Putting Great Sounds on a Pedestal (And a Pedal Steel)
It’s an extraordinary thing, this place called Nashville. So extraordinary in fact that only Nashville could host an extraordinary event like the Americana Music Festival and Conference. While some might argue that New York, L.A. or Austin could also be the perfect nurturing grounds for an event like this which blends business with ballyhoo, there can be no doubt that Nashville is the ideal place, at the ideal time. Besides, 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 (and, okay, blues, Gospel and R&B), and so 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 honours 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. Several in fact. 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 the obvious lures… an opportunity to witness a spectacular awards celebration at the legendary Ryman Auditorium on our very first night, 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. Here we witnessed the likes of Emmylou, Rodney, Buddy, Dr. John, Ry Cooder, Richard Thompson, actor and afficianado Ed Helms, stars of the show Nashville (natch), and legendary lyricist Robert Hunter of Grateful Dead fame (whose introduction became so emotionally 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. Never. Never!
Video: Backstage At The Americana Awards
Coming on the first night of the conference, the unawares might believe that everything else that followed might be anticlimactic. They’d be wrong of course, because what followed were five more nights (and many afternoons) of music. Lots of music. So much music in fact, that the most challenging part of being there lie in the choices… as in, who to see and when? And with six venues going nonstop from 8 pm until way past midnight, each featuring topnotch, must see talent, those decisions became ever more pressing. How does one choose between, say, David Bromberg and Roseanne Cash, or Steep Canyon Rangers and Shooter Jennings…or The Howlin’ Brothers and Shooter Jennings… Then multiply the strategy-making process times repeatedly each day in terms plotting out the evening’s entertainment, before trying to delve into daytime activities that include seminars, private interview sessions, screenings, picnics, intimate concerts… well… you get the hint. It’s a mind fuck.
Fortunately, there are ways around this dilemma in the form of the private parties and theme events that repeatedly dominate the proceedings. For example, the first night found us at a special soiree where the focus was on Bluegrass, and where we had opportunity to catch 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. An afternoon interview session with Billy Bragg at the Sheraton — action central in a city where the various venues necessitate a shuttle or taxi – offered more Bragging rights (sorry), 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.”)