Americana Fest 2016: A Photographers View
I hopped on a plane, on a beautiful September afternoon, heading back to Nashville. Although I had visited the city several times, this would be the first time I was going on assignment, as a photographer, for the 18th annual Americana Fest.
Nervous. Anxious. Excited. A bit of self-doubt.
I took a few vacation days from my “real job” to completely immerse myself in what would be my first (volunteer) job with some responsibility. Americana Fest is spread out over the city, with concerts taking place in a multitude of venues. You can hear live music in book stores, record shops and the illustrious Ryman Auditorium.
Tuesday; my first night. No photo assignments. I decided to grab my cameras anyway and head to the Basement East (also known locally as the “Beast”) for the aptly titled show “Better Together.” Sloane Spencer from Country Fried Rock would be hanging out, and I wanted to be able to see her, and say hello. I got there about an hour before the doors opened and found Sloane and sat down to chat. Sitting at the table were Ear to the Ground host, Joe Wolfe-Mazeres along with Michael and Terri Latham (Jon Latham’s parents, who I had listened to, but had yet to see live). It didn’t take long and “Major Key” by their son, started playing over the PA speakers, which even seemed like a surreal moment to me. As show time approached, we made our way around to the music part of the venue. Chuck Meade opened the show and brought out Ohio born Patrick Sweany (who is also a long-time collaborator with Ohioan Dan Auerbach of the Black Keys). Known for his blues heavy guitar playing and dirty-smoky vocals; he did not disappoint as they tore through a few songs. Up next was New Albany, Ohio native, Aaron Lee Tasjan. Aaron is someone I’d heard about, listened to, but had yet to see perform live. Little did I know, we’d cross paths several times, as he must have played the most sets of any musician throughout the entire festival. It was a wonderful surprise to see Dan Baird (formerly of the Georgia Satellites) join Tasjan to play a couple of songs with Baird playing guitar and handling lead vocals. Closing out the night was country music star, Lee Ann Womack. Womack stayed true to the night’s theme (better together) and brought out guest after guest. Taking the stage during her set was a who’s who of country music. Patty Griffin, Jason Isbell, Amanda Shires, Jim Lauderdale, Buddy Miller and Randy Rogers all delivered amazing performances to bring night one to a close.
Wednesday; my first day of assignments. First on my docket was a trip to the Country Music Hall of Fame to see Margo Price and Friends. Price, who recently closed out last season’s Saturday Night Live is a rising star on the country music scene and is a multi-faceted performer and songwriter. Moderated by NPR’s Ann Powers, Price played music, as well as answered questions about her roots and career. Price also brought out many of her friends to play, such as Aaron Lee Tasjan, Lilly Hiatt, Kenny Vaughan, Darrin Bradbury and Erin Rae. It was an intimate setting within the Ford Theatre, where we were able to see her play songs with her husband, Jeremy Ivey and even get behind the drum set.
I had a few hours to kill after the Margo price event, so I went to a converted gas station/Mexican food restaurant where I met up with Boo Ray, another Nashville based musician who just released an album, “Sea of Lights.” Boo and I ate tacos and were joined by Sloane from Country Fried Rock and also Jason from Too Much Country. I was able to do some promo shots for Boo, once we had full bellies and finished discussing what it was like having Steve Ferrone (Tom Petty) play drums on his current album.
My evening event was one I had been looking forward to since I knew I would be attending the festival. Although this show was contracted out for the photography, I was able to attend and enjoy the Americana Honors & Awards show at the legendary Ryman Auditorium (the original Grand Ole Opry). The evening showcased so many incredible performances from Bob Weir, Jason Isbell, Joe Henry, Steve Earl, Nathaniel Rateliff, Bonnie Raitt, Dwight Yoakam (who spent his formative years in Ohio), the Milk Carton Kids, Emmylou Harris with Rodney Crowell, John Moreland and Margo Price, along with Jim Lauderdale.
I had to hustle from the Ryman to the 5 Spot, a perfect dive bar in East Nashville, which also happens to be one of my favorite spots to see live music. My evening was capped off by a showcase that included Dawn and Hawkes, Brandy Zdan and Akron, Ohio raised Tim Easton (who also brought out fellow Ohioan, Megan Palmer to sing). Dawn and Hawkes sounded like if you turned on your AM radio in the middle of the desert and listened to two voices start to liquefy together. Brandy Zdan was a much needed break from the Americana sound with her pure garage rock assault. Tim Easton, who recently released “American Fork” played a set, heavy on new tunes. I’ve seen Easton play before, but never with a full band, which was a great treat. Once the last note was played, it was time for me to head back to my AirBnB abode and download the photos from the night’s events. Lights out at 2:30am.
Thursday; day two of photo assignments. My day started at the Nashville staple, Grimey’s Record Store, where I looked around for a bit, before heading over to their sister book store, Howlin’ Books. Author Lloyd Sachs read excerpts from his book “T Bone Burnett: A Life in Pursuit” and was also joined by musician Joe Henry, who played some of his favorites from the Burnett catalogue.
Caleb Caudle met me at Howlin’ Books and once the reading was complete, we headed out to grab a bite to eat, catch up and also work on a few promo shots for a potential new release in 2017. Caleb and I became friends after I shot a show he was part of, during Country Fried Rock’s 4th Anniversary party at the Back Swamp schoolhouse near Florence, SC earlier this year. We then headed over to the New West Records party which was like going to a family reunion of every musician I’ve crossed paths with in the last few years. Hugs were given. Wine spilling was laughed at. I did a couple of portraits and even bought a CD from Bonnie Whitmore in the parking lot (best money I’ve spent in a while).
The next show of my night was one I knew was going to be special, but didn’t really understand the magnitude. John Prine, was scheduled to play his self-titled first album at The Station Inn. All week I had listened to musicians talk about how this show was sought after by everyone in town. What I didn’t realize is the size of the venue; this bar/pizza shop holds 125 people (at best). Nashville’s Mayor even was in the audience, beer in hand, enjoying the show and taking photos with people in between sets. Teddy Thompson and Kelly Jones opened the show, followed by longtime musicians Larry Campbell (Levon Helm, Bob Dylan, Sheryl Crow, Paul Simon, B.B. King, Willie Nelson and many more) and wife Theresa Williams warmed up the growing crowd. Amanda Shires was up next, playing a few songs from her new release “My Piece of Land,” along with older songs from her catalogue. Being such a small venue, I was able to say hello to Jason Isbell as he was setting up his gear to play with his wife (Shires). The evening grew with excitement as John Prine took the stage, holding up a copy of his debut album he jokingly said he had to pay $85 for on eBay. Prine tore through his debut album in its entirety, his voice a bit more jagged and grizzly than it was in the past (also saying that his wife said he’d sound more like his debut if he used some helium), but beautifully delivering each and every one of the songs. I headed out just before midnight to go catch Caleb Caudle’s set at the High Watt. Caudle delivered a great set, backed by a couple of the guys from Margo Price’s band. My day again comes to a close, just after 1am. Back to my room to download photos and my head hits the pillow at 2:30am.
Friday: my last day of required shows to shoot. My day again started at the Country Music Hall of Fame. The staff recognizes me and we exchange pleasantries. They are incredibly accommodating, polite and professional. Today I get the opportunity to be back in the Ford Theater, this time featuring Bob Boilenn of NPR, chatting with John Paul White (formerly of the Civil Wars). I had the opportunity before the show starts to briefly talk to John Paul and mention we have a mutual friend, who he immediately takes a few fun jabs at. John Paul opens with “Black Leaf” off his recent album Beulah. This show also included an amazing version of John Prine’s “Sam Stone.” I have a couple of hours to grab food, for the first time since Wednesday (that didn’t consist of granola bars in my room). Once I had a stomach full of shrimp and grits, I was off to the Bloodshot Records party, where I got to say a quick hello to Columbus, Ohio resident Lydia Loveless. Lydia’s full band played a show earlier in the week, but they had already departed Nashville to get a jump on travel, as they were starting an opening tour for the Drive By Truckers. Lydia performed, with acoustic guitar in hand, several tracks off of her genre-defiant new album “Real.” The songs translated incredibly well acoustically. Next up were sets by Robbie Fulks, who played “Let’s Kill Saturday Night,” one of my favorites by him and Cory Branan, who has long been recognized as one of the best song writers in Nashville. Closing out the showcase was a set by the Bottle Rockets. I first heard the band when I was living in Oklahoma City, in 1995 and became infatuated with their release “The Brooklyn Side.” I had to wait until 2016 to see them live and they lived up to my expectations. I was only able to stay for the first few songs before I had to scramble back across town for my final show at the Cannery Ballroom.
As I was walking up to the venue, I look to my left and there is a man carrying two guitars. I get closer and realize it is musician Will Hoge, (Hoge had a Number #1 song with “Even if it Breaks Your Heart”) who I have been a fan of for years. We made small talk and we both separated to walk into our respective venues. Just another night in Nashville.
Aaron Lee Tasjan opened this show and solidified himself (along with his amazing band, including guitarist Brian Wright) as one of my favorite live acts of the festival. Decked out in cowboy hat, silver boots, dress jacket with small mirrored circles adhered to it, it made me feel like I was getting a peak at what David Bowie may have dressed like if he would have ever ventured down the Americana avenue. Wynonna Judd was the next performer and I had no idea what to expect. She had a massive amount of success with her mother as the Judds, but this was several years ago. As it turns out, she was incredibly entertaining, hamming it up for the audience and delivering inspirational messages throughout her set. Lee Ann Womack again took the stage and delivered a great set of her songs. Her voice continues to be strong and the audience held onto every note. I use the word “icon” sparingly, but I feel like it is the correct moniker for the closing act, Buddy Miller. Miller, a Fairborn, Ohio native, has been making music since the early 1970’s, while living in New York City. He has played with acts such as Emmylou Harris, Steve Earle, Shawn Colvin, Linda Ronstadt and Robert Plant when he toured with Alison Krauss. He also has a long career as a music producer for acts like The Devil Makes Three, Wood Brothers, Richard Thompson and the late Ralph Stanley. Miller played a wonderful show, full of energy and rock that brought a wonderful close to the night. Back to the room; another 2:30am bed time. I’m starting to drag.
Saturday; my last full day in Nashville. I finally have a day off to go and do and see what I want. I have been a fan of Daisy O’ Connor for a couple of years and she’s been a fan of my art for the same amount of time. She and tour mate Shawnee Kilgore were rolling into Nashville, so we decided to meet up, take some photos and hang out for the day. The day consisted of photos, food, folk stories from the road and a $28 stop for a coffee and a chocolate bar. Joining us was Nashville songwriter Leah Noble. It was a great day talking about the process, touring, and how we take criticism and praise. We spent the afternoon at Fond Object, a record store with a live venue behind it. We were able to see Tim Easton, Austin Lucas, as well as Joey Kneiser and Kelly Smith.
We then headed out for dinner, only to cap off the night with a trip back to the 5 Spot, to see Jon Latham perform (one of my new favorites) and again, Aaron Lee Tasjan was playing in his band. There were a lot of familiar faces in the crowd. Nashville was starting to feel like home, but it was after midnight and I had finally reached exhaustion. I had a flight to catch in the morning. 2am bedtime; tomorrow I head back to Ohio.
Sunday; flying home. I was in Nashville for 6 days and was ready to head back to Ohio. I felt fortunate, I felt tired, I felt a little homesick. All I could think about was how all of these musical vagabonds would be back on the road, just like me, but instead of home, they would be heading to their next show. I was happy to be part of their world, to capture some of their memories and make more friends. I also was able to recognize how many Ohioans have relocated to or visited Nashville to continue their musical journey. It made me even more proud of where I’m from.
Americana Fest 2017 is in September. I’ll see you there.