Takeaways from AmericanaFest 2018; or, WTF is Americana?
What if god is a 17-year-old girl with purple hair standing in front of a Marshall amp playing a red guitar? — David Olney
Most Asked Question of the Week
What the fuck is Americana?
Some asked in earnest, but to most it was a rhetorical musing about the state of the music, where we are, and where we’re heading.
It also seems to be a three-headed being: the AMA board, the AMA members, and the Americana fans. The board has done a marvelous job at honoring the roots of Americana, and its many branches. The voting members not so much. As this year’s hosts, the Milk Carton Kids asked on the Ryman stage during the Awards show: “Shall we talk about the elephant in the room?” “Diversity?” “No: What is Americana?”
Here’s what Jason Isbell had to say in a tweet the day after the awards:
“I’m conflicted. Yes, I’m extremely grateful for the awards last night @AmericanaFest, but I also wish the list of winners was at least as diverse as the list of nominees. How to move forward with voters who share that sentiment? I don’t know. I’d honestly like to see it, though.”
During the awards show, instead of playing the Song of the Year winner (“If We Were Vampires”), Isbell pulled no punches with the politcal “White Man’s World.”
(You can see the full list of this year’s award winners here.)
What Americana Means to Me
At Shorefire Media’s Salute to Americana at 3rd & Lindsley, I witnessed in the space of ten minutes something that epitomizes Americana to me. Amy Helm, Nicki Bluhm, and Allison Russell (Birds of Chicago) did Springsteen’s “Atlantic City,” followed by Asleep at the Wheel covering Guy Clark’s “Dublin Blues,” introduced by Ray Benson saying he spent his 30th birthday at that Chili Parlor bar. Whether it be the backstreets in an industrial New Jersey town, an Austin bar, or the Spanish Steps in Rome, Americana is a borderless state of being where there are no walls and no one is an immigrant.
Six Memorable Moments
1. Rosanne Cash’s speech at the Honors & Awards show that drew six standing ovations. I urge you to read it. It’s the most moving moment I have ever witnessed in that hallowed temple. This was followed by an intimate performance the next day at the Luck Mansion.
2. Margo Price’s rooftop performance at Third Man Records. With guests Brandi Carlile and Lilly Hiatt, she and the band wooed and wowed the crowd in the street below. The performance was a secret (apparently not a very good one) that preceded a scheduled meet and greet.
3. Marc Ribot’s midnight show at the High Watt. As my friend Devon Leger said in a late night note to me: “He did a cover of The Carter Family’s ‘When the World’s On Fire’ that brought the song into a place of simple quiet and quiet terror. You could hear a pin drop. I’ve never heard anything like it at AmericanaFest before. I was just there with some friends, not knowing what to expect, and it emptied my mind. Transported me entirely.” With Ribot’s emphasis on resistance music, another friend said it was an “AmericanaFest palate cleanser.” It was the showcase of the week.
4. Mandy Barnett at the Mercy exceeded my expectations. She and her full band not only performed the new album, Strange Conversation, in its entirety, they did so in a manner that made me lose myself in her mind-bending blend of low-down, hip-swinging, Tom Waits inspired country soul Muscle Shoals blues.
5. The War and Treaty brought their hypnotic gospel-inspired songs, shining a light out of the darkness to a full house at the Cannery. It was a revival of a different kind, enveloping you in their mutual love and affection for each other.
6. Elizabeth Cook, with an unadorned acoustic accompaniment by a demurring Mike Mills (R.E.M.), performed new songs in the hot and humid Anchor that were breathtaking in their well-considered, melody-driven directness. I hope Mills is featured on the new album that Cook will soon record.
The Spirit of Americana: The Daytime Events
I found the daytime events this year to be the most engaging ever. Sponsored by PR firms, labels, management agencies, and the like, these are the folks who have their fingers on the pulse of the musical talent out there. Yes, they are promoting their clients, but in today’s climate they are also on the prowl for artists who have it, have something to say, and are moving the tradition forward, whether it be the new, the taken for granted, or the neglected.
The hatWRKS Happenin’ featured David Olney, who should be declared a national treasure, an unheralded traveler in Woody Guthrie’s footsteps, all the more necessary in this dark and gloomy political clime. Plus, I finally got to see Boo Ray, a nonchalant keeper of flame of the old Nashville that’s way alive in both his music and life. Let me not fail to mention Angie Aparo, Angela Perley and the Howlin’ Moons, and BARK. Instead of the usual 20-minute sets most daytimers get, these folks did full hour ones that showed the fullness of their talents.
Once again, Music Export Memphis’ Pure Memphis Happy Hour presented the best that city has to offer. While Cedric Burnside (grandson of R.L.) and his connection to blues as it was meant to be was the primary draw, the discovery of the week was without a doubt Talibah Safiya. Her dynamic and captivating R&B set that included a bit of rock and funk on that humid, sweaty late Thursday afternoon was as emotionally draining as it awe-inspiring.
Bloodshot Records’ Backyard Bash blasted and rocked-abilly a late Friday afternoon away in the Groove’s backyard, making many new fans of Ruby Boots and the Vandoliers. I had not seen the latter, and I was especially taken with their journey though the Texas backroads. You could taste the dust. Linda Gail Lewis, appearing with Robbie Fulks, had the lyric of the week: “Of all the men I trusted, Jack Daniels hurt me the least.”
I was having such a great time at The Bootleg Brunch at Dino’s in East Nashville that I skipped a scheduled conference panel. This invite-only event put on by Loose Music, British Underground, and Big Feat PR is a prime example of why AmericanaFest matters. In an intimate setting, you get to experience Yola Carter, The Americans, and the Big Feat All-Stars that featured Erin Rae, Coco Reilly, Ian Ferguson, Harpooner and Kashena Sampson and Leah Blevins. We got to hear where the new music is heading while sipping mimosas and munching on french toast.
I ended Saturday afternoon down at the Filming Station Live, where under a much appreciated tent that blocked a furious sun we were not only supplied the best food and drink of the week, but more importantly offered some of the best new music I heard all week, specifically The Accidentals and Strung Like a Horse. The latter band brought with them a jubilant bunch of fans from Chattanooga. Among others, Fulks and Lewis again did a fabulous rockabilly set, with Mike Farris closing things out in an extended set of his patented scorched-earth take on blue-eyed soul.
While both Nashville and Americana are driven by songwriting and singer-songwriters, what gets overlooked by the press are the musicians who bring to their visions the vital transfusions that enable them to soar. This year I made a point to concentrate on them, and while I might have found some of the named performers a bit on the lame side, I was consistently wowed by the musicians beside them. I was particularly taken with those backing Mandy Barnett and Mike Farris. The band as a whole that flabbergasted me was the Vandoliers. Double wow. While all three bands have different and distinct leanings, you also get the notion that they could play anything.
One of the things I noticed this year is what I’ll call music tourists. It was as if they had wandered in off the streets for day or a night of “free” music. Then I got to thinking, $75 for a wristband gains you entry into nearly all the showcases and most of the daytime events. At the latter, there’s not only music, but free beer and food. Hell, for six days that comes out to $12 a day, or the cost of two beers. One of the many things I enjoy about this week is the great sense of camaraderie and the sharing our love for the music. These folks, however, just wanted to be left alone and drink. I hope some of the music seeped in.
The Red Carpet
I have been very fortunate to have worked the AmericanaFest awards show red carpet at the Ryman for several years. In getting to chat and become acquainted with some artists there, I find that the photos I take capture an intimacy and spontaneity that is often lacking in the agency photographs. Many of those artists must think so as well since they often use them in their social media posts. You can see for yourself in the slideshow below.
Many thanks to my fellow photographers, Chad Cochran, Carol Graham, Jill Kettles, Chris Griffy, Brenda Rosser, Boom Baker, Larry John Fowler, and Jim Cline, who tirelessly fought the crowds and the heat to share with us the many splendid photos below. I am forever grateful for knowing them and for their willingness to share their work. Please reward their selfless efforts by clicking through the slideshow below.