Only Nashville could host an extraordinary event like the Americana Music Festival and Conference. Austin has South By Southwest (simply abbreviated to “South By” by its many veterans… and here in Nashville you do run into quite a few), and New York and L.A. have a monopoly on practically everything else.
Yet when you’re talking Americana, you’re talking country, blues, Gospel and R&B, where else can you host an event that gives such nods to tradition? Where indeed? It’s here that Hank Williams — gone some 60 years plus at this point — is still revered, and his logical descendants — Buddy Miller, Rodney Crowell, Emmylou Harris, Jim Lauderdale, and hell, practically everyone who packs a guitar and a dream in this town — is respected, admired, encouraged to become part of his continuing, living legacy.
Though more than a dozen years in existence, the Americana Music Association’s annual event continues to grow in size, pride and prestige each year, its honors and recognition growing well beyond the city limits to embrace those of like-minded musicality far and wide.
There are entire showcases, spotlights and barbecues (of course… this is Tennessee after all) devoted to Americana done Aussie-style or with a Brit beat and attitude.
And the point made is the fact that it doesn’t take a fondness for over-sized cowboy hats, big boots, down-home rural charms, or even the sweetest Southern accent imaginable, to grasp an appreciation for the wide terrain that Americana now embraces.
It takes only a willingness to appreciate, and a heart and a head open to its sounds. And if that means getting up and dancing like you’re at a hoedown, or shedding a few furtive tears while hearing an especially sad refrain, then so be it. Americana is here, it’s always been here, and it sure as hell ain’t going away.
For yours truly, a newcomer to this awesome celebration, there were obvious highlights, even beyond the music. Here then, are the top ten things that made the AMA rock…
10) The Bluegrass Situation party featuring an all-star musical line-up featuring David Bromberg, the Milk Carton Kids, the Steep Canyon Rangers and actor/impresario Ed Helms. The fact that it was held in the Cannery Ballroom, located in the same building as two other staging areas of varying size, made the possibility of club hopping a decided possibility.
9) An afternoon interview session with Billy Bragg at the Sheraton offered genuine Bragging rights (sorry), as well as an up-close encounter boasting both music and insights. On his newly sprouted facial hair: “A Kenny Rogers beard hides multiple chins.” On his shift from political posturing to waxing on about fostering romantic relationships: “I’m still singing about a titanic struggle.” On Americana itself: “Country music for people who like the Smiths.”
8) The Australian showcase, where we had opportunity to catch the revered Bushwackers, whose song “I Am Australian” was so tear-wrenching, it made a grown man (mainly me) cry. Likewise, a husband-wife duo called the Borderers upped the ante on energy while adding a bit of trepidation due to the fact that the male member of the group fancied a few high kicks while wearing kilts… thus offering the possibility that another male member might make an unexpected appearance. ‘Nuff said.
7) The Bootleg BBQ, located in that rarest of entities these days, a real live record store. A sterling line-up of Brit artists indulging in Americana allowed a one-stop opportunity to catch Peter Bruntnell, Blue Rose Code, the Treetop Flyers and My Darling Clementine, the latter, an added bonus for yours truly considering the fact that its ringmaster, Michael Weston King, and I have a history of email correspondence that goes back some seven or eight years. Even Holly Williams showed up to perform, although it ought to be noted that she’s not a Brit, but rather the granddaughter of the granddaddy of them of all, Hank himself.
6) The Sunday Gospel Brunch, where the magnificent McCrary Sisters, the White Family and a handful of young devotees held court while the crowd chowed down on chicken and waffles and sang songs so rapt with devotion, even a nonbeliever might be moved to sing the Lord’s praises.
5) I had an opportunity to meet the great Aussie auteur Paul Kelly and gush my admiration, although it was to my continuing regret that I never actually got to see him perform. But that’s how competitive this festival is. With half a dozen venues, each bearing an awesome array of amazing performers, choices must be made. But damn, Kelly played three times and I still didn’t get to see him, What’s wrong with this picture?
4) Our chance lunch with Michael Martin Murphy, dressed in full cowboy regalia. My wife Alisa loves his song “Wildfire,” as do I. But the chance to actually chat – and buy a healthy salad for this larger than life musical icon, was, in a word, way cool. (Or is that two words?)
3) The ride we got from the Bootleg BBQ with John Lomax, he of the famous Lomax musical dynasty and the man who singlehandedly managed the late Townes Van Zandt and then went through the same madness when he took on another renegade in the form of Steve Earle. Ah, the stories he could tell. Dug his Townes tee-shirt too!
2)The New West 15th Anniversary party where I found myself standing next to Buddy Miller and got the chance to ask him about his recent work with Richard Thompson and past performances with Robert Plant. (Future plans with Plant? “Who knows?”)
AND NOW, FOR EXCEPTIONAL ENCOUNTER NUMBER ONE… IT’S A TIE
between the Saturday night performance by Scott Miller at 3rd and Lindsley where we reaffirmed our friendship (he’s the only guy I’ve ever met who’s so damned affectionate he’ll kiss you on the cheek, guy friends included) and where I also reaffirmed my belief that he’s one of the most literate, savvy and amazingly talented singer/songwriters of the new millennium. (Don’t scoff. He is!)
The spectacular awards celebration at the legendary Ryman Auditorium, with a line-up of guests, presenters and honorees that in itself might make the CMAs, the Grammys, the Emmys and even the Oscars blush with humility. We witnessed the likes of Emmylou, Rodney, Buddy, Dr. John, Ry Cooder, Stephen Stills, Richie Furay, Richard Thompson, actor and bluegrass buff Ed Helms, stars of the show “Nashville” (natch), and legendary lyricist Robert Hunter of Grateful Dead fame (whose introduction became so affecting, it brought host Jim Lauderdale practically to tears), alongside such promising newcomers as Old Crow Medicine Show and Shovels & Rope, who, by the way, were all the buzz that evening.
It had all the makings of a show biz spectacular, complete with stars, sizzle and savvy. And music. Great music. Awesome music. Screw your Grammys. You’ll never find music this good on a single stage in a single night. Nope, Ever.