Submitted by Craig Havighurst on September 21, 2013 – 15:39
This missive comes to you from deep inside a vortex of good company and remarkable music. Perhaps you are or were there with me. Or perhaps you’re wishing you were here. Or you may have no idea what I’m talking about.
It’s the Americana Music Association annual conference and festival, now in full swing. If we were motorcycle freaks, it would be Sturgis. If we were sculptors of exotic, large flammable art, it’d be Burning Man. It’s truly a special event on my calendar, a working holiday that unites for about five days the professional and cultural people I feel most connected with and grateful to on Earth. They’re my colleagues (the classic word) and my tribe (the now word), and the tribe has gathered in Nashville.
The Roots team kicked off our AMA week by occupying a precious piece of turf outside the Ryman Auditorium with our interview world and webcast-arama to chat with the talented people arriving for Wednesday night’s Honors & Awards. Thank you to the AMA for that and for all the assistance. That stand-up man Webb Wilder joined me in stand-up convos with Bob Harris, Richard Thompson, Richie Furay, Holly and Jett Williams, Jim Lauderdale, Sam Bush and many others. It was a fun if frenetic set up to the awards show itself, which was, as always, a dreamscape of artists you really want to hear perform in the Ryman all on one bill. Shovels & Rope nailed it. Old Crow celebrated the huge success of “Wagon Wheel” with a killer performance. Dr. John meshed with Marco Giovino’s drumming and the house band. There was too much to tell actually. A story of its own.
Our own main event was of course our official AMA showcase show, held on the unprecedented night of Thursday. I give us some bravery points for going up against the remarkable slate of music going on in town. And we had a great crowd. To everyone who made the trek and joined us, bless you and your family’s houses. I hope you’ll agree with me that the night was a success, even if it did end with me singing.
Jim Lauderdale opened the show with another song fresh from his co-writing sketchbook with Robert Hunter, just a day after so eloquently inducting the brilliant Grateful Dead lyricist into Lifetime Achievement status. Then, on with another legendary songwriter – an artist who elicited one of my biggest wow moments in our time as a show. Jimmy Webb occupies a corner of Americana that I associate with the likes of Edgar Meyer or Duke Ellington – in that it mingles popular song sense with classical musical sophistication. Webb referred to himself on stage as a composer at one point, and that’s certainly what he is.
Webb began with “The Highwayman” as a way of recalling his involvement with great Nashville artists like Waylon and Willie. He described “The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress” as his attempt at a “modern folk song.” And that’s how all these felt. His fascinating and complex chord changes would baffle your average folkie, but the songs offer a singable inevitability. Webb proved a charming person off stage and on, and his stories warmed up the Barn. He wrapped with the impeccable “Witchita Lineman,” which we all really wanted to hear. So good to have this set in our history books.
Josh Rouse is an understated dude with an air that speaks to both his developmental Nashville years and his more recent life as a denizen of Europe, specifically Spain, where the food and architecture are balms to the soul and it’s almost always sunny. You can hear in his songs a centered, assured quality, not to mention sweet melodies. He opened with his new album’s title track “The Happiness Waltz” set to delicate fingerstyle guitar and airy vocals. In all it was a summery, bright set that kept the spare atmosphere of serious songwriting going.
That gear was shifted decisivly however when The Deslondes (as learned the hard way pronounced DEZ-londs) took the stage. The Woody Guthrie-inspired quintet from New Orleans has a shambly, vintage honky tonk feel with superb vocals all around. Opener “I Got Found” featured a backbeat made with a thumpy bass drum and a hammer on a railroad tie. If that doesn’t set the tone for a good train song I don’t know what would. Major points on their bass drum by the way – one of the prettiest we’ve seen with a sunset, a flying pelican, Spanish moss and the New Orleans skyline in the distance. The drummer Cameron Snyder sang lead on a drawly, fantastic country blues called “Low Down Soul.” And “Those Were The Days” had bright fiddling and punchy momentum. This is a primo Americana band, and they’ll be touring hard for the next two months. Keep your eyes out.
We shifted back to spare songwriting with the beautiful voice and guitar of Bhi Bhiman. The San Francisco troubadour provoked a bit of Southern irony with opener “Equal In My Tea” and moved on to the emotional “It’s Cold Out Here” with its descending melody and tasteful falsetto vocals. The song that’s kind of emerging as a signature for him, “Guttersnipe,” soared over his full and rich chord voicings. It’s a tune where the vocal line floats free of the rhythmic structure, enhancing the feeling in a song about an orphan or waif who’s lost his moorings and his path home. Bhi wrapped his set with a cover of Mark Knopffler’s “Walk of Life,” which was probably the first audience whistle-along performance we’ve ever had. Bhi really radiates warmth and humanity in his presence and voice. Looking forward to more from this emerging artist.
Elephant Revival has really taken its place among major jam-grass and Western prog-folk bands, and their set featuring songs from their new These Changing Skies albums showed their danceable chemistry. Truth be told, by this point in the night I was kind of pre-occupied getting everyone on the same page for the Loveless Jam, so I didn’t take careful notes. But the Revival put a pretty spell on the crowd with its skills on the vocal and instrumental front, plus careful use of energy and dynamics. Set closer “Rogue River” was a group a capella song with a simple pulse that really lent a spiritual finish to the night.
Jim had to leave to play a set with Buddy Miller at the AMA festival, so your correspondent took over band intros and the anchoring verse on the Jam. I’d long wanted to hear “This Train Is Bound For Glory” by Woody Guthrie in our show-closing sing-along, and folks seemed open to it. So we railroaded our way through it, starting and finishing together. I’m not sure if the train got to glory, but it didn’t wreck. Thanks everyone for making it easy for me.
Now back to the vortex.