AmericanaFest in Nashville, review – diversity and phenomenal new talent lead country music’s big week

Willi Carlisle at AmericanaFest 2022  (Ellie Newman)
Willi Carlisle at AmericanaFest 2022 (Ellie Newman)

The most common question at the annual AmericanaFest – a SXSW-style multi-venue music festival held in Nashville since 2000 – is “what is Americana?” “Diverse” seems to be the answer, after decades of favouritism shown towards white, male country singers.

At the event’s opening awards ceremony, which takes place at The Ryman, aka country music’s “mother church”, the sensational Canadian songwriter Allison Russell picks up a well-deserved Album of the Year for her illuminating solo debut Outside Child. Other gongs go to bluesy husband-and-wife duo The War and Treaty, flamboyant gypsy jazz renegade Sierra Ferrell, and the Grammys-conquering LGBT+ icon Brandi Carlile. There’s still room for the old guard, too. Robert Plant, Chris Isaak and Lyle Lovett all make appearances, as does the great Lucinda Williams, while tribute is paid to late honky tonk singer-songwriter Luke Bell, who died last month aged 32.

Allison Russell at AmericanaFest, 2022 (Getty Images for Americana Music)
Allison Russell at AmericanaFest, 2022 (Getty Images for Americana Music)

Aside from the established names, AmericanaFest is also a hotbed of young talent. Arkansas folk singer and entertainer Willi Carlisle is this year’s most engaging presence, adept at making a crowd weep as fast as he is at making them laugh. His punk-rooted storytelling is cosmic, complex and emotive; one minute he’s cracking jokes, the next he’s calling out the Arkansas government for refusing to raise the minimum wage. Quoting anarchist philosopher Emma Goldman, he explains that the jaunty, joyful “Van Life” – taken from his outstanding recent album Peculiar, Missouri – concerns the trials of late-stage capitalism. But it’s his phenomenal, acapella take on Steve Goodman’s 1972 Vietnam protest song “The Ballad of Penny Evans” that hits hardest, half a century old but still capable of bringing the horrors of a long-gone war to furious life.

Margo Cilker at AmericanaFest 2022 (Mark Webster)
Margo Cilker at AmericanaFest 2022 (Mark Webster)

The Oregon-based Margo Cilker is another revelation. There are hints of Dolly Parton’s cheerful lilt in her clear mountain falsetto, and hefty doses of Gillian Welch’s well-versed traditional tributes in the rolling songwriting of “That River” and “Kevin Johnson”. The soulful “Chester’s” packs a powerful punch, while the burnished stomp of “Tehachapi” elicits whoops from the audience for its knowing interpolation of Little Feat’s 1971 country rock classic “Willin’”, which Lyle Lovett covered a few evenings earlier at The Ryman.

California-born Jaime Wyatt brings some 1970s razzle-dazzle to proceedings. Her electric twang, complete with flashy gospel flourishes, causes a number of excitable couples to start two-stepping during the heavy hillbilly swagger of “Neon Cross”, from the 2020 album of the same name on which Wyatt came out as gay. Later, her guitarist offers himself up as MVP of this week’s backing bands by casually playing slide guitar with the neck of a beer bottle.

Other standouts include appearances from storied psychedelic bluesman Taj Mahal. At 80-years-old he’s still up for a party, and for his lengthy set is joined by a cross-generational sweep of noted vocalists, including Rissi Palmer and Jim Lauderdale. He faultlessly weaves through his stack of instruments, from banjo and resonator to harmonica and back again.

Angel Olsen, performing solo following her recent full-band tour alongside Sharon Van Etten, is altogether more lowkey presence. She performs in a converted church, whispering her magical cover of Bruce Springsteen’s “Tougher Than The Rest” and playing bruised love songs backed only by the swooning strum of a Gibson Hummingbird.

If anyone is still in doubt as to what Americana is after the past five days, they obviously haven’t been paying close enough attention.