually lovely, her voice having a lilting quality with a touch of Cowboy Junkies’ Margo Timmins. 

“I didn’t have much to do last year other than, you know, ponder much and write a bunch of songs and try to keep myself safe,” Hiatt told the crowd early on. “So anyway, the point of that being I have a new album coming out in a couple of weeks, and it’s gonna be fun!” 

“Been”, a mid-tempo number, was the first Lately song I heard Hiatt and her three-piece band play before she and her Rickenbacker rocked out. “The Night David Bowie Died” and “Everything I Had” from 2017’s Trinity Lane and “Never Play Guitar”, “Little Believer” and “Brightest Star”  from 2020’s Walking Proof closed her night on what proved to be a Hiatt note. 

Lilly Winwood
Lilly Winwood / Photo: Michael Bialas

8. BIG MISS: That Damn Pandemic

With vaccination debates and mask mandates still prominently figuring into daily lives, COVID-19 remains an issue that we can’t shake. AmericanaFest 2021 certainly took a hit. Some notable musicians stayed away, but others like Amy Helm, Emma Swift, Dar Williams, and Jillette Johnson fell off the roster after originally committing to the event. The fact that Tennessee led the country in new COVID-19 cases per capita in mid-September certainly didn’t help matters. 

“We had several people withdraw from the event for a variety of reasons, we usually have a significant international presence and the pandemic made that nearly impossible,” Hilly offered. “But by and large, there were very few problems. … I think the fact that we announced our protocols a month out gave most folks time to adjust. Everyone was very cooperative and seemed totally fine and some were relieved that we were taking it so seriously.”

Club signs
Photo: Michael Bialas

While a few artists mysteriously disappeared from the lineup, massive crowds didn’t appear to gather either. There were many empty seats for the awards show this year, whereas at my first AmericanaFest in 2014, finding an extra ticket was next to impossible unless you were lucky or wanted to pay a scalper. 

This year, though, AmericanaFest organizers were scrambling to find replacements for artists who dropped out, for whatever reason. “We had anticipated issues back in April but didn’t know there would be a variant, but we did know it would be different by the fall,” Hilly shared in his email. “Back in April, we had decided to reduce the number of artists from 320 in 2019 to a number closer to 240 this year. 

“Reducing the footprint of performances helped us out, and with more than 1,500 acts having applied for a showcase, we had a pretty solid waiting list.  Sarah Comardelle, our festival producer, did an amazing job to fill the slots, but she also was working well past midnight for weeks leading up to the festival.”

Christian Lopez
Christian Lopez / Photo: Michael Bialas

Managing to find acts like Sam Williams, Lydia Luce, and Roanoke to help fill some empty spaces, there still were primary venues with previously scheduled artists that weren’t jammed for showcases. Which might have been a good thing for all concerned. The only long lines I witnessed were outside the Cannery, and that seemed to involve any vaccinated attendees who didn’t register in advance for a Health Check wristband, which was available at nine of the showcase venues. One wristband was all it took to gain admittance to every showcase throughout the week. That was unlike the harried situation created at this year’s Telluride Film Festival, where single ticket-holders were required to show proof of vaccination and a negative COVID-19 test within 72 hours to get a different-colored wristband each day. 

With fewer fans, though, some artists missed out on a show of support they otherwise might have received. Among the final acts to perform at AmericanaFest 2021 were singer-songwriters Kashena Sampson (on City Winery’s main stage) and Christian Lopez (in the venue’s upstairs lounge). Not that it mattered who played the bigger room. It was a sad sight to see Sampson performing in front of about a dozen people, while West Virginia native Lopez, with friends and family in town, probably doubled that amount. 

Hopefully, they won’t be discouraged by the low turnout. There’s always next year for these talented artists, and all of them deserve to be heard. 

Kashena Sampson
Kashena Sampson / Photo: Michael Bialas

Check back for more AmericanaFest coverage next week at PopMatters. Previous articles featured artists who performed from September 22-25, including Natalie Hemby, Rachel Baiman and Joshua Radin. Other musicians at the event who were profiled here this year include Maggie Rose, Ida Mae, Suzanne Santo, and Desert Hollow