It's the final night of the 2014 Americana Music Festival and Conference, and the final event of a spectacular five day run. Lucinda Williams is about to begin a last minute invitation-only performance at the newly opened City Winery in Nashville. But first, Americana Music Association Executive Director Jed Hilly walks to the microphone. Americana is now a very real, living, and breathing genre that finally found true context, he declares.
It's a statement that's obvious to all who attend, as evidenced through the music, through the bonds of fellowship, through the shared experiences that ebbed and flowed throughout the festivities. Yet, what Hilly doesn't point out, but what is equally true, is that the term Americana may have finally outgrown its initial meaning. For what had begun as a broad patchwork of singer/songwriters with a feel for the heartland and a scrappy roots rock, alt-country sound has now found a larger audience, one that embraces artists from all over the world -- from the U.K. and Europe to the far realms of the Pacific. Indeed, the very term "Americana" seems something of a misnomer now, especially considering the international evocation.
And yet, even characterizing this festival and conference as "international" seems something of an understatement. It's like describing Nashville -- wonderful, wonderful Nashville -- as a bastion of great music. Well, yeah, y'all. Forget those gracious and soothing Southern accents. We heard the sound-speak of Aussies, Brits, Canadians, Norwegians, French.
Despite the excruciating array of daily choices that need to be made due to conflicting schedules and performance times, yours truly experienced a series of once in a lifetime events that contributed to the sheer awesomeness of all-encompassing Americana. It was so spectacular in fact that we have twelve of these moments to share.
That universality, I just mentioned, is one reason why Americana now bears such strong purpose. On Wednesday, the opening night of the festivities, the much anticipated Annual Americana Honors and Awards Show -- held at the fabled Ryman Auditorium -- demonstrated how a wellspring of common emotion can run so deep.
There was the heartfelt appreciation for lifetime achievers Loretta Lynn, Flaco Jimenez, Taj Mahal, and Jackson Browne. There was delight in seeing the legendary Ry Cooder make his presence known as part of the all-star band guided under the musical direction of the steadfast Buddy Miller. There was joy shared with Jason Isbell, Hard Working Americans, Milk Carton Kids, and Sturgill Simpson when they won honors for up and coming accomplishment. And of course, praise for the genuine country gentleman Jim Lauderdale who steered the entire program with his usual finesse and humility.
Likewise, where else can you catch a legend like Robert Plant making an unannounced cameo, singing in the company of his former paramour Patty Griffin while maintaining such a unobtrusive demeanor? One can only imagine the mutual nods shared in that all-star backstage gathering.
11. Everly Brothers
A panel discussion centering on the Everly Brothers' influence on Americana and pop music found focus courtesy of an group of experts that included Rodney Crowell, something of an icon himself in those circles. Still, it was the vintage film clips depicting the Brothers in their various stages of progression that drove the point home -- that point being that without the Everlys, the future progression of rock, pop, and country music might have been inextricably altered forever.
The name given the Outlaws & Gunslingers Luncheon proved something of a misnomer. Hosted by Six Shooter Records and Starfish Entertainment, it was a showcase for a gathering of Canadian artists, among them NQ Arbuckle, Oh Susanna, and Sean Rowe.
My fondness for Canadian music was fully affirmed, and the opportunity to chat with the Arbuckle's namesake (at least as far as its two initials are concerned) provided some terrific comic repartee. Likewise, meeting producer/songwriter Jon Tiven was also an unexpected thrill, given the man's 40 plus years of working with such musical mainstays as the Rolling Stones, BB King, and his current collaborator Bebe Buell. I inadvertently had him recite his entire resume due to some mistaken identity -- his shirt said "George" -- although I belatedly apologized when I found myself embarrassed by my obvious blunder.
On the way out, I ran in to former Miami homeboy Robert Reynolds of the Mavericks, another example of how star sightings are as frequent in Nashville as congressional quibbles are in Washington D.C.
9. Queen Elvis
The newly christened City Winery, opened mere days before, was the site for solo sets by Joe Henry and Robyn Hitchcock. Both had the crowd wowed and rapt throughout. The beauty of Henry's intimate compositions was countered by Hitchcock's off kilter psychedelia and a set of songs ("My Wife and My Dead Wife," Madonna of the Wasps," "Queen Elvis," and a sterling take on the Psychedelic Furs' lovely "Ghost in You"). A welcome cameo from Grant Lee-Phillips further added to the star-like assemblage.
Friday at Americana would prove equally auspicious. The day began with the "Sounds of Australia Taste of Australia" luncheon, a gathering which featured not your traditional cuisine from Down Under but rather the pizza that we apparently missed at the aforementioned Soulshine Pizza parlor the day before.
An outstanding array of Australian artists -- Immigrant Union, Falls, Brooke Russell & the Mean Reds, the Mae Trio and the Audreys -- offered short but spectacular sets of wistful Americana done Aussie style, further affirming the fact that the physical reach of this particular genre is indeed worldwide. Hosted by the inimitable Dobe Newton, an erudite entertainer himself, the fest attracted none other than Robyn Hitchcock, who did his best to blend with the crowd and enjoy the sounds, despite some pestering by diehard fans, yours truly included. Hey, it couldn't be helped. Whilst one hesitates to appear starstruck, it's hard to restrain one's enthusiasm when the stars abound.
7. Backstage at the Grand Ole' Opry
That was all the more apparent when we experienced another one of those once in a lifetime moments, the result of an invitation to go backstage at the Grand Ole' Opry, all the incredible iconic glory and great music wrapped in one magnificent historical setting. Artists play short ten minute sets while backstage, guests sit in church pews and observe the performances as well as the comings and goings of musicians, back-up singers, stage hands, a radio announcer and, of course, the performers themselves.
On this particular evening, we were treated to an array of both stalwarts and up-and-comers, from old guard artists like John Conlee, Jean Sheppard, and Jeannie Seely to the rambling teen and pre-teen combo Sleepy Man Banjo Boys, the spectacular Steep Canyon Rangers, the omnipresent Jim Lauderdale and the artist that literally stopped the show, Mo Pitney. Pitney was the only one who appeared truly nervous, but he went down a storm, even to the point of being asked to come back for a third song, the only artist of the night to receive such kudos.
6. ID, Please
By law, the gatekeepers must ask for ID in Tennessee. Supposedly, they do that to be sure no one under 21 gains entry to a club where alcohol is served. However, watching them ID the old-timers gives the impression that 60-something may be the actual minimum age for consumption. At my age, I found it a real thrill.
5. Record Store Time
Friday, we found ourselves at Grimeys, an actual real record store, the sort that's all too rare these days. It was there that we witnessed a short set by Ian McLagan, followed by a brief but enjoyable conversation with one of the great Brit Rock heroes of all time. It was, in itself, a bucket list achievement if ever there was one. Even now, it's hard not to get emotional just thinking about it.
4. Outdoor Fun
Saturday night at the Riverfront provided the setting for the festival's biggest show, starring Lone Bellow and the Avett Brothers. The outdoor setting was ideal; instead of the usual uncomfortable ground most outdoor venues have to offer, there were sloping verandas and terraced seating providing an ideal vantage point that was unhindered by those bobbing to the beat near the stage. Both bands effused a remarkable amount of energy and showmanship, but the Avetts' perpetual motion and constant kinetic activity kept the crowd mesmerized and thoroughly enthralled. It's no wonder those boys are rapidly riding a wave towards superstardom.
3. Gospel Brunch
Sunday was the traditional Gospel Brunch full of a spiritual sustenance in the form of the reborn Elizabeth Cook, the mighty Fairfield Four, and the regal, rollicking McCrary Sisters. Even nonbelievers devoured their chicken and waffles with renewed fervor. The relocation to the City Winery meant no more waiting in lines or fighting for seating for what's become one of Americana's most popular gatherings.
2. Bluebird Cafe
Later, it was off to another of Nashville's iconic locales, the famous Bluebird Cafe where noted photographer Henry Diltz held court to discuss the stories behind some of the more famous photos that have graced so many classic album covers and now populate his Morrison Hotel Gallery, which currently claims the Bluebird as its Nashville home.
Located in an otherwise unassuming strip mall, the Bluebird is surprisingly compact, but the photos -- supplied by Diltz and partner Peter Blachley -- reinforced the star power that's made this esteemed venue such a venerable destination on many an artist's road to prominence. Later, Diltz, Blachley and special guest guitarist David Mansfield entertained a packed audience with a selection of original material and selected covers. The combination of imagery and allure was breathtaking.
1. The End
By the time the evening -- and the festival itself -- concluded with that invitation only performance by a now suddenly secular Elizabeth Cook and a famously feisty Lucinda Williams, Jed Hilly's heartfelt sentiments seemed to be echoed by everyone there. As the event drew to a close, it was hard to escape the sense that everyone was a part of an exclusive but ever-growing community, sharing a common bond and a common purpose. It will be another year before attendees reconvene, but there's no doubt that in the interim, the cause will continue to flourish.
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