The Unbridled States of Americana: A Rambler's Report from Nashville’s AmericanaFest 2014
By Craig Havighurst
Hot baked folk music followed me as I hit the Canadian lunch on Saturday to see my favorites New Country Rehab from Toronto. John Showman’s voice has a stirring immediacy and he’s figured out how to integrate it with expert fiddling in a country rock context. New to me was boldly twangy and plaintive Jess Reimer from the snowy woodlands of Manitoba. And N.Q. Arbuckle’s gruff and ramshackle blues sounded great on a gorgeous Nashville afternoon with good company and an IPA.
This was all a very good time, but nobody so far had made me cry. That felt like it might be changing with an invitation to Rock My Soul, a collaboration of Todd Mayo (Bluegrass Underground) and David Macias (Thirty Tigers). As I walked down Church Street to the venue I caught the eye of an Elvis impersonator -- wait, a female Elvis impersonator?! -- at the wheel of a black Cadillac Escalade. Elvis gave me a nod and I knew that my night would be magic.
The 160-year-old Downtown Presbyterian Church is a soul-stirring space even without music. But suddenly we got the Fairfield Four and the McCrary Sisters singing together in a row, with a range like an organ and sonic energy like a helicopter taking off. For those not of Nashville, the McCrary sisters are the gospel quartet who work with Buddy Miller (including in the Honors and Awards House Band) and who deserve far more bookings than they get for their badass show. Their late father Rev. Sam McCrary was a key member of the venerable Fairfield Four, Nashville’s world-famous male gospel quartet with origins in 1921. The two groups have only rarely joined forces in performance, so this was special -- a stunning, core-shuddering sound that kept me dabbing my eyes.
The event was a TV taping for PBS, so there were guests. Lee Ann Womack sang with each group, sounding solid but on guard with the Four and totally in the pocket and passionate with the Sisters. Amos Lee joined the Four, and as good a singer as he is, it’s fascinating watching him work for an effect that the old cats achieve with ease. Lucinda Williams came on, looking a bit jittery, but so did a rhythm section, and by the end of a punchy, second-line rocking “Get Right With God” she was dancing around like it was a revival. Surprises like this kept happening, with moments of transcendent beauty mingled with funky hand-clappers, while members of the Four and the Sisters stepped up to chatter while the crew switched out mikes and got us through the seemingly inevitable TV production lulls. We spilled into the darkening Nashville two and a half hours later feeling cleansed and made whole.