Now in its 20th year, the 2019 AmericanaFest was the biggest yet, with legendary artists like Tanya Tucker, Wynonna and Sheryl Crow and and rising stars like Yola and Kelsey Waldon packing out intimate Nashville venues. From showcases in swanky hotel bars and rooftops and neighborhood backyards to the star-studded Americana Awards and Honors ceremony in Nashville's historic Ryman Auditorium, here are our favorite moments from the 2019 AmericanaFest.
Sheryl Crow and Friends
My first ever AmericanaFest event wasn't headlined by an alt-country twangster or an up-and-coming singer-songwriter. Instead, one of the last rock stars standing wowed die-hard fans with signature tunes plus a handful of selections from recent duets album Threads. As for her friends, Sheryl Crow recruited Jade Bird to help sing 1996 hit "Change" and blew everyone in the Cannery Ballroom's collective mind with two songs featuring the iconic voice and impeccable guitar picking of Bonnie Raitt.
-- Bobby Moore
John C. Reilly and Andrew Bird
At first, this might read like a novelty. After all, it's Step Brothers meets Squirrel Nut Zippers during a Thursday afternoon showcase at The Ainsworth. Yet when these two multi-talented lovers of pre-War folk tunes played and sang selections from the Carter Family songbook and the church hymnal, it made for a seriously great set. The duo upped the ante later that evening by performing a few songs at Third Man Records with Margo Price.
Tanya Tucker got her flowers now, as requested on new album While I'm Livin', while serving as multiple events' deserved guest of honor. Among these was Friday afternoon's Q&A session at the Country Music Hall of Fame, hosted by Elizabeth Cook for SiriusXM's Outlaw Country channel. During the event, attendees learned about Tucker's friendship with Elvis Presley, her confusion over why anyone would call her a "bad girl" and her reasons for dismissing 1978's Grammy-nominated TNT album as one of her worst releases. As a bonus, the audience watched as Tucker's ever-present bulldog Stella tried to chew on a microphone stand before wandering backstage.
Foy Vance and Keith Urban
Keith Urban's live performance of Foy Vance's "Burden" during the ACM Awards broadcast in April introduced Vance's already respected work to a mainstream audience. On Friday night at the Cannery Ballroom, Urban stepped away from the bright lights of stardom long enough to appear during Vance's set as a guest guitarist and vocalist during the song that intertwines their careers. Although the team-up made perfect sense, it was still surreal to see the reigning CMA and ACM Entertainer of the Year perform during AmericanaFest.
The War and Treaty and Della Mae
The same Thursday showcase featuring John C. Reilly and Andrew Bird began with a collaboration between two of Americana's brightest young acts. The War and Treaty's soul, gospel and classic pop tendencies blended well with bluegrass ensemble Della Mae's forward-thinking use of traditional instrumentation. The highlight came when the two groups met at the proverbial church house for funeral song turned feel-good roots music standard "Will the Circle Be Unbroken."
The day after she took home the Artist of the Year award at the Americana Awards and Honors ceremony, Brandi Carlile sat down with Tracy Gershon of Change the Conversation to discuss The Highwomen, performing with Dolly Parton and producing the upcoming album by the Secret Sisters. The lack of women played on country radio was a central topic of discussion, leading Carlile to sum up the importance of representation on radio so perfectly it should be typed up and sent to anyone who says radio doesn't matter and any program director still repeating the decades old lie that women don't want to listen to other women.
"It's how so many of us find our identity," Carlile said. "It's how I found my identity as a poor person living in rural America with parents who only let me listen to country music at a certain point in my life. So I'm 9 or 10 -- I'm only allowed to listen to country music and I have LeAnn Rimes, I have the Dixie Chicks, Pam Tillis, Patty Loveless and Lorrie Morgan. I have the greats: I have Patsy Cline and Kitty Wells and Loretta Lynn, Tanya Tucker. I've got so many women telling my story and I'm trying to picture a 9 or 10 year old girl right now in rural America who's only allowed to listen to that country radio station...and only every hour to hour and a half can she hear a song that's not about blue jeans, boobs and beer and trucks and backroads. What does that say to her about her life? That's not a small problem."
Insert that .gif of Meryl Streep clapping here and thank the heavens for Brandi Carlile.
-- Bobbie Jean Sawyer
New Zealand-based artist Tami Neilson is a force to be reckoned with. She proved that yet again during her showcase at the True Music Room at Cambria Hotel, where she strutted on stage in a rhinestoned dress designed like a box of Black Cat firecrackers -- a nod to what's to come. Neilson kicked off her set with the empowerment anthem "Big Boss Mama" and new single "Hey Bus Driver" and had the audience dancing in front of the stage in no time. But the highlight had to be her powerhouse cover of James Brown's "It's a Man's World," which Neilson transformed into a feminist anthem for the ages. "Women wrote the code that took the man to the moon/ It was a woman who made a little thing called computer software too," Neilson sang. "And it was a woman who discovered stem cell isolation/ Over in New Zealand we got a Prime Minister who just had a baby girl while she's running the whole damn nation."
-- Bobbie Jean Sawyer
The mysterious masked cowboy, Orville Peck, rode into town for his showcase at the High Watt, which drew a packed crowd of cowpokes, cowpunks and everyone in between. He was probably the only artist at AmericanaFest to perform in a fringed face mask and certainly the only artist to be featured on the cover of British GQ this week, but even without those two distinctions, Peck would still be the talk of Music City for his electrifying, all too-short 45 minute set. Decked out in a Nudie suit fit for Porter Wagoner, Peck captivated the crowd with the sultry crooner "Roses Are Falling," the thunderous "Big Sky" and more from his stellar debut album Pony before launching into Emmylou Harris and Gram Parson's "Ooh Las Vegas." Like Parsons, Peck thrives when he's out with the truckers, kickers and cowboy angels -- and anyone else who's wise enough to pay attention.
-- Bobbie Jean Sawyer
The hip hop/ bluegrass outfit Gangstagrass first rose to fame as the creators and performers of the theme song to the FX series Justified. Fittingly, the group commanded the stage with more swagger than the neo-Western series' quickdraw U.S. Marshal protagonist. Group members Rench (guitar/ vocals), Dan Whitener (banjo/ vocals), Brian Farrow (fiddle), R-Son The Voice of Reason (vocals) and Dolio The Sleuth (vocals) burned down the proverbial barn with tracks from their 2019 album Pocket Full of Fire. "Hip Hop is Americana -- don't get it twisted," one member of the group said from the stage. We'll toast a Mason jar full of Mags Bennett's apple pie moonshine to that.
Wynonna and Cass McCombs
Anyone who doubts Wynonna's ability to do anything she pleases is a damn fool. Case in point: the country queen has started a new duo with singer-songwriter and label mate Cass McCombs. As the Frothy Pit, Wynonna and McCombs traded off lead vocals on bluesy originals, covers (The Grateful Dead's "Ramble On Rose") and even The Judds' timeless catalog. Wynonna beamed as McCombs took the lead on the 1984 hit with mama Naomi, "Why Not Me," and the duo closed out the show with an incredible audience singalong of Wynonna's solo 1992 masterpiece "No One Else on Earth." "That shit is gospel!" one crowd member exclaimed as the final notes rang out. Truer words have never been spoken.
Mike and the Moonpies
There wasn't much room to dance at Mike and the Moonpies' standing room only showcase at the High Watt, but that didn't stop everyone in attendance from attempting to mini-two-step to "Beaches of Biloxi" and "Steak Night at the Prairie Rose." The Texas band also treated the crowd to a taste of their recently released Cheap Silver and Solid Country Gold with the badass groover "Danger." In true Nashville fashion, folkies, hipsters and outlaws all came together for the Moonpies' hard core honkytonk.
John Prine and Bonnie Raitt at The Americana Awards and Honors Ceremony
One of the best moments of the entire festival was a complete surprise. Following his win for Album of the Year for The Tree of Forgiveness, John Prine took the stage with Bonnie Raitt. "Do you know this one, Bonnie?" Prine asked before launching into "Angel From Montgomery," which Raitt famously covered on her 1974 album Streetlights. Forty-eight years after it was written, Prine's words about a lonely wife longing for connection still have the power to chill you to the bone. Seeing Prine perform it with Raitt, who embodies the spirit of Americana like few others, is not something those lucky enough to witness it will soon forget.