Americana Dream

NOTE: This week’s Music City Roots takes place THURSDAY night, Sept. 19, so we can participate in the Americana Music Honors & Awards on Wednesday night at the Ryman Auditorium. Full description is below.

If you have Wednesday night free though and want to see some stellar songwriters at the Loveless Barn, our friends and partners are hosting a magical, intimate evening of performances and home-cooked food. On the bill: Malcolm Holcombe, Sam Lewis and Sara Jean Kelly. Doors open at 6 pm and the show starts at 7. CLICK HERE TO VIEW THE FLYER FOR THE EVENT

In early 1998, my life took a happy turn when I decided what I needed to do was submit an unsolicited freelance article to the arts page of the Wall Street Journal about the very new concept of “Americana” music. I’d never authored a music article in my life, but a friend of mine who’d written a few policy op-eds for them gave me an email way up there in New York City, and by some miracle, it got published. Though Americana was starting from a niche beginning, I was bullish on the format, partly out of sheer enthusiasm and partly because I thought my fellow Americans were growing sick of industrial cheese as its musical/cultural diet and that Americana offered a nourishing new direction. Or at least a new way to access a musical heritage and creative stream that had been there all along.

Here we are 15 years later, with this year’s Americana Music Association Conference and Festival about to start, and I’m impressed by what Americana has become and how it’s found its place not just in a post-crash music industry but also in the vanguard of a 21st century revival of localism and artisanal culture. It’s a community and business sector that has its priorities straight, with quality and heritage among its core values. It has welcomed in and been welcomed by, just to name a few, Mavis Staples, Elvis Costello, Johnny and June Cash, Allen Toussaint, Bonnie Raitt, Robert Plant, Alison Krauss, Patty Loveless, John Fogerty, Solomon Burke, Wanda Jackson, Joan Baez and Alejandro Escovedo to name a few. Not long ago, those legends would have said “Ameri-what-now?” and now artists of that stature are calling the AMA office in Franklin asking how can they be part of this party and this community.

That, dear readers, leads me to how just such a call pointed an icon in our direction. Skipping the details, Jimmy Webb is opening this week’s Roots. Can we pause to say ‘wow’ at that? A hall-of-fame, multi-Grammy-winning songwriter who fuses the high craft of Tin Pan Alley with a plain-spoken heartland honesty, Webb is one of the giants of his art. I can’t touch a proper synopsis of his career or accolades here, but see the link above for a long-form bio. A few things though that I find important. He’s an auteur who almost never co-writes. As a result, like Kristofferson or Randy Newman, Webb has a sonic fingerprint, one that swirls together unique sensibilities with words and harmony. Also, this will be my first time hearing Webb, and the timing is poignant, as the great Glen Campbell, who made Webb’s “By The Time I Get To Phoenix” and “Wichita Lineman” century-making hits, is riding off into the sunset after a farewell tour.

Webb falls more into the classic pop and songbook standard pages of music history than Americana per se. But if Americana is about is great songcraft, strong point of view and timeless musical values, then Webb fits. He’s been covered by Waylon Jennings, Nanci Griffith and even Nick Cave. And his new album Still Within The Sound of My Voice, opens with a banjo and accordion and has plenty of country touches. It’s a set of duets with iconic singers like Brian Wilson, Lyle Lovett, Carly Simon and others. Nashville’s Jerry Douglas and Paul Franklin are prominent players. (You can stream it HERE.) It will be an honor to have Jimmy Webb at his piano on Thursday when the show begins. Don’t arrive late.

And yes, I said Thursday. We are excited to once again be an official showcase venue for the Americana Music Association Festival and because of the Americana Honors & Awards are on Wednesday at the Ryman Auditorium. And even before Mr. Webb turned up, we had a great bill set to go for you. A few words about each:

Elephant Revival will close. They’re a product of Nederland, Colorado, one of the most unique music towns in the nation, having been an HQ or key chill spot for String Cheese Incident, Leftover Salmon and Yonder Mountain String Band, among others. Elephant Revival doesn’t imitate any of those outfits but finds a sound all their own with ethereal voices, complex percussion and strings that can play it earthy or spacey. We loved them when they made their first Roots appearance. Now they have a brand new album they’re ready to share.

Josh Rouse is a master pop songwriter who also has not been 100% associated with Americana, but in his profundity and love of myriad styles, he sure fits. He has lived much of the last decade not on Americana shores but in Valencia, Spain, because, well, why not? I remember well his debut Dressed Up Like Nebraska making a big buzz in Nashville, because that kind of searching, organic, pop-inflected recording wasn’t exactly commonplace ‘round these parts in 1998. He also earned raves for his nostalgic 1972 (year of his birth). And now he’s touring in support of The Happiness Waltz, a sparkling and melodic collection of “warm AM-radio friendly songs.”

Bhi Bhiman is an artist I’m looking forward to keenly. The press on this guy – son of Sri Lankan immigrants who’s been based in the Bay Area – is rapturous. He’s got a complicated voice that can purr or soar into high tenor flights, and his songs employ specific, evocative imagery and sturdy melodies. This one came from the AMA booking folks with an extra dose of excitement and we’re keyed up about it.

The newest act of the night is The Deslondes, self described as a “New Orleans based country-soul, swamp-boogie band.” Now that’s what I’m talking about. Our own booking team has been trying to land this quartet (formerly known as Tumbleweeds) for a while, so this worked out nicely. It features the influence of three songwriting members: Sam Doores, Riley Downing and Cameron Snyder. And the word on them is to expect plenty of smiles.

So take a little trip out of the hubbub of downtown and cruise out to the calming surroundings of the Loveless to see this fascinating and stellar lineup. Your AMA badge or wristband will get you in. Our seating is general admission. We’ll be live on Hippie Radio 94.5 FM and video streaming to the world as usual. Just one more way to carry the torch for Americana music and excellence in general. We also urge you to watch our two-hour Honors & Awards pre-show webcast from out front of the Ryman Auditorium. Your correspondent will be interviewing nominees, lifetime achievement winners and others with the help of our pal Webb Wilder. Buckle up y’all. A big week is about to begin.

Craig H.

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