Americana Music Association Festival and Conference 2015 Review

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My trip starts with the airline company being totally useless. I’m sure many of you are surprised by that.

My inability to check in due to a “random security check” caused some mild anxiety about who I would be packed in beside, like the sardines airlines seem to assume we are. Airplanes are just not designed for a six foot three dude, or really anyone other than a five foot four, rail thin person who has no personal space requirements. Lets just say, gone are the heady days of air travel where you got snacks on an international flight and that little screen in the back of the seat in front of you provided free entertainment. The diminished benefits and increased cost of flying leaves one with a distinct feeling of “ughh.”

Getting to the Chicago airport, I walked through gorgeous concourses with well thought out design and modern art. It really seems like they tried to class it up, and they did a good job. Until you need to eat something. Burgers. That is all you can eat in the Chicago airport. They classiest food joint there is a Chili’s. Luckily I always enjoy Chili’s. I’d be a terrible food critic, “Does it have bacon on it? Yes? Nom Nom… It’s the greatest food I ever ate!!”

Ok, enough with the griping, none of it was that bad and I finally left Nashville International Airport on a warm Saturday night, driving to my Airbnb past the flashing lights of Broadway and the Gibson Headquarters overlooking the river.  I’m here for the Americana Music Association Festival and Conference and all I have to look forward to is amazing music!

Nashville is no longer a one horse town when it comes to music, the world of mainstream country is diversifying and the music scene is opening up.

That said, my experience of the famous Broadway scene was a little underwhelming. I don’t mean any disrespect to the amazing musicians who take to the tiny stages in smoky bars competing with the bands next door and the band above or below them. There is no cover when you visit a bar and bands get paid for tips and requests, this inevitably leads to tourist requesting the same songs in all the bars around town. This results in “Wagon Wheel: being played 1,137 times a night on Broadway.

Stages that helped make country greats like Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, Patsy Cline, Willie Nelson and Kris Kristofferson famous are now home to talented players rehashing the songs that helped others make their break. Willie Nelson got his first songwriting gig after performing at Tootsie’s.

I recognize I sound a little cynical about it all, and I am, but when you walk through the corridors of the Country Music Hall of Fame, it’s impossible to ignore what Nashville and Tennessee have contributed to the fabric of music today. As a musician and a fan, to step through a crowded bar piled high with beer bottles and cowboy boots, knowing that Loretta Lynn graced this very stage is still unforgettable. Also, I was only there for a week so I may just be completely wrong about it all.

Whitehorse

Whitehorse

Americana. What a genre. I don’t know if I could accurately describe it, but I love it. Once the festival started, Nashville was inundated with amazing music from all over North America. Legends like Ry Cooder, Gillian Welch, and Bela Fleck were in town. Also represented were a host of Canadian acts, showcasing our talent down south. Saskatchewan musicians Kacy and Clayton, The Dead South and Donny Parenteau helped foster awareness of that talent that’s growing in this province. The power couple Luke Doucet and Melissa McClelland of Whitehorse took the stage with other Six Shooter artists at a pizza lunch put on by the label. Pizza and good music, what more do you need? Free shots of moonshine, that’s what! Fortunately these were provided at the door.

The bands that really caused excitement for me represent the swampy alt country from Alabama. The Secret Sisters pair gritty guitar with sweet sibling harmonies and a healthy dose of energy. Birmingham rockers, Banditos (stop reading this now and go get their album. Do it), took the Basement East’s stage by storm with their boot stomping tempo and rude but always appropriate guitar leads. Vocalist Mary Beth Richardson takes on a possessed persona, railing out her vocal lines with an otherworldly look in her eyes.

Another small venue highlight was the Bros. Landreth, Winnipeg boys who have elevated sentimental country rock to a whole new level. I hate even trying to describe their music as country rock, that sounds so trite compared to the musical freight train these guys deliver. Their recent album, Let It Lie, is an impressive piece of work to be sure, but their live performance transcends it. Hearing the tight four part harmonies and expressive, unique guitar work of Joey Landreth and Ariel Posen lets you know you’re watching some of the best.

Pokey Lafarge and his band of 1920’s reincarnates are breathing serious life into old-timey rock and roll, their songs transporting the listener to a time in America’s past when all laundry was done by hand and you could watch steam powered ships ferrying amazed passengers up and down the great waterways of the country.

Anyone who knows me knows I like the work of this little known, barely recognizable garage rocker from Detroit, Jack White, you probably never heard of him. Anyway, his Third Man Records near downtown Nashville signifies in part the changing element of music there. A venue where you can hear the grittest of rock acts like Pujol and the Melvins to country music matriarch Loretta Lynn to the Insane Clown Posse. A store where you can get your hands on reissues of some of Sun Records most notable acts, where you can record your own song in a recording booth from the dusty vestiges of America’s history, show that Nashville can accept and embrace more than just a mainstream brand of country music. Though Jack White wasn’t involved with the Festival, his work in Nashville continues to embrace the old, mish-mashing it with a heady dose of fuzz into a progressive, visceral expression of music. The acts on display at this years Americana festival represent a love for old ideas mixed with a desire to push forward with new energy and new musical ideas. And Nashville, bastion of 2-for-1 cocktails and 3-for-1 cowboy boots (yes, 3-for-1, you read that right!!), host to music legends across decades, and home to an unending amount of friendly as hell people, seems like the perfect place to show it all off.