Americana – as the big tent pitched by the Americana Music Association – is its own conundrum. Drawing an audience that’s decidedly 30+, it embraces an eclectic group of artists who have massive critical acclaim and yet have yielded no major superstars. Indeed, many of the hallmark artists are over 50; even the younger, break-out artists fail to bring younger fans in mass to the oeuvre.
So how does one weigh its value? In a world of dollars and cents, market shares and demographic targeting, why do we need Americana? If its thrust isn’t the bottom line, and it’sizzle doesn’t resonate beyond polite numbers, who cares?
Ah, the hard numbers and the bottomline.
Until Jerry Douglas and Alison Krauss host a cross-genre mixer at the Factory in Franklin, making a musical case for excellence in a pop world gone thump! bump! and cliché. Never mind the number of Grammys, the critical hosannas or even the bold-faced collaborations from Robert Plant to Dan Fogelberg, Phish to Alan Jackson. That is beside the point.
What Alison Krauss and Jerry Douglas demonstrated to a sold-out crowd at the Freedom Theater was the power of great songs, incredible musicianship and music to move seamlessly from folk to gut-bucket rock, mainstream country to almost soul and true bluegrass.
With genre icons Shawn Colvin and Amos Lee, emerging stars Teddy Thompson and Sarah Jarosz and the soon-to-be well-known Angel Snow, it was a night celebrating every level of artist who had one thing in common: an incredible amount of talent and a bottomless respect for each other.
From the opening flourishes of the instrumental “Hide and Seek,” it was obvious this was a virtuoso’s evening. The rhythmic surges, the instrumental breaks, even the harmony vocals spoke to the accomplishment of the assembled. Not some catch as catch can hoedown, the easy rapport belied the finely honed skill set of each musician.
Whether it was Teddy Thompson’s almost weightless “She Thinks I Still Care,” floating on a cloud of soft-focus girl group harmonies from Colvin/Jarosz/Krauss/Snow, that demonstrated the British songsmith’s supple tenor and ability to inhabit a classic while making it his own, or Jarosz’ dusky tumble through her own “Runaway,” a song that bristles with the tension of desire – a commodity heightened by Douglas’ dobro – tempered by the hope of realization, echoed by Snow’s ethereal soprano, of can be.
It is the co-mingling beyond genres that gives Americana its import. With Krauss’ plinked banjo “Sister Rosetta,” equal parts macabre and evanescence, the night’s first vocal performance suggests it’s a wide open world where anything is possible.
Amos Lee spoke of his mother’s status as oldest of eight making her a perennial caregiver, which inspired the acoustic gospel of “I Didn’t Mean to Be A Burden,” while Douglas tackled Leadbelly’s joyful jaihouse blues “On a Monday,” where the band dropped out and his sand-papered voice set up a particularly blues funky break before the whole thing ascended.
That is the transformative power of Americana.
For Snow, who’s produced by upright bass player Viktor Krauss and had toured with Union Station earlier this year, there is a bruised lips from the kissing sultriness to a voice that can be muscular and tawny on “Civil Things,” yet dreamy and yearning on “These Days.” Though most of the attendees were not aware of the woman in the short diaphanous white dress, they were rapt.
Colvin dipped into her Buddy Miller-produced last album for the raw linen grit off “Change Is On The Way;” her silvery soprano shimmering against the wooden echo of the instruments. When she returned to her very first album for the faltering “Diamond in the Rough,” the effect of that purity was no less startling.
That is part of what sets this seemingly sizzle-free genre apart. It is not the pyrotechnics, but the quality of the instruments and the proficiency of the practitioners that create its stopping power. A night of – for some – unfamiliar songs did not produce the low level rumble that new material, especially quiet new material would in other places.
There is, of course, common ground that’s inherent. Both Krauss and Jarosz dipped into Bob Dylan’s cannon for very different realities. Krauss went for the unadorned loveliness of the faith amongst the disdainers “I Believe in You;” Jarosz sought a bright sunniness in “Ring Them Bells.”
Echoes of other legends were sounded. Thompson brought Roy Orbison’s vocal sheen to the distinctly pop “In My Arms,” the sweetness to his voice palpable as he infused classic romance with a swooniess. Lee, in his green shirt and heavy framed glasses, evoked Levon Helm and the Band with his lurching “I’m A Stranger.”
Even “Ghost in This House,”the mainstream country #1 Shenandoah shared with Krauss ,was given a barely exhaled weightlessness where she suggested the literal non-presence of being dissolved by sorrow. To evoke, indeed to pull out, emotions people rarely access is where the deceptive power of Americana lies.
Not pyro, not video screens, flying cars or costume changes. Sparks flew, though, as the night built and pitched and surrendered to Lee’s “Windows Are Rolled Down.” The exultant celebration of what life can be, right where we are, right how we live it, was freewheeling and jubiliant – as juicy as the best moments and free in a way most of us will never know. With the band piling on, the singers raising their voices, it brought the house to their feet, people dancing where they were and yelping in the sheer euphoria.
Having started the evening with Americana Music Association Jed Hilley telling the assembled the organization was in the black for the first time, there was much to celebrate. As Douglas, a superlative host, thanked the crowd for attending, it was obvious that what might have started as a show of support and musical appreciation had turned into something that got in the veins and enlivened the attendees. In terms of intrinsic value, what more is there?