Music vet and New Times scribe Lee Zimmerman shares observations, insights and updates relating to South Florida's musical environs. This week, an incredible five days in Nashville...
Only Nashville could host an event like the Americana Music Festival and Conference. Austin has South By Southwest, and New York and L.A. have a monopoly on practically everything else. But when you're talking country, blues, Gospel, and R&B, you're talking Nashville.
Though more than a dozen years in existence, the Americana Music Association's annual event continues to grow in size, pride, and prestige each year. And it doesn't take a fondness for over-sized cowboy hats, big boots, or even the sweetest Southern accent to have an appreciation for the wide sonic terrain that Americana now embraces. It only takes a willingness to appreciate, and an open heart and head. And if that means dancing like you're at a hoedown or shedding a few furtive tears while hearing an especially sad refrain, then so be it. Americana sure as hell ain't going away, so you might as well get into it.
As a newcomer to this awesome celebration, there were obvious highlights, even beyond the music. Here then, are the top ten things that made the AMA rock.
10. The Bluegrass Situation party featured an all-star musical line-up with David Bromberg, the Milk Carton Kids, the Steep Canyon Rangers, and actor, impresario Ed Helms. The fact that it was held in the Cannery Ballroom, located in the same building as two other staging areas of varying size, made club-hopping a sweet possibility.
9. An afternoon interview session with Billy Bragg at the Sheraton offered genuine bragging rights (sorry), as well as an up-close encounter with the artist. On his newly sprouted facial hair, Bragg said, "A Kenny Rogers beard hides multiple chins." On his shift from political posturing to waxing on fostering romantic relationships: "I'm still singing about a titanic struggle." On Americana itself: "Country music for people who like the Smiths."
8. The Australian showcase gave us the opportunity to catch the revered Bushwackers, whose song "I Am Australian" was so tear-wrenching, it made a grown man (mainly me) cry. Likewise, a husband-wife duo called the Borderers upped the ante on energy while adding a bit of trepidation due to the fact that the male member of the group fancied a few high kicks while wearing kilts, offering the possibility that another male member might make an unexpected appearance. 'Nuff said.
7. The Bootleg BBQ was located in that rarest of entities these days, a real live record store. A sterling line-up of British artists indulging in Americana offered a one-stop opportunity to catch Peter Bruntnell, Blue Rose Code, the Treetop Flyers, and My Darling Clementine. The latter, was a personal pleasure, considering the fact that its ringmaster, Michael Weston King, and I have a history of email correspondence that goes back some seven or eight years. Even Holly Williams showed up to perform, although it ought to be noted that she's not a Brit, but rather the granddaughter of the granddaddy of them of all, Hank himself.
6. The Sunday Gospel Brunch offered songs by the magnificent McCrary Sisters, the White Family, and a handful of young devotees. They held court while the crowd chowed down on chicken and waffles and sang songs so rapt with devotion, even a nonbeliever might be moved to sing the Lord's praises.
5. I had an opportunity to meet the great Aussie auteur Paul Kelly and gush my admiration, although it was to my continuing regret that I never actually got to see him perform. But that's how competitive this festival is. With half a dozen venues, each bearing an awesome array of amazing performers, choices must be made. But damn, Kelly played three times and I still didn't get to see him. What's wrong with that picture?
4. Our chance lunch with Michael Martin Murphy, dressed in full cowboy regalia was unforgettable. My wife Alisa loves his song "Wildfire," as do I. But the chance to actually chat -- and buy a healthy salad for this larger than life musical icon -- was, in a word, way cool. (Or is that two words?)
3. There was that ride we got from the Bootleg BBQ with John Lomax, he of the famous Lomax musical dynasty, and the man who singlehandedly managed the late Townes Van Zandt. He then took on another renegade in the form of Steve Earle. Ah, the stories he could tell. Dug his Townes T-shirt too!
2. At the New West 15th Anniversary party, I found myself standing next to Buddy Miller and got the chance to ask him about his recent work with Richard Thompson and past performances with Robert Plant. (Future plans with Plant? "Who knows?")
1. For number one, there's a tie between the Saturday night performance by Scott Miller at 3rd and Lindsley where we reaffirmed our friendship (he's the only guy I've ever met who's so damned affectionate, he'll kiss you on the cheek, guy friends included) and where I also reaffirmed my belief that he's one of the most literate, savvy and amazingly talented singer/songwriters of the new millennium.
And then there's the spectacular awards celebration at the legendary Ryman Auditorium, with a line-up of guests, presenters, and honorees that it might make the CMAs, the Grammys, the Emmys, and even the Oscars blush with humility. We witnessed the likes of Emmylou, Rodney, Buddy, Dr. John, Ry Cooder, Richard Thompson, actor and bluegrass buff Ed Helms, stars of the show Nashville (natch), and legendary lyricist Robert Hunter of Grateful Dead fame (whose introduction became so emotionally affecting, it brought host Jim Lauderdale practically to tears). They all sat alongside such promising newcomers as Old Crow Medicine Show and Shovels & Rope, who, by the way, were all the buzz that evening. It had all the makings of a show biz spectacular, complete with stars, sizzle and savvy. And music. Great music. Awesome music. Screw your Grammys. You'll never find music this good on a single stage in a single night. Nope, never.
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