Roots in Tree Town: Nashbash showcased terrific country-tinged music


Annika Bennett

Nashville's Annika Bennett was this year's Nashbash special guest.

Every August for the last 12 years, a bit of Nashville has visited Ann Arbor for the Kerrytown District Association’s Nashbash music festival.

Thursday’s edition of the event coped with extensive road construction around its location at the Ann Arbor Farmers Market, along with threatening weather for much of the day. But by the time the festival kicked off, the weather was flawless, the fans dodged the construction barrels, and the smell of barbecue filled the air.

Nashbash typically showcases some local performers working in the country and country-adjacent musical styles, along with a special guest from Nashville and perennial festival headliner Whit Hill. This year, the music got rolling with well-received sets from area acts Joe Shields, The Whiskey Charmers, and the Judy Banker Band.

Featured Nashville artist Annika Bennett played a set that promises great things to come. At 20 years old, her songwriting skills are already well-honed and her voice is expressive. She has a good ear for a memorable melody, and her lyrics can be direct and poetic at the same time.

Several songs that Bennett identified as “brand new” were among the strongest, including “Back of My Mind” and “Grace.” On “Try,” of which she said she’s not quite sure that it’s finished, she sang, “Is it too late for you / To look at me the way you used to?” over a memorable melody. Two affectionate Beatles covers, “I Should Have Known Better” and “Blackbird,” provided a nice complement to Bennett’s originals.

Ann Arbor alt-country band Hoodang took the Nashbash opportunity to play nearly all the songs from their new album, Blue Yodel. The band sounded great on the new material, with subjects ranging from the Carter Family to the political situation in Ukraine. Standout songs included the title track and “No Way to Heal a Heart,” which effectively used the dual-guitar attack of talented front men David Rossiter and David Keeney.

The latter song and “Vagabond Heart” also showcased Sophia Hanifi, whose vocals added a rich additional dimension to the Hoodang sound. Drummer John Crawford and John Sperendi on bass particularly shone on the charging “Ain’t No Sinner” and the Bo Diddley-esque “Tilt-a-Whirl.” The set, like the album, closed with a terrific cover of The Kinks’ “This Time Tomorrow.”

Whit Hill -- the Ann Arbor-to-Nashville dancer/choreographer/writer/musician quadruple threat transplant -- wrapped up the festival with a combination of old and new material. Hill has a distinctive voice, both as a singer and as a songwriter, and it’s always a treat to hear her. “Love’s Trap Door” was sweet and comical, while “Better” was an enjoyable duet with her husband, Al Hill, who backed her throughout the set.

In “Dolly Parton’s Dresser” Hill told the mostly-true story of her surprise rummage sale find, before closing out the evening with her musical tribute to Ann Arbor. “They’ll never pave over the spirit of Tree Town,” she sang. “May the trees grow / May the Huron flow / Forever Ann Arbor, my home.”

Bob Needham is a freelance writer and the former arts & entertainment editor of The Ann Arbor News and