Reflections on Americana Awards Festival 2019: Rhiannon Giddens

Essays Musicians' Posts

photo by Carl Beust at Newport Folk Festival for Americana Highways

Last Tuesday I flew from Austin to Nashville and attended AMERICANAFEST, which is in all caps for reasons that escape me, for the third time. I saw some folks I loved and made some new friends and heard some music and sang some songs at The 5 Spot and walked around a lot and had people look over my shoulder after checking my nametag to see if I was worth talking to and I drank probably a little too much beer and I ate at Monell’s with some of my most favorite people. In these respects, a pretty typical five days for a singer-songwriter in Nashville. Sometimes good, sometimes not so good, etc.

On Friday, though, I went to a panel discussion with Rhiannon Giddens and John Jeremiah Sullivan. I’ve been to a lot of music conferences and sat through a lot of music conference panels. Panels where everyone kept saying the same thing, just in different ways. Panels where nobody managed to say much of anything and didn’t want to be there in the first place. Panels where the people you do want to hear from don’t talk and the people you don’t want to hear from can’t say enough. But this one was something else.

You know who Rhiannon Giddens is, and everyone else is about to thanks to the Ken Burns’ Country Music PBS series. John Jeremiah Sullivan, on the other hand, is my favorite music writer out there right now. They were talking about Frank Johnson and the erasure of the massive role of African Americans in the history of folk and Americana music, which was the subject of an article by Sullivan in the New Yorker earlier this year. You need to read that. He also wrote this piece about Geeshie Wiley and Elvie Thomas, which could be the best thing I’ve read about music in my entire life. You need to read that, too.

At one point during the discussion Rhiannon Giddens pulled out a fiddle and started playing a Frank Johnson tune. I had a moment. My hair stood on end. Tears started squeezing out of the corner of my left eye (not my right one; why?) and I realized or maybe remembered that nothing on Earth makes me feel the range of intense emotions that good, real, true music does. Sadness, joy, excitement, gratitude. All of it. At once! I love good music so much.

There are the nametags and the showcase pecking orders and the words in all caps for no apparent reason whatsoever and this sense sometimes you’re being told what you’re meant to like whether you like it or not and whether it’s good or not. There’s all of that business.

And then there’s the woman with the fiddle playing a tune from across the ages that not a single soul could ever ever deny. There’s that, too. And thank goodness for that.

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