Roots & All – Issue 83

All Things Americana

Over the last few years it’s become a real treat to have the opportunity to catch up with the ever changing face of Roots music scene in the US via the Americana Music Awards, made available through NPR’s live coverage on the internet. Apart from this years’ regular winners (Album and Song of the year, Jason Isbell, Artist of the year Chris Stapleton, duo Rodney Crowell and Emmylou Harris and instrumentalist Sara Watkins) celebrations also included well deserved tributes to four of the country’s finest songwriters having recently departed our earthly plane; Ralph Stanley, Guy Clark, Allen Toussaint and Merle Haggard, including the work of the late outspoken troubadour Woody Guthrie, this year’s recipient of the Presidents award. There were lifetime achievements awards for Shawn Colvin as a Trailblazer, William Bell for Songwriter, Bob Weir for Performance and Jim Lauderdale for the Porter Wagoner inspired Wagonmaster award for hosting.

The show, presented with great charm by the aforementioned host (and Wagonmaster) Jim Lauderdale stands as an example of how, without having to resort to the crass and insincere platitudes that often seem to plague these kinds of events in the mainstream, acknowledging the most significant contributions to the “Americana genre” for the year can still be a dignified and inspirational event. MD and all round musical master of ceremonies, the terminally unflappable Buddy Miller, handled all manner of musical performances either playing guitar, singing harmony and/or directing a cast of many with dignity and ease, showcasing some great performances from Bonnie Raitt, Shawn Colvin, William Bell along with newcomers Milk Carton Kids (my favourite performance of the night) Margo Price, Parker Millsap and Nathaniel Rateliff and the Night Sweats and more. George Strait honoured Lauderdale’s songwriting with a fine rendition of his ‘The King of Broken Hearts’ and Alison Krauss with Miller, Stuart Duncan and Melonie Cannon acknowledged the huge contribution of bluegrass pioneer Ralph Stanley with an accapella ‘Gloryland’. Joe Henry paid tribute to the legacy of New Orleans R&B songwriter Allen Toussaint with ‘Freedom for the Stallion’, Steve Earle to the outstanding work of Guy Clark with ‘Desperados Waiting for a Train’, Billy Bragg (the recipient of the Spirit of Americana/Free Speech in Music Award) to the enormous significance of Woody Guthrie’s catalogue with ‘Aint Got No Home’ and Bob Weir to one of the country music’s greatest songwriters, the working man’s poet Merle Haggard with ‘Mama Tried’.

So with a wealth of great performances, dignified speeches, tributes and more the 2016 Americana Awards went off without any visible gaffes, tiresome platitudes or promotion enhancing wardrobe malfunctions.

I would like to encourage musicians and fans alike to take a look at the passionate, eloquent and highly emotive speech given by T Bone Burnett as he addressed the Americana conference attendees regarding the political and social implications of the future of recorded music in the ever expanding digital age.

It’s been a big month for Americana and recently Billboard reported that “in the tracking week ending Oct. 6, according to Nielsen Music” for the first time ever Americana outsold mainstream country. Of course there are a few contingencies to consider in that the four top selling albums that were responsible Bon Iver’s 22, A Million, Van Morrison’s Keep Me Singing The Drive By Truckers American Band and Bob Weir’s Blue Mountain prior to this announcement would previously have been considered rock albums but now show up as Americana. Bon Iver once considered Americana is these days seen as a rock act as are The Drive By Truckers, Van Morrison is mostly viewed as a heritage rock act and Bob Weir in his Grateful Dead role is certainly considered a rock star although to be fair, his solo album is a distinct deviation from his previous work and could see him as a contender for the amorphous/ambiguous genre. I also don’t see these acts topping the current Americana charts although I’m assuming their sales would place them up there.

Here in Australia we have similar issues with genres and musical definitions in regard to who is Roots or Alt Country etc and I figure it won’t be resolved anytime soon. Back in the nineties I remember the euphoria that swept the alt country scene when Kasey Chambers topped the Aria charts with her debut The Captain, which had the community expecting this to open the doors for others pursuing a similar artistic approach only to discover that it was Chambers and not the genre that the public had welcomed so warmly.

However twenty years later the genre at least has its own classification and in 2016 the Alternative Country Music category for the 45th Annual Country Music Awards of Australia has 31 contenders, more than any previous year and much like the US, quite a few of this year’s favourite entries are the work of  one producer. In the US its Georgia native Dave Cobb (Chris Stapleton, Jason Isbell, Sturgill Simpson, Jamey Johnson and more) leading the pack with his stable of Americana alumni productions. Here in Australia its singer songwriter/producer Shane Nicholson (Beccy Cole, Alex Lloyd, Suze DeMarchi, Lyn Bowtel, Katie Brianna, Jen Mize and more) who has four of his eleven 2016 productions included in this year’s Alt Country section and a few more to be found scattered throughout a variety of the other categories. I suspect that at this stage the sales figures won’t be a major point of discussion for the Aus music press but the trend certainly reflects a change of guard and something that can’t be discounted.

Festival Season

As Spring turns into Summer up here on the North coast of NSW the festival season once again begins to take shape as the ever expanding Byron Bay Bluesfest unveils its gigantic line-up of artists and the eclectic Mullumbimby festival quietly moves closer to its ninth year of musical celebrations. A diverse bunch of Bluesfest headliners Neil Young, Barry Gibb (not quite sure how legit his blues and roots qualifications are) Santana, The Doobie Bros, Patti Smith lead the pack along with festival regulars Bonnie Raitt, Mavis Staples, Buddy Guy, Trombone Shorty, Nahko and Medicine for the People, newcomers Mary J Blige, Corinne Baily Rae and  Ricky Lee Jones, last year’s favourites St Paul and the Broken Bones and Beth Hart and for country fans The Zac Brown Band are just a small sampling of what’s on offer for 2017. Mullumbimby covers the more modest approach to the summers musical offerings with US country chanteuse the charming Eilen Jewell, Sydney songwriter Lior, Melbourne songwriters Liz Stringer, Jordie Lane and Gareth Liddiard, Aussie alt country favourites Susanna Espie, The Wilson Pickers, Sal Kimber and the Rolling Wheel, Henry Wagons and William Crighton, The Button Collective and a plethora of local talent featuring Nattali Rize, Gyan, The Round Mountain Girls, Claire Anne Taylor, Miss Renee Simone, Heartworn Highway and more. Along with the recent Bangalow BBQ and Bluegrass festival this has to be one of the musical highpoints on the calendar in our region and one I would recommend to any visitors to the area.

Guy Clark biography Without Getting Killed or Caught.

Any self respecting songwriter or alternative country/folk fan should be on the lookout for the new Guy Clarke Biography Without Getting Killed or Caught, by Texas A&M University Press, currently shipping in hardback. Five star reviews are rolling in for this in depth look at the life of a man whom many including myself consider to be the king of the literate Texas songwriters.