For the most well attended event in it’s 13-year history last week in Nashville, the Americana Music Association’s Conference and Festival succeeded in large part due to the broadening of its tent, and a sense of inclusivity that has eluded the organization and its events in the past.
When it began, the Americana Music Association sought to codify a style of roots and country music that was thriving outside of the Nashville mainstream of manufactured pop acts. It was an attempt by the music industry to redefine alt-country (whatever that is) and roots music under one umbrella. Under their auspices, they created a new radio chart, and a new but necessarily vague genre that would help artists reach their audiences via radio play, publicity and record sales. An industry event from the get-go.
But over the past 13 years, the effort has at times seemed insular—the same artists, most of them coming from the same sincere songwriting school of the folk music world, or from what was then called alt-country, populating the showcases and awards ceremony year after year. A little bit country, a little bit rock ‘n roll, with a dash of bluegrass and a healthy dose of folk. That approach eschewed otherwise valid musical forms that fit their mission statement. Blues, for example, was relegated to one or two artists, save for the blues elements that seeped into everyone’s music. Gospel was unheard of. And in the land of the tightly constructed and serious as hell three-minute songs, the word “jam” was virtually verboten.
But this year, the event kicked off with Leftover Salmon performing at the Ryman Auditorium with a slew of guests on hand to celebrate the anniversary of their Nashville Sessions recording, which came out in 1999. That record featured a who’s who of Nashville talent who joined in to celebrate that band’s country and bluegrass roots— the same roots that they synthesized into their self-styled “Poly-Ethnic Cajun Slamgrass” style. Poly-ethnic Cajun Slamgrass? As perpetual awards show host Jim Lauderdale would say, “Now that’s Americana!”
So it was fitting that this band, a mainstay of the jamband circuit since it was a thing, would help to establish the inclusivity of the weekend. On stage with them, there was Taj Mahal bringing the house down. There was mandolin wizard Sam Bush, blazing and leading a trio of mandolin players. There was former Little Feat keyboardist and new band member Bill Payne. There was Widespread Panic’s lead singer John Bell belting out “Nobody’s Fault But Mine.” Other guests ranged from bluegrass legends like Del McCoury to jamband godfather Col. Bruce Hampton.
This collaborative affair set the tone for the awards show the following night, and for the next five nights of artist showcases in different music clubs around town. The tent was all of a sudden bigger.
Despite the sometimes narrow atmosphere, the Americana tent has been an ever expanding one that ebbs and flows to bring in, and sometimes shun, certain artists. It’s a fluid term, not a strict genre.
The Leftover Salmon example exuded into the rest of the weekend, with the event showcasing artists who represent the jammier side of the equation and also expanded the “membership” by parading more musicians coming from outside of the realms of folk and country music to include more blues, gospel, and latino music.
It helped that Ry Cooder, who has long been a champion of varied forms of Americana music and what could come to be known as world music, was a part of the stellar house band that also included Buddy Miller and Don Was.
What also helped was the inclusion of two lifetime achievement award winners. With renowned accordionist Flaco Jimenez the association rightly brought Latin styles like tejano and conjunto into the fold. Taj Mahal provided the most rousing song of the night, showing that his lifetime of blending blues with forms from around the world belongs in the Americana tent. Given this broader palette, tunes like “Coal Miner’s Daughter” performed by the Loretta Lynn were afforded even more gravity, a stronger pillar due to the additional support whereas it might have been just “old Nashville” in another setting.
Other guests that night included Jackson Browne, Robert Plant singing along with Patty Griffin, soul sounds from St. Paul & The Broken Bones, Sturgill Simpson bringing his psychedelic infused update of outlaw country music to the fore, Valerie June and her bluesy twang, and of course Jason Isbell, who swept the awards by winning best song, best album and best artist of the year.
Part of the insular nature of the event in the past has been its tendency to focus on the Nashville and Austin contingent. That’s natural, because those two locales, each of which loves to claim the “music city” title, are home to the most of the industry players who make up the organization—the record companies, publicists, managers, and yes, a lot of the artists.
This year, though, it didn’t seem so polarizing. Musicians from Mississippi, in particular, made a major impact.
Meridian, Miss. native Jimmie Rodgers was honored at the awards ceremony with the President’s award, presented by Philadelphia, Miss. native Marty Stuart. Stuart proudly showed off a lantern that had once belonged to Rodgers. Tupelo, Miss. native Paul Thorn gave an impassioned speech lauding Mississippi artists that same night.
The next night featured a showcase entirely dedicated to Mississippi artists. Sharde Thomas and the Rising Star Fife & Drum Band showed that ancient grooves were still alive and well, and safe in her stead. Then 83-year old Leo “Bud” Welch brought downhome gospel blues that seared with authenticity. Luther Dickinson performed solo, but brought out Thomas to play drums for much of the set. Later T-Model Ford’s grandson Stud did the same. Dickinson has made his mark as lead guitarist for the North Mississippi Allstars and one-time member of the Black Crowes. But lately he’s been delving deeply into producing other artists and has released a pair of solo records, one of them consisting entirely of instrumental tunes. The most recent, Rock n Roll Blues, provided the material for much of the set.
In between songs, Dickinson regaled the audience with stories of growing up with his father, the legendary Jim Dickinson. His set was like a master class in Mississippi music history, as he explained how he learned about music hands-on growing up in a musical family.
Marty Stuart and Webb Wilder (a Hattiesburg, Miss. native, who also served as emcee) turned in their sets before the show closed out with Paul Thorn, who jumped into the crowd to close the showcase with a rousing hug fest among the fans that reached the fevered pitch of a tent revival. It was a showcase that showed almost all of the branches of Americana, that just so happened to come from one state. Blues, rock, country, gospel and folk all bubbled up in the musical stew that night.
Just as Leftover Salmon infused the week with some improvisational workouts early on, other bands took the stages and sounded like they owed as much to the Grateful Dead as Flatt & Scruggs as well. And that’s only natural; the Dead were “big-tent” Americana long before industry executives cooked up the term.
Todd Snider’s new band The Hard Working Americans were nominated for Duo or Group of the Year and performed at the awards show. But the real show came later that night at the sprawling Cannery Ballroom. Billed as “Todd Snider and Friends” the group was essentially the Hard Working Americans, sans guitarist Neal Casal. Widespread Panic bassist Dave Schools was the guardian of the groove all night, and undoubtedly the instigator for the chooglin jams the collective swept through over the course of an extraordinary long-for-a-showcase set of about an hour. The band’s best tunes were old classics that even in their selection exuded the definition of Americana—Merle Haggard’s “Working Man Blues,” JJ Cale’s “Crazy Mama” and, fitting for the circumstances, Waylon Jennings’ “Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way?”
Given Snider’s songwriting pedigree, it’s odd that their debut album consists almost entirely of cover tunes. But at times Snider, masked behind large sunglasses and a floppy hat, would gleefully float to the side of the stage and sway and watch his compatriots as they spaced out, seemed as if he’s trying on a new suit himself.
They were joined by special guests too. Vince Herman of, yep, Leftover Salmon joined in for “Georgia On A Fast Train” and former Yonder Mountain String Band mandolinist Jeff Austin furiously added to “Is This Thing Working?” Elizabeth Cook, and her hairdo, sat in all night on background vocals and various percussion instruments.
It was an Americana showcase, but there was…well, dancing! For an audience that is usually satisfied with some vigorous but thoughtful head nodding, to loosen them up spoke to the fact that Snider and company were doing something right, and that the Americana family is maybe more diverse than once believed.
In the same space a few nights later, the unfortunately named but fantastic anyway Trigger Hippy brought similar rootsy blues jams to the stage. Fronted by Joan Osborne and guitarist/keyboardist Jackie Greene, Trigger Hippy hit some of the same notes—loose limbed roots rock with notes of blues and country. In other words, Americana. That Osborne has toured with The Dead and Greene has played with Phil Lesh and The Black Crowes was evident as the band was as comfortable creating space as recreating songs, and they even belted out a Grateful Dead cover with a rousing “Sugaree.”
There were of course lots of singer-songwriters on hand, a few really good bluegrass bands, some earnest roots rockers. Those folks were already in the family. But to allow some of the freakier cousins a seat at the table was a welcome accomplishment for this year’s fest.