Now THAT’s Americana! I could say it about everything I’ve seen, heard and done over the last four days. The Americana Music Association Conference and Festival has just wrapped in Nashville. I’m tired and happy and a better informed fan and supporter of the music than I was a few days ago. Even though I’ve been a part of this event ever year since 2000, I’m more awestruck than ever at the caliber of our music and the integrity and soul of our community.
That community is worldwide, as we were reminded on Friday, when an annual contingent of Australian folk and country artists hosted a lunch and performance down at a Lower Broadway honky-tonk. See in Australia, they think it’s cool to spend a small amount of federal and state money to support folk artists and send them around the world to export their culture (why didn’t we think of that?) and they do so via the organization Sounds Australia. Their showcases this week made for a small preview of OUR show on Wednesday, as we welcome four artists from Down Under.
Felicity Urquhart has a difficult name to spell but she’s easy to love. Performing with her husband on guitar backup she showed off a gorgeous voice and an engaging presence. She’s at the top of her field in her homeland, having won the 2010 Female Artist of the Year Award at the Country Music Awards of Australia, a year after the release of her most recent CD Landing Lights. That project has loads of cool Nashville connections as well, with guest spots by Kim Richey and members of the Greencards, plus the production efforts of the great Brad Jones. What I’ve heard suggests a solid and confident voice in contemporary country music that’s well grounded in the blues and twang of the classic.
Also performing at lunch was the understated and wry Chris Altmann. His solo debut only came out in 2010, but he’s a known quantity in Australia as lead guitarist for the rambling, popular Wagons band, led by wild and wooly Henry Wagons. Reviews of Altmann’s Que Paso album suggest strong influences of Bakersfield country, the Jayhawks, the Desert Rose Band, Doug Sahm and Stones. Sounds great to us.
Alas, I have only second-hand accounts of Jordie Lane, but he played a ton around town this week, apparently to great acclaim. The Aussie press loves him. He has gravitas and my sampling of music online suggests a centered sense of self. This could be a big discovery moment for us. Same with Caitlin Harnett, who is said to hew to a 1970s Laurel Canyon vibe in her songwriting. Her two EPs have been well received, and she’s earned her ticket over here to spread the Aussie sound.
Now the one wild card in our deck is a band led by a fellow who is certainly not Australian, though he’s been involved for years in the Nashville Aussie community. And, let’s see, his current project is all about pirates, and pirates are criminals and Australia was settled by convicts, sooooo, it makes total sense right? Actually, Tom Mason put his Roots show in cahoots with Dobe Newton, member of Australia’s legendary Bushwhackers folk/rock band. Mason saw them while traveling in 2005. “They have the energy of The Pogues and the musicianship of the Fairport Convention,” he says. Dobe will sit in with Mason’s band of swashbucklers at Roots.
Tom is an East Nashville star and a Nashville renaissance man. You can see him acting in a music video on CMT one day and playing with alt-country band Last Train Home the next. He’s led various bands too, and his current concept is truly wild and insightful and engaging. The backstory, real fast: Tom, having toured in the Caribbean with Last Train Home, wrote a witty pirate song as a nod to International Talk Like A Pirate Day, a whimsical idea that went viral a decade ago. Then some theater colleagues told Mason it was really good and he ought to write a pirate musical. That may or may not come to pass, but the songs he wrote in that vein became last year’s album The Blue Buccaneer: Songs Inspired By The Golden Age of Pirates.
“It’s its own niche!” says Tom. “It’s been a wonderful exercise in songwriting. I studied a lot to try to get into the soul of these guys. The act calls in my theatrical bent.” And I have no idea if it’s coincidence or a devious master plan, but this Wednesday, Sept. 19, happens to be the tenth annual Talk Like A Pirate Day. So we’ll see what Keith Bilbrey, Jim Lauderdale and I can do with that. Arrrr.