if Nashville’s annual weeklong Americanafest is the best way to hear and experience American roots music — Nashville music, when you get down to it — at its finest, there is no place better to experience the thrills of the festival than at the sprawling downtown nightclub complex of Mercy Lounge/Cannery Ballroom, The High Watt and One.
That’s four stages. On four levels. If you get lost, just look for a man mountain with SECURITY on his sculpted, I-mean-business front, and you’re there.
Although the at least partial sets heard from The Josephines, Jim Lauderdale, Ruston Kelly, Brandy Clark, Blackfoot Gypsies and guitar genius Tommy Emmanuel all had their charms, I was there to see Buddy Miller and band Friday night.
The singer-songwriter-producer-band leader-Great American Treasure had to beg out at the last minute for last year’s festival. Miller returned to lead the star-studded house band for the annual awards show earlier in the week, though. And his guitar is sounding better than ever.
As is his singing, which more than one critic has rightly called one of the finest in country music. More on Buddy and Friday’s music in a moment
Back to the Mercy Lounge conglomerate. Performance times are staggered on the half hour. You can graze, hearing a few songs from one act, then moving up or down a flight or two of stairs or take an elevator to hear another act. Or you can stay where you are and let the acts hit you one by one.
There are precious few seats in the joint. Veteran fans know where the support beams and window seals are located, for leaning. And some of the tired and weary make friends with the floor, on the back and side of some stages.
Mercy Lounge has been involved since the early days of what is now the 19th annual Americanafest. Things usually run like clockwork, or Usain Bolt in the 100 meters. Until they don’t.
There was the year the house safe malfunctioned, and staff couldn’t staff couldn’t access any $1 bills for a time. Yeh. THAT’S a problem.
Nothing could be worse, shy of running out of beer.
“Um, Wednesday night was worse,” owner-proprietor Todd Ohlhauser said.
That would be just a couple of nights ago. Ohlhauser, who opened the joint in January 2003, usually walks around the place with the slightly furrowed brow of a father waiting for his daughter to return home from the prom.
But you learn to be resourceful in this bar and concert business. Seems someone had vandalized a restroom toilet in The High Watt, the smaller third-floor stage. The water wouldn’t stop flowing. Just. Wouldn’t. Stop.
So Ohlhauser, screwdriver in hand, arrived at the scene and indeed shut off the water. But by that time, two inches of water covered the floor of the club. No problem that a shop vac couldn’t handle. If only someone hadn’t hidden the shop vac.
So out came the mops and brooms, and staff furiously reclaiming their relatively dry hardwood. The show must go on, after all.
Which leads us back to Buddy Miller and the resiliency and unsung spectacular nature of the guy.
For instance, his talented singer-songwriter wife, Julie, suffers from a chronic illness called fibromyalgia, and Buddy dotes on her whenever he’s not onstage, or in the studio, or on the road, or shopping at your local Kroger.
We mourn her missing presence and voice on stage these past many years. But when Buddy tore into “Does My Ring Burn Your Finger” guitar blazing and country holler vocals open wide, to start his set Friday night, we thought of her.
And of course with the next song, Julie’s own “Take Me Back,” about her trailblazing ancestors heading West.
Other set highlights included Miller staples such as “Worry Too Much,” with two McCrary Sisters backing, and “Gasoline and Matches.” And The War and Treaty — who later closed the night — evening opener Jim Lauderdale and the McCrarys crowded the stage for the rousing set-closing “Somewhere Trouble Don’t Go.”
Midset, Miller and band — pedal steel guitar ace Steve Fishell, drummer Bryan Owings, and fiddler Lillie Mae among them — made room for legendary singer and raconteur Kinky Friedman on stage. “The governor of the Heart of Texas,” as the bemused Miller said on making the introduction.
Old and new tunes were interspersed with Friedman’s witticisms, one-liners, and tequila-shot throwbacks. “Mexican mouthwash,” as he described the elixir.
“Just remember,” said Friedman, “falling on your face is still moving forward.”
AMERICANAFEST® 2018 continues through Sunday at various Nashville venues. View the full schedule on NowPlayingNashville or download the app from the AmericanaMusic.org website for the latest information.