By Lone Star Music Staff
When the very first Austin City Limits Music Festival was held way back in 2002, the two-day-only lineup boasted a whopping 65 different acts — out of which you could pretty much count on one hand the ones that had any more than a couple degrees of separation from either the city’s celebrated homegrown music scene or the wider world of roots and Americana. From Ryan Adams and Austin’s own Arc Angels and Asleep at the Wheel to Gillian Welch, Kelly Willis, and Wilco — along with such Texas country/Red Dirt favorites as Pat Green, Cross Canadian Ragweed, and Reckless Kelly — it really did feel like a reverent throwback to the ’70s heyday of both the Austin progressive country scene and the dawn of Austin City Limits, the live-music TV show from which the ACL Fest got its name.
Needless to say, a lot has changed since then. The festival was expanded into a three-day, 100-artist affair the very next year, and though the 2003 model still leaned heavy on Texas and national Americana talent, a handful of big-name mainstream and prestige alternative rock acts (ranging from headliners R.E.M. and Steve Winwood to Liz Phair and Yo La Tengo) made clear that producers C3 Presents were aiming more for “destination festival” status than just a local-flavor love-in. They would reach that goal long before the festival spilled over into two weekends in 2013, with 2005’s event named Pollstar’s Festival of the Year. Each year, the headliners get bigger and bigger and lineup ever more diverse, with A-list hip-hop, rap, EDM and pop acts (Kanye West, deadmau5, Drake) now regularly sharing top-of-poster billing with heritage rock acts like the Eagles and Neil Young and buzz acts like alt-j, Florence + the Machine and Lana Del Rey. And Americana acts, both local and national? Rest assured they’re still present and accounted for every year — though the ranks have thinned quite a bit to make room for the other flavors in the pot.
For the record, this is not a bad thing. After all, it’s not like there’s a shortage of quality Texas and Americana shows to be found in Austin literally every other week and weekend of the year — not to mention plenty of other destination festivals both here in Texas and beyond that still cater exclusively to fans of those genres. But as most open-minded music fans can attest, a little or a lot of variety and expanded horizons are good. A handful of us here at Lone Star Music will be attending ACL Festival this year, and rest assured that as fans, we’re excited about seeing a lot more than just Chris Stapleton (Weekend One) and Willie Nelson (Weekend Two). We’re all just as fired up to see Radiohead, LCD Soundsystem, and Kendrick Lamar — not to mention such disparate individual picks as M83, Frightened Rabbit, Die Antwoord, and Cage the Elephant.
All that said, though, there’s still an awful lot of quality Americana to be heard this year at ACL, and we’re going to catch as much of it as we can. And to help you catch it all, too, we’ve put together a list of our “LSM Recommends” must-see Americana (more or less) picks for each day of the festival. To keep things streamlined, we’re limiting our picks here to Weekend One (Sept. 30-Oct. 2) only. We’ll post our Weekend Two (Oct. 7-9) recommendations next week — providing we all survive the first weekend, that is.
Friday, Sept. 30 Picks
Asleep at the Wheel
12:15 p.m. Honda Stage
Ray Benson is pretty much to the ACL Festival what Big Tex is to the Texas State Fair: a long, tall Texan (not by birth, but c’mon) who’s been greeting folks walking through the front gates with a friendly “Howdy, y’all!” and a blast of comforting nostalgia for as long as anyone can remember. Benson’s Western swing preservation society, Asleep at the Wheel, is the only act to have so far played every ACL Fest since the first one in 2002, and odds are the Wheel will continue rolling as a festival staple for years to come. That may make them seem an odd pick to spotlight, but there’s a lot to be said for honoring tradition: Benson and Co. carry the torch not just for the legacy and music of Bob Wills, but for the free-spirited old Austin music scene that inspired TV’s Austin City Limits in the first place (the Wheel, in fact, were featured on the show’s very first episode way back in 1976, not counting the Willie Nelson pilot). And not for nothing, but they put on a hell of an entertaining show, too, with instrumental and showmanship chops that could easily put any number of younger, ostensibly hipper acts on the festival bill to shame.
4:00 p.m., BMI Stage
If you’re somehow under the impression that the festival’s smaller BMI Stage is reserved for under-the-radar, not-ready-for-prime-time players, this 26-year-old native North Texan oughta set that record straight. Earlier this summer, Maren Morris topped the Billboard Country Albums Chart — and cracked the Top 5 of the all-genre Billboard Top 200 — with her major-label debut, Hero. But don’t mistake her for a genetically engineered Music Row creation. Morris already had three independent albums (the first, 2005’s Walk On, released when she was just 15) under her belt by the time Columbia Nashville signed her on the strength of “My Church,” her exhilarating paean to the soul-charging power of a great song on the radio. Hero is packed with those, all of them co-written by Morris herself and every single one brimming with sticky-sharp hooks and sing-along choruses that split the difference between Kacey Musgraves’ assertive self-empowerment and Taylor Swift’s unerring pop smarts. Songs like “80s Mercedes” and “Drunk Girls Don’t Cry” may not sound especially “country” or “Americana,” but if you’re a fan of Texas women taking the mainstream by the balls and twisting it in a smarter direction, Maren Morris is a heroine worth rallying behind.
4:45 p.m., Tito’s Handmade Vodka Stage
If the late, great “Sir” Doug Sahm — the patron saint of Texas music who loved (and pretty much mastered) every genre he could find in the Lone Star State — were still around today, it’s a safe bet he’d be all about a movin’ to Gina Chavez’s groove. Austin born and raised, Chavez mixes all kinds of Latin, Tex-Mex and American music styles with genuine Texas Tornado-worthy panache, stirring folk, cumbia, bossa nova and pop into a spicy bilingual caldo that has won her both national and international fame — and a cultural ambassador gig with the U.S. State Department’s American Music Abroad program. She’s made quite an impression in her hometown of late, too, winning both Musician of the Year and Album of the Year (for her second album, Up.Rooted) honors at the 2015 Austin Music Awards.
Band of Horses
7:00 p.m., Miller Lite Stage
Indie-rock favorites Band of Horses aren’t particularly easy to corral into the typical Americana stable, but they’re right at home in whatever one might call that adjacent field where the likes of Fleet Foxes, Iron & Wine, Phosphorescent, Andrew Bird, Connor Oberst, later-day Neko Case and even My Morning Jacket all romp and roam. In the decade since their launch out of Seattle with their 2006 Sub Pop debut, Everything All the Time Time, frontman Ben Bridwell has kept Band of Horses running through numerous lineup and label changes and even a move back to his native South Carolina; and though he’s now the only original member left in the saddle, this summer’s terrific Why Are You OK (the band’s fifth album) features plenty of stirring anthems like “Casual Party” that more than hold their own alongside such beloved fan favorites as 2006’s “The Funeral” and “Laredo” (from 2010’s Infinite Arms).
Saturday, Oct. 1 Picks
Matt the Electrician
12:45 p.m., Tito’s Handmade Vodka Stage
Standing out in the teeming crowd of singer-songwriters inhabiting the “Live Music Capital of the World” can be a tall order, but that’s never really been an issue for Matt “the Electrician” Sever. Originally hailing from the West Coast, Matt moved to Austin in the mid-90s and rather quickly found his niche on the local scene by hosting an open-mic night right across the street from Zilker Park at Flipnotics coffeeshop (RIP) and frequenting the stage at the renowned Cactus Café — often as the kind of disarmingly charming opening act who could easily make an evening’s headliner seem like an afterthought. Both live and on record, his songs just have a way of quietly sneaking up on you; sometimes it’s a particularly poignant or droll lyric, sometimes it’s a slyly irresistible melody, and sometimes it’s just his warm, toasty voice, but often as not it’s all those things at once. He’s prolific, too; In addition to the 11 albums and EPs he’s released since 1998 (we recommend 2004’s Long Way Home, 2009’s Animal Boy, and/or 2013’s It’s a Beacon, It’s a Bell for starters, though they’re all wonderful), he’s collaborated with a host of songwriters from all over the world as an ambassador of Austin’s House of Songs. He’s also spent the last two years recording and releasing a series of 7-inch singles with fellow local indie-folk acts including Dana Falconberry, Little Brave, and Wood & Wire.
Sat., Oct. 1, 4:40 p.m., BMI Stage
Nasvhille-based singer-songwriter Aubrie Sellers likes to call her music “garage country,” a nifty little rubric which, hindsight being 20/20 and all, actually would have made for a much better descriptor for Uncle Tupelo, Whiskeytown, the Bottle Rockets and all those other punk-reared “alt-country” bands of the late ’80s and early ’90s than, well, “alt-country.” So give the young woman props on brilliant marketing — but even moreso for delivering on the promise of that handle in spades all through her 2016 full-length debut, New City Blues. Originally released indie-style at the beginning of the year on Carnival/Thirty Tigers, the album has just been re-released with major-label muscle by Atlantic/Warner Music Nashville — giving Sellers a rare opportunity to make a second first impression with her arresting hybrid of classic country songwriting, 21st-century sass, and snarly, grungy rock ’n’ roll. That she also possess a voice as bell-tone pure and gorgeous as Texas’ own Lee Ann Womack is no mere coincidence, either: that’s Aubrie’s proud mama.
Sat., Oct. 1, 7:30 p.m., Miller Lite Stage
From his start as a bit player with ’90s swing revivalists Squirrel Nut Zippers to his freewheeling stint as frontman for the genre-bending Andrew Bird’s Bowl of Fire and later as a critically-lauded indie-folk solo artist, singer-songwriter Andrew Bird has made a career of being an eclectic if not eccentric multi-instrumentalist with a knack for linguistic acrobatics and a keen sense of songcraft. For many, the crown jewel in his impressively deep catalog is still 2005’s Andrew Bird & the Mysterious Production of Eggs, on which his hyper-literate wordplay meshed with sweeping violin, effervescent vocals (think M. Ward meets Rufus Wainwright) and trademark whistle for a batch of irresistibly catchy, poppy tunes that landed the album squarely on many a critic’s end-of-year best-of list. The superb Armchair Apocrypha and Noble Beast followed in 2007 and 2009, respectively, and Bird was off — quickly becoming a fixture of the festival circuit, where his live chops truly shine. This year’s Are You Serious finds Bird imbuing his singular sound with a more pronounced personal touch, perfectly reflecting his graceful easing into contented family man.
Sunday, Oct. 2 Picks
Shane Smith & the Saints
11:30 a.m., Miller Lite Stage
Although the aforementioned acts (among a few others) are all noteworthy attractions for Americana enthusiasts attending the first two days of the festival, Sunday (Sunday! Sunday!) is where it’s really at for fans of the genre this year. It starts off full-tilt, too, with Austin’s own Shane Smith & the Saints guaranteed to get the early birds fired up with the perfect roots-music storm of Appalachian, Cajun and Celtic folk sweetened with four-part harmonies and spiked with a generous shot of Creedence-style rock ’n’ roll. To a man, Smith and the Saints are all exceptionally talented and energetic musicians and singers, and as evidenced by their sophomore effort, 2015’s Geronimo, the songwriting’s uniformly top-shelf troubadour fare, too.
1:00 p.m., HomeAway Stage
Whimsy and mystery, heartbreak and ebullience, tight songcraft and freewheeling musical playfulness: It’s all part of the swirling collage of irresistible indie-folk pop that has made Wild Child one of Austin’s most fun to root for (not to mention fun to watch and listen to) breakout acts of the last six years. Built around the nucleus of singer-songwriters Kelsey Wilson (violin) and Alexander Beggins (ukulele), the seven-piece band debuted on a high note with 2011’s blog sensation Pillow Talk and has only gotten better and better since — with an enthusiastic local, national, and overseas grassroots following growing exponentially with every show, record, radio spin and TV appearance. That first album won them Best Indie Act and Best Folk Act at the 2013 Austin Music Awards, and 2013’s Ben Kweller-produced The Runaround — and in particular, it’s breakout single, “Crazy Bird” — landed them on NPR and Craig Ferguson. But all that was just the extended intro and warm-up; for 2015’s Fools, Wilson, Beggins and the rest of Wild Child chased their adventurous gypsy muse farther afield than ever, resulting in their most gorgeous and eclectic sonic tapestry to date. It’s also arguably their most mature, with many of the deeply personal songs born out of the dissolution of relationships but daring to look into an uncertain future with equal measures wild-eyed wonder and fearless wanderlust.
2:00 p.m., Samsung Stage
It’s no secret — and no small shame — that Texas country/Red Dirt music scene is an outright sausage fest. Funny thing is, though, when it comes to Texas country making serious waves on a national level, the biggest breakout acts of the last 20 years have all been women, with the Dixie Chicks and Miranda Lambert already certifiable superstars and Kacey Musgraves, the pride of Golden, Texas, now well on her way to that status herself. Like the Chicks and Lambert before her, Musgraves certainly put in her time flogging it out on the regional circuit early on, but it was her 2012 major-label debut, Same Trailer, Different Park that shot her to well-deserved national fame and critical acclaim. That album’s trio of smash singles, “Merry Go Round,” “Follow Your Arrow,” and “Blowin’ Smoke” — not to mention “Mama’s Broken Heart,” a hit she co-wrote for Lambert — established her straightaway as a mature songwriter with fearless smarts as sharp as her hooks and won her a shelf-full of Grammy, CMA and ACM awards. 2015’s Pageant Material proved just as strong, reinforcing Musgraves’ status as both an inspiration for women songwriters struggling against the status quo back home in Texas and a beacon of hope for country music fans of all genders nationwide starved for a quality mainstream alternative to bro-country.
3:00 p.m., HomeAway Stage
Singer-songwriter Margo Price makes her ACL Festival debut hot off of winning “Emerging Artist of the Year” at this September’s Americana Music Honors & Awards — but don’t mistake “emerging” or even “white hot” with out-of-nowhere or new. Price, originally from Aledo, Illinois, has been an East Nashville fixture for more than a decade, running in the same circles as cats like Sturgill Simpson and even recording three albums with the popular local band Buffalo Clover long before knocking out her solo debut, this March’s Midwest Farmer’s Daughter, over three days at Memphis’ legendary Sun Studios. She didn’t have a label deal at the time of recording, but it wasn’t long before fan Jack White extended an offer to release it on his own Third Man Records. That particular connection no doubt went a long way towards landing Price on Saturday Night Live back in April, but as anyone who’s heard her record can attest, this woman has both the songs and the voice to more than back up all the hype and acclaim that’s come her way. The frequent comparisons to Loretta Lynn are especially spot on (as made apparent right from the start of Midwest Farmer’s Daughter with the absolutely stunning “Hands of Time”), but there’s just as much feisty rockabilly and gritty Memphis blues and soul in her repertoire and range as there is classic country and swinging honky-tonk.
Quaker City Night Hawks
4:00 p.m., BMI Stage
There were certainly bigger records this year — even narrowed down to just those coming out of Texas — than the Quaker City Night Hawks’ El Astronauta, but there for damn sure weren’t many much cooler or end-to-end badass. Led by co-frontmen Sam Anderson and David Matsler, the Night Hawks have been a regional cult-favorite on the rise ever since the release of 2011’s ¡Torquila Torquila! and especially in the wake of 2013’s Honcho and the use of some of their songs on TV’s Sons of Anarchy; but El Astronauta is the album that marks the Fort Worth band’s true blast-off into uncharted territory. Though still rooted in Texas blues and boogie, with grooves worthy of ZZ Top and the Sir Douglas Quintet, the record is also steeped in sonic and lyrical sci-fi themes that go well beyond the cover art and equally fantastical animated video for the lead single “Mockingbird.” Simply put, it’s as progressive and far-out there as prime Pink Floyd, only instead of a bunch of Brits setting the controls for the heart of the sun, it’s four Fandago!-loving Texas hombres hell-bent for adventure while trying to pick up a strong enough border radio signal on their supersonic hot-rod’s tuner dial.
6:00 p.m., Samsung Stage
In the 17 months since the May 2015 release of his debut solo album, Traveller, singer-songwriter and former Steeldrivers frontman Chris Stapleton has gone from one of country music’s best-kept secrets to … oh, come on. Do we really have to do this for this guy? As if you, a presumptive Americana music fan visiting an Americana-centric website and perusing said website’s Americana-ish picks to see at this weekend’s ACL Festival, could possibly have no idea who Chris Stapleton is. Like Sunday’s gonna roll around, and you’re going to be out at Zilker Park with your friends or significant other saying, “Hmm, what time is it? Almost 6? I was thinking of maybe checking out this Stapleton guy I just read about a couple days ago. Supposed to be a pretty good songwriter with a really soulful voice and a real Southern sorta grit to his music, like old-school ‘outlaw’ but not in a hacky kinda way. Though I think he did sing a song somewhere with whatshisname from ’NSync? No, that doesn’t make any sense, must be thinking of someone else. Anyway, we should try and see him because it sounds like he might be about to really blow up, because apparently he already has a couple of Grammys and also just won ‘Entertainer of the Year’ or something like that at the Americana Awards. But we should still have plenty of time to stand in line for a Mighty Cone first, because I can’t imagine there being that many people trying to catch his set …” Hey, just in case, we’ll be sure to save you a spot.
Mumford & Sons
8:00 p.m., Samsung Stage
Marcus (Mumford), Ben (Lovett), Winston (Marshall) and Ted (Dwane) may never achieve universal fame on the level of John, Paul, George and Ringo, but there may yet still be time for them to get within shouting distance of Bono, Edge, Adam and Larry. That at least seemed to be the new sonic direction Mumford & Sons were going in with their critical third outing, 2015’s Wilder Mind — aka their “Banjos No More” album, on which the phenomenally successful British folk-rock act dared to (gasp! Judas!) plug in. It was bold move for a band whose sound up to that point had been largely defined by its spirited interplay of quick-strummed acoustic guitars, ringing mandolins, old-timey stand-up bass and banjo up the wazoo. Stripped of all that, Wilder Mind was guaranteed to alienate at least a few (maybe even quite a few) of the millions of fans who’d fallen in love with Mumford & Sons’ 2010 sleeper-hit debut, Sigh No More, and 2012’s out-of-the-gate blockbuster, Babel. But even though electric-rock-band-mode Mumford drew a line in the sand, those who stuck it out with the London lads sans banjo were treated to the same signature mix of earnest, heartfelt lyrics, quiet-to-loud dynamics and unfailingly catchy, soaring choruses that have been every bit as key to the group’s appeal from Day One. These days, that mix just sounds a whole lot bigger and louder — which is really saying something, because as anyone who’s ever seen this band live can attest, even at their most stripped-down and rootsiest, Mumford & Sons playing full-tilt sound positively huge.