How Music City charmed my Americana heart
By Shilah Morrow
(LSM Sept/Oct 2011/vol. 4 – Issue 5)
Like so many in our community, I’m sitting here just giddy making plans to leave the Live Music Capital of the World for the 12th Annual Americana Music Festival and Conference that takes place Oct. 12-15 in Music City, U.S.A. (Nashville, Tenn.).
I’ve spent a good chunk of my adult life championing artists that were the antithesis of what “Nashville” has come to represent, with many still equating the city only with mainstream country music. The truth is that Nashville is so much more than just the proverbial “Music Row” and the machine I’ve been raging against for so many years. It’s literally brimming with some of the best musicians and songwriters you’ll find anywhere on earth, and there’s a ton of great authentic roots music to be found in clubs all around town. And for the better part of a week each fall, Nashville becomes the epicenter of Americana music. It’s a family reunion that I look forward to each year.
For four fun-filled days, we’ll reconnect with many friends at labels, writers, DJs, club owners and of course songwriters and musicians from all over the world, most of whom we only get to see during Americana week in Nashville. We’ll share our successes (and mistakes) since the last time we met, attack the key issues facing our industry during panel discussions at the conference center during the day, visit Ernest Tubb’s Record Store on lower Broadway, eat cheeseburgers at Robert’s Western World, drink our body weight in alcohol at the Mercy Lounge, and — if history repeats itself —come back to Texas having seen some of the greatest musical performances this community has to offer. Something truly special happens when you put 1,500 people who share a common passion in the same town at the same time. You could be standing next to Robert Plant watching him admire the brilliance of Lucinda Williams, or catch someone like Raul Malo give a show-stopping performance of “Wichita Lineman” with Jesse Dayton on guitar and Glen Campbell beaming in the wings. These are just a few of the magic moments that I’ve been witness to in the nine years that I’ve been going to the conference as a member of the Americana Music Association.
I wasn’t born into this family and would originally have to crash the party. About this time nine years ago, I was working for yet another division of a major record company in Los Angeles and started to see some familiar “red flags.” Having seen the wreckage of a couple of other labels in the rearview mirror, this time I recognized that our days at that company were numbered. Meanwhile, I’d already been moonlighting as a promoter for a couple of years, producing and co-promoting a monthly club night in Los Angeles that we called “Sweethearts of the Rodeo” to help light the creative fire inside me that had all but burned out working in the corporate music world. I had been working for close to a year on a concept, something I referred to as “the master plan,” and realized that it was time to move it to the front burner.
The “master plan” involved bringing the many talented people I knew in different areas of the business who all had an interest in promoting roots, alt-country, outlaw country, Texas troubadours and other singer-songwriters, and go back to the days of Motown, where we’d put all of this talent and resources under one roof. A proverbial “commune” so to speak, in which the creators — songwriters, performers, video directors, producers, graphic artists, web designers, photographers etc. — would all have a space to create and then be placed with a team of support staff who would be able to get their art out to the rest of the world. When the artist “package” was ready to go public, we’d have attorneys, booking agents, marketing people, publicists, stylists, radio peeps, tour and business managers and more on the team to guide and protect this vision and help bring it to the people (and help the artists survive). I sent the “master plan” to three trusted confidants in hopes of rallying their support. My friend Jeremy Tepper (who now programs Sirus|XM’s “Outlaw Country” and “Willie’s Roadhouse” channels) quickly responded and said, “You’re too late. It already exists and it’s called the Americana Music Association. They held their first meeting/conference last year in Nashville and they’ll be meeting again in September. They’re a tight knit group and it’ll be hard to break into but you should try to get there.”
I’ll admit, the Americana Music Association wasn’t exactly what I had envisioned in that “master plan,” but as that wise old song goes, “You can’t always get what you want, but if you try sometimes, you just might find … YOU GET WHAT YOU NEED!” Thanks for the reminder Mick and Keith!
I’d lay in bed at night thinking about what was going to make me happy from the moment I opened my eyes in the morning till the time I shut them again at night. I had come to the point where I couldn’t fake it through one more “cookie monster” band at Ozzfest. I wanted to work only with artists who inspired me and I needed a plan. Not only to get me to the Americana world but one that would set me apart as well. Hmm … I knew how to “throw a party,” and figured that if I could come up with a name, put a bunch of people in a room and show them a good time, I could pass out business cards to potential “clients” and figure out how to make it all work from there. I tossed and turned trying to come up with a name that would resonate with artists, industry folks and fans. I decided to reach for my record collection for inspiration and that night it hit me: “Sin City,” by the Flying Burrito Brothers. It was Gram Parsons, which tied it in with our “Sweethearts of the Rodeo” deal, and according to an L.A. Times article with Chris Hillman, the song made references to “the manipulative influences of greedy recording execs” in the world I had become so frustrated with! It all made perfect sense and I picked up the phone and called Gram’s daughter, Polly (who I’d grown up with since we were toddlers) and asked for her blessing. The next day, I gave my notice at the record label worked for. That was the last “job” I had, until Lone Star Music swept me off my feet.
Just hours after arriving in Nashville, I got a call from my former assistant, telling me that they had just locked the doors on the label for the last time. It was Friday the 13th of September 2002. My brand-spanking new Sin City Social Club threw a crazy after-hours party at the Slow Bar in East Nashville and somehow or another, they all came. Musicians from our L.A. community (which had been getting a lot of great media coverage) all paid for themselves to get there. Our house band, which would later take the name of the “Sin City All Stars,” was lead by Bryson Jones and Jonny Kaplan under the musical direction of well-respected producer Dusty Wakeman. They were joined by friends like Jim Lauderdale, Rosie Flores, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, and many more, and hung out till the wee hours of the morning singing songs like “Six Days on the Road,” “Willin’” and “Redneck Mother.” No one was trying to “get a deal” and there were no rules or set lists or even rehearsals. It was all about spontaneity and the sheer joy of music.
And then the next year, we did it again. And every year since. We also throw Sin City parties during South By Southwest week in Austin (where I live now), and other events throughout the year, but the Americana Festival in Nashville still feels like “home” to me. This year, I’m looking especially forward to returning with my new friends from my Lone Star Music family, who will be experiencing the festivities for the first time. And though I’m still scrambling to finalize the details of our own shindig, I already have a long list (and growing longer!) of all the artists I can’t wait to see while I’m in town — including the Bottle Rockets, Tim Easton, the Jayhawks, Bruce Robison and Kelly Willis, Will Hoge and many more. I’m embarrassed to say that I’m actually late to the Hoge party (he’s been making great records for 12 years and I’m just now catching up), but that’s part of what makes the Americana Festival and the whole scene in general so exciting: There’s always something “new” for even me to discover. And once I do, it always is exactly what I need!
Whether you’re already packing your bags for this year’s AMA Conference and Festival or you’re still on the fence, here’s some tips and words of wisdom from the Cosmic American Cowgirl.
* Make a plan … but don’t be afraid to go “off roading”! Although it’s always a blast seeing my favorite artists, the truth is that nothing beats the rush you get from discovering something new! I usually visit www.americanamusic.org about a week beforehand to put together a list of my “must see” showcases and panel discussions, and then prioritize them, making sure to leave some room for some last minute recommendations from like-minded folks I meet along the journey.
* If you’re an artist, the conference a great place to strut your stuff whether you have an “official showcase” or not! Don’t be afraid to just go, shake a tail feather and hock your wares. And if you don’t have a “team” in place (label, manager, agent, publicist, radio), this is a good place to start assembling one. Just don’t count on making much money selling merch on the trip; this is an industry conference as much as a festival and you’ll probably give away twice as much as you’ll sell. Also remember that a good portion of industry attendees have flown in and don’t usually pack an extra suitcase to bring 100 CDs home with them. Connect with people on a human level, be sure to ask for their business card and then follow up by sending them your music within two weeks after the conference.
* For media and club owners and event producers, it’s a great way to network, promote your club/event/publication/industry services or roster, discover new talent, and check out all the buzz acts at once. If you’re in the business of Americana, get yourself a membership; it’ll only run you $75 a year and you’ll have access to members all year round, plus it’ll pay for itself with the discount on admission to the conference.
* For fans, it really is a festival! For $50 you can buy a wristband that’ll get you into the official showcase venues (there’s six of them this year, with more than a 100 shows).
* Be sure to attend the Honors & Awards show, held at the historic Ryman Auditorium, the mother church of all country music. Hosted by Jim Lauderdale and featuring a house band led by Buddy Miller and friends, it’s never less than a mind-blowing show. Some of the most unforgettable musical collaborations (usually kept under wraps) take place during the awards show and have included Robert Plant with Levon Helm and the final performance from Johnny Cash along with June and the entire Cash family. This year’s award nominees include Lucinda Williams, Hayes Carll, Elizabeth Cook, Plant, the Avett Brothers, the Civil Wars and Mumford and Sons.
* Don’t forget to pack comfortable shoes (or boots), layers (sometimes it gets chilly in Nashville this time of year), your cell phone charger, energy drink of choice and, if you’re anything like me, plenty of Alka Seltzer and ibuprofen for the mornings after! Also, don’t forget to get out a little and check out some of the great things that are uniquely “Music City.” I usually know I’ve arrived when I’m sitting at the “Honky Tonk Grill” at Roberts’ Western World, where $5 will get ya the “recession special” (a PBR, fried bologna sandwich and a Moon Pie). Other favorite Nashville hangs include the Earnest Tubb Record Store and the Loveless Café, which in addition to great food is also home to Music City Roots, a weekly concert and live radio show (held Wednesdays at 7 p.m.)
* Wanna dress like a superstar? Be sure to shop for duds at Manuel’s Exclusive Clothier (1922 Broadway). Manuel has been making Nashville look good for decades. He used to be the head tailor for the world famous Nudie, who was responsible for Gram Parsons’ famous “Sin City” suit adorned with naked ladies, pills and pot leaves. Manuel picked up where Nudie left off and his creations are truly a work of art and can be found in museums nationwide, including the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and even the Smithsonian. Be sure to bring your “black Amex” as most of Manuel’s “custom-made” outfits normally sell from $5,000 to $7,500. But there’s also a ready-to-wear line that’s a little more friendly to the average budget.
* For detailed information on the Americana Music Association, including membership details, the Honors & Awards show, panel and showcase schedule, conference registration, wristbands and more, visit www.americanamusic.org.