Inside AmericanaFest: Allison Moorer and 5 First-Time Faves

For a first-time attendee, AmericanaFest went by in a flash.

It's over? Already? There are so many more artists to see, music to experience, moments to remember, Nashville sights to check out.

The Country Music Hall of Fame and Belle Meade Plantation, along with famous eateries like Arnold's and the Pancake Pantry, will have to wait for another year, hopefully.

For a first-time visitor to the annual festival that celebrated its 13th year of handing out awards, though, this was all about the music.

Americana Music Association executive director Jed Hilly considers 1999 to be the year the organization was born, but it was 2002 when Jim Lauderdale became the first recipient of the AMA's artist of the year, defeating musical pairings Gillian Welch and David Rawlings, Buddy and Judy Miller and a rowdy country group from Lubbock, Texas, known as the Flatlanders.

Much has changed since then, as Hilly pointed out in his welcome letter in the AMA program. Most notably, membership has almost doubled to more than 2,100 in the past two years.

Stealing a line from Outlaw Country's Elizabeth Cook, it feels good to say I'm finally a member in good standing, having paid my dues and getting involved in the nomination and voting process for this year's award winners.

The awards show at the Ryman Auditorium, known as the Mother Church of Country Music, certainly felt like a religious experience. Seeing performers such as Loretta Lynn, Taj Mahal and Robert Plant (singing backup for wife, and 2014 nominee Patty Griffin) onstage and cheering for Jason Isbell, who managed a clean sweep of three major awards (artist of the year, album of the year and song of the year) in this glorious shrine was like watching the 1927 Yankees appear at the Field of Dreams.

Is this heaven? Well, about as close as some of us will ever get.

To carry through on this thirst-for-first theme, here's one man's list of favorite acts he saw for the first time among the 180 or so who played during the week of AmericanaFest, forever known throughout the rest of this article as AmFest.

There were 20-plus acts my up-for-anything wife Carmen and I caught over five whirlwind days (Sept. 17-21) at eight of the 10 official venues or at other special events Saturday (Rock My Soul at Downtown Presbyterian Church, the Aussie BBQ at The 5 Spot) and Sunday (the Gospel Brunch with Elizabeth Cook and Lucinda Williams' invitation-only event, both at City Winery).

This list of 5 First-Time AmFest Faves covers only showcases, preventing me from including Nashville transplant Lindi Ortega, who also was impressive. Due to a previous commitment, I missed her midnight showcase, but saw her perform a lively but abbreviated set at a Friday afternoon event put on by her talent booking agency.

To further narrow down the field, artists I've previously seen in a headlining situation were eliminated.

Among a who's who of outstanding performers in that category were Lake Street Dive, Buddy Miller and Jim Lauderdale (together at the 2013 Ride Festival), Suzy Bogguss, Hayes Carll, Josh Ritter, Willie Watson (previously with Old Crow Medicine Show) Rhett Miller (with Old 97's) and Todd Snider (with Hard Working Americans).

Of course, there's always an exception -- or special exemption -- to the rule.

Seeing the re-emergence of one of my favorite singer-songwriters, whom I avidly followed over the years from Nashville country to Americana, from the sweet southern pines of Alabama to Washington Square in New York, was the most singular thrill and defining moment of AmFest 2014 for me.

My wife and I first saw this ravishing redhead headline a show (with band member Will Kimbrough serving as opening act) in front of about a dozen hearty fans at the Soiled Dove ($5 admission) on a snowy night in Denver, shortly after her second album, 2000's The Hardest Part, was released.

That record remains one of my favorites, and since then we've seen her headline there again in 2002, as an opening act in Boulder or at music festivals in Lyons and Telluride, Colorado, and on a series of dates in the Pacific Northwest.

She's recently stayed out of the spotlight for the most part for several reasons, but as last week's press blurb for her Nashville appearance pronounced:


As I tweeted after that show, this showcase show-stopper still has an angelic voice. She's missed Nashville, and the Music City has missed her, too. Welcome back ...

Allison Moorer, Sept. 19, City Winery
This Americana artist of the year nominee in 2004, before her marriage to Steve Earle in 2005, has been busy the past few years, as she shared with a full house during a rousing 40-minute set that began with a number of songs from what will be her first album in five years.

When she sings "It Ain't Ever Gonna Be Like it Used to Be," you better believe her.

The Academy Award best song nominee in 1998 for "A Soft Place to Fall" celebrated the birth of her son, John Henry, shortly after Crows was released in 2010, and motherhood became the priority while she occasionally performed in a group clumsily billed as Steve Earle and the Dukes (and Duchesses).

Moorer wondered out loud if the riveting songs she previewed from Down to Believing would ever get released, saying, "I'm very happy to say I have a new record, finally. It's been a while. I wasn't even sure there would ever be one. But thanks to people who love me, I've got one."

Set for a March 17 release by eOne Music Nashville, it signals her return to working with The Hardest Part producer Kenny Greenberg, whose scorching guitar this night on numbers like "Day You Said Goodbye" accompanied what Tony Brown has called Moorer's "million dollar voice." Her parting of the ways with Earle might also point toward another change in direction. South, perhaps?

"I think you can totally live in Nashville and not operate in the major label Nashville system," Moorer told me in a 2010 interview. "You know, I did. I think it's a fine place to live."

She went on to add, "And for any kind of roots music, that's where I would send somebody."

Not that she needs a soft place to fall anymore.

Meeting the criteria described above, it was still difficult to get down to this final five, because everyone seemed to be on top of their game, no matter the venue or the number of people inside.

(Full disclosure: I interviewed three of these artists either before or during AmFest, perhaps heightening my interest in seeing them perform but not affecting the compilation of this list. None of them knew such a list was in the works.)

Listed in order of appearance:

Humming House, Sept. 17, The Basement
I've been a fan of this band since their self-titled debut in 2012, but missed a couple of chances to see them perform live. Until the clock struck midnight at AmFest.

Humming House, from left: Bobby Chase, Leslie Rodriguez, Justin Wade Tam, Josh Wolak. Not pictured: Ben Jones.

The February 2013 addition of singer and snare drummer Leslie Rodriguez, whom I interviewed with frontman Justin Wade Tam last week, brings up their already impressive level of energy.

It's on full display with the recent release of Humming House Party!, which includes covers of "Billie Jean" and "Barbara Ann," and despite a small crowd at what turned out to be one of my favorite Nashville "dives," this quintet seems to enjoy playing just for the fun of it.

Laura Cantrell, Sept. 18, City Winery
This Nashville native, living in New York since her college days at Columbia, is another gifted singer-songwriter who has stayed out of the limelight while raising her child.

Her beautiful 2014 album, No Way There From Here, is her first collection of original material since 2005's Humming By The Flowered Vine. With aid of a band that included guitarist Mark Spencer, Amanda Contreras (fiddle) and Mark Winchester (upright bass), Cantrell brought comfort and joy to an appreciative crowd on songs such as "Letter She Sent," "Someday Sparrow" and the album's title track.

Parker Millsap, Sept. 18, Mercy Lounge
This 21-year-old Oklahoman might have lost the AMA's emerging artist award to Sturgill Simpson, but he was a real winner here, heating up the stage with riveting rock 'n' roll and some "Truck Stop Gospel."

I might be preaching to the choir, but this hot commodity made the packed audience a floor above the Cannery Ballroom (where Buddy Miller was playing at the same time) sweat like they were seeing young, thin Elvis come back to life. And the good ol' boy still living in his home state knows how to treat his townsfolk right.

Before departing on a major tour Sunday (Sept. 28), Millsap is playing Saturday at the Make Guthrie Weird Block Party, in the small town north of Oklahoma City where he currently resides. And he's not charging anyone one red cent.

Hallelujah, brother.

Willie Sugarcapps, Sept. 18, The Basement
Having seen Kimbrough (as an opening act) previously, I knew this would be good, but was amazed at the level of musicianship he and his bandmates, including Grayson Capps, Corky Hughes and Sugarcane Jane's Savana Lee Crawford and Anthony Crawford, displayed.

Willie Sugarcapps, from left: Corky Hughes, Grayson Capps, Will Kimbrough,
Savana Lee Crawford and Anthony Crawford.

Other than Kimbrough, a Mobile native who went on to settle in Nashville, the remaining members of this super-sized side project drove up from southern Alabama earlier in the day and acted like they didn't want to leave. Neither did the captivated audience.

Taking turns on lead vocals and a variety on instruments (Kimbrough works wonders with a banjo and Hughes does the same on electric guitar and lap steel), their midnight ramble lasted almost twice as long as the slotted hour, and no one was in a hurry to leave.

New music -- Kimbrough's "Dreamer Sky" and Savanna's emotional "The Ladder" for a Sugar Jane album the Crawfords have been working on for three years -- was introduced, but "Mancil Travis," Capps' epic song about a homeless man in his hometown, was the night's stirring highlight.

Supposedly off the cuff, one song they had never played together before went off without a hitch after Capps' simple directive -- "It's just the same four chords over and over."

And the band played on.

Baskery, Sept. 19, Third Man Records
When thinking about Americana, three sisters from Sweden might not be the first thing to come to mind. I'm guessing this thrilling band doesn't give a hoot.

Greta Bondesson of Swedish sister act Baskery.

With the coolest vibe of all the venues possibly a motivating factor, along with the true blue lighting, the three hip chicks of Baskery -- Greta (banjitar, guitars, beats), Stella (double bass) and Sunniva (guitars) Bondesson -- took rockabilly into foreign territory.

After listening to their most recent album -- a fairly subdued Little Wild Life -- I wasn't sure what to expect from these Swedish girls gone wild, who made an incredible first impression on another midnight crowd. There was even an elephant in the room -- (OK, just a replica head mounted on the wall in the back) -- but all eyes were directed at the stage as Sunniva stood atop the bass drum that a barefoot Greta beat while treating her altered banjo like a thrash metal instrument.

Two hours earlier, the more conventional Quebe Sisters Band that includes three fiddling champions from Texas who sing like the Andrews Sisters, were winning over a sellout crowd at the Station Inn, one of Millsap's favorite places to play in Nashville.

Enjoying both sister acts miles apart in style, attitude and heritage, one important lesson was learned from last week at AmFest: It doesn't matter how you play it, as long as you play it well.

Photos by Michael Bialas. See more from AmericanaFest 2014.