Updated Fri, Sep 27, 2013 4:35 pm
On Sept. 18, 2013, WOUB Music Director Mark Hellenberg set out for Nashville, Tenn., home of the annual Americana Music Festival.
Over the course of four days, he took in numerous performances and industry panel discussions, squeezed his way into over-capacity clubs and dodged thousands of pre-teen Taylor Swift fans (and their mothers).
Here is what transpired in Music City--or an alternate-universe version of it--that week.
The Americana Music Honors & Awards show took place at the historic Ryman Auditorium, the original home of the Grand Ole Opry, in downtown Nashville. After making the eight hour drive from Athens, I went directly to The Ryman for the first event of the festival.
Every seat in the 2,362 seat auditorium was filled. I was surprised to discover that the seats were wooden pews and the windows were stained glass, remnants of the building's early years as a place of worship.
The awards show was hosted by Jim Lauderdale and the stellar house band, which included Larry Campbell, Don Was and the McCrary Sisters, was led by Buddy Miller.
Delbert McClinton joined the band on the first number, Hank Williams' "Hey Good Lookin," which was followed by filmmaker Ken Burns and his presentation of the Americana President's Award to the late, great Hank Williams. Hank's grand daughter, Holly Williams, accepted the award and sang another Williams' favorite, "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry."
It was obvious from the list of the nominees and the lifetime Achievement Awards that Americana as a genre occupies a pretty big tent. Robert Hunter, the lyricist for the Grateful Dead, was honored with a Lifetime Achievement Award for Songwriting and sang a solo rendition of "Ripple."
Ry Cooder presented the Lifetime Achievement Award for Executive to Chris Strachwitz, the musicologist, producer and founder of the great blues, Cajun and Tex-Mex label, Arhoolie Records. The actor and bluegrass aficionado Ed Helms presented the Trailblazer Award to recent Grand Ole Opry inductees, Old Crow Medicine Show who played their "greatest hit," "Wagon Wheel."
The Black Keys guitarist and producer Dan Auerbach honored his friend, Mac Rebennack, aka Dr. John, with the Lifetime Achievement Award for Performance and they both took the stage for "I Walked on Gilded Splinters."
Duane Eddy, honored for his lifetime work as an instrumentalist, fronted the band for his classic, "Rebel Rouser," and Stephen Stills, after receiving the Spirit of Americana Freedom of Speech Award, joined fellow Buffalo Springfield alum Richie Furay for the band's 1966 hit "For What It's Worth."
Most of the nominees for awards in the six categories--album of the year, artist of the year, emerging artist, song of the year, duo group and instrumentalist of the year--performed a number with the band. JD McPherson rocked the Ryman with his "Northside Gal." Richard Thompson plugged in for "Good Things Happen To Bad People" from his latest Buddy Miller-produced album, Electric.
Emerging Artist winners Shovels and Rope, performing as a duo, were nominated in four of the six categories, and brought down the house with a rousing rendition of "Birmingham" which won Song of the Year. Another duo, Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell, won Album of the Year for "Old Yellow Moon" and Duo of the Year. The other nominees in the duo category performed as well: The Milk Carton Kids, band leader Buddy Miller and the emcee, Jim Lauderdale. The other two awards went to Instrumentalist of the Year Larry Campbell and Dwight Yoakam, Artist of the Year.
The night wrapped up with nominees, winners and presenters taking the stage with the band for the Rodney Crowell classic "Leaving Louisiana in the Broad Daylight," which Crowell and Harris recorded back in 1978.
The Americana Music Honors & Awards show is available in its entirety on npr.org and will be broadcast in an edited form on Austin City Limits on Nov. 23.
Webb Wilder and Mark Hellenberg
The awards show was followed by four days of seminars, panels and networking at the Sheraton Nashville Downtown Hotel and more than 130 musical performances and showcases at various Nashville venues.
After the show at the Ryman, with more than 20 acts to choose from--including Pokey LaFarge, Patrick Sweany, The Greencards, JD McPherson, The Infamous Stringdusters, and Black Prairie--at seven different clubs, I was in a slight quandary of what to do or where to go. I chose not to club-hop but rather attend three shows at one venue, The Rutledge.
I knew Aoife O'Donovan from past festivals and wanted to check out her new, post-Crooked Still band. Her hour-long set featured mostly songs from her new release, Fossils, which were impeccably performed by her trio. She ended her slot with a cover of Neil Young's " Harvest Moon."
Cincinnati's Over the Rhine followed with a performance of mostly new material from their just-released double-album, Meet Me at the Edge of the World.
Over the Rhine
Mandolin Orange followed Over the Rhine. I'm a fan of their last two recordings but didn't really know what to expect from a live performance. I absolutely loved this duo. Their set was a perfect ending to great day filled with extraordinary music.
This was my day to schmooze with radio promoters, industry people, artists and record reps in The Sheraton lobby, but first I had to see the legendary Dr. John being interviewed by Nick Spitzer of American Routes at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum.
Since I receive about a hundred CDs a week at WOUB, I was interested in the panel presented by eight radio promotions people entitled "Call Day Etiquette: How to Get Your Record Played on the Radio." I learned how these very people who call me every Tuesday work their mojo on me and other music programmers.
L-R: Old Man Luedecke, Mark Hellenberg, Oliver Craven
On my walk to an afternoon concert, I found myself in a sea of pre-teen girls with their moms and realized the street was lined with semi-trucks and tour buses plastered with images of Taylor Swift. The Taylor Swift Red Tour sold out the 20,000 seat Bridgestone arena for three nights. What a contrast from the small world of homegrown music of which I was reveling.
With all the great music at the Americana Festival, inspired by Woody Guthrie and Hank Williams, Leadbelly and Bill Monroe, Gram Parsons and Emmylou, Bob Wills and Johnny Cash and the Carter Family, folk, blues, rockabilly, string band music, swing and soul music, I nearly forgot that I was in Nash-Vegas, the home of manufactured music that has completely forgotten about its roots.
The real music started at 4:30 p.m. a few blocks away at the Downtown Presbyterian Church. This venue turned out to be a great place for an afternoon concert. Several of the performers stated that they were a bit freaked out being in such a packed place where you could hear a pin drop. It was a bit like being in church. Oh yeah...we were.
The Portland-based, Decemberists spin-offs Black Prairie kicked off the performances followed by Bear's Den, Willy Mason, The Lone Bellow and Justin Townes Earle. Being somewhat familiar with his most recent release, Carry On, Willy Mason's set was the afternoon's standout for me.
By the time that showcase wrapped up, it was time to grab a bite to eat and catch the shuttle bus to the clubs. Again, I chose to stay at one location rather than try to catch acts at all the different venues. The choice was easier to make on that evening--definitely 3rd & Lindsley.
The lineup was Rosanne Cash at 8 p.m., followed by Billy Bragg at 9 p.m., Richard Thompson at 10 p.m., The Wood Brothers at 11 p.m. and finally The Steep Canyon Rangers at midnight. The club was jam-packed but I managed to snag a square foot of real estate on the steps to the balcony looking down on the stage.
Every musician in every band was stupendous. Cash's group, led by her husband, John Leaventhal, flawlessly performed mostly new material from her upcoming release. Her set ended with her hit from 1981, "Seven Year Ache." Billy Bragg's set featured lots of songs from his latest, Tooth & Nail, and included a duet with Cash on "I Still Miss Someone."
Billy Bragg and Rosanne Cash
I have seen Richard Thompson, both solo acoustic and plugged in with a band, on at least 20 occasions. He was as good as I have ever heard him, playing songs from his most recent, Electric, with the backup singer from that release, Siobhan Kennedy. "1952 Vincent Black Lightning" is usually in his acoustic set but he also pulled out "Valerie," "When the Spell is Broken" and "Persuasion" from his back catalog.
The Wood Brothers' brand-new Buddy Miller-produced album The Muse will be released on Oct 1, but radio stations have had the record long enough to be familiar with it. Miller had the band play together in the studio for the recording, rather than opting for overdubbing. The recording's energy and tight arrangements translated well in a live setting. The Wood Brothers blew both fans and the uninitiated away. After their set, I called it quits after another long day of exceptional performances.
The Wood Brothers
The two must-do things on my Friday daytime agenda were the Billy Bragg performance and interview and the "Americana Salutes 30 Years of Mountain Stage" panel.
Bragg's set the night before at 3rd and Linsley was great and I knew he would be charming, witty and articulate in an interview. The moderator, Rob Reinhart of radio program Acoustic Cafe, did an excellent job asking pertinent questions about Bragg's music, politics and career, and neatly segued the interview segments into song performances. Bragg, an Englishman, did a great job explaining his perception of how American music influenced British musicians, who in turn, influenced American musicians during the British Invasion.
Larry Groce, who has hosted Mountain Stage for three decades, was celebrated by Americana for his longtime dedication to live performance radio. Mountain Stage has visited Athens and Ohio University's Memorial Auditorium on many occasions and Groce mentioned that fact during the presentation.
Tim O'Brien has appeared on the program 27 times, more than any other artist, and was on stage with Kim Richey (an alumna of Ohio University) and Chip Taylor for a discussion and a songwriter song swap.
Tim O'Brien and Larry Groce
Friday evening was the club-hopping night. I caught Kim Richey solo in the afternoon at the Mountain Stage salute but wanted to catch her with her band at the Rutledge. She was in fine voice and her band expertly played material form her new album, Thorn in My Heart.
Mark Hellenberg and Kim Richey
After waiting a long time for the shuttle bus, I decided to make a run down to 3rd & Lindsley in the pouring rain to check out Nora Jane Struthers & the Party Line, Tim O'Brien and Darrell Scott. The place was sold out with many fans standing outside in the deluge.
After the O'Brien and Scott set, I decided to check out some other clubs. Luckily, three of the venues are part of a complex--an old cannery--and are under one roof. The Americana record label, New West, was celebrating its 15th anniversary in the Cannery Ballroom from 7 p.m. until 2 a.m. with showcases of artists on their roster: Randall Bramblett, Buddy Miller, Delbert McClinton, Max Gomez, Corb Lund and more.
The ballroom was huge, dark and crowded, so after Miller's and Gomez' sets I squeezed my way upstairs to the Mercy Lounge to hear a favorite of mine, the young Nashville-based singer-songwriter Caitlin Rose. Once again, after a couple of songs and being pushed, shoved and trampled, I decided to split for a more relaxed listening experience. I got back on the bus and arrived at the legendary Station Inn to hear a well received set by the Lancaster, Pa., trio, The Stray Birds. At midnight, after hearing that my friends, The Two Man Gentlemen Band, had cancelled, I called it a night.
Musicans Corner is a free weekly concert series at Centennial Park in Nashville. Every year the series collaborates with Americana Festival, and this year the lineup featured Shelby Lynne and Donna the Buffalo on the main stage with Lilly Hiatt, Suzi Ragsdale and Emily Barker playing short acoustic sets during the intervals.
Donna the Buffalo
Ithaca, N.Y.'s Donna the Buffalo, who have been a mainstay on the hippie festival circuit for over two decades, delivered a great set of tunes from their just-released Today, Tomorrow and Yesterday. Shelby Lynne, who has always had a great set of pipes, was in fine voice Saturday afternoon.
From Centennial Park, I took a shuttle bus ride over to Grimey's Record Store for a backyard performance by the funky all-star Alabama-based band Willie Sugarcapps, featuring Will Kimbrough, Grayson Capps and the duo Sugarcane Jane. I planned to head back to the motel room to prepare for another night on the town, but after a nap that wasn't as quick as I thought it would be, I realized that I was spent, totally exhausted and should probably think about the trek back home in the morning.
The Americana Music Association Festival is an annual event and all evening showcase performances are open to the public with a purchase of a $50 wristband. What a deal. What a week.
Mark Hellenberg is WOUB FM's music director. You can hear him weeknights from 7 p.m. to 10 p.m. on Crossing Boundaries.