Tuesday, September 23, 2008
– By Jeffrey B. Remz
The annual fest of the Americana Music Association had the usual requirements of such a gathering - a lot of music and schmoozing, panels to discuss the finer points of such topics as "Artistic Development Teamwork: The Band of Heathens" and "State of Americana radio" and the chance for artists to slip their latest music to journalists, DJs and industry officials.
This year's event, held from this past Wednesday through Saturday, attracted more than 800 registrants, mainly from the U.S., but also from the Canada, Norway, Germany, The Netherlands, Australia, Scotland and even Kazakhstan (no, it was not Borat). "A slight increase, but still an increase," said AMA Executive Director Jed Hilly Tuesday. "I think we were in the high 700s last year." Hilly said hotel reservations through the AMA were way up, which he said Nashville city officials said "was a very good sign. I think that's a reflection coming for a great event. We stepped it up a little. I think having Levon (Helm) kick it off drew a 'wow.'"
Another positive was that every act winning an award at the AMA awards show showed up, except for Hayes Carll, who was in England. That included Alison Krauss and Robert Plant, who even attended a session on Saturday to hear T Bone Burnett be interviewed. "I couldn't be happier," said Hilly.
Hilly thought sales were up for people buying wristbands to go to the nightly showcases, although he was uncertain of the number. "I know the Mercy Lounge closed their doors twice," he said. "First time that's happened." One of the times was the Saturday night show of Buddy Miller.
"I know The Basement (club) has come back and said it's been the best week ever," Hilly said.
Hilly estimated that 9,000 people attended the conference day and night over the course of 4 days (people could be counted multiple times for day they attended, and that also included 2,000 at the Helm show). The audience was almost exclusively white and tended to be people in the 30-to-50 year old range.
Since the conference is all about the music, the band among the unknowns that drew a lot of praise was Girls Guns and Glory from the Boston area. Three people praised them in unsolicited comments about the band Saturday night. "I thought it was great," said the band's lead singer Ward Hayden on Tuesday back on tour in Albany, N.Y. "We all had a bunch of fun. It was out first time down to Nashville...The crowd was very kind. All of us walked away pretty happy."
"I like them. I thought they were strong," said Seth Funderburk of Sea Note Recording of Myrtle Beach, S.C. Tuesday. "I didn't know a whole lot about them so I didn't know what to expect. They fit right in with the Cross Canadian, alt.-country side of the movement."
"I'm not firmly sure what they are yet, but they put on a pretty decent show," said veteran radio promoter and manager Brad Hunt. "I was taken by surprise."
Funderburk also liked Austin's Band of Heathens, which several other people touted.
Cow Island Music's head Bill Hunt said he was glad to see Jason & the Scorchers, "who I've been a fan of since day one, but I actually never had seen them before live. They were just incredibly energetic and a lot of fun. Being from Boston, I had never see Girls Guns and Glory. I thought they were excellent. The one person who I had no knowledge of was Paul Thorn, and I was very impressed by him. Great band. Great songs. He had total command of the audience."
John O'Neill, a White Plains, N.Y. attorney who represents Levon Helm, said, "really liked Paul Thorn, and also Girls Guns and Glory. They seemed like a fresh band. I just liked the music they were playing. I thought Paul Thorn was really different from most of the music. He just stood out, a charismatic performer."
O'Neill also enjoyed the workshop part of the AMAs. "I'm probably not the typical attendee. I went to see Levon perform and also attend some of the seminar conferences." He attended several business and legal workshops. "It gave me some insight as an outsider to the industry that I didn't have. It was helpful to me."
For Charles Newman, who runs and owns Mother West Records in Los Angeles, the AMAs proved a chance to get people to learn about one of his label's artists Austin Hartley-Leonard. "The (workshop) panels stopped at noon, and everybody came down to get the free lunch that we were involved in. His record just came out, and we're trying to find the right people to work with us." Harley-Leonard played a set at a club on Lower Broadway, something that happened on several days of the conference. "It's such a community there in that style of music. Everybody is into it. It's a good spirit."
A tribute concert to Blind Alfred Reed at the Country Music Hall of Fame stood out for several people. "The Blind Alfred Tribute to me was amazing," said Bill Bowker, of radio station KRSH of Santa Rosa, Cal. "I don't think I'd ever have the chance to see that anywhere else. That was a big plus."
Tim O'Brien hosted the show, which also included Kathy Mattea, Connie Smith and Charlie McCoy playing songs of the West Virginia songwriter and performer Reed.
In quickly looking back and ahead, Hilly said this year's version reached a new level. "We are doing things by our fingernails. What happened this year was significant because as an organization we've been pushing the rock up the hill. Unlike Sisphysus, we made it to a plateau. There's a huge hill that we still need to climb, but everybody is climbing that hill. What this conference firmly demonstrated is that this is real. This is credible. This is a unique experience. This is a genre of music. We have Robert Plant on stage pointing at the AMA banner and saying this is a really great institution. He talked about the integrity of music without people going 'baby baby.'"
"Whether we made money or not, we firmly established ourselves as players in the game, Anybody who previously discredited us must go away or rethink how they're running their business."
Hunt said, "The problem is whether the conference defines what it is or not. In the early stages, we're talking about 10 years ago, it was defined as alternative country. Now all of a sudden...whatever you what to define what it is, there are all elements of it. There's bluegrass. There's this. There's that. Is there even alternative country any more? My disappointment, and it's a huge disappointment is the lack of radio support for the conference, the diminishing numbers of stations which attend is startling."
About 20 stations sent representatives to the conference. "That's not healthy," Hunt said. "At some point, someone's got to take a look at this thing and decide, is it the economy?" He pointed out the conference would cost each person about $1,000 for registration, hotel, food and transportation.
As for the future, Hilly said, "We've grown and we've go to be able to grow with it as an organization," Hilly said. "Organizationally, we got to figure out where we go from here. We need to be able to support who we have become. We appear to be much bigger than we are. We rely on a couple of hundred volunteers to pull this all off. We need to look at this organizationally how do we sustain this, and we need to reach out to other music communities in other parts of the country. We've been doing that over time. We need to have a presence in different places."