Scotland’s Glasgow Americana Festival Celebrates its 10th Birthday
Anyone who has been to AmericanaFest can tell you, Americana music is not limited to America or even American artists. Americana is not a genre specific to a single nation. Rather, it is a state of being, a mindset, a calling. While it may have been born in the States, the music, its artists, and its fans can be found all over the world.
As country music has become largely formulaic and dominated by bland, good-looking interchangeables whose aspirations seem to begin and end with American Idol, we have seen a migration of a considerable number of folks seeking a greater sustenance. Thus, it should come as no surprise to learn that Americana is outselling country. That fact alone tells you that its appeal is broad and knows no international borders.
One place Americana has found a home is Glasgow, Scotland, where the annual Celtic Connections is often referred to as the British Isles’ AmericanaFest. We are again fortunate to have Carol Graham of Glasgow — a regular at Nashville’s AmericanaFest — to cover Glasgow’s other roots festival, Glasgow Americana Festival, which celebrated its 10th anniversary last week. Many of Carol’s photos have been featured in ND during the past year. You have also seen her work when she reported on Celtic Connections for this column in February.
We were in North Carolina two weeks ago, San Francisco last week, and are in Scotland this week. No doubt there is a wide, wide world of Americana music out there. So, let’s explore more of it through Carol’s own words and photos:
I returned to Glasgow, Scotland, after the soaring temperatures of Nashville during AmericanaFest to discover that the dark evenings and cold autumn air had already arrived. But the abrupt change in weather always triggers a Pavlovian response of anticipation and excitement, as the autumn heralds the beginning of music festival season in Glasgow. With a growing focus on roots music and Americana, Glasgow has quietly become a magnet for an increasing number of Americana artists. Scotland’s largest international music festival, Celtic Connections, takes place during January and attracts over 100,000 people to more than 300 events over 20 days.
However, on a more intimate scale, October also brings the Glasgow Americana Festival, which this year celebrated its 10th anniversary. Over the years, festival director Kevin Morris has been responsible for bringing hundreds of Americana artists to Glasgow, often before they were widely known. Over the years, I’ve seen Sturgill Simpson play to a handful of people in a tiny bar, and been introduced to the music of Alejandro Escovedo, Dave Alvin, the Handsome Family, Gretchen Peters, Sarah Jarosz, and countless others.
This year, Glasgow Americana ran over five days, with around 25 acts playing in various venues across the city, ranging from a grand and atmospheric converted church, to smaller cafes and bars. Multiple conflicting performances meant that difficult choices had to be made, although I did manage to run between nearby venues on several occasions to catch as many acts as possible. From a photographer’s perspective, the venues were challenging – most were atmospheric but dimly lit (and the Glasgow weather certainly didn’t permit any outdoor concerts!). More importantly, however, the sound was perfect in even the smallest venues.
The sold-out opening concert was by UK-based Blue Rose Code, an ever-evolving band of stellar musicians hand-picked by singer-songwriter Ross Wilson. I have written about this band before, having discovering Wilson’s music several years ago in Nashville, where he was the unforgettable highlight of Whispering Bob Harris’s “BBC Introducing” sessions. Wilson has a unique Celtic soul sound that is often compared to an early John Martyn, but he adds ever-changing arrangements of perfectly orchestrated harmonies, guitar, pedal steel, bass, and keyboard – like an artist selecting hues, tones, and textures to alter the emotion of a painting. Blue Rose Code draws a larger crowd with every year, so the 300-seat venue actually felt like an intimate space for this band. They were joined onstage by two of Scotland’s finest traditional musicians, Kathleen MacInnes and Ross Ainsley, for a beautiful version of Davy Steele’s “Scotland, Yet,” and included a glorious full band performance of the heartfelt gospel-inspired “Grateful,” originally recorded with the McCrary Sisters as a single in 2015.
Currently Blue Rose Code are my very favourite band, and certainly on a par with anything I saw at Nashville this year.
Supporting Blue Rose Code at St Andrews-in-the-Square — a glorious 18th Century restored church — was a 23-year-old singer-songwriter from Edinburgh, Roseanne Reid. Definitely a voice to watch for the future, Reid has already been selected two years in a row for a prestigious Steve Earle scholarship to his songwriting camp in upstate New York.
Day two involved running between venues to catch multiple performances that evening. Kim Richey made a return visit to Glasgow Americana, describing Glasgow as ‘one of my most favorite places in all the world to play’. Kim’s set in the City Halls’ Recital Rooms was stunning, especially when she was joined onstage by local musician Jill Jackson for some collaborative transatlantic “Scots-Americana.” Jackson also played her own sold-out show later in the festival. Both took time out of rehearsals that day to contribute to some “Happy Birthday, Glasgow Americana” photos, and I loved their enthusiasm for the city and their willingness to add some humor to my photographs.
Another highlight of day two was Scottish songwriter Norrie McCulloch who, accompanied by Dave McGowan’s pedal steel (Teenage Fanclub/Belle and Sebastian), performed material from These Mountain Blues, which was written during a road trip from Austin to Nashville, the title track atmospherically recalling McCulloch’s pilgrimage to visit Townes Van Zandt’s grave in Texas.
McCulloch’s set was preceded by an outstanding performance by the Jellyman’s Daughter, a Scottish duo (comprising Emily Kelly and Graham Coe) who are getting stronger and stronger each time I see them. I could listen to their mandolin, fiddle, cello, guitar, and harmonies for hours, and their set was an absolute highlight of the Glasgow Americana festival. Definitely a band to track down, they are promising to take time off from touring in 2017 to write and record their much anticipated second album.
Day three involved making some difficult decisions, as the evening’s venues were too far apart to cover all performances. I finally opted for Chip Taylor’s set at the City’s Classic Grand, unfortunately missing Wynntown Marshals, but definitely the right decision as I was completely blown away by Taylor’s performance. He is a living history of songwriting, and truly one of America’s greatest songwriters, being recently inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame. His material has been covered by Frank Sinatra, Aretha Franklin, and Dusty Springfield, amongst many others, but he has still managed to remain relatively unknown. As well as being a legendary songwriter, he is also a master performer and storyteller. He captivated the audience with fascinating introductions to each of his songs. Accompanied by guitarist John Platania (possibly best known for Van Morrison’s Moondance), this was an evening of genuine laughter, tears, and inspiration, with obvious highlights being “Wild Thing” and “Angel of the Morning.” Chip and John were delighted to pose for “Happy Birthday, Glasgow Americana” photos and chat, even after their two-hour-long performance.
Glasgow is privileged to have its own non-commercial roots music radio channel, Celtic Music Radio, and Taylor was interviewed by radio host Mike Ritchie whilst he was in Glasgow – the podcast for that will be available to listen to for the next few weeks and I highly recommend it.
The final two days of the festival were over a weekend, but with multiple shows during both days and evenings, I was beginning to tire a little. Thankfully the music definitely wasn’t. Otis Gibbs arrived and played two enthralling sold-out shows over two days in different venues. He noticeably spent time quietly encouraging the younger, local musicians who were also playing the festival. Saturday afternoon was a Hazy Recollections session – a regular event in Glasgow, hosted by talented singer-songwriter Findlay Napier, and bringing together an extensive mix of local and international artists each playing a short set. A notable highlight was the sultry ballads and western swing of Mary Jean Lewis – the niece of Jerry Lee Lewis, and now living in Glasgow – a fabulous singer, who also recounted some wonderful tales of her childhood in the company of Johnny Cash and Carl Perkins!
The final day of the festival brought the fabulous Stray Birds, promoting their recent and excellent Magic Fire album. They are regular visitors to Glasgow, but this was their first visit with new drummer Shane Leonard, who added a whole new dimension to their live performance. I left clutching a vinyl copy of their new album, to add to my CD copy that’s already almost worn out. The band were happy to wait after their set for photos, and Oliver Craven even added a special message for Glasgow Americana’s 10th birthday: “The first time we ever played overseas was in Glasgow. We love this city and if they keep having us we’ll keep coming back. Many thanks to Kevin Morris and Glasgow Americana for making us feel at home away from home.”
The 10th Anniversary of Glasgow Americana ended with a definite country flavour, with an energetic set from Sam Outlaw who already has a large following in Glasgow. I spotted an AmericanaFest bag lying off-stage during his performance. He recently played Americanafest and was also a presenter at the AMA Honors and Awards show at the Ryman. But the bag was also a poignant reminder of the very close musical bonds between the two cities – and I left grateful to Glasgow Americana for making that possible.
I will leave you with what Otis Gibbs told me when I asked him about the festival: “The people of Glasgow have been great to me throughout the years and Festival Director Kevin Morris has made it all possible. He promoted my first ever Scottish gig and continues to bring me back time and again. I hope my friends in Glasgow appreciate his efforts to put on the best in American roots music and continue to fill up the venues. Long live the Glasgow Americana Festival!”