There’s a lot of talk these days about ‘taking our country back,’ and while I’m not sure what folks mean by that, I do know that more than 10 years ago, a small group of music aficionados decided to take country music back from the over-fluffed, auto-tuned eye candy it had become during its 1990s explosion. Those pioneers chose as their banner the name Americana. Not so much a genre as a frame of reference, Americana embraced what was then called alt-country, folk, blues and bluegrass under a big tent. Now the trade group born of that movement, the Americana Music Association (AMA) boils the music’s many complexities down to the nice clear statement: “contemporary music that honors and/or derives from American roots music.”
Hey, that sounds like what we do. So this week it gives us all great pleasure to partner with the AMA in helping to kick off the eleventh annual Americana Conference and Music Festival. For a decade, this has been one of the greatest events in the country for those who appreciate organic, authentic original music. And tonight’s lineup on Roots, as great as it is, represents just a small taste of the variety inherent in this school of music. We’re an official AMA Festival venue, and we’ve got five acts that only have one thing in common: they’re utterly individual.
Case in point, the Steeldrivers made up their own flavor of bluegrass when they launched about three years ago. Blues guitar and songwriting legend Mike Henderson pulled together a gang of friends and his frequent co-writing pal Chris Stapleton to form a band that instantly turned heads. Stapleton’s voice was like having Gregg Allman fronting a bluegrass band and they were signed to Rounder Records and set off for greatness. Stapleton decided his incredible songwriting career was going too well, so he left the road and the band. But the Steeldrivers then found Gary Nichols, a young fellow with the same fire, soul and control. The new configuration is hot, and the songs remain as clever and powerful as ever.
We’ll also hear from the great Chuck Mead, who came to the world’s attention as more or less the leader of honky-tonk revival band BR549. Today as a solo artist, Mead is still bringing the same passion for traditional country music he did to that Lower Broadway-born sensation, but he’s layered on more complexities and ambient sound to come up with a mature, original set of musical ideas. His current album Journeyman’s Wager sent a signal that he was ready for a serious solo career. And his recent work as music director for the hit Broadway musical The Million Dollar Quartet (about Sun Records and the birth of rock and roll) added another item to his renaissance man resume.
Over the years, Canada’s rich culture has given us dozens of artists who fall under the Americana tent, and we’ll be hearing from two this week. Corb Lund is an authentic cowboy who’s been making wry and intelligent country music for years. Madison Violet is a female duo with a truly contemporary sound that still remains tied in some inexplicable way to old folk. Also on the show, Los Angeles standout Manda Mosher, a singer-songwriter who will remind fans of Lucinda Williams and Kathleen Edwards.
I’ve got to recommend that besides coming to the barn, you should get a $50 wristband that will get you into the AMA Festival’s multiple venues over four nights. It’s an amazing lineup and one of the best tickets in the nation for variety and quality. For more information, visit www.americanamusic.org.