By Brian Wise
AMERICANA MUSIC FESTIVAL & CONFERENCE
SEPTEMBER 17 – 21, NASHVILLE, TENNESSEE
If somehow Australians had not yet heard the term ‘Americana,’ then be assured that they soon will. Local promoter Brian Taranto, who has toured The Black Keys and Tony Joe White in Australia, is launching the inaugural Out On The Weekend festival on the waterfront at Williamstown, Melbourne, on Saturday October 18.
The event features an eclectic line-up headlined by Justin Townes Earle and Henry Wagons, along with an array of international and local acts, perhaps most notable of whom is Ryan Bingham who provided music for and starred alongside Jeff Bridges in the film Crazy Heart. It is a high quality boutique festival designed to cater for fans who have been disenfranchised by commercial radio and instead rely on community radio and the ABC.
Taranto has just been in Nashville – along with a contingent of other Australian industry reps, musicians and fans – checking out acts at the increasingly popular Americana Music Festival & Conference that has seen registrations jump almost 25% this year to nearly 2,000. With fifty acts a night at ten clubs in town over three nights there are plenty of opportunities to see new talent.
Now in its thirteenth year, the Americana Festival is like a condensed version of Austin’s massive March music bender South By Southwest but pundits are predicting that Americana will soon become the preferred destination for music fans.
The centrepiece of Americana is a spectacular honors and awards ceremony at the Ryman Auditorium – the mother church of country music. This year the ‘house’ band featured Ry Cooder and Don Was (the Rolling Stones’ producer) while there were performances from honorees Loretta Lynn, Taj Mahal, Flaco Jimenez and Jackson Browne (who received the Freedom of Speech Award) as well as Robert Plant with Patty Griffin.
Award nominees included veterans such as Rodney Crowell, Rosanne Cash and Patty Griffin, along with a raft of exciting newcomers. Jason Isbell was the big winner with three awards (Artist, Album and Song of the year). Other acts included Robert Ellis, The Avett Brothers, The Milk Carton Kids, Hurray For The Riff Raff, The Devil Makes Three, Hard Working Americans, Lake Street Dive, Parker Millsap, St Paul Broken Bones, Sarah Jarosz and Valerie June.
They are hardly household names – yet; however, Americana has tapped into the more sophisticated and usually well-heeled music fans – spanning several generations. Over the next six months you will likely see these acts appear at a variety of Australian festivals (Some have already done Australian tours).
All loosely fit under the banner of ‘Americana’ (now a Grammy category) – a title invented for marketing purposes really and able to include genres such as country, blues, soul, rhythm & blues and anything with a ‘roots’ music origin.
While it is can be sometimes difficult to figure out exactly what ‘Americana’ means, MC of the Awards ceremony Jim Lauderdale likes to say it is ‘all the good stuff.’ Two years ago English singer songwriter Richard Thompson received a lifetime achievement award for his writing. The President of the Americana Music Association is Australian producer Mark Moffatt, now based in Nashville. Go figure!
The undoubted sensation of this year’s event turned out to be from the country branch of what seems to be a very large Americana tree – Emerging Act winner Sturgill Simpson. Following in the footsteps of ‘outlaw’ country singers such as Waylon Jennings, his packed sold out showcase performance at a local club was one of the hottest tickets of the whole event.
Other highlights included Ry Cooder’s club appearances playing alongside Buddy Miller or The Haden Triplets (daughters of recently deceased bassist Charlie Haden) and club shows from Rodney Crowell, Joe Henry, Carlene Carter along with Adelaide’s The Audreys in a high profile club spot. The event’s closing show featured Lucinda Williams at the new (and still being finished) City Winery playing songs from her excellent new album Down Where The Spirit Meets The Bone.
The Americana Conference, held at the Hutton Hotel and other locations downtown offered some fascinating sessions: a panel on Mississippi’s music heritage with Cassandra Wilson, one-hour Q&As with Ry Cooder and Billy Joe Shaver at the Country Music Hall of Fame, a Q&A and performance from Joe Henry at Zac Brown’s recording studio, Rodney Crowell talking about the legacy of the Everly Brothers.
There were also other special events such as an Avett Brothers shows down at the River Front, a taping of Rock My Soul at the downtown Presbyterian Church featuring the marvellous McCrary Sisters, The Fairfield Four, Buddy Miller, Lucinda Williams, Amos Lee and Van Hunt.
For the hardcore industry types there were more business oriented sessions at the Conference along with numerous label, media and other promotional parties and BBQs that encouraged networking. It is not quite on a SXSW scale but give it time.
The Aussie BBQ held at The 5 Spot club in trendy East Nashville ran for seven hours on Saturday afternoon and featured more than a dozen Australian acts all in town to get their music heard by international media and music. Sponsored by Sounds Australia, the event also had a ‘raffle’ (in the best pub tradition) and a BBQ of sausages and hamburgers provided by the local Nashville Kangaroos footy team, said to be Music City’s champion Australian Rules club (which seems to be a claim that sounds a lot more impressive than it might actually be!).
While it might seem a little like taking coals to Newcastle for Americana-style Australian bands to make the pilgrimage to Nashville, the rewards can be substantial. Get a publishing deal here in the country music capitol and it could exceptionally lucrative, with country music accounting for nearly 15% of all music sales and more than 45 million units. Young Australian songwriter Kylie Sackley has enjoyed Top 5 singles for her songs recorded by Lee Ann Rimes and Faith Hill and had another half dozen or so recorded by others here.
All in all, Americana offered a chance to catch up with some old favourites in relatively intimate settings and to discover a host of new up and coming acts, some of whom – like this festival – will be a lot more popular next year. The general opinion is that it is best to be at Americana now or in the next few years before everyone else discovers it!