On the Road at AmericanaFest

Last month, Nashville hosted AmericanaFest, now in its 20th year and bigger than ever, featuring more than 300 artists performing over the course of six days. Thanks in part to the advocacy and determination of the Americana Music Association, the nexus of genres and tradition-informed music under the umbrella of ‘Americana’ has grown into a dynamic and vital field that has influenced mainstream country while nurturing the expansion of indie music labels and a growing intergenerational audience.

While our time there was short, the artists we did encounter represent the field of smart, talented musicians who know where they came from and who are on a clear path to further greatness. 

Joshua Ray Walker is a young singer, songwriter, and musician who is highly engaged with the growing music scene in Dallas, TX. His musical skills—as well as his restless ambition—are outlined in stunning detail with his moving self-referential song Canyon from his debut album, Wish You Were Here, released early this year. He’s also a member of the garage-country quartet Ottoman Turks; his second solo album in the works.

Drifting in with the fog from the Bay Area, singer-songwriter Logan Ledger is charmingly scruffy at first appearance. But when he lets his voice loose, it’s chill-inducting—his knack for rubbery hard country melodies conjure the ghosts of 50s singers like George Jones. Working in Nashville for the last several years, Ledger’s arresting musicality caught the attention of producer T Bone Burnett, who has worked with him first on a pair of singles, and then a recently released EP of Americana-Noir, I Don’t Dream Anymore. A full album is in the works for next year.

With a sweet, airy voice working as a foil against smart, funny and forthright songs, singer-songwriter Caroline Spence’s recent release, Mint Condition, is an amalgam of rock and country as pioneered by the likes of Emmylou Harris, who sings with her on the title track. Following two self-released albums and lending her songwriting skills to other singers, Spence is quickly finding her footing among the vanguard of Nashville-based singer-songwriters.

Early James (James Mullen) is the type of guy that might have walked into Sun Studios in the 1950s to record an unhinged rockabilly single with Sam Phillips. The Birmingham, Ala., native was on the bill at the Easy Eye Sound day party, the label run by The Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach. Early James’ only recording to date is an acoustic EP recorded with bassist Adrian Marmolejo, but with Auerbach augmenting a full band on stage at the show, James was at his best, sounding like an obscure, ribald 1920’s crooner time-warped into a 1990s heavy-alternative band.

Also at the Easy Eye Sound party was Marcus King, who has established himself as a monster guitar player and powerful Southern soul-steeped singer as the frontman for the Marcus King Band. King recently announced that he has a Dan Auerbach-produced solo album, El Dorado, coming January 17th on Fantasy records. The first single, The Well, is pure scuzzy riff-driven 70s hard-rock.

Will Beeley qualifies as both a new artist and veteran musician. While living in San Antonio, TX, he recorded and released two albums in the 1970s, the independently pressed country-folk album Gallivantin’ and the poetic, easy-going country-rock gem Passing Dream, recorded at Malaco Studios in Jacksonville, FL. When his music career failed to take off, Beeley found contentment as a long-haul truck driver. Forty years later, Beeley received a phone call from Tompkins Square Records founder Josh Rosenthal who was interested in reissuing his two nearly-forgotten albums. The opportunity led to the recording of a new record, Highways & Heart Attacks, which prove that Beeley’s unique compassion and intelligence as a songwriter are still very much intact.

Christopher Paul Stelling performed at the ANTI- records 20th Anniversary showcase at the Mercy Lounge, balancing leave-it-all-on-the-stage emotional catharsis with a dose of deadpan cynicism. He operated as a one-man-band, switching between a minimal drum kit and a standing set-up with a mic’d panel to stomp on for a bass thud. His fourth album, Best of Luck, is set for release on February 7th, 2020, and was produced by Ben Harper, a good partner in bringing soulful substance to the yearnings and drive of Stelling. The recently released single “Trouble Don’t Follow Me” is a good illustration.