Americana Fest wrap-up
Yesterday, on the plane back to Seattle from Nashville, I sat next to a woman who was also returning home from a conference. She asked what conference I’d been to. “The Americana Music Association,” I told her.
“What kind of music is that?”
I had to laugh. It’s the question which tends to follow whenever someone asks what I do for a living and I respond with “I write about folk, roots, and Americana music.” I make up a different definition every time, because it keeps the conversation more interesting for me. This time, I happened to be returning home from a weekend where a single day, for example, included sets from Baskery, Caitlin Rose, Elizabeth Cook, Jerry Douglas, Missy Raines & the New Hip, Buddy Miller, Works Progress Administration, and the Bottle Rockets. Somehow distilling all that down to some kind of buzz phrase this woman would understand seemed laughable. I settled with just listing a series of genres she may have heard before, descriptors which mean nothing, really: “country folk indie alternative roots rock bluegrass.” She nodded, so I take it that jumble of categories triggered something.
Meanwhile, back in Nashville, as you may guess, the weekend was packed. If you’ve never visited the Americana festival and conference before, let me orient you. There’s the convention center, where panels meet to discuss matters like what artists should do about press releases, where Americana radio is these days, what’s up with print versus online media, and where the association as a whole sits this year versus last year, among other things. Then there are five venues all over town which play host to a series of official showcases running, on average, from 8pm-1am every night. Then there are parties and unofficial shows, various other events and gatherings happening in tandem with the event. That is, more or less, a blanket summary of what went down this weekend.
More specifically, fair to say the music is central to the whole thing. The awards show itself felt a little like watching the Superfriends from their headquarters. Onstage at once for a giant collaborative cover of “Dixie Chicken” to close out the night were Buddy Miller, Emmylou Harris, Patty Griffin, John Fogerty, Jim Lauderdale, Justin Townes Earle, Band of Heathens, and the list goes goes on. (Miller, incidentally, took home almost every award but the Lifetime Achievement honors, scoring four out of five of those for which he was nominated, including Album of Year. He also delivered an excellent set Saturday night, elevated even further by guest stars Patty Griffin and Greg Leisz.)
But, it wasn’t all about Americana mainstays. The showcases delivered a notable amount of new and emerging talent, folks whose musical tastes and styles ran the gamut from the Western swing of Belleville Outfit (easily one of the best sets of the whole weekend) to the noisy and distorted indie roots rock of Canadians Elliott Brood (another favorite). In fact, the Canadian artists were a big highlight of this festival for me, particularly those who played a sort of songwriters-in-the-round showcase during lunch on Friday: Oh Susanna, Amelia Curran, Kendel Carson, and Luke Doucet.
Still, nobody rocked as hard or thoroughly as the Bottle Rockets, who unleashed the festival’s final set after midnight on Saturday. Packed tightly into the tiny basement below Grimey’s record store, those of us still awake and upright enough to absorb the as-loud-as-it-could-get rockingness of one of Americana’s finest bands were sent off the right way. Frontman Brian Henneman noted it feels a little bit like 1995 again, with so much great music (however one chooses to define it) suddenly pouring out of this community and so much buzz in the air. Coming to the end of such a weekend, it was hard to argue with that.