It’s Too Late to Stop Now: My Five Takeaways From AmericanaFest 2017
With so much to cover and absorb this year, and with a certain amount of sensory overload, not to mention lack of sleep, I have had a bit of writer’s block, so please bear with me. It was an amazing festival highlighting what is turning out to be an amazing year in Americana and roots music. I have said it before, and I will now say it again: We are in the midst of a golden age in music, and nowhere is this more thoroughly represented by AmericanaFest. Jed Hilly and his crew have their fingers firmly on the pulse of the most invigorating multigenre, multigenerational, and diverse music of the past 50+ years.
The Red Carpet and Honors & Awards Night at the Ryman
I have been most fortunate the past several years to have worked the AMA red carpet, and while I am not primarily there to interview folks, in addition to taking photos I do chat with artists as they make their way down that gauntlet. This year I was able to catch up with two of my favorite artists, Rhiannon Giddens and Margo Price, and the first couple of Americana, Jason Isbell and Amanda Shires. They were most gracious in “posing” for me alone. I hope that sense of intimacy comes across in the photos.
The AMA does a great job in its Lifetime Achievement Awards, notably in recognizing the work of folks in the background. Being a fan of sidemen/women everywhere, it was especially nice that Memphis’ Hi Rhythm Section was honored. And I got to chat with several of them and their wives on the carpet, and Robert Cray asked me specifically to take his photo with them. Nice.
The awards themselves held few surprises. Everyone, including Isbell and Sturgill Simpson specifically, knew that Prine would get Artist of the Year, and it was not a token make-up award. Prine has been and remains the guiding light and spirit of Americana, and had a great touring year. I liked Isbell’s tweet after the about about what Prine said to him, “Better luck next year young man. Let me buy you some oysters.”
However, the most electrifying, multilayered performance of the night was from Alynda Segarra, wearing a “Jail Arpaio” shirt and performing “Pa’lante,” which includes a portion of Pedro Pietri’s poem “Puerto Rican Obituary.” Wow.
Compass Records’ Hillbillies & Hot Dogs
Before the Ryman show, I spent the afternoon at Hillbilly Central, where ND’s Kim Ruehl and Harry Carrigan also hung out (No Depression co-hosted the event). But I spent most of my time chatting with Alison Brown and her folks, who were performing in the studio where Waylon Jennings, John Hartford, and many others recorded their classic albums.
My highlights included my single best “discovery” of the week, Molly Tuttle. Despite being profiled by Terry Roland for ND, I had not heard her. She’s also the first woman to be nominated in the guitar category by the IBMA. I was mesmerized when she, along with Brown and Rebecca Frazier, performed together as a flatpicking trio.
I was also able to catch up with Laura Cortese and the Dance Cards. What a band, which includes a cello. After the set, Valerie Thompson told me, “Every band needs a cellist.” In her capable hands, I could not agree more. We went on to talk about other cellists in acoustic bands.
As I later noted to Brown, I felt right at home there. While I should be used to this by now, it is amazing that the most talented folks are also the nicest. Speaking of which, Colin Hay was the most gracious person of the week. His stories are also amazing.
Lost Buffalo Artists’ Bloody Mary AMA Party
Speaking of homey, next on my list was Thursday afternoon spent in the East Nashville home of Lindsay Lou (of Lindsay Lou & the Flatbellys), at an event featuring folks represented by Lost Buffalo Artists. I got to know the label’s head, Mollie Farr, several years ago from her association with my favorite band, Donna the Buffalo, and soon learned of Lost Buffalo. Unbeknownst to me, however, was that I had already seen and admired most of the folks she represents, so I was especially looking forward to spending some time with them. What I was not expecting was being so enthralled that I spent the entire afternoon there. I did not want it to end.
I got to hear Molly Tuttle and her band again, and was even more impressed. I was able to see the Hass Kowert Tice trio for the first time. Comprised of Brittany Haas (Crooked Still, Dave Rawlings Machine), bassist Paul Kowert (Punch Brothers, Dave Rawlings Machine), and guitarist Jordan Tice (Tony Trischka), without a doubt their set was my favorite single set of the week, a labyrinthine of complex yet accessible acoustic music that had me in a trance. As they are adding a mandolinist, they’re working on a new name, tentatively calling themselves Hawktail. Be on the lookout.
Closing out the afternoon was Phoebe Hunt & the Gatherers, who seamlessly weave Americana and Texas swing with an exotic rhythmic sense culled from Hunt’s time in India. What a way to end the day.
By the way, I would be remiss in not mentioning that in addition to having nice chats with Haas and the Gatherers’ Nick Falk (whom I would also see the next night with his wife Dori Freeman), I also spent some time with guitarist Rebecca Frazier, whom I had met the day before at Compass, and her young daughter, who enthusiastically talked about her piano lessons. I mention these primarily to give you the sense of how intimate this get-together was. The best the week had to offer, and the one I am still thinking about.
The Women of AmericanaFest
I had planned to spend Friday night at the Winery, but was unaware that the evening of women artists (Kasey Chambers, Brandy Clark, Dori Freeman, Courtney Marie Andrews, and Erin Rae) had been partnered with Change the Conversation. Change was formed in 2014 by Leslie Fram, Tracy Gershon, and Beverly Keel, who told me the organization’s purpose is “to fight for gender equality in country music. Our goals are to see more women played on country radio, signed to label and publishing deals and offered high-profile opportunities.” Gershon told me: “Our goal is to become obsolete. Our long-term goal is to not have to have this conversation anymore.”
It was also obvious that women artists were everywhere at AmericanaFest and that the AMA takes women artists seriously. Not some mere tokenism, women artists were prominently featured throughout the week. While only one woman took home an award (Amanda Shires for Emerging Artist), the number of nominations were up, so the AMA nominating base is becoming more aware. From my observations, the fan base is there (there were just as many men at women performers’ shows as women), and the AMA is there, it’s the media outlets need to catch up with what’s going on. An analogy is O Brother, Where Art Thou, which sold 12 million copies but could not get played on the radio.
This also a conversation that the AMA is having, highlighted by its “Woman Is Not a Genre” panel discussion. This issue has long been an issue in the other arts, from writers to painters, and it began in earnest decades ago and continues today in rock and Americana. The subject is too deep and complex to dive into for this wrap-up, but I will say it is a discussion worthy of the time and energy being devoted to it, necessary to attain true parity. Again, the problem lies not so much with the fan base; we have been there all along. It’s getting those movers and shakers and insiders on board, and getting past that good ol’ boy attitude to get with it.
My artist of AmericanaFest? I saw many, many great sets, from Brandy Clark to Amanda Shires to Kasey Chambers to Molly Tuttle to Ruby Boots (who my surprise hit last year, and was even better this time) to a refreshing All My Exes Live in Texas from Australia, but my singular pick has to be Angaleena Presley. Despite not having a showcase, she appeared many times during the week. As her latest album, Wrangled, is the most original, insightful, and downright listenable collection of songs of the year, I was going to catch her as many times as I could, three in total.
As NPR music critic Ken Tucker said, “From its self-portrait-in-bondage album cover to the liner notes in which the most polite thing she calls Nashville is a meat grinder where only the callous and fearless survive, Wrangled is framed as a melodramatically heroic album. But the art contained within that frame is much more subtle, nuanced and clever, which doesn’t make it any less pointed and passionate.”
However, performing those songs live, she interjects witty banter, a killer smile, and an effervescent personality that disarms and runs counter to what she’s skewering. Along with Rhiannon Giddens and Margo Price, Presley is making the most invigorating music of the past several years. If you are not already on board, you better be.
Now, scroll though the many pictures the ND photographers, Michelle Stancil, Jill Kettles, Brenda Rosser, Chad Cochran, Lynn Fowler, and especially Carol Graham who went above and beyond, took during the week for your viewing pleasure. The best treat of all? I got to hang out with them! Many thanks to all.