Did you know that Americana isn’t just a school of music-making and an association and a club that we belong to? As of this year, it’s an actual word. Last August, after much internal debate, Merriam-Webster officially added a third definition to its entry under Americana, calling it “a genre of American music having roots in early folk and country music.” First a Grammy category, and now this? It’s exciting to reflect on as the Americana Music Association kicks off its 12th annual conference and music festival, the very one that we at Music City Roots got to be part of last night as we opened AMA and our ninth season on the air. And we couldn’t have assembled a cooler or more robust cross-section of the music, with sounds from all over America and all over the sonic spectrum.
Gritty Southern country rock with New Orleans overtones? Check. Grayson Capps covered that base with a five piece band and a commanding voice. He told us on stage that being uprooted by Hurricane Katrina tipped him into hitting the road as a full-time artist, and whether out of a long time base in Franklin TN or his current home near Mobile AL, this was a good development for music. “Coconut Moonshine” was especially delicious sounding, with its jungle-ish groove and a searing, hot-wired guitar solo from Corky Hughes. I hope Ole Smoky was taking notes, because I think they should add this flavor.
How about a spare, moving folk duo? Merriam-Webster could define that as the Milk Carton Kids, who brought a Simon & Garfunkel-meets-Gillian Welch & David Rawlings harmonic convergence to the stage. With spidery guitar and cooing, locked voices, Kenneth Pattengale and Joey Ryan brought a hush to the crowd and stirred the mood with songs of places, like “New York” and “Michigan.” I can see why these guys have the buzz factor going. Four songs was not enough.
Groovy, earthy neo-acoustic music? Yep, we had that too, and it was Elephant Revival who brought it from Nederland, CO. Bonnie Paine strikes a dramatic figure, with the pointy black leather gloves that she uses to stir up syncopated rhythms on her washboard, and the fiddling from Bridget Law was superb. “Down To The Sea” created a cosmic pulse with Dango Rose’s bowed acoustic bass and loopy guitar figures. “Ring Around The Moon” featured Bonnie singing like a mountain girl take on Natalie Merchant and earned the band a standing ovation AND an a cappella encore.
A tour around Americana wouldn’t be really complete without some edgy deep country and bluegrass, and that came from The Wilders, out of Kansas City, MO. They opened up with “She Says (I Say),” a driving, bouncing tune that featured some rocking, low-slung dobro from Phil Wade. “Get Up Kid” was magnificently dark and drear, while “Hey Little Darlin’” (a phrase that can turn any sentence into a bluegrass sentence) let Ike Shelton and Betse Ellis really dig into some high lonesome harmonies. Congrats to this quartet for celebrating 15 years of making intense, unique country music. They really get it right.
And I know what you’re thinking – that no Americana slate would be complete without a blues kazoo solo. And thank heaven I was on hand to take care of this. The great Scott Miller and Mic Harrison asked if I could handle this high-tech and very subtle instrument on the V-Roys barroom classic “Cold Beer Hello.” Not only could I handle the song, I believed in the song! So after the guys offered up other faves (“Mary” and “No Regrets” among them), I strode boldly on stage to blow my Charlie Parker meets Little Walter approach to the kazoo, and it seems to have gone well. I didn’t get paid, but I did get to keep the kazoo. And it will be more than a mere souvenir I assure you. I’m working on new techniques already.
After the gang all gathered for a rousing version of Hank’s “Mind Your Own Business,” I slid on down to the Station Inn to keep my AMA festival flowing with a bit of Bruce Robison and Kelly Willis, followed by Peter Rowan. This is the kind of thing going on all over town through the weekend. The quality level is out of sight. The variety is magnificent. And whatever the sound, nothing that makes it to AMA showcase level is without authenticity and integrity. And that’s the word.