It's almost time for the 2012 Americana Music Association Festival and Conference in Nashville, which is set for September 12-15. Geoffrey Himes, writing in Paste Magazine, had this to say after attending last year's AMA event: "The AMA may not be the best conference or festival in the world yet, but it does put on the best awards show in the world, thanks in large part to this amazing house band, which makes every musical number sound great, in part to the limited number of categories, which keeps the ratio of music to talk optimal; and in part to emcee Jim Lauderdale, the Bill Murray of American roots music."
AMA Executive Director Jed Hilly doesn't disagree with that assessment. "I mean, he's right. South by Southwest is an incredible festival, an incredible conference." Hilly goes on to list several other conference/festivals that do it right, including CMJ and NonComm. But he's careful to point out that comparisons are hard to make because the AMA event is different.
"Ours is unique. To compare ours to South by, some say it's like the SXSW of 25 years ago. I don't know. I don't even know that you can compare it. We still may not be the best festival and conference yet, and I don't know if I would ever unabashedly say that we were, but the truth is that it is really exciting what has happened with our event." He's right about that. Example: Over 1400 bands submitted applications for 100 showcase slots this year, up from 800 last year. And the resulting set of showcase lineups is so good that it is a bit overwhelming. (See the lineups here.) Take Thursday night, for example, and start with just the Station Inn lineup, Richard Thompson at the top of the bill. Hilly likes it, but he's not sure he'll be able to get in to see it.
"It's crazy. To have an opportunity to go to a music festival and see Richard Thompson in a room like the Station Inn with 150 other lucky people who will probably have to start camping out at two in the afternoon to be part of that. That's so rare and, I think, historic. That's one of the things that makes our event different, that you will see that caliber artist in an environment like that. Some might say, "Why don't you put him in a bigger room?" Well, it's not just about putting him in a bigger room so that we can make money. We're appreciative of the artist's experience. We've done it with Guy Clark at the Station Inn. What an incredible, historic night. Marty Stuart has done one of those intimate shows for us there, [so has] J.D. Souther. Legendary guys. So we've got Richard there on that Thursday night. Amy Helm will also be there doing the Dirt Farmer Quartet without her Dad, it'll be Larry and Theresa from the Levon Helm band with Amy. It's going to be pretty emotional and intense. And Mary Gauthier is on that bill. What a night of music."
Of course, to describe the entire night of music, you'd have to cover the bills at the other venues, from The Basement to the Cannery Ballroom, with lots in between. "Thursday as a night of music is probably, in my humble opinion, the craziest night of music Nashville will see this year. We will have The Wallflowers performing at Live on the Green in front of City Hall, that'll be a free show. In the Downtown Presbyterian Church Phil Madeira is producing a live version of his Mercyland project that will feature Emmylou and and Shawn Mullins and several others involved in the making of that record. In a church. We will have the Station Inn night I described. Billy Joe Shaver is playing with the great new talent John Fullbright at The Mercy Lounge. Punch Brothers are in the Cannery Ballroom. [There's] a tribute to Big Star with Jody Stephens, the only remaining member of the band, along with Chris Stamey and Mike Mills (from REM). I mean that's crazy crazy in a 300-seat Rutledge. And Lauderdale is doing a set with the North Mississippi Allstars. That's just one night, which is good enough for a week's festival."
During the day, the AMA Conference has keynote addresses by Bonnie Raitt and Ian Rogers (Topspin Media) and a wide variety of panels and cultural events, including one panel that Hilly is particularly pleased about. That panel will focus on the changing landscape of the music business and be moderated by Jacquelyn Marushka of Sony Music Entertainment. Panel members include "some pretty incredible people including the great attorney Rosemary Carroll; Ann Powers of NPR; Marilyn Laverty, President of ShoreFire Media, she's Bruce Springsteen and Bonnie Raitt's publicist; and Sandra Aistars, Executive Director of Copyright Alliance, the advocacy group supporting intellectual property in Washington D.C. These women are giants in their business and the elephant not in the room, so to speak, is that there's no men on that panel. That was by design."
"I'm looking at the landscape and we lost some wonderful people this past year including Donna Hilley and Frances Preston in the music business. I remember there was a time when Donna was running Tree International, Frances was running BMI, Hillary Rosen was at RIAA, Polly Anthony was President of Epic Records and Sylvia Rhone was a powerhouse in the music business. And I looked around at what's happened because of the shrinkage and devastation of the music business, and to me it feels like it shrunk to a boy's club, at least at the major label level. I've talked to all the panelists about this. We all agreed that's not the topic [of this panel] because these panelists are too important and they're too knowledgeable." Indeed.
And then there's that awards show on Wednesday night, September 12. The best awards show in the world. Regular attendees (including this one) know what Himes was talking about. I generally start looking forward to next year's show about the time house band leader Buddy Miller unplugs his guitar. According to Hilly, 2012 looks to be as good as last, or better. "I'm excited that [Lifetime Achievement Award Winner] Booker T. [Jones] is going to be there. I'm excited about what Buddy is wanting to do with Booker, having him play with the house band, which is an unbelievable group. It's Buddy, Don Was [bass], Brady Blade on drums, Larry Campbell second guitar and other instruments, and Rami Jaffee from the Wallflowers on keys. Incredible band."
Look for a Levon Helm tribute, performances by most of the award nominees (as of this writing, all nominees except Gillian Welch/Dave Rawlings and Steve Earle are slated to attend), as well as a surprise opening. Hilly was too coy to reveal anything about the opening, simply saying, "You'll want to be in your seats when the show starts."
Conference registration is all but sold out, though there may be a chance if you move fast. Wristbands for showcases remain available. Separate tickets to Wednesday's award show are all but gone (awards show tickets are included with conference registration), meaning that the only sure way to get a ticket to the awards show outside of registration is through one of the VIP packages. You can check out all your options for attendance here. Otherwise, there are several ways to enjoy the show from outside the Ryman. Hilly: "You can see it live on AXS TV, which is the old HDNet. They're Direct TV in some markets, Comcast in other markets. Check your provider. And then we will also be editing the show down for a special broadcast through PBS on Austin City Limits. That'll take place in November. If you're in the car it'll be live on SiriusXM, Outlaw Country. It'll be live on the web at NPR.org. Terrestrial live radio WSM, then rebroadcast later on BBC and Voice of America."
Hope to see you in Nashville. If not, tune in Wednesday night.
[No Depression programming note: On Friday from 5-7, No Depression and Hard Rock Cafe will present (in conjunction with Gram Parsons Foundation and Sin City Social Club) an event showcasing Gram Parsons' notebook in public for the first time for conference attendees. Details here.
No Depression and Bumbershoot will also be co-presenting Brandi Carlile and Star Anna at the Cannery Ballroom on Wednesday after the awards show. Details here. ]