Artist of the Year, John Prine–Photo by Alisa Beth Cherry
To the uninitiated or first time novice, it may appear like there’s no rhyme or reason to AmericanaFest. Of course, it’s organized — no event of this magnitude could ever hope to succeed if extraordinary planning and execution didn’t take place behind the scenes. It’s easily the equal of any other festival or conference on its same scale, and that includes South by Southwest, the event that comes the closest in terms of sound and sprawl.
Still, that doesn’t negate the fact that the musical choices are often overwhelming, and that unless one has the superhuman ability to clone one’s self multiple times over, there’s simply no way to see even a fraction of the hundreds of artists that appear on the dozens of different stages spread among Nashville’s dozens of venues. Naturally, the laws of physics simply don’t allow any of us to be in more than one place at a time, yet that would be an absolute necessity when it comes to catching everything worth seeing. Consequently, attendees must ultimately resign themselves to a different kind of mindset that dictates it’s not about which performers are missed, no matter how regrettably, but rather who was seen, making cause for celebration in itself.
Of course Nashville is a big part of the star attraction. Music City USA goes all out in presenting itself as not only the birthplace of American music tradition, but also the locale that typifies the wide umbrella that roots music now encompasses — be it rock, country, blues, folk, gospel, R&B or some mesh of all the above. There’s little or no divide between artist and audience, and in most cases, accessibility is easily assured. During our visit, we saw Jim Lauderdale, Robyn Hitchcock, Amelia White, Mary Gauthier, Kinky Friedman, Walter Salas-Humara, and any number of other musicians milling about and taking in the shows. Those who tend to be starstruck have a lot to gaze and gawk at.
Even so, with an audience representing 49 of the 50 states and 14 countries worldwide, the more knowing individuals tend to take it all in stride. The folks who run the Americana Music Association emphasize that it’s not simply a community of music lovers, but an actual family as well, and anyone who attends the event can find reason to agree. Acquaintanceships morph into friendships that naturally become stronger year after year. It’s not unusual to run into familiar faces in the lobby of the hosting hotel or at a show any time of day or night.
While the first evening of Americana kicked off in grand style with performances by John Prine, I’m With Her, Jerry Douglas and Mandolin Orange at the City Winery, the night was merely a prelude to the event that serves as a highlight for all those able to obtain a ticket — the annual awards show and honors at the fabled Ryman Auditorium. Its significance is assured as it offers an opportunity to recognize the legends who still set a standard for all the Americana artists who followed in their wake.
This year’s honorees — Rosanne Cash, Buddy Guy, k.d. lang, and Irma Thomas included — were each iconic in their individual ways and rightly applauded as well. That portion of the program was no mystery, allowing opportunity for acceptance speeches to be well rehearsed and performances to be as precisely prepared as always. Buddy Miller, the show’s perennial band leader, ensured it would be a superb show, leaving only the choices for album of the year, artist of the year, duo/group of the year, emerging act of the year, song of the year and instrumentalist of the year up to chance.
However even those awards tapped some tradition. As the show’s hosts — this year it was the Milk Carton Kids, who took over the role normally assigned to Jim Lauderdale — noted sarcastically, there was little need to even open the envelopes because Jason Isbell invariably crushes the competition so often. So while the duo was obviously jesting, the joke rang true once again. Isbell took home three of the six awards, one with his group, the 400 Unit, in tow.
Notably, John Prine took home artist of the year honors for the second year in a row, which again proved no surprise, considering the esteem in which he’s held.
The rest of the week, which stretched from Tuesday through Sunday, had any number of other major highlights to celebrate as well. The Compass Records Eighth Annual Hillbillies and Hotdogs event welcomed guests to the company’s headquarters by offering a series of intimate performances from artists on the roster, including Molly Tuttle, the Brother Brothers, Nicki Bluhm, Frank Sollivan and the Dirty Kitchens, and Mike Farris, all in the close confines of their recording studio. A celebration of 50 years of Creedence Clearwater Revival drew a packed house to the Mercy Lounge. The Proper Records music party, featuring the omnipresent Neilson Hubbard, Ana Egge, Kim Richey and Ben Glover, offered the Brits opportunity to share some of the star power that U.K. label had to offer. Likewise, the Canadians and Aussies did the same with gatherings of their own. A songwriters in the round session featuring John Hiatt, Rodney Crowell, Mary Gauthier and Will Hoge, hosted by Mojo Nixon at the Sirius Radio studios, was as memorable as it was magical. Other breakouts, barbecues and seminars offered added enjoyment. Likewise, various record labels paraded their stars apart and aside from the concerts held nightly at the various clubs and watering holes spread throughout the city.
Those shows are obviously part of the main draw overall, and with Emmylou Harris, Richard Thompson, John Hiatt, Lera Lynn, Elizabeth Cook, the Band of Heathens, the McCrary Sisters, Aaron Lee Tsjan. American Aquarium. Amy Helm, Asleep at the Wheel, the Black Lillies, Sam Lewis, Amanda Shires, Dom Flemins, John Oates, Mountain Heart, Hayes Carll, Guy Davis, John Carter Cash, Jim Lauderdale, the Lone Bellow, Lucero, Lilly Hiatt, the Watson Twins, Yola Carter, Tim Bluhm, and the Earls of Leicester among many, many others, those aforementioned choices became ever more difficult to determine as the week went on.
The traditional closing event, Sunday’s Gospel Brunch, hosted by this year’s big breakout duo, the War & Treaty, wasn’t the final event of the festival, but it was as inspiring as ever. Regardless of religion or one’s preference for fried chicken and waffles, the performances by the Rev. Peyton’s Big Damn Band, folkie John Smith, and the amazing Ahi were as inspirational as ever. Taken in tandem, it served as the perfect wrap up for a week of fun and fellowship, all bound up in the roots of a sound that these days knows no divide.