Sweat in the band: What we saw at the Americanafest edition of $2 Tuesday

Written by Drew Michael Blake
Sweat in the band: What we saw at the Americanafest edition of $2 Tuesday
Charlie Whitten at Americanafest; Photo credit: Brandon Highfill/@jonnyblane

For 8 p.m. on a Tuesday, the 5 Spot was unusually full. As he does most every Tuesday, Derek Hoke stepped on stage to introduce the first act in his white felt hat. Not quite the emblematic over-sized cowboy hat of country music, with far more wear on the edges and sweat in the band than the fresh-off-the-shelf models donned by the marquee names of Nashville’s yesteryear. Curated by Hoke weekly for the last 9 years, $2 Tuesday has become an Americana institution, and the ‘fest crowd was happy to fork over two singles for tuition. These days the ten gallon hat that branded country music has been replaced by the branded ball cap. Many feel the hat isn’t the only thing that has changed in country music, and turn to its red-haired cousin, Americana, whose charts are topped this week by literal redhead Tyler Childers, to find the grit and gravitas they miss.

First on the bill was Australian blues singer Kara Grainger. The spotlight was shortly stolen from her velvet voice by her virtuoso harmonica playing brother, Mitch, in from LA. Between songs Mitch said they don’t play together as a rule, but all the same they made a convincing duo. Kara graciously gave Mitch the microphone and she took up a glass slide while he offered a song in his own dulcet voice.

Wielding a small body Gibson acoustic in front of non-ironic overalls, Laney Jones and her band The Spirit provided the entire Quirkiness and Animated Energy quota allowed by law at an Americana show. Laney is a master of putting every word and note of a melody in its right place, and she and her band captivated the audience with the potency of her songcraft.

“Captain Drew, can I get more of this guitar? Cause I’m about to freaking shred, and I want to hear every note.” These first words heard by the audience from satin-voiced Charlie Whitten are how he asked to hear more guitar in his stage monitor. Charlie’s version of shredding has more in common with Dave Rawlings than Van Halen. The “very awkward music video,” (his words) for his latest single, “Out of This,” features extended glamour shots of the flax-haired gentle giant in a white turtleneck that wouldn’t be out of place in a Tim and Eric production. It was Charlie’s show, but the star was his backing band of Blair White (keys), Juan Solorzano (guitar), Jerry Bernhardt (bass), and Dom Billett (drums). A veritable Nashville soft rock supergroup, their chemistry was undeniable. Charlie started the show by acknowledging the heft of a five man band on stage for a four song set, adding, “I know there are some super-secret Americana agents in the audience tonight disguised as my best friends, and they might sign me after the show, so Derek told me not to talk too much.” He kept his promise and let the songs do the talking. Here’s hoping he has a lot more to say.

After his set Charlie disappeared as much as anyone who stands a head above a crowd can disappear into one. Los Colognes finished out the night with a track by track cover of the album Harvest Moon, a mid-career touchstone from the Neil Young catalog. The cast of guest singers read like an indie Nashville Who’s Who, among them Americana breakout Erin Rae, royalty Lilly Hiatt, and local legend Tyler James of Ten out of Tenn and Escondido. The first song, ‘Unknown Legend’ has become something of an indie Nashville staple, which has plenty of unknown legends of its own. The songs were beautifully sung, perfectly executed, and a great reminder of how nights that would be the musical highlight of the year elsewhere happen in Nashville’s Americana scene with no fanfare.