Nashville music festival defines ‘Americana’: the art, not the business

In its 17th year, Americana Music Associations festival attracts 2,270 artists and industry professionals by focusing on the fundamentals

In Nashville this week, a music festival and conference attempted to draw a line in the sand between mainstream country, as heard on TV awards shows and in sports arenas, and Americana, meaning almost everything else.

Throughout the week, in conference rooms and ballrooms, in clubs and back yard parties, labels, promoters and musicians came together in an attempt to define a community that has struggled to survive since the collapse of the traditional recording industry.

Unlike other such gatherings, particularly South by Southwest, held each March in Austin, Texas, the Americana Music Conference was not primarily focused on the nuts and bolts of industry negotiations. Instead, attendees sought to reclaim their music as a necessity of personal expression in the digital era, when artists face an uphill battle for fair compensation and may feel forced to compromise or feel belittled by a tech-obsessed wider culture.

We are not here to advocate for the business, said conference executive director Jed Hilly. We are here to advocate for the art.

One of the dividing lines between Americana and elsewhere is the integrity of a fundamental: songwriting. That became especially resonant with the deaths this year of Guy Clark and Merle Haggard, both considered masters of their craft.

At a panel discussion on Thursday, the songwriter Rodney Crowell said the country music industry had changed priorities when it veered away from the vision of individual songwriters to seeking songs crafted by committee, often involving a half-dozen songwriters constructing components as on an automotive assembly line.

I can definitely hear the difference between the two, he said. It switched from art to commerce along the way.



figcaption class=”caption” caption–img caption caption–img” itemprop=”description”> Bonnie Raitt presents an award at the show in Nashville. Photograph: Mark Zaleski/AP

The most dire warning came from producer T Bone Burnett, a hero for, among other things, his role in producing the Grammy-winning gospel, folk, and blues soundtrack to the 2000 film O Brother, Where Art Thou? In a keynote speech on Thursday he denounced Silicon Valley as home to technocrats who assume artists should be grateful, subservient even, and use their flimsy new tools happily to make them ever more powerful.

Our work is being commoditized, he said. The price of music is being driven down to zero. The internet technology that has been so wildly promoted as being the key, the final solution, to our freedom, has become our prison.

What the false prophets of the internet said would replace governments and nation states and commerce, and create a free world of community and sharing, has led instead to a consolidation of wealth and power that makes the monopolies of the early 20th century Morgan and Rockefeller and Carnegie look weak and ineffective.

This is the 17th year of the conference, but only in recent years has it hit its stride more than 2,270 artists and industry professionals attended this year, a spike of 24% since the last. One reason for that, Hilly said, was a retooling of the organization, focusing on the artists instead of the industry with the hope of building a coalition that can speak with one voice.

The new model, he said, is the Sundance film festival, which formed to help define independent film as a genre separate from Hollywood.

Defining Americana has always been tricky. The festival itself included singer-songwriters, country soul singers, bluegrass players, folk artists such as Billy Bragg and soul men such as William Bell. Relying on region is no help, as showcasing artists had arrived from everywhere from East Nashville to New Zealand. In the past, terms like alternative country and roots rock have tried to create some kind of continuity without much effect.

The Americana Music Association, the not-for-profit group that organizes the festival, is tightening its focus. An early victory, after trying for four years, was getting the word Americana accepted by the Merriam-Webster dictionary. Its official definition is a genre of American music having roots in early folk and country music.

The organization is also responsible for helping create three Grammy categories for Americana artists: best album, best roots performance and best roots song. In the past, Americana artists were crowbarred into folk or blues categories, or not nominated at all.

Billboard has launched an Americana chart, intended to reflect the commercial power of the genre, which benefits not from hits on country radio but from exposure the old-fashioned way: touring, word of mouth, public radio and written features.

There is also the organizations own awards ceremony, held this week to air for the first time on PBS stations in November. Stocked with veterans including Alison Krauss, Bob Weir, Bonnie Raitt, Emmylou Harris, Dwight Yoakam and Steve Earle, the show also brought together newcomers such as John Moreland and Margo Price. Held on Wednesday at the historic Ryman Auditorium, the event had the familiar trappings of televised awards shows: red carpet, live feeds to satellite radio and a star-studded finale. Jason Isbell won album of the year and Chris Stapleton artist of the year.

Their recent albums have become underground hits, showing the commercial viability of Americana artists. Veteran artists such as Harris, who has not been heard on country radio for decades, recognized the value of self-identification, suggesting it highlights an audience that is underserved by commercial radio.

They didnt know what to call us, she said. We were kind of left-field hippies. Now were Americana.

One major hitmaker showed up to voice his thanks. George Strait appeared to present a lifetime achievement award to Jim Lauderdale, the songwriter whose work has supplied Strait hits including The King of Broken Hearts.

I know him mostly as a songwriter a really, really, really, really good hit songwriter, said Strait.

Evening showcases throughout the six days included familiar faces such as Lee Ann Womack, Kasey Chambers, and Bragg and Joe Henry, all with new albums to promote. Bob Weir of the Grateful Dead did an intimate session at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum on Friday, talking with producer-songwriter Buddy Miller before an audience of 200 about his work with the National on his forthcoming album, his first set of new songs in 30 years.

A record like this cant be made easily. It wasnt slapdash. We slept on it and came back a month or two later, he said of the three-year process.

He also delved into the impact the Dead had on Americana, going back to the early 1960s, when he formed a jug band with Jerry Garcia.

The Beatles came out that year. They looked like they were having a lot of fun and making big waves, he said. The electric instruments out front looked awfully attractive.

The majority of artists showcasing at Americana were ripe for discovery. They included Bonnie Bishop, a Nashville singer whose powerful voice raised the bar for to-the-rafters country soul, and Aaron Lee Tasjan, who filled the Cannery Row Ballroom to near capacity for wry, hook-driven country rock straight out of Tom Pettys playbook.

Maybe the most unique find was 15-year-old Sammy Brue. Hidden behind glasses and a wide-brimmed hat, with hair hitting his shoulders, he fingerpicked melancholy folk songs on an acoustic guitar, all with a complexity beyond his years and baring a weary soul with which anyone of any age would be familiar.

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