Americana Music Awards 2007
By Del Day
“Just like Slough with a record industry.” It hardly warms the cockles does it? These words (given by a AUK forum poster) had somehow embedded themselves into the side of my brain as I boarded the Nashville flight at Gatwick en route to the Music City for the Americana Awards. Surely some mistake I kept telling myself as Shrek III and Die Harder IV were looping in front of my eyes over the next eight hours. By the time I got to Nashville, via Charlotte, an intense high pressure/low pressure headache that at one point had me close to tears and all but begging the poor stewardess to “stop the plane,” and about sixty-four mini bags of pretzels - I mean, has there ever been a more addictive yet completely unsatisfactory snack? - I was knackered. Emerging from the terminal like an extra from Dawn of the Dead I jumped cab, checked in the hotel, ordered a pizza (one of FIVE on the trip!) and crashed. I could have been in, well, Slough, for all I care.
So first impressions upon waking up in Tennessee’s most popular resort? Curiosity. Looking out my window I see a tramp camped out in the hotel carpark eating what looked like the remains of a meatball sub. Looking uptown I see a mass of cars, endless low rise grey and white buildings, and a huge 1960’s hippy bus complete with ultra shiny chrome plating. Now none of these things would necessarily place me in Nashville, I could be anywhere right? Well, yes, I guess so, if it weren’t for the soundtrack provided by the television in the room. I had, in my tiredness and pizza whiteout, tuned to the legendary Great American Country - twenty four hours, round the clock, big time hair, huge hats, and a collection of ’artists’ that look so beautiful, so gawd damn perfect, that I am convinced they have been made. Welcome to country music Nashville style. Three and a half minute pop gems each adhering to the written down Music Row formula - look good + be emotive + smile/sulk loads + anthemic chorus + completely unrelated song/ivdeo combo + hat/hair/boots non negotiable = HUGE. Taylor Swift, Taylor f****g Swift is massive at the moment in ’country’ circles. Why? Because she is played every ten minutes on the TV and radio, twenty four hours a day. I would defy thrash metal fans not to be tapping their toes to this crap given this kind of waterboarding treatment. You can’t get away from Taylor Swift if you tried. Wait for a bus anywhere in Nashville and you can guarantee you will be sitting on Taylor’s face at some point in that trip (street benches are advertising must haves here). Order a meal and Ms Swift will no doubt be recommending you something off the menu. Go to the loo and the blonde tressled one will be staring at your back just waiting to seduce you via the record shop on the way out. The marketing men in Nashville run the industry with an iron fist. This is conveyor belt culture gone completely nuts.
So thank Christ for the Americana Music Awards. It’s a chance to focus on the simple process of artists making music for music sake not to one day sell a Renault. Like Austin stands defiant against the red army of Texan Republicanism the likes of Buddy Miller, Gurf Morlix, Emmylou Harris, Ray Wylie Hubbard, and Darryl Scott stand up for the musician, the little guy, the artist if you like, against a backdrop of hundred thousand pound marketing budgets and personal stylists. Over five days each year this motley crew take to the Ryman Auditorium, that sacred spiritual home of country music and get their chance for a bit of spotlight attention. And who can begrudge them that? it’s an awards night a million miles away from the CMA’s in terms of glamour (unless you count Jim Lauderdale’s suit), popularity, or indeed overblown self-congratulatory pomp. It’s more like gate-crashing a night out of a group of buddies on a bender to celebrate their GCSE results. As Ricky Skaggs ambles onto stage without even the slightest hint that he was going to do so, hit’s a few notes and then bursts into the night’s first musical performance its quickly apparent that this is an event that borders on ramshackle. Three and a half hours later with no breaks whilst sitting on what seemed like a bottom of a wardrobe, was I still thanking the mighty one above?
Without going through the evening’s events with a fine tooth comb let me just reflect on a few personal highlights and lowlights. Without a doubt Lyle Lovett’s speech (after winning the events inaugural ’Trailblazer’ award) and performance of “If I Had A Boat” was just extraordinary. I just wanted to go up there and hug that old moon face, I really did. It was great to see him, and being a last minute addition was a fabulous surprise. I suspect I would have had the same emotions if, say, Nanci Griffiths had emerged from the wings and did “Flyer”. Although these awards are very much looking at emerging new talent it’s just nice to have someone of Lovett’s stature just reminding us all as to the levels of greatness this genre is capable of producing. So what of the young guns? The band on everyone’s lips around Nashville all week was The Avett Brothers. As they ambled on stage looking like three extras from Time Bandits I must admit expectation was high. A rip roaring, triumphant blast through “Shame” (off their new album Emotionalism) and they had most of the crowd eating out of their dirty palms. They won two awards in the end - Best Duo/Group and Best Newcomers - and really could have won more really. I think these guys could well be stars this time next year such is their oddly engaging manner. Given that the terminology “Americana” has such a wide catchments area these days I can see why these guys are here in Nashville at these awards. But there career path is a rock one for sure. First point of call if they attempt to break in the UK will be the likes of Drowned In Sound and NME not Maverick or CMP. The album is a rock record. A good rock record mind. Of the batch of feisty young country gals on show my nod would go to Elizabeth Cook and her riotous “It Takes Balls To Be A Woman” performance that should have won “Best Song” but was piped by Darryl Scott wearing what looked like Anthony Worrell Thompson’s kitchen trousers. Cook’s sassy southern swagger hits all the right notes and she looks fabulous too. Come on CMT, this is where you should be spending that money! Uncle Earl were very well received and bring a bit of much needed glamour to the night whilst Sunny Sweeney has that ’just hug me and everything is going to be ok’ big sister appeal. I must also mention Jim Lauderdale who has seemingly made this comparing lark his own. You can tell that he just loves it up there. His relaxing manner, familiar “oh, come on” jokes, and unquestionable sincerity are just hugely appealing. With Buddy miller and Gurf Morlix looking like they had just come off shift at the go cart track Lauderdale looked like a James Bond in comparison in his purple nudie suit. The man is a star.
Now, I expect I would have got lynched if I had said this on the night. But I am now thousands of miles away and relatively safe so I can. Emmylou, for chrissakes GIVE IT A BREAK! I know how important she is to this music, I know how great her records are, I know she does a lot for puppies, but does she have to appear on stage at these events every five minutes? And does her microphone have to be turned up those two notches higher than everyone else’s? And does everyone she plays with have to direct the audience’s applause in her direction even though she has merely contributed two lines of backing vocals off a handwritten sheet of A4? And can’t she let the ’Artist Of The Year’ take the spotlight alone? (I know Patty Griffin asked you but Emmy, dear, you can say no). It seriously got to the point that if I was to see that white mane heading stage bound one more time I would have screamed the blooming place down, shrine to country music or no shrine to country music. Oh, and while I have my hackles up what the hell was JD Souther doing here? This is a guy that not only eats and breaths the mainstream but practically defines it. Surely, there was someone else more appropriate. Unless he got his weeks muddled up and thought this was the CMAs.
So, on the whole I enjoyed the show. It was way too long mind and at times boring as hell. Yet, although I didn’t agree with all the awards, upon reflection I could see why they were chosen. The Ryman itself is a special building where you can all but reach back in time and feel the history. it’s a fitting arena for these awards for sure and for most of the performers up on that stage an ideal auditorium on which to be passed the torch.
Spread around five venues - The Station Inn, The Mercy Lounge, The Cannery, 3rd & Lindsey, & The Basement - was a number of showcases throughout the week a la SXSW. Again, without going through each one by one suffice to say there were some real gems to be seen. Eilen Jewell, Boise Idaho native and retro darling, played a blinder at 3rd and Lindsey. A heady mix of June Carter Cash and Loretta Lynn yet somehow intrinsically modern, Jewell has a band that are alert, smart, and totally swinging. She went down a storm. Hayes Carll was his usual excellent self, a swaggering lovable rogue with songs and an onstage presence that really is top drawer. Ryan Bingham was supposed to play the same gig but had to withdraw due to personal problems at the last minute which is a shame as I would have like to have seen how Lost Highway’s two new boys matched up. Surprise of the week was Chuck Prophet’s blistering set at The Mercy Lounge. I must admit the new record leaves me cold, as have nearly all the solo records, yet live he is a different proposition. You can tell this guy works at his show tirelessly. The band are tight as a gnats chuff, effortlessly delving into old and new material as Prophet leads from the front with a vocal style that alludes to Petty without actual mimicry. The version of Iggy’s “I’m Bored” nearly had me choking on my Shiner Bock. It was killer! Other favorable mentions to Ray Wylie Hubbard, whose brand of Texas barroom blues plays as the perfect soundtrack to a night on the beer with a stomach full of BBQ ribs, and the delightful Devon Sproule who had the Station Inn crowd under her spell with her charming Charlottesville manner.
Yet I will remember this trip not for any of the above. For I have seen the best live band in the world in Nashville of that I am certain. The Felice Brothers, hailing from the hills of New York State, turn the whole week on its head. Here is a band that doesn’t even have a record out in the US yet come sauntering into Music City like they own it. And after thirty minutes on stage at The Basement’s ‘Americanarama’ all-dayer everyone who was there knows it too. Jesus H Christ! These guys will either be as big as Arcade Fire or will self-combust in the process. Think sixties Dylan. Think The Band. Think what you want really, The Felice Brothers are truly an awesome prospect. It’s hard to think that these three brothers - and friend Christmas on bass or “little brother Christmas” as he is known - can generate such electricity. But they do from the very opening bars of “Ruby Mae” with drummer Simone standing on his stool goading the crown with chants of “Yankees in da’ house”. Thrift store suits and ragged trilby hats, this is a band united not only by blood but with an intrinsic desire to perform. After the show I walked briskly twenty blocks back to the hotel with the belief that I had seen a band that really could be anything they want.
All in all Nashville, whilst failing to live up to aesthetic expectations certainly kept my ears busy. I do have to mention the Country Music Hall of Fame which was definitely a high point. It’s clear that every part of this magnificent building has been designed with a purpose not only to document a legacy but reflect the ever changing face of country music. From Hank Williams guitar to Jason Ringenberg’s stage shirt all of the genre’s many facets are covered. Even the latter day ’big hair big hat’ country stars are cherished here. In a strange way surrounded by so much history you can see how Nashville has arrived at the current Taylor Swift scenario. At every stage in the music development there is a turning point. I mean, the harmonic progression of Ray Price, the electric guitar of Hank Thompson, the rockabilly grind of Presley, the arrival of the pedal steel, the list is endless. The progression is charted in ways that are easier to see here. Maybe looking back in years to come the likes of Swift (and Rascal Flatts, and Brooks And Dunn, etc, etc) will have defined their place somehow and justified their fame. Who knows?