To a wave of scorching psychedelic guitar feedback, Memphis-based singer-songwriter Valerie June took to the Tito’s Handmade Vodka tented stage Friday afternoon of ACL Fest 2017. Consisting of a stunning iridescent sequin top, hot fuchsia shorts and turquoise ankle-high cowboy boots, June’s fashionable fest attire was as diverse and colorful as her worldly take on Americana. Throughout her set, June swapped between a batch of acoustic and electric guitars, a banjo and a tiny banjo ukulele, “She’s so cool,” I overheard two young women say next to me. Indeed.
June’s voice is, admittedly, an acquired taste. (If it doesn’t work for you, I imagine the word “nasally” might come to mind.) But she’s found a fan in another artist whose vocals could be considered not for everyone: Bob Dylan, whose opinion probably carries a bit more weight than at least a dozen or so haters. June’s voice has a softness that draws you in, like it’s coming from an old AM radio. It mixes the attitude of Sister Nancy with the note-bending twang of Dolly Parton.
The third song of the set,, “Shakedown,” was the first real people-mover and showcases how far June moves from the comfortable confines of business-as-usual Americana. With the colorful celebratory spirit of Afrobeat in its rapid-moving guitar riffs, it’s more world music than Appalachian. Likewise, “Workin’ Woman Blues,” wears its gorgeous, jazzy African-influences proudly. Later in the set, June transported fans elsewhere around the globe, with a banjo on “Got Soul” that sings with the spacey shimmer of sitar even as she calls out, “I could sing you a country tune.”
But June’s music is American roots rock at its core. Her band’s slide guitar and plucky bass were regularly paired with her stomping footwork and hip-gyrating guitar playing, and while things got worldly, elsewhere, they were more straightforward folk. “This is the baby,” June said, pulling out her tiny banjo uke for Somebody to Love.”“And she sings a song for more love in the world.” The song started slow, with just June and her “baby,” but built into a rambling country bar ballad punctuated with upticks of uke.
Between songs, June talked of dancing in the stratosphere with the stars, of us all being made of stars (it’s getting a tad stoner-y, but wait — she sticks the landing) and all of us having a light inside us — “a light inside us unlike any other light,” she said. “And you are called to shine as brightly as you can.”