After the Americana Honors & Awards ceremony at the Ryman Auditorium, where Jason Isbell swept (Best Song, Best Album, Best Artist) and Buddy Miller once again took home Instrumentalist of the Year, we headed for the real treasures of the Americana Music Association’s annual conference: the showcases—and there we unearthed real value.
We’d run across Kevin Russell earlier in the day, at a preview for a film about Ted Hawkins, an LA songwriter and busker. What we heard there brought us to The High Watt club, where Russell’s group, Shinyribs, played a truly astounding set. Some alien hybrid of Otis Redding, Jimmy Buffett and Townes Van Zandt, Russell looks like the brother Duck Dynasty’s Robertsons won’t admit to, and dances like James Brown. Russell’s unique voice, soulful with a strident edge, is enough to command attention from the outset, but his songs are really something else. Like Buffett, Russell is very aware that humor does not devalue a song; one highlight of the set was “Sweet Potato,” a poignant gift of love to his favorite root vegetable. Backed by drums, keyboard, bass and a horn section, Russell himself plays acoustic guitar and ukulele, not a surprising choice for a unique group like this. You should catch these guys.
Pulling a 180, we headed for opening night at City Winery, which will undoubtedly be spectacular once they work out the kinks. Sturgill Simpson, who had just played at the awards ceremony and won the Emerging Artist award, gave a virtuoso performance, especially for someone still on the uptick. With a classic Willie-Waylon-and the-Boys country voice and a kickin’ backing band, this guy is the real deal in country music, a welcome shift back to music you can sink your teeth into, without the crossover into pop. There’s nothing wrong with pop, but there’s nothing wrong with country music, either. And, by the way, there is absolutely nothing wrong with Sturgill Simpson. We even walked out the door with Jason Isbell, who could have been out celebrating, but wanted to hear more of Simpson. I’m sure we’ll all hear more from this guy.
– Suzanne Cadgene