A six-day conference on Americana music would suggest that all the artists were from where we expect Americana music to originate: America.
Not so. While the Americana Music Festival and Conference, which wrapped on Sunday in Nashville, primarily focused on artists from the States, a good number were from Britain, where the genre is becoming better known and where artists are feeling more enabled to play music that appeals to their sensibilities for string-based music that harkens back to traditional country icons, from Hank Williams to Dolly Parton. The hope among many is that the next Margo Price, Chris Stapleton or Sturgill Simpson won’t come from Tennessee but from the UK.
John Prine review – legendary songwriter looks back to the beginning. The pioneer of the singer-songwriter movement performed his first album in its entirety – and many of its songs ring as true today as 45 years ago. “Before, people [in the UK] put your music in folk or blues categories. But there is newfound ownership of this genre and the origin of it as well,” said Yola Carter, an unsigned country singer from outside Bristol, who performed songs from her forthcoming album throughout Nashville last week.
The conference, which featured familiar artists such as Emmylou Harris, John Prine, and Dwight Yoakam as well as dozens of new faces, is geared to distinguish artists whose music falls outside the narrow aesthetics of commercial country radio in an effort to grow a community among industry leaders and audiences. The Americana Music Association, the not-for-profit that organized the festival, has had early successes in promoting Americana. There are now three Grammy categories dedicated to Americana artists, Billboard now charts its best sellers, and the Merriam-Webster dictionary now defines Americana as a legitimate musical genre.
Effects of those efforts are rippling across the Atlantic. Just four years ago, the Americana Music Association UK formed with similar goals. This year the organization accomplished two benchmarks: its campaign to have an Americana Album sales chart tracked by the Official Charts Company was a success and in February it hosted its first annual UK Americana Awards featuring performances by a slate of local talent including Billy Bragg, Danny and the Champions of The World, Bear’s Den, Robert Vincent and Cale Tyson.
Stevie Freeman, the organization’s board chair, says the charts and awards are both talkers that allow DJs and others to get engaged on a deeper level with the music. “The more the people mention it, the bigger it’ll get,” she says. Next year’s awards will take place in February with an accompanying conference similar to the one in Nashville.
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England, of course, is a root country for Americana music as many of its ballads and folk songs that traveled to these shores became the fundamental material for what developed early last century. The folk revival of the 1950s was in full swing in the UK and by the 1960s, British groups like the Faces, the Rolling Stones and the Beatles, all championed Nashville music through direct covers or through co-opting a bit of strum and twang. Freeman, also a co-owner of Union Music Store, a record shop in Lewes that specializes in Americana, says that the resurgence of interest can be traced to the success of Mumford and Sons, a band that pushed against conventional pop hitmakers because of their use of stringed instruments and low-key production. They represent, she says, the millennial generation’s punk rock.
For those bands, breaking into America is incredibly difficult due to the high cost of touring and an entry process that often makes it difficult to get in or stay for a reasonable duration. The British Underground aims to change that. In Nashville, the London-based organization, which is funded by Arts Council England, a state-funded institution, helps subsidize 75% of costs for British musicians to travel abroad and play international showcases here and abroad at important industry fetes like the South By Southwest music conference in Austin and, this year, the Americana festival in Nashville where the organization hosted an afternoon-long barbecue on Saturday outside the Groove, a record store on the city’s east side.
The hope is that, once here, the British artists will get signed or, at the very least, get buzz that leads to favorable reviews, press mentions, airplay, and invitations back to tour. Crispin Parry, the organization’s CEO, describes the grant money as “a stepping stone”.
“We are giving them the best possible opportunity here,” he says. Artists are required to be organized enough to receive invitations to the showcases and, once in, have to produce a business plan for how the money will be spent. Once chosen, the organization does all the marketing and introductions. Each artist receives up to £5,000. “That’s career changing,” he says. And it was for Robert Vincent, one of three British artists who received grants to attend the Nashville conference. By the weekend, Vincent had signed to a label, Last Chance records of Arkansas, home to favorite US Americana acts Tim Easton, Slobberbone’s Brent Best, and American Aquarium.
Giving independent artists chances to play overseas is a good investment for the British government. According to May 2016 data from the PRS for Music Foundation, the organization that manages the British Underground funding, for every £1 spent on artist grants, the same artists generated an additional £8.90 in revenues back home. Indeed, as artist funding has increased 143% over the last 12 months to £6,823,247, money benefiting both the UK music industry and British economy increased to £4m.
The cultural exchange goes both ways. A panel discussion on Friday among representatives of British record labels, the British Underground and the Americana Music Association UK was geared to help US artists navigate the UK. In many ways, Freeman pointed out, the opportunities in her home country are legion for Americana artists due to regional DJs, festivals, a network of independent record stores, and an audience hungry for the music. In fact, before he became a phenomenon in the US, Sturgill Simpson first showed up in England where he signed to Loose Records, an Americana label that also put records out by Neko Case, Hurray for the Riff Raff, and the Felice Brothers.
At last Saturday’s barbecue the division between the US and UK was nonexistent as the showcasing artists showed they were just as original as their counterparts in the States. Inside an adjoining record shop, folk duos and solo acts performed, including Lewis & Leigh, a harmony duo from Mississippi and Wales, respectively, who played haunting songs reminiscent of Gillian Welch and David Rawlings.
Outside the shop, under the blistering heat, an afternoon of British acts rotated through sets. The day started early with a set by William the Conqueror, the alter ego of Ruarri Joseph who, in a trio setting, played stomping country rock, at the end veering into stoner grunge reminiscent of Built to Spill.
The breakout performance was by Yola Carter and her five-member band who played country gospel driven with the driving energy of old-fashioned soul music. Carter, a former vocalist with Massive Attack, presented autobiographical songs, some of which dealt with the discrimination she experienced, not just as a black women growing up outside Bristol, but one drawn to country music. Her songs brandished big hooks and she filled them with stirring vocals, shouts, and yes, yodeling.
Afterwards, Carter said country music offered what real life didn’t when she was younger: community. “I’ve never been much of an in-crowd person. Where I grew up I was the only black person. So I felt a sense of isolation and also a sense of isolation musically.”
In Nashville, community was all around her. In this town, yodeling is not just natural, it’s also a mark of celebration.
“You can’t yodel sad,” she said. “It’s a happy way to sing.”
This article was first published in The Guardian