Now that’s Americana! It’s a slogan host Jim Lauderdale repeated many times during the 5th Americana Association Honours and Awards Ceremony, held at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville on 22nd September. And it’s a phrase which has echoed in my head ever since.
The Awards night was the centrepiece of one the busiest, full-on six days I’ve ever known. My diary was packed with evening sets at the Mercy Lounge, Luke Doucet and the fantastic discovery of Brigitte DeMeyer’s rocking music at the Basement, an International panel, twelve sessions, a major interview, and three programmes, including my Saturday night Radio 2 show live, with Luke Doucet, Beth Nielsen Chapman, Grayson Capps, Chris Thile and Idgy Vaughn, all in addition to our Radio 2 coverage of the event itself. Now that’s Americana! What’s more, I think we’ve finally nailed down the definition of what this music actually is.
I arrived in Nashville the previous Tuesday evening, on a delayed flight from Washington. The plane had been turned back from the runway because (if you can believe it), they discovered that the engine needed topping up with oil. I watched through the window as the comical scene unfolded…engineer in overalls arriving with small can of lubricant, as if our United Airlines Express was the equivalent of a flying Morris Minor. Amusing but frustrating, because every minute we were stuck on that tarmac was eating into the time I was due to be spending at an evening honouring Emmylou Harris at the Schermerhorn Symphony Centre in downtown Nashville.
Situated opposite the Country Music Hall of Fame, this imposing, neo-classical, 123 million dollar building covers 197,000 feet of 4th Avenue South and seems to have arrived from nowhere…they hadn’t even started work on it when I was last in Nashville. Described as ‘an acoustical masterpiece’, it is a magnificent environment for music, as I discovered when I eventually arrived at the concert, two hours late.
I’d missed the speeches and the first couple of numbers but the rest of the evening turned out to be absolutely magical.
As I walked across the floor, the auditorium filled with the sound of Steve Earle and Allison Moorer, backed by Buddy Miller and a house band that included Sam Bush, Brady Blade and Phil Madeira. It was an instant reminder of the incredibly high level of musicianship that exists in this town. Host Elvis Costello then introduced a glorious performance of ‘Boulder To Birmingham’ by Patty Griffin, followed by a haunting version of ‘Hickory Wind’ by Gillian Welch and David Rawlings. Further highlights included ‘Love Hurts’, a stunning duet by Patty Griffin and Elvis Costello, and ‘Gravedigger’ by Dave Matthews, a recent concert guest on my Saturday night show. Finally, Emmylou took to the improbably high stage to acknowledge this wonderful evening and deliver a rousing performance of ‘After The Goldrush’ with Pam Rose and Mary Ann Kennedy. Now what a live album that would make!
I sat with Beth Nielsen Chapman, who had saved my supper for me, and with whom I went backstage afterwards to meet up with the musicians who had taken part, all of whom signed a guitar Beth is now auctioning for charity. Getting musicians to sign guitars for charity is something she regularly does. The last one fetched nearly 30 thousand dollars!
Nashville is six hours behind Britain, so getting back to the hotel soon after midnight meant that it was about 6 in the morning real-time. And guess what? I couldn’t sleep! It was a problem I had all week…so much to think about. My producer Al Booth had already been in Nashville for several days, compiling interviews and material for a Radio 2 documentary about the mainstream new-Country movement of the eighties, a project that ran parallel to our programmes all week.
Wednesday was the recording of the awards preview we broadcast on ‘Bob Harris Country’ on the Thursday evening with Jim Lauderdale, soon to tour the UK with two new Yep Roc releases, and Will Kimbrough, who played a song from his new ‘Americanitis’ album. We were then treated to a brilliant, swampy acoustic set from Kieran Kane, Kevin Welch and Fats Kaplin, playing songs from their ‘Lost John Dean’ CD, before completing our recording for the day with a delicate and beautiful performance from tiny, waif-like Mindy Smith.
Thursday began with a major career-interview with Alison Krauss, which will become a one-hour special within the next few weeks. She was lovely and came with good wishes from Robert Plant, with whom she’d just been speaking on the phone. They have been talking about working together for a while now…
Then it was sessions with the Be Good Tanyas, Chris Knight and finally Sunny Sweeny, who’d flown from Austin especially for the gig. The end of the evening found us at the Mercy Lounge with Karen Miller and the BBC Radio Scotland country programme team, watching sets from Hayes Carll, Chris Knight and Tres Chicas, who were superb.
Our final sessions on Friday were with evocative spoken-word artist Minton Sparks (described as the greatest Country singer who doesn’t sing) and with the scary but sensational James McMurtry…the moment I’d probably been most looking forward to. He set his guitar up with a capo one fret down from the tuners, then another 4/5 frets further down, both clamped across five strings, leaving the bottom string free to carry the bass line. His playing was absolutely brilliant, his lyrics powerful, his conversation acerbic and cool.
But it was a moment backstage at the Ryman, mid-way through the Americana Awards ceremony that provided us with the highlight of the trip. Following his you-could-hear-a-pin-drop version of Rodney Crowell’s ‘Until I Can Gain Control Again’, Vince Gill joined us in our mini-production room to give us this definition of what all of this is all about.
‘I have my own take on what this music is. The beauty of this music is that it doesn’t hinge itself on the results. And that, to me, is what a true musician really is…the great ones are that…that no record that’s ever been made, whether it sold 50 million or 50…none of the notes have ever changed on any of those records. We unfortunately focus our value system based on results and I don’t think you can do that by a dollar figure of how much a record did or did not sell. To me, this is a place where you find the pure of heart.
Now that’s Americana!
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