By Mya Byrne, Annie Parnell, Abel Muñoz, and Dale Henry Geist
This year was Country Queer‘s first at AmericanaFest, and we were thrilled to attend the festival’s insightful panels and riveting performances, as well as the Americana Honors and Awards Ceremony. In fact, we were able to make our mark in Nashville with an official presence. On Thursday, Hunter Kelly hosted “The Full Spectrum: Beyond Queer Americana,” a panel that we curated in partnership with Gail Gellman (Brandy Clark’s manager). It was a moving conversation between Amy Ray, Mya Byrne, Lilli Lewis, Olivia Ladd, and Kamara Thomas, followed on Thursday afternoon by our Rainbow Happy Hour showcase (described below.)
We attended AmericanaFest hoping to see some change in action, evidence of the much-needed progress in the realm of country and Americana. We came away uplifted, moved, and confident about the ways the industry can continue to grow from here.
Here are some highlights.
Wednesday, Sep 22
PANEL: The Kalamazoo Gals: Women, Music, Guitars, and Social Justice
On Wednesday, CQ fave Ellen Angelico of Fanny’s House of Music sat on a panel with John Thomas, author of Kalamazoo Gals, about the women who’d become luthiers at Gibson during WWII; their handiwork now regarded as the best acoustic guitars Gibson ever made. Their history had been hidden by official Gibson historians until relatively recently, when Thomas uncovered the full story. Angelico brought much to this discussion, including a full spectral analysis(!) proving that these guitars resonate differently than others, and got outwardly emotional discussing these women and the thread of feminist history they represent, especially in the light of Angelico’s own work as a performer/accompanist and activist. We were then treated to a demonstration of these gorgeous guitars, and yours truly joined in the fun, performing a song with Angelico at the end of the panel. These instruments are very much alive in a way others aren’t, and to hear them was a very moving experience.
PANEL: All Americana: The Latine Experience
This panel was led by Felix Contreras of NPR’s Alt. Latino. Contreras interviewed Phoebe Hunt, who is of Puerto Rican descent and doesn’t identify as Latine, Raul Malo from The Mavericks, who is a first-generation Cuban-American, and Tish Hinojosam who identifies as Mexican-American. This panel focused on the intersections of identity in the world of Latine Americana music and each musicians’ influences. The highlight of this panel was when Contreras mentioned that outside of the United States, no one calls music by Latin performers “Latin music” — instead, as he pointed out, they refer to it by its genre. This powerful statement paralleled the artificiality of labels like “Latine” and “Latin music” in the American entertainment industry. Overall, I was very appreciative that AmericanaFest felt it was necessary to give voice to these experiences.
Americana Awards and Honors
Valerie June is a treasure, and one of the most cutting edge musicians performing today. She might as well have stoked a cauldron on stage; the level of sorcery in her appearance at the Ryman for the Americana Awards was palpable. I got goosebumps where I never had gotten them before as June brought Memphis soul legend Carla Thomas onstage to join her, whirling around the stage while performing her Song of the Year-nominated “Call Me A Fool.” This song is a true Tennessee soul jam, and the performance showcased that, with June’s unique and smooth voice raising to a gritty, guttural glottal bellow while Thomas, bedecked in clothing fit for a queen, pulsed along with her. Very much present at the AMAs this year was the concept of honoring our elders through our work, and this portion of the program brought tears to my eyes as June presented the AMA Inspiration Award to Thomas, who then performed Stax hit “B-A-B-Y” to an eager crowd.
A lot of attendees to this awards ceremony dressed casually, hewing to the Americana anti-aesthetic of band t-shirt, jeans, and scuffed-up boots. Not me. Getting to go to it was a Big F’in Deal for me, so I put together a flashy ensemble and took my place in the pews at the Mother Church of Country Music, the Ryman Auditorium, for the first time. I guess I was primed for an experience, but I didn’t count on crying quite that much.
The joy started with the very first notes of the evening, the iconic riff of the Stones classic “Can’t You Hear Me Knockin’”, cranked out by queer Americana icon Aaron Lee Tasjan, fronting an all-star house band. From there it went to a dignified Brandi Carlile at the podium, introducing the event and the next performer, Allison Russell. Russell performed “Nightflyer,” from her recent album “Outside Child,” (which Carlile took pains to praise during her acceptance speech for Artist of the Year, later in the program.)
For those of you counting, that’s three queer artists to lead off the show. Not too damn bad. We’d eventually also hear from Amythyst Kiah as well, who pulled off a powerful version of her “Fancy Drones.” For those of us trying to effect a change in the status quo, there were a lot of moments in the evening that felt validating and deeply moving — yes, to the point of tears.
Thursday, Sep 23
A Conversation with Brandi Carlile and Ann Powers at the Country Music Hall of Fame
This year we came across a stumbling block at AmericanaFest that, all things considered, I felt was a pretty good problem to have: upon researching the wide range of queer artists performing, we realized that our staff couldn’t be present for every queer event. While there’s certainly more work to be done, I came away from this conversation between Ann Powers and Artist of the Year-honoree Brandi Carlile particularly excited about the possibilities to come.
Powers and Carlile, as well as Carlile’s longtime collaborators the Hanseroth twins, structured this conversation as a song-by-song preview and in-depth discussion of Brandi Carlile’s new album In These Silent Days. Ann Powers’ nuanced questions generated some great discussion between Brandi and the twins about the album, including its recurring themes of vulnerability, growth, and family and what it was like to create during quarantine. My personal favorite moment? Hearing about Brandi’s process of trying to cure a fear of opening her eyes underwater while making the “Right On Time” music video.
Black Opry Presents: The Unbroken Black Circle
This panel, moderated by Marcus K. Dowling and featuring speakers Miko Marks, Jett Holden, Lizzie No, Lilli Lewis, and Queen Esther, provided an in-depth look into Black experiences of the world of country and Americana, as well as a frank discussion of the progress that must be made going forward to make that world more inhabitable for Black perspectives. The queer perspectives shared by Holden, Lizzie No, and Lewis were a compelling reminder of the intersectionality of experiences within the queer country community, and when Jett Holden got out a guitar and performed his moving ballad “Taxidermy” to express outrage at the martyrizing of lost Black lives, there wasn’t a dry eye in the house.
Country Queer Presents Rainbow Happy Hour
Dale Henry Geist
I’m not sure I actually have the words for this, but somebody’s gotta try. Curated and MC’d by Olivia Ladd, and hosted at record-store-and-bar Vinyl Tap, our first AmericanaFest showcase featured wonderful sets from Jett Holden, Izzy Heltai, Lilli Lewis with Joy Clark, Mya Byrne, Lizzie No, The Whitmore Sisters, and Paisley Fields. The room was packed, and the emotion was palpable. It was community in the purest sense. Here’s a brief slideshow of what it was like, featuring photography by Gabriel Barreto.
Friday, Sep 24
Aaron Lee Tasjan at Musicians Corner
I’m extremely biased because he’s producing my new record, but Aaron Lee Tasjan was fire. Taking the reins of keyboards and guitar at the Ryman alongside Buddy Miller and Don Was, he opened the Awards, then added tasty accompaniment to about a dozen legendary performances. However, my favorite appearance was Musician’s Corner Friday night. I was watching from sidestage (I sat in with him on a song), and to witness this openly queer musician perform for a mixed crowd of folks — including families with young children rocking out in the front of the stage — was another note of social progression for LGBTQIA+ Americana artists. Tasjan is a wizard of gear, and mostly played electric 12-string through a bunch of interesting effects. His crackerjack band (Mark Stepro/drums, Tommy Scifres/bass, Erica Blinn/guitar) laid down a groove so thick and heavy you could spread it on toast. Tasjan owned the stage, dancing as he hit high notes, loving on the crowd, thanking them for being themselves and for being there for him.
Dale Henry Geist
Aaron has been a supporter of CQ from jump, offering us a pre-show interview two years ago back when he was clearly granting us a favor. I hadn’t seen him play since then, nor had I ever seen him play live with a band.
Dressed, for him, moderately, in jeans, a peach t-shirt, muted paisley jacket, and simple straw hat (when discussing ALT one must mention attire), Aaron and his band absolutely crushed a dozen or so of the hookiest, crunchiest tunes, starting from his new album (Tasjan! Tasjan! Tasjan!) and going back to his 2016 breakout, Silver Tears.
Standing next to yet another new friend I’d made in my short time in Nashville, watching Aaron embody the glory of joyous, out-loud self-expression in a way that was utterly queer without being one bit camp or self-serious, I felt something open up inside of this no-longer-young soul: the possibility of a new way of carrying myself in the world that would be closer to who I really am. The experience came to a peak when Aaron invited Mya Byrne, the trans artist whose new album Aaron is producing, to sit in with the band on “Feminine Walk.” Byrne’s contribution, including a tasty solo, was terrific (full disclosure: Mya is also CQ’s Editor-at-Large), but it was the moment that Tasjan led the crowd in a singalong of the refrain that drove it all home: all kindsa folks up there shout-singing “I’ve got a feminine walk!”
You just felt that any way you wanted to be was possible and good.
Immigrants in the Arts: A Look Back, A Leap Forward for Inclusivity in Our Industry
This panel featured six artists who were primarily from Europe (Germany, England, Netherlands and Turkey), except for two first-generation Americans who had their roots in the Philippines and in West Africa. Most of this discussion focused on how these individuals found their place in Americana. One of the things that stood out the most in this session were the words of the Filipina-American Celia Chavez, who said “I never saw myself in this genre” before arriving through songwriting. The panelists all seemed to agree that a good song allows people to feel like they belong, to feel like they are significant and to feel like they are connected to others.
The Roots of Storytelling: Americana Literature’s Impact on Americana Music
The discussion at this panel began with individuals attempting to define the nebulous idea associated with “Americana.” In this attempt, they included “writing about the American experiment,” “the rebellious spirit,” “self-sufficiency,” “people’s stories/experiences” and the idea that this genre emcompasses “our roots. The representation of people who live here.” Then the conversation turned to literature that had impacted the panelist. The highlight for me was when Sally Jaye, a performing artist and record company owner, mentioned that the writing of Flannery O’Connor gave her permission to tell her story.
Saturday, Sep 25
Kentucky Commonwealth Party
This outdoor social at The Basement was a total treat, and not only because they were handing out free KFC and selling fancy bourbon drinks at the bar. Kentucky has such a rich musical history that’s inextricably tied to modern country and Americana, as well as a legacy of grassroots action and change. It was great to see those roots honored onstage with performances by a range of artists from Kentucky, including Kelsey Waldon, Bendigo Fletcher, and the rich rootsy rock of our very own SG Goodman. “Space and Time” is always a treat to hear live, and the way Goodman wailed her way through an epic jam session on “The Way I Talk” was the perfect way to show off some Kentucky pride.
Sarah Shook and the Disarmers at The Basement East
Sarah Shook and the Disarmers are a singular act, mixing a deep well of country sadness with an angry punk-rock flair and a penchant for clever wordplay in their lyrics. I’m glad I happened to have some earplugs on me, because this set was LOUD in the best way possible — and hearing Sarah belt “God don’t make mistakes, He just makes fuck-ups” over the noise was the icing on top of the cake. I walked out of this set with a brand new Sarah Shook trucker hat and t-shirt, and can’t ask for much more. Hearing the great work at The Black Opry get a shout-out from Sarah onstage was another heartwarming highlight.