Few music towns — if any — are better suited to throw an all-star jam than Nashville.
It’s a city that knows how to put on a fine-tuned tribute concert, but is no less equipped to throw together a last-minute, freewheeling covers night at a local musician’s hang.
Alex Levy and Austin Scaggs have arguably married those two worlds better than anyone else. Since 2001, they’ve put together annual tribute nights with their “Cabin Down Below Band” — first in the East Village in New York City, and for the past several years in their current home of Nashville.
Last year, they celebrated Bob Dylan’s 75th birthday with “Dylan Fest,” a two-night all-star tribute at the Ryman Auditorium. They had so much fun, they’re now aiming to make it annual event. This year’s “Dylan Fest” returns to the Ryman on Tuesday and Wednesday, and brings together music-makers from several genres and generations: from Wynonna Judd to Elle King, Duane Eddy, Boz Scaggs, Valerie June, Shakey Graves and Hamilton Leithauser.
It’s been a long journey to the Ryman for Levy and Austin Scaggs, who began their tributes with a dive bar celebration of Dylan’s 60th birthday in 2001. The set list came out of late-night conversations with a loose collective of New York City musicians.
“Dylan is the end all, be all as far as we’re concerned,” Levy says. “I honestly think that we should all be grateful that we’re living in a world with Bob Dylan. It’s maybe like people felt when they saw a Shakespeare play (when he was alive). That’s how major he is. It’s pretty obvious that this guy has done something with the language that has transcended the status quo for sure.”
Still, they had to knock on a few doors before a venue agreed to the idea. They ended up at beloved New York dive Manitoba’s, where Levy remembers, “If you needed to use the bathroom, you literally had to walk through the band.”
Over the years, the “Cabin Down Below Band” — named for another now-shuttered bar in NYC — graduated to larger venues, and eventually the esteemed Webster Hall. It made its Nashville debut in 2013 with a tribute to Tom Petty at War Memorial Auditorium. That ended up being a fruitful night for many involved: Charles Kelley of Lady Antebellum performed “Southern Accents” at that show, and enjoyed it so much, he recorded a studio version with Stevie Nicks.
Levy and Austin Scaggs stress how much effort goes into taking the source material seriously, and making sure all the songs are well rehearsed. Still, it sounds like rehearsal might be the easy part of the process, after wrangling close to two dozen special guests and figuring out which song each will perform.
“It’s a lot of phone calls, a lot of emails, and a lot of conversations with managers,” Austin Scaggs says. “It’s about building a community, we call it the ‘Fest Family.’ And it just keeps getting bigger and bigger.”
Adding to the appeal for artists: Austin Scaggs says they donate as much of the proceeds as possible to charity. This year’s fest benefits the Refuge Foundation for the Arts.
“That’s how we really galvanized a lot of goodwill and energy around these shows. We give the money to charity. We buy all the beer. We buy all the whiskey, and we give the rest to charity, and we cover our nut, and that’s how it’s always been.”
“I’ve seen people get married, have kids and form bands out of this,” adds Levy. “It is really a collective, a family and a community that I’m really proud of.”
Dylan Fest takes place Tuesday and Wednesday at the Ryman Auditorium. The shows start at 7:30 p.m., and tickets are $45 and $59.50.
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