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My Brain On Americana

The morning after our Music City Roots AmericanaFest blowout with The Mavericks and three other fantastic artists, I moderated a conference panel on the state of research into music and the brain, including some exciting new initiatives at Vanderbilt University. This deep geek dive into neuroscience may seem far afield from the club rambling, hand shaking and head bobbing of the Americana Music Association conference. But it’s actually a confluence of my favorite subjects. Some years ago I discovered a revelatory book called Music, The Brain and Ecstasy and more recently you’ve perhaps heard of Daniel Levitin’s best-seller This Is Your Brain On Music. Both get at the vital, mysterious question: Why do we love organized sound so much? Where do the chills and tears come from? Can music heal us and make us more emotionally whole beings? Sure this gig is fun, but that’s not the end of it. Americana is a space for music that’s meaningful and resonant in our deepest selves, where we harbor our empathy and connectedness and our desire for love and touch. The fact that scientists here in Music City are making such headway toward understanding this is validating and inspiring. So was the convention in general, and I just wanted to share a few observations including a short review of Wed. Sept. 17 at Liberty Hall.

The Americana Honors & Awards show lived up to its track record of artistic excellence combined with buttocks endurance. The three-plus hour show featured stunning moments from Rhiannon Giddens, Gillian Welch and David Rawlings and the new, unexpected collaboration of Ricky Skaggs, Ry Cooder and The Whites. It was wild to see Buffy Sainte-Marie sing “Universal Soldier,” and Keb’ Mo’ played a smoking tribute to President’s Award winner B.B. King on what would have been his 90th birthday. The Rock My Soul combo of the Fairfield Four and the McCrary Sisters opened the show with Robert Randolph shooting lightning bolts of lap steel guitar. And the legendary Los Lobos brought it home at night’s end. If there was an award for best award show, this would win every year.

In the clubs I caught Buddy Miller in a casual sitting-down set with fellow guitar wizard Marc Ribot. MCR alums The Hillbenders did their full cover version of Tommy in a very late set at 3rd & Lindsley. Our friends from the Quicksilver agency in Washington presented great daytime tunes from The Stray Birds, Caleb Klauder and Frank Solivan & Dirty Kitchen. Irrepressible Frank made tangy pork chili verde for all in attendance. The next day, I found so very fetching the songs of Emma Swift at the annual Australia lunch, and there also I got a tasty preview of this week’s MCR artist Oh Pep! and Raised By Eagles. On Friday night, Lee Ann Womack asked her audience “How country can you take it?” as triple fiddles assembled for a couple of her numbers during a gorgeous set. Indeed the whole night posed the question with sets by Sam Outlaw, our own Jim Lauderdale and ultra-honky-tonker Whitey Morgan. I am now very eager to see the powerfully Waylonesque Whitey on Roots. Saturday night I slid over to East Nashville where I caught MCR buddy Kai Welch (man, is his thing developing) and Erin Rae, a Nashvillian whom I hope finds her way to MCR soon too. Lovely voice and songs.

But of course the majority of our energy and focus was on our own Wednesday night extravaganza, and once again the good folks at AMA slipped us some ringers to lure folks southward on a night of many choices. Our house was packed as Whitehorse took the stage with exciting songs that were built before our eyes and ears with naturally recorded drum loops, keyboard surges, shimmering guitar riffs from Luke Doucet and tent stake bass playing from Melissa McLelland. When this attractive couple sings together it’s kind of hot, and the songs are just fascinating. Our ration of folk music was served by the utterly likeable and sincere Joel Rafael. He sang of sitting in jail in 1960s Portland (street cred!). His ties to Woody Guthrie were on bright display during the Okemah, OK setting of “Sticks & Stones.” It was extraordinary to have Greg Leisz, a past AMA instrumental winner and icon of the pedal steel backing Joel up with sparkling strings.

Things got louder and rowdier with the arrival of Shemekia Copeland and her four-piece band. With big city force and passion, she opened with the title cut from the new Outskirts of Love album and then stewed on a slow rocker with cutting slide electric from Arthur Neilson. Her tabloid-worthy story song of a Nashville record deal gone way wrong, with the line “country music ain’t nothing but the blues with a twang” and a railroad beat got a huge surge of affection from the crowd. Copeland covered a “baby making” Solomon Burke tune that really showed off her versatile, powerful voice. And she wrapped with a song of her father’s that took her home to the core of the blues. Of all the Alligator Records artists working today, Shemekia was the one I was most eager to see on our stage, and I’m impressed that the team pulled it off.

And at last the big ticket. The main event. The hot tamale. Rock stars were among us and they – The Mavericks – hit the stage about 9 pm. Lead singer Raul Malo lurked behind shades and a big black hat with an orange Gretsch guitar slung low. Jerry Dale McFadden is Malo’s sartorial foil, wearing in this case a bight salmon colored seersucker suit as he made postures toward his keyboards that resembled a point guard playing defense. Eddie Perez was an East L.A. playboy in a brown silk suit and hat, and drummer Paul Deacon sits church upright in a suit vest and whanged the set with force and steadiness. Support came from an upright bass player, a two-man horn section and an accordion guy. And all this adds up to a joyful, gut shaking sound that melds Marty Robbins/Roy Orbison countrypolitan with the Latin impulse to dance forever. Malo’s voice remains worthy of an opera house. The new songs and old ones segued seamlessly together. And they hit seven moods in as many songs, from the 50s R&B bounce of “Stories We Could Tell” to the hard ska of “What You Do” to the slow shuffle and sway of “Do You Want Me Too,” with its magnificently sexy sax solo.

By the time they hit the wiry rock and roll of “Come Unto Me” the front of the hall was flooded with dancers and most of the audience was standing. Waves of Tesla like energy flowed back and forth. Jim Lauderdale schemed with the boys to make “All You Ever Do Is Bring Me Down” the Nashville Jam, so not only did we get an encore’s encore, but the other artists clearly loved joining forces on the Maverick’s biggest hit. We reveled too, because that song marks one of the biggest hits in this format we celebrated for a week. I can tell you from my neuroscience reading and listening that our brains were all synched up, motor neurons firing in time, and we were all enjoying plentiful dosings of dopamine, the legal squirts of satisfaction we carry around in our bodies. But of course in the end, this collective euphoria is not something we need to analyze. It’s best just to feel it, smile a lot at one another and make plans for the next AmericanaFest.

Craig H.

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