Finally winding down from my annual trip and I’m here to say that 2011 is the year the Americana went mainstream.
The Americana Music Association, the Nashville professional trade organization that puts on the whole shindig, just experienced its biggest year yet: Their membership is up by 45 percent compared to 2006. The festival showcased twice the number of bands it did five years ago; and this year’s overall attendance was around 15,000, as opposed to the roughly 10,000 reported in 2011. Jed Hilly and the good people of the AMA were able to do all this while maintaining the performance intimacy and musical quality I’ve experienced over my 5 years of attending the event. They have also been able to avoid the band-of-the-minute trading bazaar plaguing events like South-By-Southwest .
CMT.com know a good thing when they see it. With the commercial breakout of artists like Mumford & Sons, The Civil Wars and the Avett Brothers the cable music channel, that in many ways embodies everything Americana stands in contrast of, is setting up a small section of it’s site branded “CMT Edge” focused on showcasing artists outside their usual fare of quasi-“outlaws” and warbling blondes. The venture is focusing on the heart of Americana’s best. The tapping that i attended while attending the AMA conference featured Jason Isbell and justin Townes Earle in performing a solo acoustic set of a few songs in a setting that was more Bluebird Cafe than the hell-raising arenas most SMT artists can be found.
Craig Shelburne, a CMT.com writer and producer is the driving force behind CMT Edge introduced the artists before their performances. I briefly spoke to Shelburne and he seemed to me to be a man doing good that wants to do well. CMT sees that the Americana brand is blowing up (thanks in large part to the promotional efforts of the AMA and the sheer talent under the genre’s tent.) Sure CMT is a corporation concerned with eyeballs to sell soap, but they offer a much larger stage where deserving artists can make more money and upgrade their instruments and crappy touring vans. or as Jason Isbell told me when i ran into him at the Buddy Miller Lee Ann Womack show “We all need to make money.” Indeed.
The Americana Honors & Awards program was a tightly executed package to showcase exceptional talent for wider public consumption. The new two-year deal with Mark Cuban’s AXS TV to broadcast the event live was added to the already existing live broadcast on radio, satellite and the web via outlets including Nashville’s WSM, SiriusXM’s “Outlaw Country” and NPR.org, respectively. The show’s current TV partner, Austin City Limits, also broadcasts an edited special ACL Presents on November 10. Voice of America and Bob Harris’ BBC Radio 2 will broadcast overseas in following weeks.
All this spiked with an official hashtag #Americanafest and the youTube videos from the festivals shows cropping up afterward and you have a full-scale media juggernaut.
The inclusion of Bonnie Raitt , Booker T Jones and Richard Thompson for lifetime achievement awards for performance, instrumentalist and songwriting respectively. There’s no denying the legendary status of these great artists and their appeal to an Americana demo that trends towards the Boomer generation, but – to polish an old chestnut – are they “Americana?”
Each of these artists have established themselves as legends in the well defined genres of blues, R&B & soul and folk & rock. Honoring these legends in an Americana awards ceremony undoubtedly allows the AMA to hitch the brand to established and well-repected talent, but at what cost? By seemingly playing a game of “me too” the AMA could be using their crown jewel awards program to further obscure the Americana brand at best. At worst there the risk that the AMA will lead Americana into being a cast as an always derivative genre, riding on the coattails of established genres in order to gain credibility and an audience.
I’m not sure which of these scenarios will play out but I see them both as unnecessary as the above numbers and CMT attention show that Americana is doing just firm staking out it’s own turf heading toward greater brand visibility. How can a genre that has legitimate ties to Steve Earle , Ryan Bingham and The Civil Wars need to pilfer genre to create awareness?
But maybe I’m wrong. maybe Americana at it’s core crosses so many lines that those lines are the real outlines of what this movement we all love is really about. Maybe it’s a result of that truly American phenomenon of a society emerging from a diversity of the melting-pot.
Maybe it’s like Jim Lauderdale said from the stage of the Ryman Auditorium the other night. “Boundaries are for cowards.