AmericanaFest 2018: The Tent Grows … Awkwardly

Brandi Carlile performing at RCA Studio A. Photo by Lynne Margolis

by Lynne Margolis

In its 19th year, the Americana Music Association’s annual AmericanaFest has gotten so big, it no longer feels like a reunion and now, in the words of more than one attendee, “feels a lot like South By Southwest.”

Resemblance to the behemoth that overtakes Austin, Texas, each March may be a double-edged sword (as Austinites often say, be careful what you wish for), but for showcasing artists, more opportunities to perform at official and unofficial events means more opportunities to connect with fans and potentially helpful industry types. And that can only be regarded as a good thing. Even if it does lure badgeholders away from panels in favor of “off-campus” events.

It would have been easy to spend each day hanging out at the Local, where radio station WMOT, NPR Music and World Café presented terrific lineups of showcasing artists from gospel groover Mike Farris to rocker Alejandro Escovedo to western-swing torchbearers Asleep at the Wheel and country singer Kathy Mattea.

But in a town in which the skyline is changing daily, rooftop gatherings such as BMI’s Tuesday-night Kickoff Party, featuring acts including the always-stunning the War and Treaty, or Concord Records’ Thursday-night sunset schmoozefest, were also powerful lures.

So were spots such as the Luck Mansion, tucked away in East Nashville, which offered artists a place to primp before Wednesday’s Americana Honors & Awards and presented intimate living-room performances for lucky guests who got to sip CBD-infused Willie’s Remedy coffee while listening. On Wednesday, Ben Dickey and Charlie Sexton, who play Blaze Foley and Townes Van Zandt, respectively, in the film Blaze, played songs from Dickey’s new Sexton-produced EP, It’s All Different — the debut offering from SexHawkeBlack, the new Dualtone-affiliated label formed by Sexton, Blaze director/co-writer Ethan Hawke and executive producer Louis Black. Dickey’s full-length, A Glimmer on the Outskirts, releases in January.

Rosanne Cash and her husband, John Leventhal, played an equally intimate set the next day at the mansion, also known as the Texas Consulate, a word-of-mouth boarding house of sorts for touring musicians. At night, the place drew artists such as Billy Strings and the Nude Party.

But Wednesday night, the focus was on the 17th annual Americana Honors & Awards. With ushers carrying giant signs warning against the use of phones or recording devices and glitches like the mics dropping out during Lifetime Achievement – Performance winner Irma Thomas’ song, causing Emmylou Harris to stand up and shake her fists in frustration, the mood wasn’t always celebratory. In a show obviously designed to highlight women and minorities, Jason Isbell’s three wins out of only six awards — he and his band, the 400 Unit, won Album, Song and Duo/Group of the Year honors (his fourth Song of the Year since 2012 and third Album win since 2014), while Mary Gauthier and triple nominees Brandi Carlile and Margo Price remained winless — left even Isbell “conflicted.”

He used that word in a tweet the next day, adding, “Yes, I’m extremely grateful for the awards last night @AmericanaFest, but I also wish the list of winners was at least as diverse as the list of nominees.”

John Prine’s second consecutive Artist of the Year win added to the conflicted vibe; while lauding their achievements, fans and stakeholders recognize the shortcomings of a process in which not enough of the 3,000 members vote, according to board members. Still, Milk Carton Kids Kenneth Pattengale (the short one) and Joey Ryan (the tall one) taking over the emcee job from longtime host Jim Lauderdale, attempted to keep the mood elevated. At one point, they even joked about the organization’s “diversity problem.” And Cash masterfully tackled the subject in a broader context during her Spirit of Americana Free Speech in Music Award acceptance. Her inspiring speech, in which she called musicians “the premier service industry for the heart and soul,” also pointed out that women deserve equality in all facets of life.

The following day, Carlile and producer Dave Cobb offered a lively account of recording her album, By the Way, I Forgive You, at RCA Studio A, the room in which they did it. Regarding its standout song, composed right in the studio, she said, “I wrote ‘The Joke’ about the coming redemption and the change that just so needed.”

Said Cobb, “She told the truth, and that’s what’s on the record.”

The word truth cropped up often throughout the week. Gauthier used it while discussing writing songs with wounded warriors and their families, which became her moving album Rifles & Rosary Beads. It was heard during her SiriusXM Outlaw Country song pull with John Hiatt, Will Hoge and Rodney Crowell, and even during Will Kimbrough’s and Tommy Womack’s humor-filled Daddy set at the City Winery. Every performance, by every artist, was about delivering music from the heart, that speaks to the soul — regardless of sex, race, or identity preference. Because that, after all, is Americana. If anything, it’s about inclusion.

If the tent gets bigger, that means more people can find shelter inside. And you know that can’t be bad.