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Roots music was onstage all over Nashville from September 18-23, during the Americana Music Association’s annual conference and festival of concerts, panels, films, parties, and presentations. This year, a diversity of brilliant women predominated, some of whom hail from families that pioneered the country, blues, gospel, and folk blend known as Americana music.
McCrary Sisters
Kicking off the five-day affair was the Americana Honors & Awards spectacular, held September 18 at the “Mother Church of Country Music,” the Ryman Auditorium. Opening the show, the four-member McCrary Sisters come from an illustrious line of gospel singers, their late father, Reverend Samuel McCrary, a co-founder of the legendary Fairfield Four. Their gorgeous voices reminded us of somber world events, as the McCrarys harmonized on an inspired version of Bob Dylan’s “Blowing in the Wind.”  (The McCrary Sisters also led the charge at a transcendent gospel brunch, held on Sunday at the venerable bluegrass club, the Station Inn.)

Rosanne Cash and Rodney CrowellAlso participating on the Wednesday night awards show was Rosanne Cash, daughter of the “Man in Black” Johnny Cash, who presented awards to her former husband Rodney Crowell and his duet partner, Emmylou Harris. Their transcendent “Old Yellow Moon” won Album of the Year.

Rosanne was in the spotlight herself during a Q&A the following morning, in which she described retracing the steps of her father’s early life in Arkansas. (Johnny Cash is also the subject of a memorabilia-filled new museum that recently opened in downtown Nashville.) Rosanne’s exploration of the Deep South, with her husband and producer John Leventhal, resulted in an album’s worth of breathtaking originals, “The River & the Thread”, due out in January. The duo previewed  moving vignettes of Southern life at a packed concert that night at 3rd  & Lindsey, an intimate listening room.  

Lisa Marie PresleyOn Friday night, the same club presented two more offspring of Americana founding fathers: Holly Williams, granddaughter of Hank Williams, and Lisa Marie Presley, Elvis Presley’s daughter. Surrounded by an accomplished band led by her husband Michael Lockwood, Presley showcased tracks from the rootsy Storm & Grace, her third album, produced by T Bone Burnett, original music director of the hit ABC series, Nashville. Beating on a tom-tom as she huskily sang originals like “Idiot” (from her second LP), Presley, the spitting image of her dad, showed she inherited her father’s love of rhythm.

Holly WilliamsHolly Williams, performing songs from her 2013 album, The Highway, proved she had her grandfather’s genes with such emotive story songs as “Waitin’ on June,” inspired by her maternal grandparents. Two nights earlier at the Ryman, Holly, joined by her aunt Jett Williams, accepted the President’s Award honoring her grandfather Hank Williams. The citation read, “Let us celebrate him as the seminal writer of personal songs, an art form that is today a core value of American music.” The same could be said of his granddaughter’s ouevre.

Though not officially part of the Americana conference, a member of the youngest generation of women inspired by roots music performed three sold-out concerts at Nashville’s Bridgestone Arena. Twenty-two-year old Taylor Swift dazzled her fans each night, 80% of whom were girls and young women and their families. Segueing from folky tunes on acoustic guitar or banjo to large production numbers surrounded by steampunk-costumed dancers and showered by confetti and pyrotechnics, Taylor sent an unforgettable message of empowerment. Fans, decked out in red – the title of Swift’s recent LP – swarmed the streets, with a panoply of home-made signs and objects showing their love for the singer who ended her lengthy Red Tour in her hometown.

Taylor SwiftOther noteworthy events surrounding the Americana fest included a celebration of New Orleans, the city where so many roots music styles evolved. The great pianist and vocalist Dr. John was honored at the  Awards show and questioned during a panel at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum. Singer-songwriter Susan Cowsill, a child star in the 1960s who now lives in New Orleans, was among the artists who performed a night of music at the Rutledge; showing off the city’s range of styles, acts ranged from rock & rollers Dash Rip Rock to the Dirty Dozen Brass Band.

Americana music is not limited to U.S. artists; some of the fest’s finest moments belonged to U.K. guitarist and songwriter Richard Thompson (on the bill with Rosanne Cash) and Australian singer-songwriter Paul Kelly, the subject of a moving documentary, Stories of Me, who performed at the Mercy Lounge on Saturday night.

Paul KelleyAlso on the Mercy Lounge stage was Nashville newcomer Nikki Lane, who is the 21st century equivalent of Jeannie C. Riley (“Harper Valley PTA”). The gorgeous Lane, wearing a Betty Page hair-do and a tiny cowgirl-tinged mini dress, writes bad-girl songs like “Gone Gone Gone,” which pepper her frisky debut album, Walk of Shame. Offering a modern twist on such pioneering C&W and rockabilly women as Patsy Cline, Loretta Lynn, and Wanda Jackson, Lane is certain to go far in her scuffed-up combat boots and torn fishnet stockings. She’s like the little sister to fellow South Carolinian Cary Ann Hearst, whose rootsy belting helped Shovels & Rope, her duo with husband Michael Trent, sweep the Americana awards, winning three – Duo, Song of the Year (“Birmingham”), and Emerging Artist.

Lucinda WilliamsClosing the American fest was a female artist whose masterful songs have become touchstones for fans all over the world. Singer-songwriter Lucinda Williams celebrated the 25th anniversary of her self-titled, breakthrough album on Rough Trade Records that includes such masterpieces as “Passionate Kisses,” a huge hit for Mary Chapin Carpenter in the ‘90s. Playing the album in its entirety at 12th & Linsley , Lucinda told the packed room about her nine years living in Nashville, when record execs thought her lyrics were too provocative for their artists to sing. The Grammy-winning Williams, herself a huge fan of Americana legend Hank Williams, proved that her visionary music set the standard for a whole new generation of gutsy gals.

Twice-Grammy-nominated writer Holly George-Warren is the co-author of the brand-new photo book, John Varvatos: Rock in Fashion, and the author of the forthcoming biography, A Man Called Destruction: The Life and Music of Alex Chilton.

Sorry that you missed out? Watch for the 2014 Americana Music Fest next September 17 - 21st (*projected dates), so you “won’t be a fool again”. / Issue 151 - September 4720
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