JulepRead this article in
Music journalist Jason Howard offers a preview of this year’s Americana Music Festival
By Jason Howard
In recent years, much attention has been paid to the homogenization of American culture. Perhaps an inevitable impact of the modern age, with its diverse means of transportation that have created an unparalleled physical mobility, this beast within is nonetheless troubling: we are in danger of losing our roots.
Even the South – a region both hailed and reviled over the years for its strong sense of place – characteristics that have marked our literature and music and way of life, are falling prey to this homogenization phenomenon. Big box stores and strip malls and subdivisions are subsuming our cultural identity. Yet despite this homogenization—or more likely because of it—Americans are increasingly longing for a return to their roots.
We haunt the aisles of antique stores searching for vintage china or the perfect buffet. We purchase brand-new wooden tables, and then stain, varnish and distress them to pass them off as heirlooms. We tune in to watch celebrities including Ashley Judd, Tim McGraw and Gwyneth Paltrow uncover their family trees on NBC’s popular reality show Who Do You Think You Are?
These longings are also affecting our musical choices. The country is in the midst of a roots music renaissance, as people across the country are demanding a return to the basics: a guitar, evocative lyrics and a voice that has not been auto-tuned or tampered with in Pro Tools. The Americana radio format is booming. Artists as diverse as Patty Griffin, with her soulful brand of folk music; Calexico, and their Latin-flavored country rock; and the Carolina Chocolate Drops, one of the last all African-American string bands; are being embraced. Roots music festivals are cropping up across the country, most notably the Americana Music Festival and Conference, which has been hailed as the region’s “Best Music Festival.”
Held each year in Nashville, the four-day long event (scheduled for October 12-15) features over 100 live performances from some of the genre’s most popular artists. This year’s lineup promises not to disappoint. Roots music legends including the Blind Boys of Alabama, Connie Smith and Marty Stuart are appearing alongside popular newcomers including The Civil Wars, a duo that has gained attention this year with their acclaimed debut album Barton Hollow. Julep favorites Matraca Berg and Ben Sollee will also perform in not-to-be-missed showcases.
But the highlight of the festival might just be the Americana Music Association Honors and Awards, a star-studded ceremony held at the famed Ryman Auditorium. Nominees in categories such as Album of the Year, Song of the Year and Artist of the Year include Elizabeth Cook, Mumford and Sons, Robert Plant and Lucinda Williams with Williams slated to receive the Lifetime Achievement for Songwriter award. Southern rock legend Gregg Allman will be awarded the Lifetime Achievement for Performer accolade. Past award winners include Ryan Bingham (of Crazy Heart fame), Johnny Cash, Rosanne Cash, Emmylou Harris, Alison Krauss, Loretta Lynn and Robert Plant.
With artistry such as this on display, it is no wonder that Harris has dubbed the Americana Music Festival “the shining star of Nashville and music everywhere.” And in our next issue, Julep will feature behind-the-scenes coverage of this year’s festival and awards show, along with musician interviews and live reviews of several showcase performances.
In the meantime, forego that trip to the big-name music and bookstore, and visit your local independent record store instead. Check out awards nominee Justin Townes Earle’s epic Harlem River Blues, Nashville hell-raiser Marshall Chapman’s Big Lonesome and Robert Plant’s Band of Joy.
Return to your musical roots. You can thank me for it later.
Photo above: The Avett Brothers perform at the 2010 Americana Music Festival in Nashville, TN. Photo by Erika Goldring, courtesy of the Americana Music Festival.