Sixteen years into the annual Americana Music Association Conference and Festival, the event shows no signs of slowing down. In fact, what attendees used to casually refer to as a sort of miniature SXSW gathering for roots music people has slowly — but surely — turned into exactly that, with day parties dominating the hours of hot sun and showcases spread all across Nashville at night. Granted, there’s nowhere near the crowd size of SXSW, but the relaxed, music-centric vibe prevails.
I arrived Tuesday evening, in time to head to City Wintery Nashville for back-to-back sets from Tim O’Brien (with a full band), Paul Burch, and Shawn Colvin & Steve Earle.
O’Brien’s band was on hot fire, with instrumental ping-pong taking over the stage, as he and his backup players delivered dextrous solos and simply swung through their 45-minute slot. Having seen O’Brien a number of times before — many of them solo, many with Darrell Scott or in other duo formats — it was nice to see him dominate in bandleader position. He cherrypicked tunes from across his catalog, but those from this year’s Pompadour were particularly swinging and astute.
Paul Burch’s band was swinging as well, with Fats Kaplan on the fiddle and a small array of other instruments, and Burch’s friends O’Brien and Billy Bragg sitting in for a few tunes here and there. It’s hard to complain when there are so many remarkable instrumentalists on one stage at one time, and a killer woodwind player to boot.
Colvin & Earle, on the other hand, left me wanting. As a long-time fan of both of their solo careers, I’ve seen them collaborate with others, sit in on people’s sets, welcome backup players to the fold. But something was lacking in this particular performance. By the end of it, I was settled into the notion that both are such strong lead voices — solo artists who have so nailed the art of solo artistry that they simply didn’t lock together in the way one might have hoped. Not that it matters, really. Both showed up the following night at the Ryman and gave solo performances that reminded us all why they’re here in the first place. Colvin & Earle aren’t slouching by any stretch; just maybe not hitting the mark for this one particular set at the City Winery.
Hey, it happens. Nobody’s loving this music because it’s flawless all the time. Often the humanity is what makes it so great — it’s certainly the humanness of both those artists’ songs that has endeared them to audiences for decades.
But back to the Ryman Auditorium, where the Americana Awards unleashed a spirited three-plus-hour showcase of much of what’s good about this kind of music.
It kicked off with a 30-minute tribute to artists who have passed this year. Standout among those was Earle’s turn on Guy Clark’s “Desperados Waiting for a Train,” which was an early highlight of the evening. As the show progressed, Bragg took the stage to honor the memory of Woody Guthrie, delivering an articulate and at times emotionally stirring speech that considered not only the breadth of Guthrie’s work, but his allegiance to the idea of America. For all his protests and agitating and writing about the plight of working people, speaking up on behalf of the voiceless, “Woody Guthrie,” Bragg reminded us, “was never cynical.”
Bragg silenced the room with his delivery of “I Ain’t Got No Home in This World Anymore.”
The rest of the awards show was lovely and entertaining. Excellent songs from Nathaniel Rateliff & the Night Sweats, Margo Price, Colvin, Milk Carton Kids, Bonnie Raitt, Parker Millsap (with Aoife O’Donovan and Sarah Jarosz backing him up), and others. But it was the closing number that placed the exclamation point at the end of the sentence: many of the night’s performers took the stage together to deliver a rendition of “Will the Circle Be Unbroken,” led by the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band.
Earlier in the day, in the hallway at Hillbilly Central — now the home to Compass Records, but where the outlaw country music really began, once upon a time — I found myself talking with Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s John McEuen. Having bent my ear, he started filling it with stories from before my time, but one stood out clearly: When he went to visit Mother Maybelle Carter, to take her a gold record his band had earned from singing her songs, he told her, “This means that 500,000 people have heard your song.” She responded with something along the lines of, “Well isn’t that just lovely. I didn’t even know that many people had heard my song. Would you like some lemonade?”
And that, my friends, is Americana.
More to come…