The 11 Best Things We Saw at AmericanaFest 2019

J.S. Ondara
Erika Goldring/Getty Images

J.S. Ondara performs at Station Inn during AMERICANAFEST 2019 on Sept. 12, 2019 in Nashville.

AmericanaFest returned for its 20th year Sept. 10-15 throughout Nashville. More than 500 live performances were held in Music City during the annual festival, which included six days of panels, day parties and music showcases, as well as the Americana Honors & Awards.

From surprise guests like Keith Urban jumping onstage to join Foy Vance on “Burden” to memorable performances like The Bros. Landreth’s jaw-dropping shredding and J.S. Ondara’s mesmerizing vocals, here are the 11 best sets we saw (in alphabetical order).

Bonnie Bishop's soul shines

Bonnie Bishop’s ethereal and soulful vocals were at the forefront of her rousing AmericanaFest set on Friday night at Cannery Ballroom. With equal elements of a church revival and a backwoods jam, Bishop’s introspective lyrics and powerful belt left her audience wanting more.

Songs like the upbeat “Happiness Under the Sun” and mesmerizing “The Walk,” from her forthcoming new album of the same name out Oct. 4, had festivalgoers singing along while Bishop dropped prophecies on life throughout her performance. “You have to work extra hard to hold onto your love and your art,” she said. By the looks of her set Friday night, she has it figured out. - ANNIE REUTER

Foy Vance brings the star power

Vance took the AmericanaFest stage with a commanding presence as he told the audience, “For those of you that don’t know me, I’ll start at the very beginning.” The Irishman then settled into a seat beside the piano as he launched into the soulful “I Was Born.” He’d go on to captivate with the endearing ballad “Cradled in Arms,” a song he penned for his mother one Christmas. Backed by four singers, including Bishop, Vance’s set at times felt like that of a church choir. Additional highlights included the yearning “Malibu Jane” and his stirring collaboration with Urban on “Burden.” -- A.R.

Jeremie Albino turns up the nostalgia with retro set

Jeremie Albino brought his retro brand of Americana to Nashville’s revered The Station Inn on Thursday evening. The Canadian singer-songwriter had the room at capacity while playing songs off his excellent debut album Hard Time, released in August. Alone with his guitar, harmonica and a drum pedal, Albino captivated with songs about dancing (“Last Night”) and being shipwrecked (“Shipwrecked”).

“I like to write songs about things I’ve never done,” Albino admitted before playing “Lost My Life,” about dying in a mine. While early on in the set, he strummed an acoustic guitar, by the end Albino picked up the pace on electric for the standout “Storm” and foot-stomping closer “Trouble.” -- A.R.

J.S. Ondara silences the room

J.S. Ondara held the audience in the palm of his hands at the Station Inn on Thursday evening for one of the most attentive sets of AmericanaFest. One night after performing at the Americana Honors & Awards where he was nominated as best emerging act, the singer-songwriter’s highly anticipated showcase had a line wrapped around the venue. Not one for much banter, instead the Nairobi, Kenya native simply played the songs people came to hear. Ondara captivated alone with his acoustic guitar as he played the triumphant “American Dream” and the reflective “Torch Song,” both off 2019’s Tales of America. His distinct tenor hushed the room while the emotive breakup ballad “Saying Goodbye” had the singer convince his audience to join in a sing along at the close of his set. -- A.R.

Luck makes a splash at AmericanaFest

Luck Reunion, the annual intimate event held on Willie Nelson's Luck Texas Ranch, can now arguably be considered at the top of the list of greatest parties held on land AND water. Luck switched up the formula for how to host a function during AmericanaFest, eschewing the standard music venues that dot downtown Nashville's landscape in favor of an all-night party aboard the General Jackson riverboat, consisting of multiple stages hosting talent during a voyage down the Cumberland River. Many onboard continued to build upon the buzz they had harvested during the week, with Colter Wall and Yola among the talent to hold court with fans on deck following blistering sets, and the night capped off by a performance by The Marcus King Band that had many predicting the southern rockers to be the next kings of Americana. -- ISAAC WEEKS

Mary Bragg’s heavenly vocals hypnotize

Mary Bragg packed the Analog at Hutton Hotel on Saturday evening, where the Georgia native’s stunning vocals captivated the room while backed by a band that included pedal steel, upright bass, electric guitar, percussion and guest vocalists Robby Hecht and Jess Nolan. Traditional songs like the blues-infused “I Thought You Were Somebody Else” and heartbreaking “A Little Less,” both off 2019’s Violets as Camouflage, impressed. Meanwhile, her whispered vocals on “Fight,” a duet with Hecht, the hopeful “The Right Track” and stirring “Comet” further showcased her undeniable vocal power. -- A.R.

Paul Cauthen's Americana REVUE

Paul Cauthen continued to make a name for himself as one of the most interesting male vocalists in the Americana genre with the latest edition of his annual Big Velvet Revue. A night built around Cauthen serving as emcee/performer, the show featured some of the most popular names of the week making appearances onstage, with Cody Jinks being the biggest surprise. Make no mistake, however, it was Texas troubadour Cauthen that had many first-time attendees in the audience circle next year's festival dates on their calendar as a reminder that this was truly a show to build their schedule around in the future. -- I.W.

The Bros. Landreth’s guitar slinging captivates

The Bros. Landreth closed out Saturday night’s Analog show well after midnight with a fiery set of jaw-dropping shredding and impeccable harmonies. The Canadian group’s soul shined through with plenty of slide guitar by Joey Landreth while accompanied by his brother, Dave, on bass. Whether they were singing about “Good Love,” off their upcoming sophomore album, ’87 out Sept. 27, or heartbreak on the stirring “Let It Lie," the group’s harmonies and standout musicianship proved exactly why their set was one of the most packed of the week. -- A.R.

The Mavericks’ bring the “Swingin’” to surprise set

The Mavericks served as a last minute stand-in on Thursday evening at the Station Inn after headliner Nathaniel Rateliff bruised his wrist, forcing him to cancel. The band’s third show of the day, the Mavericks treated it as if it was the first with unyielding energy. The nine-piece ensemble settled onto the small stage shortly after 11 p.m. where its blend of Latin infused country music dazzled with a horn section, accordion, keyboards, upright bass and plenty of guitar accompaniment. “Thank you for coming to our surprise Station Inn gig,” frontman Raul Malo said. “I’ve loved this place since I move to Nashville.” Highlights included the feel-good set opener “Swingin’,” a throwback cover of Ray Price’s “You Don’t Love Me (But I’ll Always Care)” that saw several couples dancing in the aisles, and the fiery crowd pleaser “Every Little Thing About You.” -- A.R.

Thirty Tigers’ Gospel Brunch inspires

For the ninth year, Thirty Tigers presented their annual Gospel Brunch at City Winery with a wide variety of artists who transformed the concert venue to that of Sunday morning church. This year’s edition was hosted by Elizabeth Cook and included memorable performances by Bishop, Delbert McClinton, and Bobby Rush, who at 84-years-old still brought the energy and passion during a riveting harmonica solo of “When the Saints Go Marching In.” While the Caldwell Singers had those lucky enough to get a seat at the event dancing along, it was Drew Holcomb who stole the show with set opener “Family.” Holcomb managed to get a room full of sleep-deprived festival goers to sing along with him at 11 a.m. while standout “The Dragons” hushed the room with his deep vocals and inspiring lyrics. -- A.R.

Wynonna's latest reinvention

There is a strong argument that Wynonna Judd may be the Stevie Nicks of country music, with her latest project The Frothy Pit serving as only the latest chapter in a career that continues to evolve successfully with each new creative direction taken on. Pit -- a collaboration between Judd and prolific singer-songwriter Cass McCombs -- finds the two Anti Records labelmates joining together for material that ranks among the darkest of Judd's canon, yet also most fun, if the little that was shared with the AmericanaFest audience this past week is a sign of what is to come from the pair. -- I.W.

AmericanaFest 2019 ran Sept. 10-15.