Words by Karen Zarker and Sarah Zupko and Pictures by Sarah Zupko.
Seated way in the back, the Ryman’s notoriously excellent acoustics failed, somehow, for Levon Helm’s Ramble. Couldn’t hear the horns, couldn’t hear Helm’s singing all that well, either. Hope the folks who were filming that event for DVD had a better time of it than we. Several songs in, and we stepped out to see what else was shaking on the opening night of the festival.
We stopped at the Basement—a cramped, somewhat down-in-the-heels place reminiscent of some of Austin’s less than pristine venues (we’re talking about you Emo’s). But hey, we come for the music. Alas, we never got to hear it, as two big mouthed, drunken louts “Whooo hoo’d” at everything and everyone—and the music hadn’t even started. Some pretty little thing was setting up on the stage, her clingy dress showing her form rather nicely for anyone with eyes in their head. But the Louts seemed to feel compelled to assist anyone there who might be blind, and “Whooo hoo’d” her for our benefit, as well. Bet she felt flattered, boys, thank you very much. Impossible to hear one’s own thoughts in this tiny space with these damned fools bellowing, we knew we’d never get to enjoy the music, either. Sorry, the Belleville Outfit, the everybodyfields, the Dedringers and Patrick Sweany, but the Basement seemed content to indulge the Whoo Hoos, and not you. We moved on before the show even started, cursing under our breaths.
Soon after we were pulling up chairs to the long tables at the Station Inn (with a car, it’s very easy to get around Nashville for these showcases). Many years prior we’d stopped here for some bluegrass and the feel was as if we stepped into a revival tent. We’d best be converted, or perhaps move on. Rather intense, in that regard, on that day.
It’s in this modest and yes, intense setting that PopMatters’ favorite Mike Farris holds a regular Sunday night gig. We saw him live on a large stage at the Mercy Lounge at last year’s Americana Music Fest—with plenty of room for his band of won’t-be-denied New Orleans-style horns and his trio of gorgeous back-up singers, The McCrary Sisters. Lord, how their sound filled every square inch of space in that large hall, wrapped around us and gave us a squeal-inducing squeeze. Yow! We’ll be seeing him soon back at 3rd and Lindsley.
But this night, we were at the Station Inn in to hear artists new to us. Donna Beasley is lovely, if you like your decaf in the morning watered down with skim milk and just a granule or two of sugar. Looks good coming to the table, but alas, the brew is weak. An early morning kept us from staying for what appeared to be a folksy line-up tonight.
The first day at the Americana Music Festival was, alas, a bust for us. Others with more endurance and tolerance might say otherwise.
Day two started with the incomparable Casey Driessen at the cozy Douglas Corner Café. Now that’s a great venue for hearing really good music. You talk during someone’s set there, you’ll be hushed by the hard core, knowledgeable music devotees surrounding you. And get your butt in that chair, now, ‘cause the artists start on time. Ah! Perfect.
We’re figuring that when Driessen was a young man he sought out and found the Devil. He said, “Mr. Devil, I’ll give you my soul if you let me play this violin like no other living man.” The Devil looked him up and down slowly—didn’t take long, as he’s a little fella—sucked on the smoking piece of straw in his mouth and said, “Son, you can keep your soul. You’re gonna need it when you step out on that stage. But I’m gonna make that violin play you.”
And indeed it does. That sassy violin grabs Driessen by the scruff of the neck and has him shaking on his toes. We swear it thinks it’s the smartest thing in the room, and dares you to try to keep up with it. Ever hear an instrument do a call and response, making it look so damned easy conversational-wise with itself? Uh huh. Keep up with us, here. Any chance you get to see this man perform live- er, this violin play this man—go, and give yourself one hell of a treat.
Some head shaking appreciation of Driessen over a cocktail at the quiet, elegant bar at Maggiano’s, and then we made our way to the Ryman, again, for the Americana Awards show.
Thank you, Americana Music Festival, for those second row, center seats, where we were in good company with many notables. Joan Baez, on hand to receive the “Spirit of Americana” Free Speech Award, sat behind us and Robert Plant, Alison Krauss and Mike Farris were just to our left. No complaints about acoustics this night. We could hear the sweat flying.
Ryan Bingham’s voice sounds like a truck tire on a gravel road, complete with rocks flying up and hitting the fender—it’s a good country sound.
When Steve Earle walked out we thought it might be the ghost of Allen Ginsberg, such is his middle-aged resemblance. Mr. Earle, please leave New York. It’s softened your sound and taken the edge off the anger that makes us wanna listen.
(You can see the awards results listed below.)
All the while there was Buddy Miller, sweet and modest, playing with the band. You’ll see this talented man everywhere, in the band, with nary a notice ‘til he steps up the mic and makes you smile so broadly.
Jason & The Scorchers - Courtesy of the AMA
So, too, Joe Ely (a personal favorite) gives his all, every time we see him, every venue—from a room full of the reverent to singing over the fools blathering in the back, too damned ignorant to know what they’re missing. The man is pure, raw talent, and he makes you zero in on his songs and listen close, the rest of the world be damned.
Earlier in the day, on our way to Jack’s Bar-B-Que, we think we saw a construction crew on the roof of the Ryman, applying reinforcements in anticipation of Mike Farris (another personal favorite) and his kickass band. One song, “Oh Mary Don’t You Weep” had the crowd testing the integrity of the Ryman’s construction. We swear that building was jumping. Wonder if they taped the stained glass windows, lest they shatter.
Speaking of building-shattering performances, Jason & The Scorchers did not hold back even for the sacred old Ryman—damn near twirled and leapt off the stage right into our second row laps. Tommy Womack has a write up in the program about Jason & the Scorchers that is high caliber music writing. If we find an online link to it, we’ll plug it in here for your reading pleasure. Heck, if we had a scanner…
After a lengthy chatty Awards ceremony, we headed south to 3rd and Lindsley for the Joe Ely set. Yep, Ely is one of those people we’re almost willing to follow to the ends of the earth. We were exhausted by this time, but 3rd and Lindsley has lots of tables and chairs (hallelujah) to rest our weary bones.
The always delightful Rosie Flores was dazzling the crowd with her sassy vocals and mean guitar when we stepped into the cozy place. James Intveld joined her for a few duets of pure honky tonk.
That set the stage nicely for Ely, who mostly played solo. Favorites like “All Just to Get to You” and “Me and Billy the Kid” roused the crowd and a new number “Homeland Refugee” proved equally compelling. The real treat of the evening was Ryan Bingham appearing on stage about halfway into the Ely set to sing a few songs with the Texas legend. They reprised their duet, “Southside of Heaven”, from early in the evening at the awards show and sang a few more off Bingham’s debut release.
Bingham’s dry, crusty Texas twang rests ever so nicely next to Ely’s more polished tones and they clearly feed off each other’s energy. Here’s hoping these two form a more permanent musical partnership and head out onto the road together. They just need to be sure to bring along ace accordionist Joel Guzman (Ely’s frequent musical partner) as Ely’s tunes—anyone’s, really —benefit enormously from the fiery, soulful solos and flourishes of this instrumental master.
- Album of the Year: Alison Krauss & Robert Plant/Raising Sand
- Artist of the Year: Levon Helm
- Duo/Group of the Year: Alison Krauss & Robert Plant
- Instrumentalist of the Year: Buddy Miller
- New Emerging Artist of the Year: Mike Farris
- Song of the Year: “She Left Me for Jesus” by Hayes Carll and Brian Keane
Additional Lifetime Achievement Honors were given to:
- Spirit of Americana Free Speech in Music—Joan Baez
- Lifetime Achievement / Songwriting—John Hiatt
- Jack Emerson Lifetime Achievement / Executive—Terry Lickona
- Lifetime Achievement / Performance—Jason & The Scorchers
- Presidents Award—Jerry Garcia
- Lifetime Achievement / Instrumentalist—Larry Campbell
- Trailblazer / Nanci Griffith
- Lifetime Achievement / Producer / Engineer—Tony Brown