Willi Carlisle is just the kind of artist that Americana music needs at this juncture in the genre’s evolution. This umbrella term for American roots music is in danger of falling victim to its own success. As it has gained prominence, the music has allowed a middle-brow earnestness to creep in. More and more you see nice people, nicely dressed, saying nice things in nice songs. There’s a role for that, I guess, but soon it becomes a case of the bland leading the bland.
Carlisle is a welcome antidote. A big, barrel-shaped man in brown suspenders and a battered cowboy hat curled up on the sides, he looks as if he just rolled out of the bed in the back of the vehicle he describes in his best-known song, “The Van Life.” On the first night of this year’s Americanafest in Nashville, he stood on a stage in the backyard of Dee’s Country Cocktail Lounge and delivered this talking blues at a motor-mouth pace that even Steve Earle and Todd Snider would be hard-pressed to match.
Carlisle’s politics are as progressive as anyone’s at Americanafest. But while others express those beliefs in platitudes, he shares his in a series of wisecracks and stories. He has grasped the fundamental fact of songwriting: it’s not enough to say the right thing; you have to say it in a stimulating way. It should be grounded in details more concrete than airy abstractions. It should be backed by music more interesting than a steady strum of the guitar.
And if it’s going to be an Americana song, it should be rooted in music older than your James Taylor and Roberta Flack records. I actually like Taylor and Flack, but they are not useful starting points for a musical tradition. Carlisle found his launching pad in the vein of the weird, wonderful blues and Celtic songs from the 1920s found on the Anthology of American Folk Music.
When Carlisle sings about income inequality, he doesn’t resort to abstractions and collective nouns; he describes specific people in specific situations. In “The Van Life,” there’s a confrontation between the sleepy singer and an angry homeowner about where the former can and cannot park. In “Peculiar, Missouri,” the title track from his recent, third album, the van’s occupants stumble into that town’s Walmart, dazzled by “the hideous halogen bulbs … of this godforsaken Babylon.” They stumble back out and pray to a shooting star overhead, “Shut me out with shame and failure from your doors of gold and fame.”
Carlisle played those songs on acoustic guitar, but he played “Esta Mundo,” a song about a New Mexico farmer robbed of his water rights, on button accordion, and he used harmonica, bones and banjo on other songs. When I talked to him offstage, he explained that he grew up in Kansas and moved to Arkansas a dozen years ago. When he got serious about music, he studied not only storytelling folk singers such as Steve Goodman and Gamble Rogers, but also virtuosos of fast-talking. He never became an auctioneer, but he did become a square dance caller, which helped him master his rapid-fire delivery.
And what he’s delivering with that torrent of verbiage is a clear-eyed celebration of life on America’s margins. He doesn’t overlook the flaws and challenges of his characters; in fact, he often mocks them affectionately. But he never obscures them behind slogans and buzzwords; he brings them to life as they are, not as they should be. This was all evident on his first two albums, but his latest record matches the words with equally robust music—thanks to producer Joel Savoy, the great Cajun fiddler—music drawn from large swaths of America’s musical history.
Another welcome antidote is Sunny War, as short and slender as Carlisle is tall and broad. War is the rare Americana artist who’s as accomplished at playing an instrument as at singing, as effective at writing music as at writing words. Her mastery of the steel-string acoustic guitar came first. The speed was impressive, but less important than her melodic instincts and the emotions they triggered. In the year since her 2021 Newport Folk Fest appearance, War’s singing has gained a confidence that allows her to relax and let the songs do their work.
This year she performed at Americanafest and, on the prior weekend, at the Bristol Rhythm & Roots Reunion. Accompanied only by an electric bassist, she stood on a Bristol parking lot inside an open-sided tent. She began her song “Tiny Town” with an arresting blues guitar figure; then her deep alto sang the story of a big city meeting with someone else from a small town, someone with that open-hearted quality that the narrator had long ago buried beneath an urban shell. She doesn’t romanticize often-restrictive rural life, but she acknowledges its value.
This ability to contain two perspectives in the same song is apparent whether the subject is a broken relationship, her homeless years on the streets of L.A. or the nature of God. Her observations are always perceptive and always said in a way that will persuade the uncertain. Though she has a lot in common with folk singer/songwriters, War describes herself as a blues artist, and that genre’s intricate fingerpicking provides the sturdy skeleton on which to hang her tender feelings.
Another artist who uses blues-guitar motifs to frame her wry observations of life is Cristina Vane. Her third album, Make Myself Me Again, spent several weeks on the Americana Radio Chart this year, and the week after Americanafest she brought those songs to the Avalon Theatre on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, when she opened for folk-blues legend Chris Smither. With her long dark hair descending over a pale-blue, snap-button shirt, Vane played a creamy white resophonic guitar with a slide and sang the new album’s title track with a bouncy, twangy verve.
But her set caught fire when she sang “Keep Your Lamp Trimmed and Burning,” which she said she’d “learned from Blind Willie Johnson.” This gospel blues warned against being distracted from the important things in this all-too-short life. Vane carried that feeling over to one her best compositions, “River Roll,” which found her lamenting, “I’m tired of living / I’m tired of dying, without love,” her soprano as prickly as her clawhammer banjo. Vane was raised in Europe by Sicilian and Guatemalan parents before moving to the U.S. at age 18 and embracing America’s roots music with an outsider’s clear-sighted perspective.
Also bringing a strong blues flavor to Americana is Queen Esther. She didn’t perform at the Americanafest this year, but she was a featured speaker at the conference’s panel on “Right Down the Line: Genealogy and Storytelling in Media and Resistance.” She also shared with me her new EP, Rona, due in October. These eight songs were written during the pandemic and recorded without a rhythm section. On most songs, her piercing voice is accompanied only by a single guitar, though on the dramatic broken-heart ballad “Lost Without Your Love,” she is joined by piano, violin and cello.
These stripped-down arrangements allow Queen Esther’s unusual assemblage of influences to shine through. Though she has spent most of her adulthood in New York City, she spent most of her childhood in South Carolina’s rural Low Country, where she was raised on country music and the blues. In Manhattan, where she collaborated with jazz musicians such as James “Blood” Ulmer, J.C. Hopkins and Elliott Sharp, she added a layer of sophisticated phrasing and harmony to her inheritance. This is a different approach to Americana and thus perks up one’s ears.
You can hear that blend on this new EP. Songs such as “Oh, My Stars” and “When I See You Again,” present their pining for absent lovers and elusive dreams in the plain speech and melodies of rural blues and country music, but when that yearning becomes acute and needs emphasis, she leaps past the expected note and lands on the other side of an interval that one only finds in jazz. Her more straightforward Americana album, Gild the Black Lily, came out last year and its sequel, Blackbirding, is due next year.
Like Vane, Tiffany Williams is a transplant to Nashville. Williams grew up in Eastern Kentucky, the daughter and granddaughter of coal miners, and for her that legacy is too real and too complicated to be reduced to slogans or moral posturing. She has found a new way to sing about familiar topics. For example, on the title track from her first full-length album, the recent All Those Days of Drinking Dust, she describes her dad crawling on his hands and knees through the narrow shafts in the mountain.
She’s glad that’s not her life, but she’s painfully aware that “I get to breathe; he gets to smother.” These mixed feelings are eloquent enough and bleak enough that they can incorporate a quote from William Shakespeare: “And so, from hour to hour, we ripe and ripe, and then, from hour to hour, we rot and rot.”
Williams is a short-story writer and linguist, so her command of language is remarkable, whether she’s describing the dilemma of a man in 20th-century mines or of a young woman in a 21st-century city. Sometimes her words get obscured by sustained vowels in her singing or sustained guitars in the studio arrangements. Sometimes the words get obscured by chatty audiences. That was the case when she performed outside a Chinese restaurant in Bristol, competing with noisy diners and louder pedestrians.
She had better luck at her second appearance at the Bristol Rhythm & Roots Reunion. Inside the city’s local community theater, there was enough quiet to appreciate the writing. Even on the anthemic “Know Your Worth,” there were delightful turns of phrase, such as “from the cradle to the hurt.” She unveiled one of her best songs, “My Love Is Wasted on You,” still unreleased, a wicked kiss-off to an undeserving lover. “I tried to drown my demons,” she sang, “but my demons learned to swim.”
Williams is working within the Americana sub-genre of Appalachian balladry. Another sub-genre, gospel-soul attracted new approaches, as well. In a Bristol parking lot, Kyshona (pronounced kih-SHAW-na) sang this music with unusual understatement. Accompanied only by her own acoustic guitar and two female singers, this statuesque singer in gold earring and ankle-length print wrap tackled the well-worn topics of respect and equality, but she did so with such beguiling understatement that it was as if these sentiments were being considered anew.
When she sang, “We all bleed the same blood,” for instance, she did so gently at first, allowing the sweetness of the three-part harmonies to draw the listeners in. As the voices gradually rose in power, the audience was carried with them and was soon singing along. After Kyshona dedicated “The Riverside” to her gospel-singing grandfather from South Carolina, the vocals began as disarming murmuring and climaxed in pyrotechnic scat-singing. Her new single, “Nighttime Animal,” was anchored by a strong guitar figure that the three voices could dance around.
Bette Smith’s set at Nashville’s 3rd & Lindsley during Americanafest was anything but understated. Smith doesn’t have the handsome, powerhouse voice one associates with gospel singers, but she does have a knack for making every song intensely personal, filling each one with a desperate need to not only be heard, but also understood. There was nothing understated about her costume of a red-vinyl mini-dress and white go-go boots, nor about her raw wailing on the chorus of each song.
When she introduced each number with an anecdote about her traumatic childhood and adulthood, however, and then translated those events into over-the-top songs, there was no resisting their impact. Here were typical gospel tropes put to new uses. Most of the songs came from her remarkable 2020 album, The Good, the Bad and the Bette, co-produced by the Drive-By Truckers’ bassist Matt Patton. When she sang Eddie Hinton’s “Everybody Needs Love” to end the regular set, the “need” in her imprecise voice was undeniable.
Another Americana sub-genre, roots-rock, got a welcome new twist when John R. Miller led his quintet at one of Bristol’s two big stages. With his blue baseball cap and dark-brown, mountain-man beard, he was wearing his West Virginia roots proudly. He integrated the fiddle and pedal steel guitar into the rock ‘n’ roll rhythm section better than most, and he tackled the big issues with examples that brought the issues down to earth. With his shrug-of-the-shoulders drawl, he didn’t add any drama to the songs, but he didn’t have to; the songs were that good.
The song “Half Ton Van,” for example, was the sales pitch for a vehicle that represents past dreams now on the rocks. The comedy came from the Chuck Berry-like, sharp-eyed lyrics, such as, “That crack in the windshield’s what’s keeping the price way down / Don’t mind the holes, don’t mind the smell, leaks a little oil, but you can barely tell.” But hints of the narrator’s real financial need kept seeping into the monologue.
When Miller wanted to consider the short tether that mortality gives us, he leaned on Berry-like automotive metaphors again. “Borrowed time, borrowed time,” he sang over a swampy groove, “soon as you drive it off the lot, it’s in decline.” Most of these songs came from his 2021 breakthrough album, Depreciated.
The Bristol Rhythm & Roots Reunion and Americanafest are usually held on successive weekends, and they usually share a lot of the same acts. But they are contrasting events. Bristol, the town that straddles the Tennessee/Virginia border, deserves its nickname as “The Birthplace of Country Music” and has a museum to celebrate that fact. Its annual September festival fences off the historic downtown, and it’s easy to walk from any of the 17 stages to any other—and to all the restaurants, bars and shops in between. It’s very much a local festival, attracting mostly families from the surrounding area.
Americanafest, by contrast, is very much a national attraction, bringing in industry pros and avid fans from all over. Its 52 venues are spread out across the city, often presenting difficult ride-share or parking decisions. There is a concentration of spaces downtown, including the conference hotel, the City Winery, the Ryman Auditorium and the Country Music Hall of Fame, one of the finest music museums in the world. In addition to the official, 45-minute showcases, there are also music-industry panels, semi-official day parties and unofficial day parties.
While this essay is focused on emerging acts, both festivals showcased some terrific established acts, as well. Bristol presented splendid sets by the Wood Brothers, Rosanne Cash, Dustbowl Revival and Dallas Wayne & Redd Voelkart. Americanafest reached its peak in the sets by Lyle Lovett, Sunny Sweeney, Seth James, The Milk Carton Kids and especially James McMurtry. War & Treaty, Jerry Douglas, Jim Lauderdale, Asleep at the Wheel, Sierra Farrell and Brennen Leigh were at both festivals.
One of the final sets of the five-day Americanafest found Tami Neilson at the Exit/In. Wearing a tiara of copper-colored flowers and a blue dress embroidered with yellow lightning bolts and the letters “D-A-M-N,” she injected her feminist anthems with firecracker music. Backed by a mixed-gender quartet, Neilson used her enormous voice to raise the stakes. She addressed the industry’s gatekeepers—personified here as the Kingmaker—in a soaring touch song with a serrated edge.
She sat in a chair and slapped her thighs and shoulders to create a hambone backing for a song that asked, “Could the king of country music be the daughter, not the son?” In the song, she cited Kitty Wells as a candidate; in earlier banter, she had suggested Dolly Parton, whose autobiography, she said, is “my Bible.” She shifted easily from torch song to hambone to country waltz for “Beyond the Stars,” a tribute to her father, who led the Canadian family band that got his daughter her start.
She also adapted the junkyard-rock of Tom Waits for the feminist anthem, “Ain’t My Job.” “You want me to cook you dinner, but it ain’t my job,” she sang sassily over the push-and-pull funk. “You’re telling me that I should be thinner, but it ain’t my job.” The politics may have been righteous, but that wouldn’t have mattered as much if the groove hadn’t been so contagious or the lyrics so funny.
Here, once again, was proof that merely saying the right thing is not enough; you also have to find the right way to say it.