by Dan Schram
It was a big year for North Carolina at this year’s Americana Music Festival in Nashville. While the state didn’t capture any of the awards given last Wednesday night at the Ryman Auditorium, contributions by the Old North State to what the Americana Music Association (AMA) considers the best of the best has grown considerably. While the state only landed one performer in the coveted showcase performance spaces last year, eight appeared this year.
Many were younger bands that have gained a considerable draw over the past few years. Delta Rae, Red June, Mandolin Orange, American Aquarium and Holy Ghost Tent Revival all have recent releases that likely propelled them to Nashville. Established acts like Chris Stamey & The Steep Canyon Rangers provided a sample of the depth of talent within the state’s borders. Then there was the Songs of Big Star showcase, which debuted at the Cat’s Cradle last year. While the festival lasted four, and while most festival goers insisted on seeing acts they’d never seen before, I caught as many locals as possible during my two-day stay.
Thursday evening at The Rutledge, Songs of Big Star closed the evening’s Music of Memphis theme. The stage could hardly contain its members. In fact, the conductor of the string section stood in the crowd at the end of the stage to perform his duties. The crowd was quiet and respectful, although it was sprinkled with earlier performers like Jakob Dylan & Luther Dickinson. While most of the recognizable singers taking their turn with the Big Star ensemble earned more attention during their time on lead vocals, quiet chatter became silent as the more unknown Brett Harris (on “You & Your Sister”) and Skylar Gudasz (on “Thirteen”) took their turns. The largely industry crowd delivered rousing applause for them. Afterwards, Dylan even sought Harris out to exchange pleasantries and CDs, which had to feel like a shot in the arm for the younger performer.
Two Triangle mainstays, Mandolin Orange and American Aquarium delivered showcases Friday night. Before Mandolin Orange took the stage at The Rutledge, a manager Jimmy Rhine of Five Headed Entertainment alluded to exciting possibilities on the horizon for the duo. Despite the relative quick success for the duo, nothing seemed to have changed when they hit the stage: In classic fashion, Andrew Marlin chose to play barefoot, while Emily Frantz wore heels. And while most bands might play it safe by performing only songs they’ve recorded and released, Mandolin Orange played three songs they have yet to release. Perhaps they added to the assertion that the duo was sitting on a considerable amount of excellent, unreleased material. As talent buyers lined up in the front rows to watch the performance, the duo stepped off stage to a standing ovation.
Later in the evening, American Aquarium went into The Basement, a room that suggests that Slim's of Raleigh and The Cave of Chapel Hill had a child—low capacity, not much room, cheap drinks, sa mall unraised stage, low ceilings, few windows, minimal air. American Aquarium throve in the environment. The crowd appeared to be less about the industry and more about fans who purchased passes just to come see the band. American Aquarium was looser and seemed to not bear the burden of impressing attendees.
Earlier in the evening, though, lead singer BJ Barham participated in an event at the Hard Rock Cafe to celebrated the discovery and display of a notebook belonging to Gram Parsons. The journal featured hand-written lyrics to the song “1000 Wedding.” Barham, appeared slightly nervous while sitting on stage with other performers in typical guitar-pull fashion. He performed "Return of the Grievous Angel.”
As American Aquarium wound down their set back at The Basement and packed their trailer after a relatively short set, they lamented their long drive to Little Rock the next evening. Though the drive was long, they would be heading to a sold-out gig in a town that’s treated them well. As tour manager John Massengill tweeted the next evening, “I’ve sold t-shirts to at least 3 people obviously on meth tonight. #littlerock.”
Personally, the biggest standout performance did not come as a surprise. Two years ago, John Fullbright came to the Berkeley Cafe at the age of 21. Now, people are beginning to catch on to his massive talent. A highlight of my trip to Nashville was watching Fullbright, a native Oklahoman, sit on an otherwise bland panel of up-and-coming Americana acts. As each performer stepped to the front to perform early in the morning, none seemed to take the otherwise tedious event seriously. Fullbright stepped up to the front and blew everyone else off the stage with a fiery version of "Gawd Above". Fullbright, an otherwise fairly dry fellow, quietly sat back down possibly not realizing what a treat he had given to a tired looking crowd. Fullbright is miles ahead of his peers in songwriting, instrumental prowess and in the business that is being an independent Americana musician. Pick up a copy of From the Ground Up to hear for yourself.
Click here to watch 2012 Americana Music Festival videos of Brett Harris, Skylar Gudasz, Billy Joe Shaver, John Fullbright, BJ Barham, Wanda Jackson, Mandolin Orange and American Aquarium.