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2005 Americana Music Association Conference Report

by Bill Frater

The Americana Music Association's annual confab in Nashville is basically an enthusiastic collection of people who are passionate about “our music” and would travel from all over the country to see the best acts in Americana together in one place. Americana isn't that big yet but it certainly is growing, and that's the whole reason for the Association. The AMA has grown quite a bit in four short years and the word has gone from a radio buzzword to something that more people understand and can identify when they hear the music. We must be doing something right to get the attention and big dollars of both competing satellite radio companies (XM and Sirius), and the two country cable outlets (CMT and Great American Country). Not to mention countless record labels, magazines and artists and most importantly the fans. Not only is the AMA conference a fun time, it's a good thing for the music and the artists.

Each day was filled with informative music industry panels that featured topics like radio, booking, advancing your career, and more of the "business" of Americana. The majority of the attendees are there because they have something professional to do with the industry: artists, managers, radio people, booking agents, record label folks and the like. From what I could tell there were only a handful of real non-industry Americana “fans”. For them, the panels may not be of much interest but the evening shows are a bargain and a great chance to see a tremendous amount of music in a few days.

First off, let's run down the central activity of the weekend, the awards show at The Ryman Auditorium. The original home of the Opry, the Ryman is a truly sanctified place and although surprisingly not sold out, it should be the home for all future AMA Awards shows. It ran a little long, mostly because of the constant interruptions due to the fact that the show was being taped for broadcast on GAC later this month. So, you had long pauses after which the stage manager would cue us to act excited again about the previous act. Although this took away from some of the spontaneity, once again, it was worth it for the music.

Most performances were first rate, from Todd Snider doing “Nashville” to open the show through Steve Earle, Mary Gauthier, Solomon Burke, Robert Earl Keen, (“The Great Hank” was a little spooky), The Duhks and Buddy Miller (who led the house band) and more. Jim Lauderdale did a fine job as emcee by keeping the audience entertained during the breaks. Emmylou Harris gave Guy Clark a lifetime achievement award and then sang “Dublin Blues” with him.

Marty Stuart gave the best speech saying that “There's the chart and there's the heart. It's great when they both line up but given the choice you'd better follow your heart.” There were a few clunker songs and overlong speeches and trite introductions, but once again, it's good for the music in the long run. By the time they got to the finale of Arlo Guthrie singing “City of New Orleans” with an all-star cast of singers the crowd was a little tired and ready to hit the clubs. It'll be interesting to see how the telecast turns out. Here's a list of winners from GAC, who will broadcast the show on Sept. 26th.

A few of the musical highlights of the weekend…

The Hacienda Brothers at the tiny Basement did a tight and soulful set, honoring producer Dan Penn with “Cry Like A Baby” and inviting Dave Alvin and John Doe to join them for the encore of “Fourth Of July”. Robbie Fulks played a rockin' set late Saturday night, checking his watch often and making sarcastic jokes about the AMA as only Robbie can. I was waiting for “Countrier Than Thou” or at least “Let's Kill Saturday Night” but he left rather quickly. For some acts 40 minutes isn't enough, for others it too much!

San Antonio's Two Tons Of Steel tore it up at the Cannery outshining the Derailers who played a lackluster set there the night before. Two Tons' lead singer Kevin Geil led the crowd through a spirited honky-tonk version of the Ramones' “I Wanna Be Sedated”.  Solomon Burke, (pictured at left) did a great R&B set of mostly other people's hits. He led his 12-piece band with a firm hand, while his backup singer constantly wiped his sweaty bald head. It was a welcome and enjoyable respite from the twang.

Compadre Records' late night "Chicken and Waffle Party" at Ernest Tubb's Record Shop was my favorite party with a huge crowd talking and eating amongst the CD bins and buying cheap "chatkes" while enjoying Elizabeth Cook, Bernie Leadon and others.

Marty Stuart , country veteran but a newcomer to Americana, reportedly said “I never knew this music had such a big fan base or even a name”. Stuart gave a killer show at the Mercy Thursday night featuring some old hits and songs his three upcoming CD's. His crackerjack band The Fabulous Superlatives includes Harry Stinson and Kenny Vaughan. Wistful songster Jimmie Dale Gilmore (pictured below right) stuck to Texas roadhouse covers in his set, while the legendary Knitters combined their punk rock past with their roots rock present in an edgy, rocking set.

Chip Taylor and Carrie Rodriguez made the Cannery feel as intimate as a back porch and engaged in dreamy duet vocals while their only competition was from Thad Cockrell and Caitlin Cary upstairs. Danny Flowers did an amazing gospel version of a Curtis Mayfield tune in the AMA Internet Café that actually got the constantly talking AMA people to be quiet and listen. A major feat indeed!

Wednesday night, the night before the real AMA-sponsered shows, we warmed up our club-hoping chops by going from Minton Sparks' trailer park poetry at The Basement to the Cherryholmes Family Band 's tight bluegrass at the Station Inn to the South Austin Jug Band at the Sutler.

Saturday night, after the Compass Records party featuring artists from an upcoming benefit CD Hands Across The Water . In a quick half hour Darrell Scott, Maura O'Connell, Allison Brown, John Cowan, Jim Lauderdale and project producer Andrea Zonn all crammed on the tiny Station Inn stage.

There was so much more. As usual you had to make difficult choices when two or more artists were playing at the same time. A few who I missed (who reportedly were great) were… Sarah Borges, Greg Trooper, The Ditty Bobs, Jeff Black, Adrienne Young, Big Blue Hearts and Laura Cantrell. It’s good to see the AMA provide a wide tent for different styles of American music, even as attendees in hallways, panels and street corners discuss just what Americana is. Showcases from acts such as sacred steel band The Lee Brothers (who jam like the Allman Brothers if they were headed to heaven), Wes Charlton (a promising, genre bending new comer) and alt.rockers Lucero (who sounded under-rehearsed and sloppy in this context) at least keep things interesting and purists on their toes.

One welcome addition to this year's evening shows was the dual rooms of The Mercy Lounge and The Cannery Ballroom. Both had great music all weekend and the AMA faithful walked back and forth between the two venues like a high school hallway between classes. The Mercy was dark and smoky but had good sight lines while the Cannery was more roomy but suffered from terrible sound. One suggestion I would make in the future is to have more Americana-informed sound people at the boards Those bass-heavy rock mixes don't work with acts like Jim Lauderdale (playing bluegrass), Mary Gauthier and others.

After four days the marathon that was the 2005 AMA's was over and not a day too soon. By midnight Saturday I couldn't distinguish Peter Case from the Pixies' Frank Black and neither one exactly excited me so I knew I was fried. I consider myself a pretty hardy musical trouper but I just couldn't take another song or conversation about “what I do” in the music industry. Nevertheless, it was a great time and I suppose you don't have to stay up till 2 every night. You can bet that I'll be there next year to do it all over again!

(Special thanks to Michael Meehan for help with this story. Photos by Bill Frater except photo of Bill with Roy & Minnie by Liz Winchester)

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