The 2019 Americana Music Festival and Conference is officially underway, and after last night’s (September 11) awards were handed out to John Prine, Brandi Carlile and more at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium, the music shifted back into the city’s small clubs. One of the night’s most intriguing (and luxuriously weird) shows had to be Paul Cauthen’s Big Velvet Revue.
Packed with more than 15 artists and hosted by the eccentric Texan behind this year’s Room 41 and the wild-eyed standout, “Cocaine Country Dancing,” Cauthen’s show was a quick-moving survey of his favorite country and Americana friends.
Standouts on the night included some familiar names to mainstream fans, like Randy Houser, who played a 1 a.m. set of howling anthems like “Whole Lotta Quit” and the bluesy belter, “No Good Place to Cry.”
The great Jack Ingram was also in attendance, offering up his gorgeously-written “Tin Man” (the Miranda Lambert hit about how the Tin Man from the Wizard of Oz doesn’t really want a heart — they break easy, after all) along with old favorites like a cover of “Sunday Morning Coming Down.” That one served as a warning to all the aspiring artists in the audience: “The best part of my job is that every night is Saturday and every day is Sunday,” Ingram said, and then admitted that’s also the worst part.
Each artist got to perform three songs, mostly acoustic but once in a while with a full band for backing. One of those electrified sets came courtesy of rising star Chris Shiflett – who also hosts the popular Walking the Floor podcast and plays lead guitar for a little band called The Foo Fighters. Full of pick-me-up energy and featuring a country-Tom Petty feel, each song was like a mini arena concert, culminating in the feel-good singalong “Liar’s Word.”
New faces like Aubrie Sellers impressed by going in the opposite direction, singing a moody, stripped down version of the bluegrass favorite “My Love Will Not Change” (which she hinted will feature outlaw-minded icon Steve Earle on her upcoming second album) and backing that with a smitten standout titled “Haven’t Even Kissed Me Yet.”
Likewise, Joshua Ray Walker blew the early crowd away by stepping onstage and immediately confessing what felt like his deepest secrets. Using “Canyons” to explore the space in his soul “that can’t be filled” and offering a crushing new tune about driving his truck into a lake – and making it look like an accident — the songs were brilliant but almost worrisome in their brutal honesty.
And speaking of honesty, any opportunity to see Kendell Marvel should be seized. Nearly 50 and already a Grammy winning songwriter, Marvel explained from the stage he reached a point in his career where it was either “start writing shitty country songs or make a record.” With an effortless sense of economy to his writing, pure-country tracks “Hard Time With the Truth” showed which one he chose, featuring deceptively smart lines like “If I’m being honest, it’s easier to lie.” Meanwhile, “Either Way” – the stunning Grammy winner he wrote with Chris Stapleton – brought down the house.
Other memorable performers on the bill included Leah Blevins, Frankie Leonie, Jason Boland, Jamie Wyatt and “From a Table Away” hitmaker Sunny Sweeney – who noted that Cauthen had booked six female artists on one bill – plus the Quaker City Night Hawks, who were kicked out of the venue (and the rest of the festival) after a chaotic, violent onstage temper tantrum from the band’s drummer. But Cauthen reserved the night’s biggest musical spectacle for himself.
Taking the stage like a real life Vegas vaquero, he sported a black hat, gaudy shades and gold rings, wrapping himself in a glittering zip-up jacket and letting his booming, gospel-influenced vocal barrel over the audience. Writhing like a crazy Elvis snake and suitably sauced up, his mix of Texas country and 1970s disco cheese was both thrilling and impossible to ignore, feeling like it could come off the rails at any moment.
“They call me Big Velvet,” he intoned, sounding at times like Jerry Reed on a four-day bender. He threw his lot in with the jail-bird weirdos of the world in “Freak,” while a red hot cover of ZZ Top’s “Waitin’ for the Bus/Jesus Just Left Chicago” featured Austin blues guitarist Eric Tessmer, and Waylon Jennings’ “Luckenbach Texas” featured Americana favorites Cody Jinks and The Lone Bellow’s Zach Williams. And then, of course, there was a little “Cocaine Country Dancing.” A wild ride, for sure.