Now That’s Americana: Impressions from the 2013 AMA
As a singer-songwriter based in Northeast Ohio, I’ve had many people in the past few years recommend that I check out Nashville’s thriving music scene, but I always hesitated. However, this past summer I read about the 2013 Americana Music Association’s Conference and Festival and thought attending would be the perfect introduction to Nashville for me. I couldn’t have made a better decision. From the moment I arrived, I knew this was going to be a memorable journey. As I entered the city, I drove by the Sheraton and saw a welcoming sight: Dr. John dressed in his signature attire, casually standing at the hotel’s entrance.
Highlights from my four day stay in Nashville are numerous. They include performances by rising artist Pokey LaFarge to longtime favorites the Old Crow Medicine Show. Seeing Ry Cooder present Arhoolie Records founder Chris Stratchwitz with a Lifetime Achievement Award at the Ryman Auditorium was entirely unexpected and moving. Encountering other relatively obscure artists was a pleasure too. For instance, at one of the panel discussions I recognized Nicholas Beaudoing of the Doc Marshalls. For those unfamiliar with their music, they are an amazing Country-Cajun band that I knew from my time spent living in New York City. I highly recommend the album Honest For Once for its deft mix of literate songwriting and authentic blend of Country and Cajun.
Also unforgettable was Billy Bragg’s set at 3rd and Lindsley, during which he played songs from his latest album Tooth And Nail. His performance reinforced for me the power of combining a range of genres, which I am exploring in my own music by blending Greek Rembetiko with Americana. As a teenager, I listened to a wide variety of musicians ranging from The Ramones to Bob Dylan to Greek artists, among them George Dalaras. Bragg is an expert, too, at shifting thematically from political to personal songs and also seamlessly inhabiting Punk and Americana circles. In addition, that Bragg performed his entire first album at Grimey’s attests to the commitment artists have not only to their own oeuvre, but to the Americana Music Association as well.
While stellar sets from established artists are expected, often unexpected performances we are exposed to from relative newcomers can be even more electrifying. JD McPherson’s set at the Mercy Lounge was one of those experiences. Having been compared to popular artists such as Little Richard and Chuck Berry as well as less familiar musicians such as J.B. Lenoir, McPherson has emerged as one of the great ambassadors of old school Rock’n’Roll . While many performers who draw heavily from the 1950s often seem novel and somewhat kitsch, McPherson exudes absolute sincerity. Although he is seemingly steeped in the music of the past, he appears extremely contemporary. The sweaty, cramped, crowded atmosphere of the Mercy Lounge perfectly complemented McPherson’s music, particularly his version of “Country Boy” which conjured the essence of the muggy deep South. A clip of this performance on Youtube somewhat captures the intensity and electricity of the experience. It reminds me of the little known Elvis Presley song “Crawfish” which Joe Strummer described as carrying the “heat on the street.”
Another memorable evening was the last night of the festival at The Basement.
Hymn For Her’s chilling Gothic interpretation of Bob Dylan’s “Ballad Of Hollis Brown” was a standout. Fellow Northeast Ohioan Tim Easton rocked garage-band style through a set focusing on his latest album Not Cool. The interplay between Easton, the lead guitarist, and the fiddle player was a great “Americana meets Garage” moment. Finally, Amanda Shires wowed the audience with her sense of subtle intensity and restraint. A particular highlight occurred when Rod Picott joined her band and she switched from ukelele to fiddle.
To summarize, when I arrived in Nashville, I had no idea what to expect, but I was pleasantly surprised by the welcoming attitude of attendees, participants, and performers during the conference: from conversations with panelists at sessions and the No Depression Meetup to chance encounters with respected musicians in elevators (Larry Campbell and Teresa Williams), in parking lots (Billy Bragg greeting me as he carried his guitar to his van behind Grimey’s), and before and after performances (Pokey LaFarge and Gill Landry). The sense of community Jim Lauderdale fosters was indeed evident. I left Nashville feeling no longer like an outsider from Ohio, but rather a part of the Americana scene.
JD McPherson “Country Boy” live at the Mercy Lounge 9.18.13:
Tim Easton at the Basement:
Top photo: AMA Award Ceremony Finale