AMA Field Report: Memphis in Nashville

The Americana Music Association Conference and Festival took place September 18-22 in Nashville TN. As a first-time attendee – and as one whose tastes don’t fall neatly into the Americana category – I did my best to go with an open mind. Good thing: the AMA turned out to be perhaps the best festival I’ve ever attended. Quite a surprise, that.

Part of that is down to a simple fact: the AMA’s concept of Americana is very broad. Utilizing a big-tent philosophy, the Conference and Festival sought to include many forms of American music. This was not – as I might have thought some months ago – a strictly fiddles-n-banjos affair. Not by a long shot, in fact. It was possible, if one sought to do so, to neatly sidestep most of what might more traditionally be thought of as Americana, and instead focus on seminars, meetings, conversations and (most of all) musical performances that would best be labeled…well, something other than Americana.

But the big-tent approach makes real sense; it’s not some sort of sell-out, a bid by the AMA to draw a wider audience in simply to cover the event’s expenses. And a major attraction under that tent this year was the music of Memphis, Tennessee.

The focus on Memphis began early and continued. At the big awards ceremony held at the historic Ryman Auditorium (a church-like edifice with excellent acoustics and great sight lines no matter where one is seated), Booker T & the MG’s keyboardist Booker T. Jones accepted a Lifetime Achievement Award. (So, too, did blues guitarist/singer Bonnie Raitt and the very British Richard Thompson. Big tent indeed.) Jones sat in on Hammond B3 with Alabama Shakes as they delivered a rousing number to an appreciative room-capacity audience.

The next day, Memphis music scholar Robert Gordon interviewed Jones at length in a small amphitheater inside of the Country Music Hall of Fame. For about eighty minutes, Gordon and Jones engaged in a lively trip down memory lane, and while Gordon’s questions were always knowing and well-chosen, the pair took several good questions from the full-house audience as well. (I asked Jones about the inspiration behind the McLemore Avenue album; a brief discussion of that exchange is here.)

Later that same day, back at the Downtown Sheraton (main location of the conference), a panel on The Music of Memhpis was moderated by Rick Clark, and included Scott Bomar of Electraphonic Records and The Bo-Keys (more on whom forthwith); Jody Stephens of Big Star; Robert Gordon; and Ardent Studios’ John Hampton. The conversation covered a wide range of topics, including Memphis’ contribution to powerpop in the form of Big Star, The Scruffs, Van Duren, Tommy Hoehn and others.

Perhaps the best was yet to come: an evening showcase at the Rutledge (a tiny and intimate club about a mile from the Sheraton) featured a stellar lineup of acts. First were Ardent darlings Star and Micey; theirs was a lively Americana-infused set that ended with the band wandering out into the audience, where they sang and played sans amplification. While they’re nominally Americana, their approach folded in elements of rock and soul into an exuberant whole.

Luther and Cody Dickinson (guitar/vocals and drums respectively) took the stage next for a set that was perhaps a bit lower-key than I might have expected. Very effective but not rocking-out. They saved that for a bit later, when they were joined by their full band (North Mississippi Allstars) and fronted by Jim Lauderdale. (The latter was also the affable host of the previous night’s awards ceremony.) I had seen the Allstars before, but with Lauderdale out front (I understand he will release a new album with them backing him) they transformed into something else, something more interesting. The music they performed had more in common with Memphis blue-eyed soul of the early 70s. The collaboration was a very natural one.

Scott Bomar’s Bo-Keys would be important even if they weren’t very good. Fortunately, they’re both. Comprised of younger players and (much) older ones, The Bo-Keys give the opportunity for deserving artists who might not otherwise get gigs to strut their stuff. Vocalist Percy Wiggins was resplendent in his tuxedo as he belted out the soulfullest of soul tunes, ably backed by the band with a full horn section. This is the sort of music that can’t easily be captured on record; it has to be experienced first-hand to truly appreciate the energy.

The evening’s Big Event came next. Billed as “Songs of Big Star,” this huge ensemble of artists was the highlight of the entire event for this attendee. The visual was a spectacle in and of itself: various people wandering on and off the stage as the demands of a given song dictated. Sometimes a string ensemble (with conductor!) would appear. Sometimes it was just Jody Stephens at the mic, backed by two or three players. Other times Stephens was behind his drum kit, as REM‘s Mike Mills sang lead. Or maybe ringleader Chris Stamey (The dB’s) might be out front. Or maybe the Dickinson boys. Or Brett Harris, an amazingly talented singer (and auxiliary member of The dB’s for live dates). The constantly changing aggregation – often reaching fifteen or more people on the relatively small stage – ran through the Big Star catalog, and even managed to faithfully recreate the ramshackle piano intro of “Jesus Christ.” By the time the all-in final number “Thank You Friends” got underway, there were cheering fans and moist eyes all around. I can’t speak for the other attendees, but I cam away with the feeling that we all were witness (and party) to something special, something unique.

More reporting on AMA to come in future blog posts.

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