There’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.
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…