Like most festivals worth their weight in wristbands, the Americana Music Festival and Conference, held every September in Music City, Nashville Tennessee, demands lots of choices. There are so many conflicting concerts and events in fact, that it’s a challenge in itself trying to decide which shows to see and which have to be dropped by the wayside. It’s made all the more difficult due to the fact that one might wait a lifetime to see many of these artists. Because this is Americana after all, performers from throughout the world flock to Nashville to be a part of the proceedings. Oftentimes, the festival stages host musicians who would be reticent to appear anywhere else. Where else can you find Robert Plant sharing the stage with Grateful Dead lyricist Robert Hunter like they did last year, or the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band celebrating their 50th anniversary with the likes of Vince Gill, Jackson Browne, John Prine, Jerry Jeff Walker and Rodney Crowell as they did just last week.
The answer is, of course, nowhere else.
And that’s the lure of AmericanaFest. South By Southwest may draw the masses and thrive on diversity, but here in Nashville, the emphasis is on American music, albeit often performed by artists from outside its native realms. It is, in so many words, an abundance of riches. Which often means that for every artist one is privileged to see, there are likely two or three others that have to be forfeited due to competing showtimes. Nevertheless, that’s the cost of sheer sound extravagance, and if nothing else, AmericanaFest has that in abundance.
AmericanaFest began unusually early this year. Where it typically kicks off on a Wednesday, this time it got an unofficial start on the preceding Sunday courtesy of a photo exhibit by the renowned photographer to the stars Henry Diltz and a special guest appearance from the former Mrs George Harrison/Mrs Eric Clapton, Patti Boyd. The festival still had not officially kicked off the next night when the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band shared their half century celebration at the Ryman, running through all their classic tunes and recounting the transformative event that was their gathering of past and present music legends on the landmark album Will the Circle Be Unbroken. With the aforementioned superstars in tow, and braced with back-up from Sam Bush and Jerry Douglas, it was a night of music and memories in a spectacular setting. Suffice it to say, it was well worth the three hour drive each way from Knoxville on the far east end of the state.
Two days later we returned to Nashville, encamping ourselves downtown on a street marked by such quirkily-named establishments as the Cook Out and Dang It Cell Phone Repair. Unfortunately, there was no time to frequent these establishments because of the rush to the annual Americana Music Awards, a star-studded affair celebrating the best the genre had to offer, complete with one of a kind performances and abundant awards handed out to those who have both served the style well and those who promise to continue the trajectory into the future. Think the Academy Awards with a bit more grit and a lot less pretence. Hosted by the always dependable and generally unflappable Jim Lauderdale — known for great songs, a wealth of record releases, perfect hair and, in the words of one participant, “the wit of Regis” — the ceremony featured an all star ensemble led by perennial band leader Buddy Miller and special honors accorded to Don Henley, Ricky Skaggs, Los Lobos, the Mavericks, Lucinda Williams, Sturgill Simpson, Buffy Saint Marie, and Gillian Welch and David Rawlings. As held in the sacred confines of the Ryman, it was once again a night to be cherished.
Nevertheless, it was only the start of five days of extraordinary concerts and memorable encounters. There were those that were greatly anticipated — an interview with Don Henley at the Country Music Hall of Fame that found the sometimes taciturn Eagle opening up on his influences and inspirations; an intimate radio performance at the Sirius XM studios by the always affable Ray Wylie Hubbard and his various special guests; a live concert at the legendary Music City Limits, featuring performances by Whitehorse, Shemekia Copeland, Joel Rafael and the Mavericks who, having been accorded Group of the Year honors at the awards ceremony the night before, offered a sensation performance the night after; an open house in the always hospitable environs of Compass Records; various luncheons and gatherings hosted by contingents from England, Australia and Canada; and a wealth of workshops and panel discussions that catered to those who weren’t inclined to sleep in late after an evening of festivities the night before.
In fact, the nightly prowl between the dozens of venues Nashville has to offer is the traditional high point — with the emphasis on the word “high” — for the majority of the AmericanaFest attendees. And that’s where the aforementioned dilemma comes into play. We opted for performances by Buddy Miller and Marc Ribot, Ricky Skaggs, the Whites ad Ry Cooder, and the Hillbenders’s spellbinding bluegrass take on Tommy at 3rd and Lindsley; Richie Furay doing an all too abbreviated set at the Station Inn; a revved up J.D. McPherson, a beaming Josh Ritter and a sometimes grumpy but ever transcendent Glen Hansard at the Cannery Ballroom; and an inspiring set by Doug Seegers (who, having been rescued from poverty and discovered late in life, is now best described as the reincarnation of Hank Williams St.), and Gretchen Peters, whose sublime set typified a lyric from one her songs, “The cure for the pain is the pain” at the Winery.
Still, for all the anticipation, it was the discovery of those bands of whom we were unfamiliar that provided some of the greatest satisfaction — the Show Ponies, a young group from California making their first visit to Nashville (“I can’t believe they let us play here,” they proclaimed); the remarkable loops and harmonies of Whitehorse; the transcendent British Band The Dreaming Spires, Australia’s Henry Wagons, Halfway, Oh Pep!, Emma Swift and Raised By Eagles; Canada’s Tim Chaisson, Amber McLean, the Dead South, The Small Glories and star in the making Whitney Rose.
That list of star power doesn’t even include the many cameo appearances spotted over the course of our five days there — former Poco drummer George Grantham at the Richie Furay show, Lowell Levinger — Banana of Youngbloods fame — touting his new album at the Aussie showcase, Grant Lee Phillips looking on at that same event, legendary producer/musician Jon Tiven checking out the Canadian performers, Mary Gauthier chatting in the hotel coffee shop, and Robyn Hitchcock not only seemingly everywhere, but also on hand at Rawlings and Welch’s studio when we were invited for a special visit (Thanks Dave!). And was that Richard Thompson making an exit at the Winery? With that individual sporting the same trademark cap, it sure looked like it may have been.
A visit to the amazing Country Hall of Fame brought other cameos of sorts, represented in the trademark costumes belonging to the decades of iconoclastic legends who created the seminal sounds of country music going back nearly a century. Exhibits devoted to Sam Phillips of Sun Records and Bob Dylan’s early encounters with the Nashville studio scene were especially enlightening, but one couldn’t help but be awed by displays of Gram Parsons’ legendary Nudie suit with its embroidered marijuana leaves, and the boots and dress Emmylou Harris wore on the cover of Elite Hotel. I found myself gazing at those particular items in utter fascination.
As always, the rousing McCrary Sisters took over the festivities on Sunday morning with the traditional gospel brunch. As they sang their sacred standard “Let It Go,” one could take the song’s meaning in several ways. It would be hard to let go of the incredible encounters AmericanaFest afforded, but knowing new opportunities await next year always brings some special comfort.
As for the music itself, ultimately it was Richie Furay who best summed up the sound he helped invent with Poco and the Buffalo Springfield. “We played rock n roll songs with country guitars,” he sang on his song “We Were the Dreamers,” culled from his recent album Hand In Hand. “We paved the way. Now its just music… nothing less nothing more.”
After a week at Americana, one gets the definite impression Richie may be selling it all short.
Photos by Alisa B Cherry