Musical Community Reflects American Cultural Tapestry at Annual September Conference
by Kevin Gordon
Walk into a bar in northern Louisiana on any given night, and you might hear a guy named Kenny Bill Stinson: a songster who plays guitar like Jimi Hendrix and James Burton, who beats all hell out of a piano in the guise of James Booker or Jerry Lee Lewis, whose whatever-way-the-wind-blows mindset takes you from Neil Young to Jimmie Rodgers to Brian Wilson to Leadbelly and back. Who knows the catalog of those masters of American rock ‘n’ roll, the Beatles, like his own youthful McCartney-at-fifty-something face. Whose original songs are the product of these influences, yet aren’t restricted by them. Who would probably call it all just good music.
The genre known as Americana reflects this homage to tradition and the insistence on going beyond it. Stinson, if not an active presence on the current Americana scene, is a progenitor of it. A gifted pluralist who plays what he loves (i.e. what he damn well pleases) to whomever will listen. And it’s through him that it’s all tied together—great songs from disparate sources, all linked to American music, delivered through one human soul with passion. I’ve been a fan, and become a friend and occasional band member, of Kenny’s over the years; from my college years as frontman for a punk band to my current station in life as Nashville-based singer-songwriter.
Stinson and his audience have likely heard the term “Americana” by now. What was once a rough-and-tumble stepchild standing at the back door of the music business has come into its own, with acts (Rosanne Cash, Mumford & Sons, the Avett Brothers, et al.) now selling six figures—no simple feat in the non-proprietary Internet culture, where a lot more music is heard but much less purchased.
The thirteenth annual Americana Music Festival & Conference returns to Nashville September 12–15. Produced by the locally based Americana Music Association, this hybrid of business conference and music festival brings together industry professionals, artists, and fans for a multi-level experience: registered conference attendees who are interested in the business side of Americana gather for various panel discussions and workshops during the day; over the course of the four nights, conference goers and fans gather for the festival portion of the event, which, in addition to hosting the annual AMA awards show at the Ryman, showcases over one hundred artists in select Nashville venues.
Jed Hilly, in his sixth year as executive director of the AMA, prefers “community” to “genre” when describing the music and the artists who create it. “[What amazes me] is watching Grace Potter look at Levon Helm playing drums. Levon’s head going off to the gods when listening to Mike Farris sing. Having Emmylou [Harris] sit down and tell me about a band called Low Anthem . . . this appreciation that goes beyond the age demographic: it’s not about what’s hip or what’s cool, but what’s honest, what’s real, and what’s great music.”
Upon assuming his role, Hilly suggested the name of the event be changed: what was formerly known as the AMA Conference would now become the AMA Music Festival and Conference. “I said that if we build something that is dependent or reliant on the music industry we will die quickly . . .
it was that movement that doubled our festival attendance . . . a subtle shift, but the word ‘festival’ is festive, is inclusive, while ‘conference’ is exclusive, is about business.” Attendance has increased from 5,600 to over 12,000 during the four-day event. Membership has grown from 1,000 to 1,600 since Hilly’s tenure began in 2007. “I think the local staff, and the execs, do a great job of growing it, branding it,” says R.S. Field, industry veteran and producer of three number-one Americana releases.
Surveying the acts for this year, the level of mainstream notoriety has gone up as well, speaking to the rise in awareness and interest in this richly diverse community: multi-platinum-selling Grammy winner Bonnie Raitt (who will appear for the conference’s keynote interview), the Wallflowers, Punch Brothers, Richard Thompson. A look at the Americana radio chart finds Raitt’s new release, Slipstream, alongside bluegrass master Jerry Douglas, the gritty New Orleans funk of Dr. John, and younger generation acts such as the Lumineers.
“Like fine art, that’s the stuff that has legs,” said Hilly, when speaking of artists in the Americana community who are, in their own way, studying the masters.
“When you hear Dave and Gil [David Rawlings and Gillian Welch], you hear American country traditions; in Bonnie Raitt you hear American blues traditions . . .
It’s the amalgam and influence of all of these things that makes Americana a contemporary art form. Like a great sculptor or painter, Picasso didn’t start off creating abstract art; he studied the masters, [and] then went on to create his own genre, basically.” This working through tradition towards something new is, of course, nothing new in the arts: in literature, poet James Wright’s first two books of skillful yet imitative formalism were followed by The Branch Will Not Break, a startling departure from the influence of his heroes like E.A. Robinson towards a new interest in Eastern and Latin American forms and attitude, while in subject still inhabiting the American post-industrial landscape.
This year’s festival will see additional venues and featured shows: BMI will present Phil Madeira with special guests from Mercyland: Hymns for the Rest of Us on Thursday, September 13, at the Downtown Presbyterian Church from 6 to 7:30 p.m. Madeira, Emmylou Harris, Shawn Mullins, North Mississippi Allstars, Buddy Miller, and surprise guests will reprise their songs from the critically acclaimed album. In addition to free admittance with badges and wristbands, there will be tickets available at the door for $10.
For continued coverage of the Americana Music Festival and Conference, including videos and interviews, visit nashvillearts.com.
To view the showcase lineup: http://americanamusic.org/showcase-lineup
To purchase a wristband for tickets to all of the showcases ($50): http://americanamusic.org/