When I put Jonah Tolchin's performance at Third Man Records on my schedule for Americana Fest, the annual gathering of roots-minded musicians that took over Nashville last week, I thought I was going to see a young artist playing old-timey music. Earlier this year, the 22-year-old New Jerseyite released an album, Clover Lane, that gently ranges from countryish ballads to uptempo numbers with a country blues feel. The videos on Tolchin's website show him in plaid and a generationally appropriate shaggy beard, strumming an acoustic guitar. Catching his set, I thought I'd be in the general vicinity of Mumford & Sons.
Instead, I saw a plugged-in rock show featuring a guitarist in acid-washed jeans and a Fame Studios t-shirt playing leads Duane Allman would have respected. Then I stuck around for Pete Molinari's set — and heard full-on power pop sung by the British musician and backed by a local band including singer Coco from The Ettes and most of the steel guitar jazz band Steelism, including a cover of John Lennon's "Woman." Instead of a cowboy hat, Molinari wore a Carnaby Street-style wide-striped suit.
For me, what makes Americana music exciting right now is the same thing that makes rock and roll sing, when it does: electricity and individualism. Plenty of hard country and gentle song-weaving occurred during Americana Fest's four days, which began last Wednesday with its presenting organization's annual awards and concluded with a gospel brunch on Sunday, with upwards of 150 showcases in between. Some of that was great — country star Lee Ann Womack crossing over seamlessly from the mainstream into a new phase; the gentle troubadour Doug Seegers and the jovial young honky-tonker Jason Eady singing of hard times and resilience; R&B maverick Van Hunt proving his gospel chops with The McCrary Sisters. But what kept grabbing my attention was something else. In a city known for country music, at a gathering of aficionados who tend to love folk and singer-songwriters, a delightful noise kept breaking out. It was the din of people plugging in and exploring rock and roll's rhythms, its eccentricity and its fire.
Focusing on artists I mostly hadn't seen before, I encountered an edifying range of rock sounds. Texas-based "cosmic country" artist Israel Nash filled the High Watt with waves that landed somewhere between psychedelia and grunge. Sturgill Simpson, who won that same award, showed off his Eddie Van Halen-fingered Estonian guitarist Little Joe during a City Winery set that was as rock-rebellious as it was country strong. At the Mercy Lounge, Parker Millsap, another Emerging Artist nominee, wore the same shirt Elvis did in Jailhouse Rock, and pushed his acoustic band toward Sun Studios-worthy raveups. Also at the High Watt, Caroline Rose came on like a new Liz Phair, showing off deft recklessness and basketball socks. Shakey Graves, playing a hollow-body electric guitar with just a drummer and his own suitcase percussion kit, pushed the edge of Jeff Buckley-influenced art rock during his packed showcase at the Basement. Promised Land Sound represented for the ragged and eclectic East Nashville scene at Third Man, and even the acoustic guitar duo of Madisen Ward and the Mama Bear, who created a sensation during a special showcase at the same venue, sounded more Beatlesque than conventionally bluesy.
This little storm kicked up by rock's vibrations isn't exactly a new development within Americana, despite the post-Mumford clatter of uplifting singalongs. The variations now loosely gathered under the Americana umbrella really originated with rockers — Gram Parsons, The Byrds, even Bob Dylan, and certainly The Band, long-haired troublemakers who made traditional forms both more pop and more incendiary by infusing them with countercultural flash and ego-driven innovation. By this definition, it's arguable that classic rock itself was Americana music; just ask those Carnaby Street-loving blues mavens The Rolling Stones.
Since then, rockers have renewed American listeners' interest in our roots music every decade or so. The 1980s saw cowpunk bands like Jason and the Scorchers, The Long Ryders and X. Ten years later, Uncle Tupelo followed through on those bands' example, working on the principle that co-leader Jeff Tweedy famously stated: "Hardcore punk is also folk music." Third Man Records owner and Nashville music patron Jack White followed the same impulse into more theatrical territory with The White Stripes a few years later, focusing on folk's African-American counterpart, the blues of the Great Migration era. And right now, young artists like Benjamin Booker (a New Orleans-based, African-American garage-blues auteur who wasn't at this year's fest, but, I predict, will be an Emerging Artist contender next year) are ruffling the neat surfaces of roots revivalism with music that's more suitable to the garage than the campfire. These interventions weren't perfect — for one thing, they were mostly enacted by white bohemians appropriating black or working class traditions, and they repeated classic rock's original sin of speaking in the voices of others without actually welcoming them into dialogue. But they've always enlivened things at moments when music felt a little stuck.
Nashville, in the 1990s, was the site of Americana's rock romance. Lower Broadway had been a honky-tonk haven in the post-war era, but had fallen on hard times when sharp-dressing, indie-inspired young hotshots like Greg Garing and the band BR5-49 — who went on to tour with rockers like Dylan and the Black Crowes — started squatting, metaphorically, in those run-down whiskey holes. At a special Americana Fest concert celebrating that now twenty-year-old scene, Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum curator Michael Gray read from an old Nashville Scene article describing tattooed young women in vintage dresses dancing with the older country gentlemen who'd haunted those bars before the punks moved in. Garing and BR5-49 played short sets, demonstrating the more traditional and virtuosic — but still very flashy — approach they took to preservationism.
Emerging Artist nominee Alynda Lee Segarra wore a Nudie-style suit similar to the ones BR5-49's members have always favored when her band Hurray For the Riff Raff performed at this year's Americana Music Awards. Her evolution is emblematic of rock's role in Americana right now: She started in a folk vein, but as her skill set has expanded and her vision sharpened, she's dipped into sources like rockabilly and the girl groups. In the mainstream and even in other indie circles, rock has come to represent something staid and somewhat bloodless. The opposite is happening in both mainstream country, where rock means a party, and in this more esoteric subculture, whose denizens sometimes need to be kick-drummed out of a certain self-satisfied complacency. Even for inveterate strummers like The Avett Brothers, who played Americana Fest's biggest concert on the Nashville riverfront Friday night, rock provides a way to connect to American musical legacies while cultivating a spirit of risk.
It was fitting, then, that most-feted elder statesman at Americana Fest was Ry Cooder, the L.A.-based guitarist whose career has been a lesson in balancing rock audaciousness with a love of music's international folkways. Cooder was everywhere during the fest, playing in the awards show house band, giving a Lifetime Achievement plaque to his longtime collaborator Flaco Jimenez, sitting in with the young country artist Sam Outlaw and generally radiating good cheer in his trademark pool sandals and white socks.
In a public conversation at the Hall with music historian Barry Mazor, Cooder discussed his remarkably varied career playing everything from blues to folk to rhythm and blues to many variations on on Latin music. Asked how he's managed to be so free when others feel they must conform to the expectations of the music business or their communities, Cooder at first joked, "Very simple — no hits!" But then, discussing his decision to play norteño music with Jimenez in the 1970s — a move some considered career suicide for an L.A. guitar player — Cooder simply recalled thinking, "I don't care, because I'm going to do it anyway." Rock and roll rule breaking can be puerile, but when it's like that, when it's about pursuing a musical dream just because it feels right and you're ready, it really does make the sound and soul of music feel like a big surprise. That's what the best of Americana's rock-minded practitioners offer right now.