2013 Americana Music Festival and Conference: A Newcomer’s Impressions
For a native New Yorker, strolling through downtown Nashville after dark is an unforgettable experience. The air is thick with southern humidity and the smell of fried food. Neon signs from dozens of honkytonks and barbecue joints light up the sidewalks, while a heady mix of singers, guitars and fiddles tickles the ears. Hipsters with multiple tattoos and piercings stroll alongside traditionalists sporting leather boots and Stetsons. Every few minutes, the bass rumble of a V-twin engine announces that another chromed and custom painted Harley Davidson is cruising off into the night. All of the five senses merge into a distinct feeling of excitement that is unlike anything I’ve experienced in the boroughs of New York City.
Nashville was the perfect location for the Americana Music Association’s annual festival and conference. To a newcomer like myself, the four day extravaganza offered a musical mix that was every bit as spine tingling as Nashville’s 4th and Broadway on a Friday night. While the Americana scene has always welcomed a diverse array of alt country musicians and singer songwriters, a recent embrace of blues and roots rock has stirred a healthy dose of spice into the gumbo. Delbert McClinton’s roadhouse grit, Dr. John’s hoodoo mystique and the fiery musicianship of the North Mississippi Allstars mixed with the softer, introspective style of artists like Holly Williams and Shovels & Rope to form a heady brew that was greater than the sum of its parts.
At the stunning Ryman auditorium, awards show host Jim Lauderdale remarked, “We in Americana take our history seriously.” Later that evening, New Orleans legend Dr. John and Grateful Dead lyricist Robert Hunter both received lifetime achievement awards. Hunter received one of the evening’s most heartfelt standing ovations after a solo performance of “Ripple.” Holly Williams, who accepted a President’s Award for grandfather Hank Williams, touched souls with her rendition of “I’m so Lonesome I Could Cry.”
The awards show wasn’t the only example of the Americana movement’s deep appreciation of its musical roots. Over four days of workshops, panel discussions and performances, the musical past and future of New Orleans was a special focus. A lively discussion presented in conjunction with Oxford American Magazine discussed the post Katrina New Orleans music scene. Panelists, including musician Susan Cowsill and columnist Alison Fensterstock, remained optimistic that the many young artists emerging out of contemporary New Orleans will respect and uphold the Crescent City’s rich musical heritage. Journalist John Swenson hosted a book signing where he read excerpts from “New Atlantis,” his moving account of musicians’ efforts to preserve New Orleans’ culture in the wake of Katrina. By far, the most memorable tribute to New Orleans was Nick Spitzer’s live interview with Dr. John. The venerable pianist reminisced about his formative encounters with Professor Longhair, and even played a few songs on the piano conveniently set up onstage. Hearing a legendary musician perform solo acoustic material in such an informal, intimate setting was a rare treat.
For this lifelong blues fan, one of the most memorable experiences took place the night before the conference kicked off. A visit to Printer’s Alley took me to the Bourbon Street Blues and Boogie Bar. While I was enjoying my first ever plate of fried alligator, Nashville bluesman Whitey Johnson was joined onstage by Delbert McClinton and Glen Clark. The duo, who had also arrived the night before the conference, performed a few songs from their new album “Blind, Crippled and Crazy.” Spontaneity, a sense of history and the blending of musical genres – what occurred that night in a small blues joint seemed to sum up everything the Americana scene stands for. While the mainstream music industry continues its morbid preoccupation with Justin Beiber’s hair and Miley Cyrus’ posterior, the Americana movement is a much needed breath of fresh air. The 2013 Americana Music Festival Conference was my first, and it’s fair to say the experience made me a fan for life. See you in Nashville next September!