Dispatches from this year's Americana Music Conference

Patty_lThere’s been a changing of the guard in Nashville these last few days. The Americana Music Conference, which focuses on artsier roots-rock acts, just wrapped up, and the mega-mainstream CMA Awards and various attendant lead-up events are now commandeering the city. I imagine Guy Clark, on his way out of town, passing an incoming Kenny Chesney on a concourse at BNA (Nashville’s international airport), like ironically juxtaposed ships in the night. Goodbye for now, Patty Griffin (pictured) and Emmylou Harris; hello, Reba, Martina, Wynonna, and other singularly monikered singers whose names end with a vowel. (It’s only by coincidence that the two annual events were nearly conjoined this year. I figured that I might be the only person coming into Tennessee with the intention of attending and enjoying both the AMAs and the CMAs, but I’m told that it worked out particularly conveniently for radio and media people from overseas, who tend to accept music on one big continuum and don’t consider mainstream country and alt-country as artistically and politically polarized forces, unlike us strict separatists in the States.)

What is Americana, you ask, innocently? A good question, and one that even the experts haven’t quite solved. During the Americana Awards at the historic Ryman Auditorium, host Jim Lauderdale made a joke out of exclaiming "Now that’s Americana!" after almost every performance, whether it was by the acoustic indie-rockers the Avett Brothers or elder statesmen like lifetime honorees Lyle Lovett and Joe Ely. Cary Baker, a former major-label publicist who now specializes in promoting Americana artists on independent labels, is a big booster who’s always trying to get us press types out to the conference. He even had a sort of slogan that he was using this year, calling the Americana conference "South by Southwest — without the emo." That’s a pretty good selling point, though you could also describe it as "South by Southwest — without all those people under 30." (I exaggerate, but Americana is one of the oldest-skewing genres this side of jazz.)  Bill Gubbins, who has edited both Creem and Country Weekly magazine and now lives in Nashville, joked the other day that "country music is rock & roll for Republicans, and Americana is country music for Democrats." Certainly not all of Americana falls into the alt-country camp, and I know of at least one GOP partisan on that side of the musical divide, but he’s not all wrong there.

addCredit(“Patti Griffin: Tim Mosenfelder/Getty Images”)

As it turns out, PopWatch queen Whitney Pastorek is not the only one who considers Patty Griffin a goddess.So do the Americana association’s voters, who gave the raven-hairedsongstress honors for Artist of the Year and Album of the Year (for Children Running Through).And, just to show that the acclaim hasn’t gone to her head, she notonly sang her own "Heavenly Day" (nominated in the Song of the Yearcategory) but humbly provided harmonies for some other artists, likethe evening’s bandleader, the great Buddy Miller, who sang ahot-off-the-presses new song written by his wife, the absent JulieMiller. The Avett Brothers also picked up two awards, for Best Duo orGroup and for New or Emerging Artist. Emmylou Harris, Todd Snider,Bruce Hornsby, Ricky Skaggs, Lovett, Ely, and other non-nominees alsoperformed, making middle-age seem, for one sporadically glorious night,anyway, like something every musician should actually aspire to. (Alas,Album of the Year nominee Bob Dylan was a no-show. Must’ve had abaseball field to play somewhere.)

It’d be easy to come to the Americana conference’s nightly showcasesand stick strictly to legends, or at least venerable figures who’vebeen around for two-going-on-three decades, like John Doe and PeterCase. (The greats also showed up during daylight hours, too: Onefestival highlight was a Q&A with Emmylou, conducted by the Tennessean’sPeter Cooper) I tried to forego the temptation of again going withthese known quantities in favor of seeing some of the younger talentsthat Americana needs to keep thriving — such talents as Elizabeth Cook,who sang her nominated neo-feminist hit "Sometimes It Takes Balls to Bea Woman" at the Station Inn, or Hayes Carll, a very promising voicefrom the south Texas rock scene who has an album of wrylybooze-saturated songs coming out on Lost Highway next year. I wouldhave seen even more great sets, if I hadn’t skipped out on theconference one night because… there was a big party at Ronnie Dunn’shouse. Yes, yes, Americana partialists, I know: I’m a traitor. Butthat’s what you get for having the confab in Nashville instead ofAustin: There will be a few of us who might still be lured by MusicCity’s dark, or mainstream, side, in between bouts of some of thegreatestroots-alt-country-indie-hillbilly-singer/songwriter-freak-folk-blues-rockknown to man.

Now, with the CMAs fast approaching, on to Sugarland Land…


Comments (6 total) Add your comment
  • Joe C

    Call me a male pig, but that is one sexy picture of Patty Griffin. I’ve read Whitney’s columns extolling her virtues, but that picture will cause me to check her out on Sirius Disorder, Spectrum or Coffeehouse, et al. Lol!

  • GingerCat

    “[C]ountry music is rock & roll for Republicans, and Americana is country music for Democrats.” Priceless.
    That is a gorgeous picture of Patty. Glad to hear Todd Snider was there too–love him.
    About the age thing–I’m in my 30s now, but I did love all these people in my 20s too! Of course, 10 years ago, it was possible to hear Patty Griffin and Lucinda Williams on mainstream radio. The times, they have changed.

  • debba

    I’ve been a Patty Griffin fan for 10+ years. If you haven’t heard her music – buy it. If you’ve heard her music but haven’t heard her live – find her and go to a show – ASAP. She is truly one of the most powerful performers of our generation. She’s got a lot of punch in that little package! Rock on Patty!

  • david

    I think trying to answer the question, “What is Americana?” is pretty easy, yet every writer covering this conference makes it complicated. “Americana” is only a musical “genre” insofar as it is a marketing tool for these artists. It is not a genre in the same way that bluegrass, jazz, or blues are genres. Nobody (at least none of the people featured at the fest) starts a band saying “I think I’ll start an Americana band and write Americana songs.” That’s just not how it happens. These are people that in most cases have been doing what they’re doing for years and only recently have been lumped into this Americana thing. It’s like “outlaw” country or more recently “alt.country.” Radio and label people need a category to put people in to help them sell records. I’m sure the artists are happy to get any extra exposure they can, and I support that cuz I love most of them, but I have a problem with trying to define or justify a new “genre” called Americana.

  • Brian

    The argument can be made… which is better? Country, Americana, Alt. Country, Outlaw Country… even roots rock! Well… they are ALL country and they are ALL great! If you are a true fan of country music like me, you can find something in ALL of those sub-genres that will turn you on. I work with Lone Star 92.5 and they play Country, Outlaw Country, Alternative Country, Roots Rock, Americana… even Classic Rock! All with almost NO commercials. You can find them here: http://www.lonestar925.com
    Did you find your favorite style of country there?

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