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The FTB Does The AMA
by Bill Frater with the help
Kay Clements and Michael Meehan

The Freight Train Boogie had a whole team of reporters at the 2004 Americana Music Association's recent conference in Nashville, well there were 3 of us there… The AMA, as it's called for short, is a collection of mostly music industry types- artists, record label people, managers, booking agents, PR and radio folks and a handful of loyal fans. There's lots of meet and greet and talking shop and the inevitable exchange the business cards just like at any convention. The big difference at the AMA conference is we get and give away ton's of CD's and we have many opportunities to hear the music we all share a passion for. I think I can speak for the other two Freight Train Boogie contributors, Kay Clements (KWMR) and Michael Meehan, that the music was what we were there for. And when you get down to it, that's really what it's all about. When we get our bloated credit card bills in a few weeks, it'll be the great music that we still remember. And there was lots of that to be sure.

The conventional belief seems to be that if you see the artist live, then you'll like their CD and thus play, promote or otherwise help spread the word about said artist. Most did sound better live then on CD, ( Avett Brothers, Otis Gibbs ), but others didn't come across as well, ( Gurf Morlix, Bernie Leadon ). The evening shows are done showcase style… every act gets about 40 minutes and that's it. They had 3 clubs going on at the same time and it made it difficult to choose whom to go see when. Many artists strictly push their latest release, ( Todd Snider, Mark Erelli ), and some just do their regular sets, ignoring the new release ( Junior Brown, Billy Joe Shaver ). Every night, everywhere you looked there was music playing –at venues with memorable names like the Mercy Lounge, the “World Famous” Station Inn and 12th and Porter; in the halls of the convention center and even at a couple of CD stores…. (ouch, the credit cards are still smokin'). Here are some of the musical highlights:

Thursday night. The Mercy was the place to be… Austin stalwart John Dee Graham opened the show with raw and ready versions of tunes off his The Great Battle CD. He won the crowd over with his gritty vocals, sense of humor and uplifting songs. Tift Merritt followed with her tight band, strong songcraft and Alt.Country “it” girl attitude. The style of her “Dusty in Memphis” recording Tambourine gave way to a more roadhouse rock style but it didn't hurt the material any. Things kicked into high gear with an awesome set from Buddy Miller , (with the gospel-inflected backup vocals of Regina and Ann McCrary) They raised the roof on the place with impassioned playing and singing and a powerful version of Bob Dylan's “With God on Our Side”. Dave Alvin was masterful fronting his super tight band, contrasting the Saturday night to Buddy's Sunday morning set. Alvin offered powerful blues, country rock and soulful R&B that help define Americana for some listeners. Both acts feature great artists at their peak and live acts not to be missed. As you could imagine, Delbert McClinton , had a tough time following these guys, and coming on after 1 a.m., lost much of the room. Those that stayed were treated to a fine display of classic roadhouse R&B from the master of Texas soul music.

One of Friday's highlights was The Greencards at the Station Inn. Though they lost the Best New Artist award to Mindy Smith (a real travesty), this Australian trio (with Pat Flynn sitting in on guitar) brought the house down with their fast, clean playing and precise harmonies. Their self-produced CD is titled Movin' On and is worth looking for. The Avett Brothers followed with King Wilkie closing out an intense night of acoustic night. Meanwhile, over at 12th & Porter, New England roots artists were putting in a strong showing as Mark Erelli and Lori McKenna both played sets using the same excellent band featuring drummer/producer Lorne Endress . Erelli's folkie-turned-western-swing was lively and well received, and McKenna's songs from her release Bittertown are bound to be on many best of the year lists. Other highlights from the evening were Ray Wylie Hubbard 's powerful cover of the Tom Rush song “Driving Wheel”, and Billy Joe Shaver 's emotionally powerful set at the Mercy Lounge. One of our greatest living songwriters, Shaver played the saint/sinner for all and offered up his tales of loss and redemption, not to mention “Georgia on a Fast Train”.

The big deal of the whole convention was the awards ceremony on Friday night. They had a TV crew taping it and unfortunately, it turned out to be a nest of sound snafus. Watching Lifetime Achievement Award winner Chris Hillman and his all-star band cool their heels on stage waiting for the monitors to work was embarrassing…some of the performers were more understanding than others but the continued problems took away some of the focus and enjoyment of the show. Still the awards show was one of the strongest bunch of “our” performers that could squeeze into 2 hours. Jim Lauderdale was the host and performers included Songwriter of the Year winner Rodney Crowell, (debuting a new tune “Don't Get Me Started”), Independent Free Speech winner Steve Earle , Tony Joe White ( with Shelby Lynne), The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Mavis Staples, Nashville Bluegrass Band, Slaid Cleaves, Michelle Shocked with Pete Anderson , and a few more.

There were also a few non-AMA events and parties going on around town. Thursday evening in the large backyard of the great “Cowboy” Jack Clements' home they had Bar-B-Que and a handful of Nashville “stars” gathered to celebrate Jack's recent release on Dualtone called I Guess Things Happen That Way . What knocked me out was his entire home was open to all, including his famous Cowboy Arms recording studio in the attic. Think vintage analog recording equipment and walls of 2 inch master tapes with names like Charley Pride , Bobby Bare and even Louis Armstrong on them. This was a big thrill for a kid from California! Friday night there was a show put on by a ragged group of LA and Nashville musicians calling themselves Sin City . In the space of a half hour this rowdy little party at the Blue Sky Court brought up BR549 for a few songs, Steve Earle nailing “Dead Flowers” and Jim Lauderdale crooning “The King of Broken Hearts . Wow, I guess I'm not so tired after all. It just shows what can happen with so many people in town for the weekend.

Highlights from Saturday include Jay Farrar dipping into his Sun Volt songbook at the intimate 12 & Porter. Bruce Robison , the soft-spoken and lanky Texan, reminded us what a talented and heartfelt songwriter he is . Gracious despite the drunken oafs in the front row, his rendering of “Traveling Soldier” was as good as it gets. Shawn Camp and band laid down a great bluegrass set that set the mood for BR549 over at the Mercy. These guys wrote the book on fun, going from rockabilly to vintage country to punk. Local Maverick Raul Malo grabbed the mic for Merle's “Tonight The Bottle Let Me Down” to help make this the crowd pleasing closer show of the conference and the band kicked ass. End of the day, end of the conference and in the end, it's all about the music.

The AMA still has a ways to go in the area of panel discussions and the awards show and all, but in general it was well organized. One of my favorite events was the daily Demo Derby. This was a panel of three label or radio folks who listened to about 30 seconds of someone's song in the group of other artists. Yeah, you're right, they were brave. We heard everything from polished cuts to some rough, not-ready-for-primetime tracks. It was informative to watch each panel trio give (in most cases) gracious and helpful insight into how to get the best out of what you've got to work with…harder than it sounds when at times it seemed they should have been flashing the don't-quit-your-day-job sign. It was nonetheless quite entertaining, as we sometimes reviewed the reviewers and sometimes just to watched the person being critiqued internally squirm. Oh, and we heard some great songs too!

Despite the huge Joe Nichols billboards and tourist trap honky tonks on Broadway Nashville is really quite a fun town to hang out in. I can see why so many great artists live there. Over 700 AMA attendees wandered the Renaissance hotel and adjoining Nashville Convention Center, yet somehow it seemed like it was just a hundred or so managers, deejays, artists and fans who you always saw everywhere. Either in the halls, around the free food or at the clubs, I really felt a connection with lots of these fellow roots music junkies. It was like old family members, but in this case you got along with ‘em and you share a passion for great music. Bloated credit cards and all, it was a great reunion with an amazing soundtrack! Hope you can make it next year. We'll see ya there!


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