Friday, September 19, 2008

Music in Music City: AMA Conference

Greetings from Nashville, where I'm in town for the Americana Music Association (AMA) Conference! I flew into town via Midwest Airlines early Wednesday morning (the best flying experience I've had in the last two years, by the way) and had some down time in my hotel before meeting up with Compass Records publicist Stephanie Fields, getting some sweet butter-cream cupcakes from Dulce and meeting the whole Compass Records crew at their offices. Weighted down with guac, chimichangas and pure sugar, I somehow managed to eek out a very slow run across the pedestrain bridge from the Titans stadium to downtown. That night I met up with my pal Craig Shelburne, who writes for, where we hit a local Tex Mex place for some Yazoo Dos Perros (local brew that is sort of a maltier Dox Equis). Our plan was to go to 3rd & Lindsley to see Red House artists Robin & Linda Williams, but their van broke down, and they were unable to make it back in time. So, we hit Mercy Lounge instead to see St. Paul-based alt-country band Romantica. Headed up by sweet-voiced Belfast native Ben Kyle, they play really great lyrical songs with up-tempo Americana hooks. The set featured lots of Minnesota shout-outs (yeah!) and a ton of great songs from their new album America, including "The National Side" (about his mom playing for the national field hockey team in Northern Ireland), "God Walks on the Water," and "Queen of Hearts." After chatting with Ben, Craig and I went to 3rd & Lindsley, where we saw Nels Andrews. He had two guys playing with him--an electric bass player and a dude who played some pretty busy mandolin and banjo. Nels' set was really nice, but the highlights were the last two songs that he played solo. I especially liked his song "Between the Dollar and the Dream."

Yesterday morning I went to the radio listening meeting, hosted by Americana radio promoters Sean Coakley and Leslie Rouffe, where people from the industry get to hear and give feedback on 12 new songs coming out in the next several months. Like last year, I found my opinions did not often align with the rest of those in the room. Many of the folks seemed more interested in the vibe of the song rather than the song itself. Many had a preference for high-octane forgettable country/rock tunes--a genre of Americana that my friend brilliantly dubbed "genericana." There were, however, some songs that rose above that bar--my favorite was by Canadian band Elliott Brood. I also enjoyed Jessica Lea Mayfield and a new duet from Todd Snider and Loretta Lynn.

After catching up with Peter Blackstock, one of the editors of the nearly revamped No Depression magazine (look for the new site on the 30th and a bigger book format of the magazine, published by University of Texas Press), I went out for lunch at legendary lunch place Arnold's with Signature Sounds president Jim Olsen. After a nice southern style meal (with pecan pie to die for!), we went back to the convention center, where I shmoozed and made the rounds in the very small exhibit hall. As usual, our Canadian friends brought it, offering margaritas at the Six Shooter Records/Starfish Management booth.

I met up with the Craig and the Compass Records crew at their pre-awards show party, on the 4th floor balcony, where we had more Yazoo beer (yay!) and heard a really nice live set by new Compass sign The Bittersweets, who have recently relocated from California to Nashville. Notorious character Beetle Bob was dancing up a storm, and it was entertaining to say the least. [It seems that every festival and conference has some crazy dancing character...Matt will remember Grey Fox's Dancing Guy and Dancing Judy from Winnipeg and Falcon Ridge fame.] Also ran into Julie Lee, who I had last seen in Minneapolis, when she stopped by my show last winter.

After the party, a few of us had grilled cheese sandwiches and sweet potato fries at Robert's on Broadway (across the back alley from the Ryman). We enjoyed the regular house band Don Kelley Band (featuring a bassist who played with Johnny Cash), which played lots of traditional country tunes.

That night I caught some of the Americana Music Awards Show, hosted by Jim Lauderdale (sporting a much tamer country suit than last year). Here are the performers and awards I saw...

- Ryan Bingham, who was nominated for New Emerging Artist of the Year. Caught him at the Cactus Cafe at SXSW this past year and thought the show was pretty forgettable. This, however, was nice...maybe it had something to do with special guest Joe Ely or the house band that included Buddy Miller. I still don't think it deserved the standing ovation it got.
- Sam Bush (with Byron House) played "Bluegrass Train."
- Kane Welch Kaplin did really great tune, very down-home all sitting in chairs.
- The Steeldrivers did their hit "Blue Side of the Mountain." Fiddler and harmony vocalist Tammy Rogers was the real star of this...great singing and fiddling and attitutde. I want to hear more of her!
- Robert Earl Keen and Elizabeth Cook presented Duo Group of the Year Award surprise...Alison Krauss and Robert Plant.
- Chris Thile and Edgar Meyer played a tune from their upcoming record.
- Tift Merritt played "Broken," nominated for Song of the Year.
- Song of the Year Award went to "She Left Me for Jesus," performed by Austin singer/songwriter Hayes Carll. His co-writer Brian Keane is the one who accepted the award.
- Americana Lifetime Achievement for Songwriting Award winner John Hiatt played "Have a Little Faith In Me" solo on the piano--probably the highlight of the evening.
- Steve Earle presented "Spirit of Americana" Free Speech Award to Joan Baez, who was lovely and gracious. She played the title cut from her new album, produced by Steve--Tom Waits' "Day After Tomorrow."

Then I went with some folks over to the Station Inn to meet up with Craig and Nels Andrews. We saw Casey Driessen (who was playing instead of fellow Sparrow Quartet member Ben Sollee), who did a funky set backed up by a very sweet drummer and upright bass player. The highlight was their last song--a hip version of "Working on a Building." Before heading to my hotel, I caught a few songs from Crooked Still, featuring the band's new line-up. It was a nice end to a great music-filled day.

Now I'm off to the Country Music Hall of Fame and a lunch meeting...


Matt Winters said...

Whoa! Definitely jealous about all of the awesome food. And what a great line-up at the Americana Awards.

Jess said...

SOunds great. I wish I'd been with you to listen to music, party, and of course, get some donuts....