The Real Mr. Americana
To continue going beyond the limits of just DJs that I interview, it seems like the perfect time to get to know Jed Hilly, the very busy head of the AMA and ringleader at the upcoming Americana Music Festival & Conference (Sept. 20-25th) in Nashville.
Bill Frater: Where and when did you start in music and where have you worked in the past?
Jed Hilly: I was working at a restaurant in lower Manhattan called Tortilla Flats a long time ago. New Year’s Eve was approaching and the mariachi band cancelled just a couple days before the big night. My buddy Steve called me and said, “We need a band, let’s start one” and we did. Within 48 hours we had a 4-piece band with a drum machine. We wrote around 6 songs and did a mini set at the restaurant and it was a hit! We added two drummers and a horn player in the coming weeks and ended up having a pretty good following playing clubs around New York City for a couple of years. It was a blast! I played bass, and pretty much handled band management, so I got to know a lot of folks in the business. A great guy (and a Tortilla Flats regular customer) named Roger Christian worked at Sony back in the day, and he thought I might have a career in the music business. He helped me get my first job in the mailroom as an inventory clerk. Over the next ten years I worked at Sony. It was like graduate school for the music business. During that period, I had 7 different jobs within the company and interfaced with just about every division: marketing, distribution, A&R, promotion and even inter-company doing projects with electronic and film. It was a great run.
Where do you work now? How do you describe what you do?
I’m humbled to be the executive director of the Americana Music Association. Man, what do I do? In my heart I try advocate for all artists in the best way I can. We have worked hard to change the landscape. We have encouraged the creation of an Americana Grammy awards; a word in the dictionary, and for Americana charts in Billboard and in the UK’s official charts. We’ve been active in the debate on copyright reform and royalties in Washington, so there is that part. From my seat, there is certainly the rising-tide-raises-all-ships logic, which can be real hard to balance. I believe the artists are the CEOs of this organization. Back a few years ago when we were close to finalizing our deal to put the Honors & Awards show on TV, pretty much the entire board of directors was behind it but I had to ask one more person, Emmylou Harris. Emmy is a guiding light of integrity, I had heard her comment on why she loved our event; it was simple, honest, true to the music and she loved the presentations of the awards. She called it “the Shining Star of Nashville and music everywhere.” I was worried she would feel that a TV element would change all that … so I had the opportunity to sit with her to discuss it and she basically said “its time.” With her blessing I signed off on the deal, and honestly, if she had not given me her blessing, I don’t know what I would have done.
What was the first artist or album that got you into roots music?
I’m not sure which came first, The Green Mountain Boys (bluegrass locals from near where I grew up in Vermont), or Neil Young’s Harvest, and the Grateful Dead’s American Beauty and Workingman’s Dead. I never thought of it as “getting into” roots music … it’s what the community I grew up in listened to. And yes, I grew up with a lot of hippies!
Who are your favorite artists from any genre?
It’s hard to say a favorite … I think my proudest moments happened with and for Levon Helm. I grew up listening to The Band, along with those others I mentioned before. To have gotten to work with him during those last 5 or 6 years of his life was truly a most fantastic and humbling experience. I can’t think of another artist who impacted me the way he did, personally and professionally.
How do you define what Americana music is and what does it mean to you?
How to define, it, simple: If you can taste the dirt through your ears, that’s Americana. What does it mean to me? Much more … it’s a community, a lifestyle, an appreciation for art. I love being a part of this tribe.
Where do you see Americana radio, or radio in general, going in the future?
Radio is a vital part of any genre’s lifeline. Americana music is all over the place and that’s a good thing. I’m hopeful to see more 24/7 stations pop up as home bases for listeners, if you will, but the music is also being played on multiple formats, which is cool too. I would encourage other formats to integrate Americana into their playlists. I think we will continue to see crossover hits from our world reaching larger audiences, and that’s also a good thing. But who knows. The internet has such tremendous offerings but also the need for legislation (both for terrestrial and the internet) so that our artists and songwriters get paid fairly. There is a new dawn and we are right in the middle of it. We all need to recognize music is not something to be taken for granted; it has deep value, and for anyone to think its OK to not pay for music is just simply wrong.
What recent albums or artists are you excited about?
Ha, I try to stay away from questions like these! Truly, there are so many … come to AmericanaFest, and see where I end up.
What inspires you or what keeps you going?
The artists and their passions. These folks in the Americana world are truly amazing. They are artists in the truest sense of the word. I love that. I love their process.
What are your most memorable experiences or memories from working in the music industry?
I’ve had a few. Most recently I had the opportunity to co-produce an event paying tribute to the Last Waltz at Lincoln Center, and that was pretty special. I’ve also gotten to sit in on recording sessions with Dwight Yoakam and on another with Anderson East. My days are usually too busy to just go and hang in a studio, but man … those two experiences – watching Dwight work with producers Gary Paczosa and Jon Randall, and the players in the room – just amazing. Similarly, watching Anderson work with Dave Cobb gave me goosebumps. Thats the stuff, the stuff that keeps me going.
Do you have any other interesting hobbies or interests?
Yeah, I gotta get back to work! AmericanaFest is coming soon! I hope to see you there!