With over 180 bands set to perform over six days, the Americana Music Festival and Conference, running Sept. 20-25 at various venues throughout Nashville, has nearly every corner of the broad Americana landscape covered. From traditional bluegrass bands to label-defying mavericks to country traditionalists, there's something for everyone's tastes. But one of the most satisfying things for many Americanafest fans is discovering young talent who they might not have heard of before. In past years, currently well-known artists like Sturgill Simpson, Jason Isbell, and Sarah Jarosz have played small shows at the festival before breaking out. This year is no different and these five artists, ranging from brand newcomers to experienced artists making their next career move, should be near the top of any Americana Music Festival talent spotting fan's list.
Americana newcomer Matt Haeck, whose debut album Late Bloomer released in June, has a life story that reads like an Americana ballad. Born in Barbados to missionary parents, Haeck was well on his way to following in the family footsteps by pursuing a Masters in Divinity before he fell out of love with theology and into love with music. Throw in a successful four-year battle with addiction and you have an artist who has the life experiences to pull conflicted songs from and the talent to write the kind of smart lyrics that produce songs like “Couldn't Say Yes (Till I Learned to Say No).” Early press for Late Bloomer indicates that Haeck is picking up media momentum, and he wouldn't be the first artists to parlay an Americana Music Festival appearance into bigger things.
Combining a traditionalist Bakersfield sound with a millennial's eye, Luke Bell has been gaining steam over the last year, garnering positive press in Rolling Stone and impressing in appearances at massive festivals like Bonnaroo and Stagecoach. The video for his single “Sometimes”, a through the looking glass sendup of the Nashville karaoke bar scene, has given Bell even more exposure. Bell's combination of tradition and a willingness to experiment with other sounds is reminiscent of a young Sturgill Simpson, who also played increasingly larger Americana Music Festival stages before becoming the best selling artist he is today.
One of the most fascinating things about the Americana Music Festival is, for a genre with America in the title, how strong the scene is across the world. One of the hottest young acts coming to Americanafest from overseas in 2016 is My Bubba. The Icelandic duo of My Larsdotter and Bubba Tomasdottir bring a gentle, almost fragile, set of minimalist ballads with layered vocals that throw back to Simon and Garfunkel. The band's 2016 release Big Bad Good was the result of a successful crowdfunding campaign, a sign of support built through festival gigs and opening slots for the likes of Damien Rice and Matthew E. White. Already finding enough success to land a coveted NPR Tiny Desk Concert and effusive praise from NPR critic Bob Boilen who calls their music “quirky, delicate, and sweetly sung.”
Ruby Amanfu has been on the music scene for over a decade, touring as part of Jack White's band The Peacocks and releasing a series of highly regarded albums. But in the last year, Amanfu has taken the next step as a solo artist through a number of collaborations and ear-grabbing covers like her smoky soul reimagining of Bob Dylan's “Not Dark Yet”, as well as providing backing vocals for one track on arguably 2016's biggest album, Beyonce's Lemonade. For those looking for the sultry, blues-soul vocal backbone of Americana music, Ruby Amanfu's show is the place to be.
While still very young at 33, Aoife O'Donovan is a seasoned veteran compared to most on this list. As the vocalist for progressive bluegrass act Crooked Still, O'Donovan's vocal work has been in the Americana consciousness for years. But since breaking out as a solo artist, O'Donovan has taken yet another huge forward leap in her career. Landing songs on television shows like True Blood and Private Practice, becoming a favorite regular of Garrison Keillor on NPR's venerable A Prairie Home Companion, and touring the world as part of the Americana vocal supergroup I'm With Her, O'Donovan's music has reached new audiences while still retaining all of the charm, poise, and skill that made her an Americana Music Festival favorite for years.