(The Indigo Girls, Larry Campbell and Brandi Carlile)
As Marty Stuart once said of the Ryman Auditorium, you can hear music in the rafters and you can feel the spirit of country music running through the building. As legend has it, Bill Monroe met Hank Williams in the Ryman dressing room and the two shook hands. One of them had an idea and a few minutes later a new song was born called “I’m Blue, I’m Lonesome.” Unfortunately Williams never lived to see its release.
The sacred ground of the Ryman is the gathering place for the annual Americana Music Awards during the middle of AmericanaFest. This year was the first time in three years the event took place live or as JP Harris said during his moving tribute to the late Luke Bell, it felt more like twenty-five years.
As Kathy Rainge-Biggs of the nearby National Museum of African-American Music pointed out , the mother church of country music was originally erected in 1892 as the Union Gospel Tabernacle and home to the gospel originators the Fisk Jubilee Singers. Prior to the Ryman becoming home for the Grand Ole Opry, the Reverend Sam McCrary started the Fairfield Four which inspired gospel greats like the Soul Stirrers and the Dixie Hummingbirds. Tonight the Fairfield Four received a Lifetime Achievement Award while McCrary’s daughters were there to watch and as they graced the stage, part of the house band that backed the award nominees at the 21st Annual Americana Music Awards.
The week marks a regular self-examination of the genre which began as a radio list concept for roots music and has grown into the big music tent encompassing numerous sub-categories. But in a sum is greater than the parts equation, Americana is powered by a galvanizing community that continues to give new life to its older stars and provides a stage for newer and talented aspirants.
The week of AmericanFest featured a dizzying number of artist showcases throughout Nashville, songwriting rounds and themed industry panels like “Booking With Intent: How Curating The Stage Impacts Industry Diversity and How Americana Music Is Embracing Minority Representation,” “Sync or Swim: Navigating Multiple Streams In Music” and “Creative Legacy: Preserving the History and Building the Future For Legacy Artists.”
Inside the Ryman, presenter Chris Cobb of the Nashville Music Alliance reflected on how the pandemic nearly destroyed the music industry. But with tireless advocacy and the creation of the Nashville Independent Venue Association (now 1000 plus members strong), bi-partisan legislation Save Our Stages resulted in emergency relief for venues across the country in what he called the largest public funding of arts in history. Cobb made a shout-out to the group’s leader president Dayna Frank for single-handedly spurring the movement. But Frank, who was seated in the balcony, seemed almost embarrassed by the accolades as she reluctantly stood up to take a bow.
Onstage, there was magic in the air as Allison Russell sang with her friend Brandi Carlile in a stunning version of “You’re Not Alone.” Russell called out each of her all-female bandmates with the verve of Bruce Springsteen after achieving transcendence in voicing the song’s opening words. “Our circle is unbroken, our circle is hope,” she said, almost whispering. “None alone, none below, all of us equal under the listening strong.” Russell, who later credited Carlile’s advocacy for getting her signed and lifting her family out of poverty, had a surprise when she announced that due to some audio issues, she would have to sing the song again so it could be included in a forthcoming PBS broadcast. The second time her voice was a little deeper and throaty on the opening words, giving it an edgier feel, its proceeds benefiting gun safety and reproductive justice efforts.
“I don’t know what Americana is but I know it when I hear it,” Buddy Miller said upon receiving a Lifetime Achievement Award from his friend Robert Plant. “It’s like gumbo. You can taste a little bit here, a little bit there.”
Miller had to pause being house band leader alongside Don Was to listen to Plant’s plethora of accolades and bringing the former Led Zeppelin frontman into the “great world of the musically obscure.” Plant seemed delighted to name Miller’s catalog of songs (“I wish I could do this sort of thing”) and citing his curation of the Buddy & Jim radio show, hosting a stage at Hardly Strictly Bluegrass and “loading up a bunch of nuts on the Cayamo Love Boat.” Most of all, Plant seemed affected by Miller’s defiance of categorization that plagues the musical landscape.
Getting a lifetime achievement award can make your life flash by in front of you. And for Buddy Millet, the longtime patriarch of the genre, the real emotion was the longevity of his lifelong friendships all around. Miller, who has so many accomplishments he could be the godfather of Americana, seemingly was caught off guard and unprepared in his acceptance. Miller was more reflective on the relationships he’s had over the years including Lucinda Williams with whom he backed on “Can’t Let Go ”and the musicians on stage, including Larry Campbell who played guitar, fiddle and mandolin throughout the night. Their relationship extended the longest among the house band and goes back forty years to New York City where they played together in a post-Urban Cowboy country revival. One night a South Carolinian with a soft spoken accent came into a club and asked if they would mind if he sat in. His name was Jim Lauderdale.
Plant teased that Miller was going to sing “Stairway To ….” before cutting himself off. Miller came to the mic and said it was hard to sing when he was crying but then went out and delivered a stunning version of “Wide River To Cross.” He was accompanied by Campbell on fiddle and the McCrary Sisters who recently lost one among them, sister Deborah. Listening to the ageless song, it was hard not to think of the late Levon Helm who graced the same stage on Ramble at The Ryman and whose interpretation of “Wide River To Cross” was the centerpiece of his comeback album Dirt Farmer. With the Americana conference celebrating the music of Arkansas during the week, the legacy of Helm was woven into the program. Onstage, Helm’s legacy could be felt when Emerging Artist honoree Neal Francis went through a version of his song “Can’t Stop The Rain” that felt like it could have easily fit into a set by the Band circa Rock of Ages.
Helm has also been top of mind this year after Anti mysteriously dropped a live album Helm recorded with Mavis Staples over ten years ago and one year before he passed from cancer.
Against a black cover emblazoned with the names Mavis Staples and Levon Helm, the album Carry Me Home evoked a certain mystery of what’s inside, only to deepen the mystery with little context. So much time had passed since it was recorded that Campbell, who finished and mixed the production in the days following the show at Helm’s barn in Woodstock, forgot all about it until getting a surprising call that it was going to be released.
The record holds a special place in Helm’s timeline. It was one of the last things he got to do at the Barn in his home of Woodstock. The album features “When I Go Away,” a song Campbell wrote inspired by seeing the Dixie Hummingbirds almost fifty years ago in Jackson, Mississippi. In Helm’s waning days, a few weeks after his show with Staples, he sang “When I Go Away” for the last time. Campbell was about to come up on the second verse when Helm came charging in.
At the Ryman this week, Campbell stood back and played empathetically and ruefully to Miller’s self-reflections and soulful song of redemption in “Wide River To Cross.” The McCrary Sisters were alongside as they have been on so many of Miller’s songs, memorably in Downtown Church, the Grammy winning album he made with Patty Griffin.
On this night at the Ryman the great Mavis Staples wasn’t here as in years past. On Carry Me Home’s version of “Take My Country,” Staples starts riffing and takes you back. You might do a double-take until you realize Staples is singing about Barack Obama and the birther controversy that seems so long ago but is instructive in 2022. That was the first “big lie” that started it all and connects a path to how we got to where we are today.
By the time the house band got to an exhilarating take of “Amazing Grace,” keyboardist Jen Gunderman’s organ fills intuitively followed and wrapped around the McCrary Sisters’ voices. The stellar all-star ensemble reached the show’s finale with the Staples Singers “I’ll Take You There.” While Mavis wasn’t there to lead it as in years past, Regina McCrary took the reins.
Earlier in the night the Indigo Girls talked about a conversation with Joan Baez about passing the torch. Baez related that she was going to hold on to it but share it with others. The numerous causes that the Indigo Girls took on were enumerated by Carlile. The legacy they have laid out has paved a path and inspires a new generation like Allison Russell. The proceeds from Russell’s song “You’re Not Alone” was benefiting important causes and greater advocacy lay in front of her.
“How many people are asked in this room ‘What is Americana?”” Carlile said in presenting the Spirit of Americana Music/Free Speech Award to the Indigo Girls. “Is it a genre? Is it a philosophy? Is it country music for liberals? I don’t really know how to answer this. But I do know that it is me and I know it is ahead of the curve and that it’s doing it’s best to be on the right side of history.”
One of the night’s best performances was made by Adia Victoria who had me the moment she showed her jacket that read Sister Rosetta Thorpe, then casually discarding it to lead the veteran band through a smoldering “Ain’t Killed Me Yet.” Victoria and fellow Emerging Artist nominee Morgan Wade lost out to Sierra Ferrell but both made their mark. Wade was introduced by Elizabeth Cook who said Morgan had her respect–and then made the point that she had Wade’s back. It was also encouraging to hear Instrumentalist of the Year and Larissa Maestro talked about doors opening in her acceptance speech. Maestro lamented how she didn’t see a lot of people who looked like her but was buoyed by Megan Coleman, the first woman of color to be nominated for the award and that a fellow Filipino was nominated a few years prior.
On a night when new stars seemed ready to carry us forward, it felt like the tent was getting bigger, more diverse and younger, all good signs for its future.
Find more information about the Americana Fest event here: https://americanamusic.org/events/americanafest-2022