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“What’s Americana?” joked singer/songwriter Jim Lauderdale, eleven-time host of the annual Americana Music Honors and Awards show, held at Nashville’s venerable Ryman Auditorium on September 12.

Americana Music Festival flierAmong the sold-out crowd, there were answers aplenty, via the colorfully garbed artists, music bizzers, and fans attending the kickoff of the Americana Music Festival & Conference. Joining Lauderdale onstage, Executive Director Jed Hilly pointed to the term’s recent addition to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary as “a genre of American music having roots in early folk and country music.” Sounds pretty slight compared to the tasty smorgasbord of sounds sampled over five days in Nashville, consisting of approximately 175 performances (from legendary John Hiatt to spring chicken Sara Watkins), panels (topics ranging from the music’s history to its future), and events (from parties to a gospel brunch) proved that Americana is today’s richest musical genre.

At the conference keynote address, held at the Nashville Sheraton Downtown Hotel, an upbeat Bonnie Raitt discussed her life playing music over the past 42 years. “I go completely by what sounds good to me, when I get the right people together in the room,” the Grammy-winning Rock and Roll Hall of Famer said of her eclectic sound.
Bonnie Raitt and Jim Lauderdale
That night, at the Ryman, Raitt won the Lifetime Achievement Award for Performance, and was joined onstage by Memphian keyboardist/composer Booker T. Jones (founder of the Stax Records house band, the MGs), honored in the instrumentalist category, and  U.K. guitarist/singer/songwriter Richard Thompson, awarded for songwriting.  
Brittany Howard
In a moving tribute to the late Levon Helm, the trio blended blues, soul, and English balladry on The Band’s classic, “The Weight.”  Veteran singer-songwriter Emmylou Harris chimed in with vocalist extraordinaire Brittany Howard of the Alabama Shakes, the R&B-meets-jam band named “Emerging Artist of the Year.” Guitarist Buddy Miller led the house band, which featured upright bassist Don Was (producer of the Rolling Stones and numerous others), keyboardist Rami Jaffee (Wallflowers), guitarist Larry Campbell (Bob Dylan, Helm), and drummer Brady Blade (Harris, Robert Plant).
Phil Madeira in Mercyland
One event not-to-be-missed was Phil Madeira presenting Mercyland: Live at Downtown Church at the very historic and architectural distinctive Downtown Presbyterian Church. Performing in this hallowed space along with Madeira was an awesome collection of Americana favorites including Buddy Miller, The McCrary Sisters, The Wood Brothers, Shawn Mullins, Luther and Cody Dickinson, Kasey Chambers and Shane Nicholson, Matraca Berg, and Emmylou Harris. Minds were blown when all of these musicians climbed back on stage together to perform a rousing finale.
Jakob Dylan and Booker T. Jones
Booker T. Jones and Richard Thompson stayed busy all week, each participating in programs at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum.  On Thursday, Jones held forth in an interview with Memphis author/film maker Robert Gordon, describing the early days of Stax and his entrée there as a tenth-grader. Tellingly, Jones pointed to his childhood influences, Ray Charles, C&W pioneer Kitty Wells, jazzer Phineas Newborn Jr., and R&B keyboardist Bill Doggett, among them. As for the MGs’ sound, “There’s beauty in simplicity,” Jones pointed out.
Richard Thompson, Steve Forbert, Jason Isbell and Sara Watkins
During his Saturday presentation, Richard Thompson took questions from the audience, and often played the answers on his guitar.  The master axeman joked that though he’s British, he felt honored to be admitted to the Americana club. Thompson also joined Sara Watkins, Steve Forbert, and Jason Isbell (whose song “Alabama Pines” won Americana Song of the Year) at a songwriting circle, broadcast on Sirius-XM’s Outlaw Country channel, hosted by wildman Mojo Nixon.
Steve Forbert and Mojo Nixon
The sonic stew of the Bluff City provided a particularly interesting panel discussion, “The Music of Memphis,” featuring writers, producers, and musicians, as well as a slew of riveting performances at the Rutledge nightclub on Thursday night. From 8 pm to 2 am, the rafters shook with Memphis music including indie band Star & Micey; blues-rockers Luther Dickinson and the North Mississippi Allstars, joined by Jim Lauderdale; the soulful Bo-Keys, featuring vocalist Percy Wiggins; and a star-studded, 27-member tribute to ‘70s cult band Big Star. Drummer Jody Stephens, Big Star’s sole living member, and producer/dBs founder Chris Stamey led a heartfelt journey through the ‘70s band’s three albums, with Gary Louris of the Jayhawks and Mike Mills of R.E.M. among the plentiful talent onstage.
Wanda Jackson   
Other musical highlights of Americanafest included a Sugar Hill Records party with a frisky performance by Queen of Rockabilly Wanda Jackson, whose fabulous forthcoming album, “Unfinished Business”, was produced by Americana darling Justin Townes Earle. (The upstart troubadour also graced the Ryman stage and gave his own al-fresco show.) “I’m not usually up so early,” the 74-year-old Jackson said about the party’s 12:30 pm start time, “but I rock in my sleep!” “Unfinished Business,” a crunchy mix of rockabilly, blues, and honky-tonk, also includes a bittersweet cover of the Woody Guthrie/Wilco track, “California Stars.”
Rodney Crowell and Guy Clark
Speaking of Woody Guthrie, one of the most memorable Americana panels celebrated Guthrie’s centennial, with acolytes and legendary songwriters Rodney Crowell and Guy Clark playing music and talking about Woody’s influence. Clark himself was honored earlier this year with the two-CD set, “This One’s For Him: A Tribute to Guy Clark”, featuring Crowell, Lyle Lovett, Rosanne Cash, Willie Nelson, and numerous other artists, and awarded “Album of the Year” at the Ryman festivities.
Grams Parsons Notebook   
Along with Clark, Guthrie, and Memphis music, another pioneering Americana influence took center stage at a party at Nashville’s Hard Rock Café.  The late Gram Parsons, whose Cosmic American Music movement started in the 1960s, was there in spirit, as a detailed notebook he kept in the late ‘60s was displayed at a gathering sponsored by the Hard Rock, No Depression Magazine, the Sin City Social Club, and the Gram Parsons Foundation, a nonprofit that assists artists with addiction and recovery issues. The oversized leather journal’s pages are filled with hand-written set lists, notes, drawings, and lyrics to such Parsons classics as “$1000 Wedding” and the Stones’ “Wild Horses,” which Gram’s band, the Flying Burrito Brothers, covered on 1970’s “Burrito Deluxe.” The ubiquitous Lauderdale performed Parsons’ “Hickory Wind,” while guests flipped through iPads featuring the notebook’s scanned pages. (The original journal, which belongs to the Hard Rock, sat under glass open to “$1000 Wedding.”)
House Band
As Lauderdale exclaimed earlier in the week at the Ryman following “The Weight” performance, “Now, that’s Americana!”  From music originally created 40, 60, or 80 years ago to a new crop of rootsy songs, Americana’s enduring sounds can make you want to dance and cry at the same time.

Emotions ran high at the 2012 Americanafest. And in the 21st century, there’s probably no better way to spend five days of your life.

Check out all the goings-on, shenanigans and of course, the music when a program about this event entitled “ACL Presents: Americana Music Festival” will air on PBS beginning on November 10. If you missed the actual event, (too bad for you!) catch up on all the fun on PBS coming soon. Save your energy and get ready for the festival next year, Sept. 18-22, 2013! We'll see you there! / Issue 139 - September 2018
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