By Baron Lane
What is Americana music? The central and elusive question asked in the 13-year history of the Americana Music Festival & Conference was attempted to be put to rest in 2011 when the word was added to Merriam-Webster's dictionary. According to the dictionary listing, Americana is a "genre of American music with roots in early folk and country music."
But what the definition achieves in brevity it fails in accuracy as the genre stretches far beyond early folk and country music. From Sept. 12–15 Nashville played host for the premier gathering of Americana's industry professionals and fans, including roughly 150 performers. Though there is a unifying DIY ethos and a paramount focus on songwriting among Americana artists, the enthralled audience witnessed a sampler platter of performances that ranged from Canadian neo-folk duo Whitehorse to the hell-raising, guns-blazing red dirt band Reckless Kelly. Audience members would not be remiss if they questioned whether the diverse lineup of artists spawned from the same Americana family.
But a close listener would be rewarded with some of the finest and most authentic music being created today. More than 150 acts on five stages kept the music full tilt long into the fall-tinged Tennessee nights for fans and performers in town from as far away as Scotland and Australia. Established veterans such as GRAMMY-nominated artists Darrell Scott and Billy Joe Shaver shared a bill with newcomers that included honky-tonk upstarts Turnpike Troubadours and swamp-funk collective Jimbo Mathus & The Tri-State Coalition. Witnessing veterans and newcomers share the stage was similar to watching a passing of the torch that rewarded fans with spectacular shows.
Also featured were one-of-a-kind events such as a tribute to the late Gram Parsons featuring Jim Lauderdale, Brendan Benson, honeyhoney, and Tim Easton, among others, who performed their favorite selections by a patron saint of Americana.
Then there was the outstanding Mercyland event celebrating Nashville veteran Phil Madeira's non-denominational release in the historic Downtown Presbyterian Church featuring Luther Dickinson, Amy Stroup, Kasey Chambers, Shane Nicholson, and Emmylou Harris. This event had everyone out of their seats.
The Americana Honors & Awards show is singular in the quality of talent across the nominees and performers it featured. Hosted Sept. 12 at the hallowed Ryman Auditorium, multiple generations of artists were honored, including Booker T. Jones, Bonnie Raitt and Richard Thompson, all of whom received Lifetime Achievement Awards, along with Justin Townes Earle, Robert Ellis, the Mavericks, Punch Brothers, Chambers, Nicholson, Hayes Carll, Cary Ann Hearst, Carolina Chocolate Drops, and Alabama Shakes. Alabama Shakes, who took home the Emerging Artist award, teamed with Jones for a raucous performance of their "Be Mine." John Hiatt and Raitt also teamed for "Thing Called Love." The inspired performances seemed to draw from the historic surroundings and the ghosts of the greats that had performed there during the Grand Ole Opry's glory days.
From the stage, Americana Music Association Executive Director Jed Hilly spread the gospel. "Tonight was a perfect example of why I love Americana. From the rock and soul of Alabama Shakes to the perfection of Gillian [Welch] and Dave [Rawlings], all of our winners honor the traditions of American roots music while pushing the form forward."
Of course he was singing to a choir of true believers. Even though the event continues to gain in popularity, what is perhaps most impressive is it remains intimate and inclusive.
"We've been fortunate to balance success with integrity," said Hilly.
Upon accepting her Lifetime Achievement Award from Hiatt, GRAMMY-winning blues rocker and conference keynote speaker Raitt summed up the genre and the event perfectly.
"Who cares what kind of music it is?" she asked. "It's great music. … It needs to be celebrated."
(Baron Lane is a Bay Area-living ex-pat Texan. You can read his thoughts on Americana/roots music at www.twangnation.com. He is also the official GRAMMY.com Community Blogger for the Americana genre. He's onry, but good-natured.)