Dispatches from the 2012 Americana Music Festival

Rodney Crowell

Brennen Leigh – Minny hottie goes Austin
Kinky Friedman sipping “Mexican Mouthwash”
Gram Parsons’ notebooks

Americana’s Sweetheart — Tift Merritt

The Master of Disaster, John Hiatt
Jim Lauderdale with North Mississippi Allstars and David Hood
Luther Dickinson live solo at the Rutledge
Patterson Hood and Jason Isbell reunite to honor Levon
Raitt and Hiatt

(Our Northern correspondent, Harry Gebippe, has made the trek from his comfortable Upper Midwest manse, with The Missus, to Music City, USA, for the Americana Music Conference & Festival. In this, the first installment of his occasional dispatches, he offers some initial impressions).
Arriving at the Sheraton in downtown Nashville was a bit of a surreal experience. No sooner did me & The Missus trundle our bags to the front desk than we were greeted by a too-cheery concierge who was friendly & accommodating to a fault. I credit my uncanny resemblance to Lyle Lovett for the attention.
Gazing about the lobby as we checked in, we spotted Chip Taylor, the Mastersons, and a host of other folks who looked really important, but may have been there for the barber convention, too. We discovered that having made our reservation 8 months early was a real boon, as we scored a room near the top of the hotel. Why is that a boon? Not for the view (which is nice), but it gives you so many more opportunities to run into celebs (major & minor) as the elevator makes its way down to the lobby. So, we were able to chat up Jon Plantania an outstanding guitar player we saw in Austin in May, backing Chip Taylor. He was gracious to a fault & seemed genuinely interested when we plugged The Dakota Jazz Club’s singer-songwriter series for a gig for he & Chip.
After a great and CHEAP lunch at Demo’s (daily pasta specials for around $5!), The Missus and I walked around to check out some of the sites for the showcase music events, beginning after the big awards program tonight. The format for the festival is that there are about 6 showcase venues where the 100 or so artists & groups are slotted for hour-long gigs over the next 4 nights, anywhere from 3 to 5 individual shows per venue per night. We quickly learned that the massive convention facility construction project known as The Music City Center presents a formidable obstacle for walking to many of the venues South of downtown. We’ll have to see how well the circulator busses work; you’ll be the first to know.
Sitting in the lobby bar area, writing this & relaxing with a beverage, it’s clear there’s much biz being done here; lots of networking among artists & music industry types, “we should do lunch!” “when will you be in town?” “oh yeah? how is he to work with? I heard he’s kind of a dick.” etc. In other words, it could just as easily be a bar association convention. Except for the guitar cases & ironic facial hair.

Dispatch # 2: The AMA Honors & Awards Show, Ryman Auditorium, Nashville, 9/12/12.
“The GOOD stuff,” said emcee Jim Lauderdale, answering his own rhetorical question, “What is Americana music?” There was plenty of the good stuff to go around on Wednesday night, starting with the opening song, “Green Onions,” performed by Booker T. Jones (of course), with superb backing by the all-star house band (Buddy Miller, bandleader & guitar; Don Was, bass; Rami Jaffe, keys; Brady Blake, drums, and Larry Campbell, guitar/pedal steel). Richard Thompson served as a worthy substitute for Steve Cropper on lead guitar.
The song was a prelude to Booker’s receipt of the first of 3 Lifetime Achievement awards given out that night, for lifetime achievement in instrumental work. Introduced by Patterson Hood of the Drive By Truckers, who backed Booker on his “Potato Hole” release of a couple of years back, the estimable B-3 master was warm and gracious in his praise of the DBTs, both musically and for their hospitality in “taking me into their homes and dinner tables.”
The first of several unannounced cameos took place shortly thereafter, as LeeAnn Womack and Peter Cooper performed Tom T. Hall’s, “I Love,” one of the song of the year nominees. Just in time to sing the final verse, Mr. Hall himself strode onstage, to a roaring ovation from the crowd.
The show itself is run very much like a typical awards program, with the presenters reading off a list of nominees for the category in question, followed by the ritual opening of the envelope and announcement of the winner. Voting is done by the members of the AMA, the results dutifully tabulated, audited and secured by a Nashville public accounting firm. Only the Lifetime Achievement award recipients are announced in advance. Candidly, the suspense factor of the Oscars is absent, replaced by curiosity at the outcome and appreciation of the winner’s accomplishment – whoever she, he or they may be.
Like any good awards show, the presenters have as much star power as the nominees. Sam Bush and Amy Helm presented the instrumentalist of the year (to an absent Dave Rawlings); Rodney Crowell and Brandi Carlile teamed up to announce album of the year (“This One’s For Him: A Tribute to Guy Clark”); Bonnie Raitt handed Richard Thompson his Lifetime Achievment in Songwriting, and, in turn accepted her Lifetime Achievement Award for Performance from John Hiatt; the due The Civil Wars gave Jason Isbell his song of the year award for “Alabama Pines”; Sara Watkins and Jakob Dylan did the honors for the emerging artist of the year category, for The Alabama Shakes; Bruce Robison and Kelly Williis handed out the lumber (not the hardware; these are handmade plaques cut from Southern white pine) to Gillian Welch (also absent, being on tour with the aforementioned Mr. Rawlings) for artist of the yeear; and, finally, Mike Milles (R.E.M.) and Jody Stephens (Big Star, Golden Smog) did the honors for group/duo of the year, for The Civil Wars.
But the real star of the show was the music – and, oh what a night of music it was! From the poignant (Guy Clark leaning heavily on a cane to limp onstage to perform “My Favorite Picture of You”) to the hair-raising (Brittani Howard channeling Etta James with her Alabama Shakes, plus Booker T, on “Be Mine.”), the performers ran the full gamut of musical emotions. The smartly-dressed Punch Brothers’ urbane string band stylings contrasted nicely with the rural, jug band sound of The Carolina Chocolate Drops. Newcomer Robert Ellis seemed a bit overwhelmed performing his “Westbound Train” with the house band, while Justin Townes Earle exuded “I’ve been here before!” confidence when his turn came to do “You Always Look The Other Way.” A personal highlight was seeing Al Anderson in a rare public performance alongside Bonnie Raitt. Big Al left NRBQ over a decade ago, to pursue a songwriting career in Nashville.
Aside from Brittani Howard’s roof-raising vocal turn, another high energy highlight belonged to the recently reunited Maavericks, who brought the crowd to their feet with their smoking hot “Come Unto Me.” Lead singer Raul Malo possesses one of the truly golden voices of this or any other genre.
The finale was a true show-stopper, with everyone and his uncle – and a couple of walk-ons (including Emmylou Harris), joining in on a heartfelt version of “The Weight,” dedicated to the late Levon Helm. The song started with just the 3 members of Levon’s big band – daughter Amy, Teresa Williams, and Larry Campbell – singing the opening lines. The verses were handled by Emmylou, Bonnie Raitt, John Hiatt, and Brittani Howard – but, heck, by that time everyone in the audience was singing along. It gives me goose bumps just recalling it for this dispatch. It also gives me reason to come back next year, for more of this wonderful musical event.

Dispatch # 3:  The Showcase Events:

The AMA Festival is a baby boomer’s dream.  Rather than tent camping in a latter day Hooverville, one returns to the comforts of the Sheraton at the end of the day.  In lieu of standing in an open field getting sunburned with 50,000 of your closest friends, you listen to your favorite performers in air conditioned venues ranging in capacity from 150 to 1,000.  No waiting in an overheating car to leave the concert site; the AMA provides comfortable, free (but don’t forget to tip the driver!) shuttle busses that circulate between the Sheraton and the 6 showcase venues every 20 minutes or so.  Goodbye Woodstock, hello Lava Lounge!

As noted in dispatch # 1, the evening showcases are held at 6 different venues scattered around the periphery of downtown Nashville.  For those who prefer a concentrated listening experience, One Cannery Row offers 3 venues within the same complex:  The Mercy Lounge, The Cannery Ballroom, and the intimate High Watt.  The equally intimate (150 capacity) Station Inn, The Rutledge, and The Basement (below Grimey’s Records) round out the venue selection.

Plotting a strategy for the evening listening is indeed challenging.  Thursday night, for example,  Steve Forbert, Mary Gauthier, and Jim Lauderdale and the North Mississippi All Stars (featuring a rare concert appearance by Muscle Shoals session bassist David Hood) were all onstage at the same time, at different locations. Tough choices, indeed!  And, if you hop from one spot to another, will you wind up stuck behind a pillar, craning your neck to see over the early arrivals who staked out their turf when the night was young?  The Missus and I made such a calculated decision last night, ducking out of a special staging of Phil Madeira’s “Mercyland” at the downtown Prebyterian Church (before Emmylou made her appearance) in order to ensure a good spot for the Memphis Music Showcase event at the Rutledge.  I’m glad we did, as we scored the absolute best seats in the house, behind and above Mr. Soundman, dead center, with an unobstructed view of the stage. Kudos to Frank & the rest of the crew for the excellent audio all night, despite the challenge of switching from Luther Dickinson’s solo set all the way up to the 15 – 17 member Big Star Tribute finale!

What is equally impressive about the showcases is how closely the schedule is followed.  Performers are slotted in every hour on the hour, which means the sets are generally 45 minutes long, to allow time to change the stage for the next act.  The busses run on time, the performers hit the stage on time – what’s not to like, Boomers?  Just be sure to get in a nap in the afternoon, as you’re likely to be up even after Conan signs off.  Trust me, it’s an event well worth altering your sleep habits over.

Dispatch # 4, The Special Events:
As if the awards program and evening music showcases weren’t enough, the AMA and its affiliates also sponsor a number of events during the day, to keep both conference attendees and music fans occupied. [A brief explanation is in order: the full title of this 4-day bash is “The Americana Music Festival and Conference.” The conference part is just like any other profession or trade group convention; registrants pay a fee and attend seminars and workshops throughout the day, dealing with all aspects of the music industry. For those of us not registered for the conference itself, the seminars and workshops are off limits, but a $50 wristband purchase gains you access to virtually everything else, including all evening music showcases.]
Thursday, Sept. 13, was an especially busy day, with everything from radio interviews to a free outdoor concert headlined by The Wallflowers. The day’s events began with a wide-ranging interview of Lifetime Achievement award winner Booker T. Jones, by Memphis author, filmmaker and music fan, Robert Gordon. The interview mode continued with the self-described “Loon in the Afternoon,” Mojo Nixon, holding forth on Sirius radio with the likes of Richard Thompson, Jason Isbell and Steve Forbert. As the conference proper wound down for the day, there was a listening party at the Sheraton, celebrating the “sisterhood” between Music City USA and Australia’s Tamworth Music Festival. “Sisters Are Doing It . . .” featured Aussie performers Kasey Chambers, Shane Nicholson, and Kim Richey, among others.
Singer/songwriter Chip Taylor (“Wild Thing,” “Angel of the Morning”) was featured in an event co-sponsored by Rootsy, and Chip’s label, Train Wreck Records. At roughly the same time, unfortunately, was a stirring event at the Central Presbyterian Church downtown: a live staging of Phil Madeira’s “Mercyland: Hymns For The Rest Of Us,” alluded to in Dispatch # 3. The project was inspired by Madeira listening to various supposedly “Christian” broadcasts while on the road as a member of Emmylou Harris’s touring band. He collaborated with a number of other artists to create an album of songs that, while not always overtly religious, proclaim basic Christian values. You know – love your neighbor, care for those less fortunate than you, respect differences in people – all that fundamental stuff that the fundamentalists have lost sight of. It was an inspiring event in an inspirational setting.
More fun stuff on Friday: another Sirius radio event celebrating the music of Nick Lowe, listening parties sponsored by New Frontier artist managament (Darrell Scott, et al.) and Red Beet Records (Mary Gauthier, among others), and a very special showing of Gram Parsons’ notebooks and journals, co-sponsored by the online roots music magazine No Depression, the Hard Rock Cafe, the Gram Parsons Foundation and the Sin City Social Club. While various artists interpreted the late Flying Burrito Brother’s songs onstage, attendees were able to view an open copy of one of Gram’s many leather-bound journals (under protective glass) and watch as pages of his hand-written notes, drawings, lyrics and set lists were projected on screens throughout the bar. The Missus and I felt very privileged to be among the first people in the world to view the chronicle of this tragic but highly influential artist.
But, it’s time to wrap this up & head out to take in some of today’s offerings. Let’s see, what will it be? Songwriter Sessions with Richard Thompson and Tift Merritt at the Country Music Hall of Fame? An outdoor “Musicians Corner” concert featuring Sam Bush, Hoots & Hellmouth & others? The Lone Star Music magazine party headlined by erstwhile Texas gubernatorial candidate, Kinky Friedman? I know! We’ll catch a free circulator bus out to Grimey’s Records on the West End, for the day-long Americanarama V, with live music, food & record & CD specials all day long. See you at the showcases tonight!

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