The third day of this year’s Americana Music Festival was Hank Williams’ birthday, September 17, and what better way to celebrate it than with a freakout solo by jazz guitarist Marc Ribot?
Ribot, perhaps best known for his work with Tom Waits and Elvis Costello, was sitting next to Buddy Miller at the Nashville nightclub Third & Lindsley for one of the festival’s evening showcases. As Miller chopped out the chords to Williams’ “Cold, Cold Heart” and sang the familiar tune, Ribot played a counter melody on his electric guitar.
Ribot’s guitar didn’t parallel the vocal line nor climb a scale; it used stabbing notes, just ahead of the beat and at the edge of the harmony, to create an alternate universe. It was as if the lover described in the lyrics were addressed not on a big, clunky 1951 telephone on the hallway table but on a sleek 2015 cell phone with an Ornette Coleman ringtone. Her heart was just as cold, but the world around her had changed.
That’s what Americana music does at its best: it confronts the new circumstances that surround timeless emotions. It acknowledges that Williams (or B.B. King, who had won a Lifetime Achievement Award at the Americana Music Association’s awards show the night before) had something enduring to say about the human heart, but also that those truths are infinitely adaptable by modern-day interpreters. And often it’s the guitarist who can best update a song for a new century.
During the Thursday set immediately preceding Ribot’s at Third & Lindsley, for example, Ry Cooder joined Ricky Skaggs and the Whites. They too tackled a Hank Williams song, “Mansion on the Hill,” with Skaggs’ wife Sharon White singing the lead vocal and Cooder’s guitar adding a new sting to this tale of a romance warped by income inequality. The next song was Hank Snow’s 1952 hit “A Fool Such as I,” the confession of a man still in love with the woman who left him, and Cooder’s guitar highlighted the narrator’s unbalanced state by pushing the song’s harmonic envelope.
Something similar happened when Gillian Welch and Dave Rawlings closed out an all-star show at Nashville’s new outdoor pavilion, the Ascend Amphitheatre, on Saturday. Sponsored by the Americana Music Fest, the six-hour show included Loretta Lynn, Steve Earle, Valerie June, Tift Merritt & Eric Haywood, Nikki Lane and Emmy Rose Russell.
When Welch and Rawlings applied their close harmony singing to “Make Me a Pallet on Your Floor,” they sounded as sweet and seductive as the rural-tinged recordings by Doc Watson and Mississippi John Hurt. But when Rawlings’ acoustic guitar came spiraling out of the melody with a rude, raucous solo, he sounded every bit as modern as Ribot.
Steve Earle revamped a different kind of older song in his set. “Hey Joe” was born in the early ‘60s in California as a garage-rock classic. But Earle emphasized the song’s roots in pre-‘60s blues and hillbilly music by singing it with a pronounced twang and by encouraging his lead guitarist Chris Masterson to play a solo soaked in the Texas blues of T-Bone Walker and Albert Collins.
The festival began Tuesday night with a handful of evening showcases and revved up in earnest with a full schedule on Wednesday. That night the Americana Music Association held its annual awards show at the Ryman Auditorium. The winners included Lucinda Williams for Album of the Year, Sturgill Simpson for Artist of the Year and Song of the Year, the Mavericks for Duo/Group of the Year, Shakey Graves for Emerging Artist of the Year and John Leventhal for Instrumentalist of the Year.
As always, Miller led the show’s terrific house band, which this year included Little Feat pianist Bill Payne. Los Lobos won a Lifetime Achievement Award for Performance, and closed out the evening with a full-cast encore version of “One Time, One Night.” When the Mavericks’ Raul Malo belted out the second verse and the Carolina Chocolate Drops’ Rhiannon Giddens the fourth, one realized just how tightly the Mexican-American influence has been woven into the Americana sound.
When later that night Los Lobos played a showcase set at the Cannery Ballroom, former Allman Brothers guitarist Jack Pearson sat in and unleashed the inner Marc Ribot in Los Lobos’ David Hidalgo and Cesar Rosas, who played long, adventurous solos. Buddy Holly’s “Not Fade Away” and the Grateful Dead’s “Bertha” were tied together by the three guitarists’ soaring inventions, uniting three different decades: the 1950s, the 1970s and the 2010s.
On Sunday, this writer drove to the eastern edge of Tennessee for the Bristol Rhythm & Roots Reunion. This festival offers many of the same acts as the Americana Music Festival, but the feel is very different. The Nashville event is a national magnet, pulling music bizzers, media and fans from all over the country, while the Bristol fest has a strong regional flavor with the crowd dominated by three-generation families. If the Americana Fest is a scaled-down version of South by Southwest, Bristol is a smaller version of the New Orleans Jazzfest.
When I saw the Railsplitters, one of many string bands in Bristol, one musician asked a friend in the crowd to take over the banjo for one song so she could do some dancing. He did, and she hopped onto the floor to do some astonishing, high-kick clogging—and she was soon joined by a crowd of others doing the same. That wouldn’t happen in Nashville. At the Blackbird Bakery, New York singer-songwriter David Massengill introduced several songs with funny stories about his adolescence in Bristol—and with some not-so-funny stories about the town’s painful struggle to integrate.
The highlight of the day was a set by the Dustbowl Revival, the best new-wave/old-time string band since the Old Crow Medicine Show. The Dustbowl Revival boasts two big-voiced, charismatic lead singers—Zach Lupetin and Liz Beebe—which is two more than most string bands can muster. Backed by fiddle, mandolin, trumpet and tuba, the L.A. band is able to make the connection between Appalachian string bands and New Orleans trad-jazz bands as unmistakable as it is powerful.
The octet was versatile enough to go from a pumped-up version of the Band’s “Up on Cripple Creek” to a powerful Beebe-sung R&B ballad, “When Midnight Rolls Around,” from sparkling picking on swing and Klezmer tunes to Lupetin’s infectious version of Lead Belly’s “Midnight Special” that had the shoulder-to-shoulder crowd singing along as if at a tent revival meeting.