Bluegrass took stage front and center at this year’s 20th annual AmericanaFest. Granted, there’s no shortage of different genres represented under that wide umbrella, but it was a bluegrass legacy that seemed to shine throughout.
That was evident practically from the outset when the Legacy of Americana Award was accorded Rhiannon Giddens and African American musical pioneer, Frank Johnson, during the festival’s signature event, the Americana Music Honors & Awards ceremony held at the church of country music, Nashville’s venerable Ryman Auditorium. There were any number of spotlight performances and special honors accorded that evening, but it was that tribute to African Americans’ contributions to the seminal sounds of American music, from the days of slavery to modern times, that resonated with such relevance and resolve.
Bluegrass also made its mark on the series of showcases and events that followed throughout the week. Several record labels were given opportunity to showcase their artist rosters, and as a result, the vibrance and variety of today’s bluegrass auteurs was especially evident. During their gathering, Rounder Records made a point of pairing its artists for a series of one of a kind performances which proved especially inspired. The War and Treaty teamed with Della Mae, Béla Fleck joined Billy Strings, and Andrew Bird accompanied actor/musician John C. Reilly.
“It’s all about digging deep into the emotion,” Reilly remarked at one point when talking about his inspiration for exploring American traditional music, bluegrass included.
Likewise, Compass Records did a typically fine job of presenting their artists at Hillbillies and Hot Dogs, a popular annual event held at their offices and studio. Although both space and time were limited, the performances by The Small Glories, Rob Ickes & Trey Hensley, Old Salt Union, Laura Cortese and the Dance Cards, Steve Poltz, and Molly Tuttle were wholly entertaining to say the very least.
Even those artists that normally don’t veer towards bluegrass found cause to embrace it. Buddy Miller’s band included renowned fiddler Stuart Duncan and multi-instrumentalist Dirk Powell, who gave a tender performance of a song written with George Harrison’s widow, Olivia. It was impressive as well when Rhiannon Giddens joined the ensemble onstage for a touching take on Miller’s classic ballad, Wide River to Cross. Likewise, when Maria Muldaur, another honoree at the awards ceremony a few days before, came onstage with her daughter, Jenni, to sing Dolly Parton’s, My Tennessee Mountain Home, it proved a moment to remember.
That said, the Gibson Brothers showed how adeptly they’ve been able when it comes to varying their template in recent years. Performing an intimate set in the cavernous Cannery Ballroom, the band eschewed typical bluegrass trappings in favor of a revved up, roots rock performance that found them tackling such standards as These Days by Jackson Browne, and the old country chestnut, Is Anybody Goin’ To San Antone, famously recorded by Doug Sahm backed by Bob Dylan in 1973. Their set was the start of an entire evening borne from bluegrass, one that included electrifying sets from Della Mae and the Travelin’ McCourys as the evening went on.
Still, one of the most remarkable encounters took place well off stage. Rhiannon Giddens, Dirk Powell, and Mark O’Connor were found engaged in an impromptu jam on the back stoop of Nashville’s Station Inn following O’Connor’s performance earlier that evening.
Still, it wasn’t all about the better known artists. New acts such as The Ghost of Paul Revere, Rising Appalachia, Roanoke, Sierra Hull, Logan Ledger, and Dee White enticed those unaware by making their own bids to be named best emerging talent at next year’s Americana Music honors and award show.
Still, with so many excellent artists appearing at such a vast number of venues, it was clearly impossible to catch everyone there was to see. It takes pacing and planning to effectively make it through AmericanaFest without succumbing to the stress and regrets that every artist one wanted to see couldn’t be caught, even in the span of six nonstop days of ongoing activity. Even those who wanted to focus only on the bluegrass acts found it difficult to keep pace.
Credit the music’s energy and enthusiasm to sustain one’s stamina. Even in the midst of such diversity, the inspiration rallied the faithful and ultimately held sway.