Ten Favorite Americana Music Festival Moments

Wanda Jackson, Dierks Bentley, Robert Plant, Avett Brothers Perform During Four-Day Event

The Americana Music Festival swept through Nashville last week with the Americana Music Association’s ninth annual Honors and Awards show at the Ryman Auditorium, numerous music showcases in crowded clubs, compelling Q&A sessions and quite a few networking opportunities. Still, it’s the roots-oriented music that our CMT.com writers have always enjoyed the most. In alphabetical order, here are 10 hand-picked highlights from the four-day event.

The Avett Brothers at the Americana Honors and Awards
The emotionally vulnerable Avett Brothers never shy away from an honest look into their own souls, but at the awards show, they placed that burden on every member of the audience as well. Performing “I and Love and You,” the title track from their 2009 album, they frankly asked the crowd why those three words can become so hard to say. As the song swelled and lulled with piano, cello and bass, I looked around to find more than a few people fighting back tears. The couple seated in front of me held each other tight and folks all around the Ryman — a former church — raised their heads to let the spirit flow through. Truly, the effect was similar to that of a sermon. I, for one, have proof that it was a moving experience. As I checked my notebook today, it seems that all I was able to write down about it was “YES!!!” — Chris Parton

Dierks Bentley at the Cannery
Dierks Bentley cut his chops in the Nashville clubs, so his appearance at the Cannery felt like a natural fit. Music from his bluegrass-influence album, Up on the Ridge, comprised the set’s first half before he branched out on a few hits and album cuts like “Good Things Happen.” The Americana crowd can be skeptical of mainstream country artists, yet I heard quite a few positive comments in the crowd — and certainly nobody was complaining when mandolin master Sam Bush came up to jam. — Craig Shelburne

Troy Cassar-Daley at the Rutledge
One of my Australian friends says that Troy Cassar-Daley may be the top country star there right now, and I can see why. His 45-minute set sounded like he drew from a Greatest Hits collection because every song struck me as a potential single in the U.S. His stories were brief and engaging, but his original songs, which are rooted in classic country, stuck with me all night. — Craig Shelburne

The Carolina Chocolate Drops at the Americana Honors and Awards
The excitement level at the awards show picked up dramatically when the Carolina Chocolate Drops took the stage. The three old-time musicians walked out with just a banjo and fiddle between them and delivered a foot-stomping wake-up call with “Hit ’Em Up Style,” a song made popular by R&B singer Blu Cantrell in 2001. With the slick club-thumping, girl-power anthem distilled down to its essential elements, singer and classically trained fiddler Rhiannon Giddens had all the space her gorgeous voice needed to soar to the back of the historic Ryman Auditorium. Justin Robinson delivered solid beat-boxing, while Dom Flemons chunked away on his banjo. The unexpected mix of old and new had the crowd on the edge of its collective seat, and aside from being an impressive display of artistic vision, the sound was incredible. It earned the first big standing ovation of the night. — Chris Parton

Mary Chapin Carpenter at the Sheraton Hotel
She didn’t sing, but Mary Chapin Carpenter did chat about her life and career during an insightful morning session. She briefly touched on politics with journalist Ken Paulson, yet she seemed most animated when fielding questions about learning to play guitar, working hard to have a country career and being as surprised as anybody when she actually scored some hits. — Craig Shelburne

Rosanne Cash at the Americana Honors and Awards
Plenty has been written about The List, Rosanne Cash’s album featuring songs deemed essential by her father, Johnny Cash. Bobbie Gentry’s 1967 hit, “Ode to Billie Joe,” wasn’t included on his list of 100 songs, but it fits into the concept quite nicely and has apparently become a highlight of Rosanne Cash’s concerts. There was eerie vibe to Gentry’s original recording, but Cash’s version at the awards show was even more mysterious, thanks in large part to the inspired solo accompaniment of her husband, guitarist John Leventhal. And while nobody is still 100 percent certain why Billie Joe jumped off that damn bridge, the mystery is perhaps now magnified because nobody’s really sure what happened to Bobbie Gentry, who’s made it a point to remain out of the spotlight for many years. In any event, Cash made the song her own at the Ryman. — Calvin Gilbert

Wanda Jackson at Mercy Lounge
After receiving a lifetime achievement award at the Americana Honors and Awards, 73-year-old Rock and Roll Hall of Fame member Wanda Jackson proved why she’s heralded as the queen of rockabilly. Following the awards show, she performed a spirited set at Mercy Lounge, and I was able to forge my way to the front of the stage to see the lively entertainer who once toured with Elvis Presley. In fact, just this month, I was captivated by a video I saw of Jackson filmed during the mid-1950s, and I couldn’t wait to see her perform in person, now over 50 years later. She sashayed on stage with her jet black hair, beautiful sparking earrings and her signature fringed shirt (which turned out to be the perfect accessory for electrifying songs like “Let’s Have a Party.”) She sang, danced and flirted with the audience as she performed over half a dozen tunes including “Mean, Mean, Man,” “Hard Headed Woman” and even her newest singles produced by the White Stripes’ Jack White. My personal favorite, a cover of Amy Winehouse’s “You Know I’m No Good,” spotlighted Jackson’s sassy side as she sang of her cheating ways and being sniffed out like Tanqueray. Her quirkiness and wit was well received as she also reminded the audience that you can still have fun and have Jesus in your life, providing a smooth segue to her beautiful rendition of Hank Williams’ classic, “I Saw the Light.” It was a night I won’t soon forget. — Whitney Self

Jim Lauderdale at Mercy Lounge
Coming up the stairs in Mercy Lounge, I spotted Jim Lauderdale with special guest Patty Griffin on harmonies. For Americana fans, what could be better? She sang quite a few country tunes with him before Lauderdale concluded the night with originals that any astute country fan would recognize — “The King of Broken Hearts,” “Hole in My Head” and “Halfway Down.” — Craig Shelburne

Robert Plant Following the Americana Honors and Awards
Admittedly, I was never a huge fan of Led Zeppelin’s music. However, the band’s musical prowess was never in question. And Robert Plant remains one of the greatest vocalists and showmen in rock history. He really is a rock god, and people attending the Americana music conference were in awe of him. So the truth is, he didn’t have to work nearly as hard as he did to impress those who stuck around for his surprise performance following the awards show. Maybe he’s doing this every night during his tour, but he really seemed anxious to prove himself during the 40-minute set at the Ryman. He calls his backing musicians the Band of Joy, and you have to think this must be his feeling to be backed by a collective that includes Buddy Miller, Patty Griffin, Darrell Scott, Byron House and Marco Giovino. As good as the musicianship was, their a cappella rendition of “I Bid You Goodnight” gave Miller, Griffin and Scott a chance to shine and underscored why Plant’s concert performances are still a big deal after all these years. — Calvin Gilbert

The SteelDrivers at Music City Roots
Although this soulful ensemble went on last, the standing-room-only crowd for the Music City Roots show at the Loveless Barn stuck around to hear a handful of songs from a brand new album, Reckless. “Where Rainbows Never Die,” a tender song about growing older, earned a rapturous response. During an interview portion, Nashville Mayor Karl Dean also told the audience he wants more live music in Nashville year-round, bringing perhaps the biggest applause of the night. — Craig Shelburne