AmericanaFest: A Look Back
As AmericanaFest begins today, it’s an apt time to look back at some previous years. You’ll also get the perspectives of some of my fellow attendees.
I find AmericanaFest is about inclusion, openness, and discovery. From the Awards show at the Ryman (I still get a thrill when I enter the Mother Church) to the evening showcases, the daytime events, and the conference panels, I have never had a lackluster time. I always discover something new, someone new. Sometimes, I discover something new about myself, because once you are open to an experience, you come away changed. I also leave those six days in Nasville with new excitements and more stories to tell. It is an experience like no other.
It is personally gratifying to experience AmericanaFest, since I was listening to, writing about, and promoting Americana music long before that term was coined. I feel I was there during the birthing process, it’s growth, and eventual acceptance. I also saw many of its icons and household names when they were relative unknowns. In short, I feel part of a community that is devoted to such a broad and all-encompassing genre.
Now, I want to share what some friends and associates have to say about their experiences at AmericaFest. Their photos are also featured in the slideshow below.
Chris has covered the AMA for the Examiner and and now, among other things, he writes for AXS, contributes a weekly article on crowdfunding music projects for ND, and covered Bonnaroo for ND this year. His photos have also been featured in this column.
I first covered the Americana Music Festival in 2010 for the now defunct Examiner.com. I was already well down the Americana rabbit hole, having discovered John Prine in college and following his thread to the likes of Paul Thorn, Todd Snider, and Lucinda Williams. At the time, my only festival coverage experience had been the massive and highly structured Bonnaroo, so it was a major adjustment to be given my lanyard and turned loose. Where was the press tent? What areas was I allowed to enter? Where were the throngs of press reps shuffling their clients from interview to interview? As that first day progressed (Wednesday, back in the days before they added Tuesday night), I discovered that AmericanaFest was a more free-form press experience because it could be. You might see Buddy Miller, Will Kimbrough, or even AMA President Jed Hilly just hanging out at the Sheraton, shaking hands and holding conversations. Everyone and everything was so loose. I began to like the familial atmosphere I was finding.
But the thing that hooked me, that made me come back to Americanafest every year, came the next night at a little club called The Rutledge, now out of business. I shared a table with a couple of random people and found them, and eventually almost all AMA attendees, to be highly knowledgeable about the music. Unlike many major festivals that are destinations in themselves, AMA attendees tend to be all about the music. I was there to see Paul Thorn, who I had interviewed earlier in the day over coffee at the hotel (another awakening for my Bonnaroo-oriented thought patterns), but he had gotten me intrigued to see Charlie Louvin. Of course, I knew who Louvin was but never was a major fan of traditional bluegrass so hadn’t really thought of it.
When Charlie Louvin hit the stage, he was in far from his best form. He was only months away from his January, 2011 death and this would be one of his last performances. But the charisma that made him a star was there. Adding even more excitement for me was that Emmylou Harris, about as big a star as Americana can boast, took the stage for a few songs and stories with him. Seeing Emmylou in a tiny little club hanging out and cutting up with one of her influences was amazing. Side-stage, I could see Paul Thorn enraptured by the show and to my right was a then brand new singer named Sarah Jarosz, who was scheduled to perform next, watching with a student’s eye. This was something new, and something I wanted more of.
I’ve had numerous run-ins like that over the years and have consistently found the AMA fans I bump into friendly, talkative, and always happy to turn you on to a new artist. I’m on my seventh year covering AMA in September, and I can’t wait to see what new memories come from this one, and what new artists become favorites after I see them.
Henry presently serves as Senior Acquisitions Editor for Baker Academic and Brazos Press and has the weekly “Reading Room” column for ND.
I first attended Americana Music Fest in 2015, though I had been signed up to go each of the previous two years.
Like any other music festival, AMA is overwhelming in the choices it offers attendees. Folks can’t possibly see every act or attend every panel, and since the showcases and panels run concurrently, you always have to choose to miss one act to attend another. One of the difficulties of navigating AMA is that events are spread across Nashville, including east Nashville. Last year, I often chose to stay at one venue — and I was glad I did most nights since I had the chance to hear some great acts that I wouldn’t have otherwise heard–rather than to drive from one place to another, search for parking, and end up missing the act I had driven over to see and hear.
Last year might have been different from other years since the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band sort of opened the week with their 50th anniversary show at the Ryman; that show–though not an official AMA event — kicked off the week in high gear for me. I was a little disappointed with the awards show, in large part, I think, because the AMA “darlings” won the awards rather than folks whom I thought really deserved the awards. Highlights of the week included stellar performances by Margo Price, Anderson East — they were on the same bill one night at City Winery, and the energy of those two acts alone blew me away — Birds of Chicago, and Donnie Fritts and John Paul White. I didn’t get to many panels since I was busy during the day meeting up with folks in the city.
Last year, I left AMA wondering just what in the hell Americana is. Over the week, I kept asking myself whether or not the term had been so overused that it’s now become meaningless. I’ll admit that I didn’t see every act, but I was stunned to see no blues artists and no rhythm and blues artists on the program; well, I suppose the gospel brunch functions as the soul component, and perhaps the Fritts and John Paul White showcase could be called “soul” as well.
There were soulful performers, such as East, but the absence of the blues, especially, as well as the absence of musicians of color, startled me. Maybe Americana is only in our minds, and we know it when we hear it, but I left last year wondering whether Americana — despite Jim Lauderdale’s constant affirmations — music has a future and what that future might look like.
Pierre is from Sweden and I met him last year. I later looked up his work and was greatly impressed. His photos have been featured in this column.
I first heard about AmericanaFest in 2010. I did a large feature for a Swedish music magazine about old-time music and bluegrass, and had the privilege of interviewing John Carter Cash at Cash Cabin. We talked (obviously) a lot about music and he happened to mention that he was about to play the Americana Music Festival later that week. I didn’t think a lot about it then, but I guess something started to grow in my mind. So, in 2013 I took my cameras with me and flew over for the first time. Since then I’ve had the pleasure of visiting the festival two more times.
As a concert photographer my job is to try and show the music. At least that’s how I like to think of the work. It’s not just about showing who was on stage doing what. I want the viewer of the photo to feel something. Because that’s what music is for me. Feelings. And one thing I appreciate with AmericanaFest is that you can get really close to the artists to see their expressions. To feel the emotions. The sweat, love and all their dedication. And that makes my work a lot easier.
As a music nerd in general I appreciate that you can dive into this music bubble for a few days, and listen all the music you can handle. For me as a Swedish music journalist it’s the perfect way of hearing new bands, hearing old favorites that never tour Sweden, and also connect with both artists and other people which will make my job easier in the future. Believe it or not, but saying that you write for a Swedish music magazine (doesn’t matter that it’s Scandinavia’s leading publication covering folk, jazz and roots music) doesn’t instantly get you pass all the gate keepers at record companies and publicist agencies when asking for interviews. But when you can walk up to someone it makes every difference in the world (most of the times anyway).
Over the years I’ve found new favorites. Often it’s been at the smaller venues. Mandolin Orange, HoneyHoney, Whitehorse, Joy Kills Sorrow just to mention a few. One of my best memories so far is from last year. I had packed all my bags and where ready to leave for the airport when I realized that I had some extra time, so I decided to stop by the Gospel Brunch at the Station Inn. The McCrary Sisters did everything to get the gospel train going, but I didn’t listen all that much to them, because I got seated with Buddy Miller and his mother-in-law. And had one of the best breakfast conversations in my life, talking about everything from Texas to Swedish music. That’s another thing I really enjoy with AmericanaFest. You never know whom you’re going to meet or what’s gonna happen, but you also know it will be great no matter what.
Carol is a photographer from Scotland and covered the Celtic Connections festival in Glasgow for ND this past February.
My first visit to the AMAs (and to Nashville) was in 2012 – and I was completely blown away by the experience. So much so that it’s become an annual pilgrimage from Glasgow, Scotland, despite the expense and travel time of almost 24 hours (Three flights!).
Over the years the highlights have been: ‘Discovering new bands’. In 2012 this included Mandolin Orange, Kevin Gordon, Whitehorse, Shovels & Rope and Blue Rose Code. The latter is actually from the UK, and was part of a BBC Introducing showcase hosted by Whispering Bob Harris, so it was a bit ironic that I had to travel to Nashville to discover a singer-songwriter originally from Scotland! Last year I discovered My Bubba, Parker Milsap and Madison Ward & The Mamma Bear. Needless to say, I return every year with a suitcase full of new CDs.
The conference interviews – a real highlight of the AMAs. Over the years these have included Guy Clark, Bonnie Raitt and Don Henley. The interview with Guy Clark rates as one of my best memories – tinged with sadness, but a privilege to listen to him talking and performing.
The variety of venues across the City – from small venues like the basement to the historic Ryman Auditorium. I loved the Rutledge as it held so many memories (the first time I ever heard Mandolin Orange, Aoife O’Donovan’s set just after ‘Fossils’ was released, and sharing a table with Si Khan, one of my all time heroes.) The venues have grown hugely in number over the years, and there is so now much choice, so many permutations, so many difficult decisions to be made. So much careful advance planning that often comes undone when you get a different ‘tip’ from a fellow AMA-er!
The showcases in the Country Music Hall of Fame – all memorable, but highlight was Richard Thompson performing a solo acoustic version of 1952 Vincent Black Lightning in 2013 – just wow!
The AMA Awards finales – these largely spontaneous, unrehearsed get togethers are unique and magical. One example – “Leaving Louisiana in the Broad Daylight” in 2013 included Jim Lauderdale, Larry Campbell, Ketch Secor (Old Crow Medicine Show), Joy Williams (The Civil Wars), Buddy Miller, Emmylou Harris, Marco Giovino, Rosanne Cash, Rodney Crowell, Richard Thompson, Michael Trent and Cary Ann Hearst (Shovels & Rope), Tift Merritt, Billy Bragg, Don Was, McCrary Sisters, and Dr. John.
Roseanne Cash launching ‘The River and The Thread’ at 3rd & Lindsley, and playing the full album from start to finish.
Dave Rawlings Machine performing ‘Short Haired Women Blues’ with a full orchestra at last years AMA Awards – wow, just wow!
The sheer number of musicians that the AMAs attract, and how friendly they are. Over the years I’ve spotted Rhiannon Giddens trying out banjos in Gruhn Guitars, queued for a cab in the rain beside Chris Thile, sat beside Stephen Stills at the Ryman, and shared a table with the Kings of Leon at 3rd & Lindsley (unknowingly at the time). Memories like these sum at Nashville during the AMAs.
My fellow AMA-ers. It’s wonderful to meet so many passionate Americana fans, many who return year after years – and I have made some good friends across the pond. And of course the AMA photographers (Amos, Steven, and Holly) – I love sharing tips and hints with my fellow Americana music photographers!