Following the flurry of excitement accompanying “The First Annual Australian Americana Honours Night” at the Thornbury Theatre in Melbourne recently it became apparent to me that I was unaware that an Australian sub-branch of the Nashville based Americana Association had even been set up in Australia.
Considering that I author a long-running column (a decade plus) covering Roots music in the premier and only national Australian country music magazine, I’m a little perplexed that no-one bothered to contact me directly or send a press release to me or the magazine regarding either the formation of the organisation or the honours/awards night celebration.
I would have actually welcomed and enjoyed the opportunity to set up an interview with Jed Hilly while he was in Australia.
I have to admit up front that I find the whole idea of Australia adopting the Americana moniker somewhat confounding. I have no issue with the US using this term to bracket a host of American Root’s styles under one banner but I can see how this could easily be misinterpreted here, particularly in the field of Australian country music which is so strongly aligned with our cultural identity.
I decided I’d start by looking up “Americana” in the dictionary to discover it’s true definition, which informed me that it is “things associated with America, especially the United States” a confusing description in itself and although I acknowledge that the majority of Australian alt country/roots style acts probably take their inspiration from this loose amalgamation of American musical styles it still makes for a pretty incongruous association, particularly considering the dictionary description.
Having said that I can offer no alternative branding suggestions other than to say that during my time as a member of (what might now be called) an alt country band in the 80’s who were virtually considered by many in the Australian country music establishment to be musical heretics for embracing our US influences, I can’t see this new definition endearing too many established country music fans to the fledgling genre.
I’m glad to say that despite my reservations regarding this issue it seems from all reports that the honours night, hosted by Triple R’s Denise Hylands and Americana Music Association’s head honcho Jed Hilly, for all things musically rustic and rootsy was an enormous success for both audience and performers alike.
The 2017 honourees were Kasey Chambers who was the recipient of the Vanguard Award for her role as an international ambassador for roots music and promoter Brian ‘BT’ Taranto for his commitment to promoting Roots music in Australia. I was informed by one of my trusted colleagues that musically it was a spectacular night, with great performances from locals including Jordie Lane, Catherine Britt, Kasey Chambers, Shane Howard and featuring a particularly spine tingling impromptu performance by Aboriginal singer Yirrmal and along with US guests Kevin Welch, Old Crow Medicine Show and Valerie June made for a wonderful show.
Hilly even hung around to participate with others in the Australian Music Week Conference November 2 & 3, which also featured performances from a few more of our up and coming “Australian Americana” acts.
Apart from perusing the official Americana Association of Australian website and reading their mission statement, which despite my misgivings is pretty self explanatory and admirable I still find myself wondering just what the parameters are for this genre and who will be the arbiters of what is or isn’t Australian Americana. Who gets bona fides and who gets left out? Who will be the musical gatekeepers for this organisation?
Looking for clarification I figured I’d call co-promoter Nash Chambers at his new address in East Nashville to see if he might shed some light on the issue, and between the cacophony of kids playing, dogs barking and the general anarchy of resettling his young family in a new home, he was more than happy to offer his insights.
So being one of the promoters of the event (along with Michael Chugg and The AMA) what can you tell me about it?
“So what do you already know about it?
Well I know that it’s an organisation based in Nashville that represents a loose amalgam of roots music styles and it’s run by a man called Jed Hilly and ex patriot Aussie producer Mark Moffatt is involved….that’s about it!
“Well then, I guess I should start by saying that I think it was October last year it outsold all country music here!
Yes I did read that.
“It’s not a new genre as such, it’s more an umbrella for people like… all of us outcasts that play this weird music that for years we’ve tried to find names for – alt country/country rock or whatever it was, it was depressing. So basically what’s happened over here, is that it’s developed into this umbrella for an ever expanding collection of Roots type acts that exist outside of the mainstream.
I do understand and admire the general ideals of the organisation and the desire to have an umbrella to house this collection of acts, but do you think this banner will help to endear the home grown acts here to a larger Australian audience?
“The problem for me is that although we’ve had these types of acts here for quite some time, they never really sat anywhere…way back to The Dingoes, The Flying Emus, Keith Glass, The Dancehall Racketeers even The Black Sorrows etc – it’s all Americana and I think what the word ‘Americana’ has done in the US is, it’s given these acts a home.
“Actually Americana isn’t professing to be anything in particular, it’s just about the music. The recent honours night, which I put together with Michael Chugg’s organisation in conjunction with the US Americana Association is not meant to be an awards night although we do have two, we want it to be a celebration of the music while honouring a couple of the people who are helping to bring it to a bigger audience.
“The Americana brand has kinda helped consolidate things. Now you’ve got the Grammy Awards adding a few Americana awards, Billboard actually has an Americana chart, there’s also an Americana Association album chart here and they are about to add a singles chart.
“It’s just become a massive movement over here because so many people love this kind of music whether it’s alt country, blues, folk, bluegrass, roots rock stuff….anything that’s kinda got some dirt on it. Well that’s about the best I can do to clarify the Americana phenomenon and how I think it might help find a home for us musical outcasts.
So I guess at this juncture it seems that the answer to my question of how this might help Australian Roots acts find wider acceptance is that by using the Americana banner it will hopefully allow audiences (who comprehend the term) to perceive Australian acts as being under the same umbrella. I’d also imagine that the people promoting live shows here will see it as a promotional tool to help introduce new US Roots music acts (hopefully supported by our own acts) to Australian music fans.