Thoughts On ACL Presents: Americana Music Festival
An edited version of the Americana Music Awards is on this weekend under the Austin City Limits banner, and it is a well-produced show full of beautiful music. Standout performances included the Avett Brothers, Justin Townes Earle and Gregg Allman. The Avett Brothers chose to perform a new song, The Once And Future Carpenter. We often hope for what we know but occasionally we are pleased by something new. This song and the Avett’s performance of it (a bit restrained for them) was jaw-dropping. Justin Townes Earle’s Harlem River Blues, though performed a bit differently than you’d hear at one of his shows (I mean, he had one of the world’s best bands behind him, so why not use them?) reminded me of the immense talent of this somewhat tortured musician and made me hopeful that his future will be bright. At the end of the evening, Gregg Allman’s performance of Melissa (his first time on stage since a recent hospital stay), was poignant and moving, perhaps even more because of a delivery weakened by illness.
No, I didn’t include Robert Plant and the Band of Joy in my listing of highlights, even though their performance of Monkey was great. I’ll get to them in a minute.
Jed Hilly, the Executive Director of the Americana Music Association, said that Americana music “holds keys to the success and resurgence of the music business as a whole.” For a reaction to that, I’m reminded of Ned Pepper’s line in True Grit, “I call that bold talk for a one-eyed fat man.” Mr. Hilly is neither fat nor one-eyed, but it’s still a pretty bold statement. I wonder if, like Rooster Cogburn, Americana Music can take the reins in its mouth with a gun in both hands and change the music business. I wonder if we want it to.
The Civil Wars were at the AMA’s. Their performance was impressive, though I’m not sure what I think about them yet. They burst on to the scene quickly (supposedly due to a tweet from Taylor Swift who attended one of their shows). By the time the AMA’s rolled around they were too big to play their showcase show. Or something came up, but they didn’t play their showcase. I wonder if they’re the future of American music?
Robert Plant and the Band of Joy won Album of the Year and went on next to the last in this year’s show. (It’s worth noting that they appeared at last year’s AMA’s post-show and played several songs in a surprise bonus concert.) So we have an aging UK rock star who’s done a lot to move Americana more into mainstream culture through his collaboration with Alison Krauss a few years ago and his current project, which is a true “dream team” including Buddy Miller, Patty Griffin, Darrell Scott, Byron House and Marco Giovino. I’m still not sure what to think about all that, but it is certainly something to think about. I know I gladly stood in the rain and cold at Telluride to see them play. They are really good.
Where would Americana music be if O Brother hadn’t burst on the scene? What if Crazy Heart hadn’t happened? What if Alison Krauss wasn’t the crossover star that she is? What if Plant hadn’t teamed up with her and now with Patty Griffin and Buddy Miller? Would Americana be in the dictionary? Would there be an association or an award show with a national television broadcast?
I keep thinking about the folks who are making Americana music every day, writing songs, playing to clubs and bars and small arenas, trying to figure out how to connect with their fans and get their music out there. The real Bad Blakes of the world, not the fictional ones. What does Americana music holding the keys to the resurgance of the music business mean to them? What does Robert Plant’s dalliance with Americana mean to them? Does a rising tide lift all ships? Or does a bigger ocean just mean that the smaller boats stay at the dock? No answers from this reporter, just questions.
I do know that the smaller boats are the real future of Americana music. They don’t have Taylor Swift tweeting about them. They don’t have a tour bus or a road manager. They know the break even point when they’re on the road and they’re often just below it. One of those folks told me not too long ago in an email exchange: “Touring is tuff business these days. The money to break even is just not there.” The folks in the smaller boats used to dream about record contracts but now they don’t even know if they want one, because the record companies just charge them for their own CD’s (which will soon be phased out) and bill them for production costs while demanding a piece of their touring revenue and merch sales.
So what to do? Celebrate the success of Americana and enjoy the ACL broadcast. Details on it and access to clips are here, and you can listen to the entire awards show here. But keep your eyes on those smaller boats. Buy their music, go out of your way to see their shows, tell your friends, tweet about them, like them on facebook, whatever. As the Hayes Carll song goes, “It’s hard out here.” And we shouldn’t think otherwise because of a tv show.