The most illuminating 20 seconds of Nashville’s 2013 Americana Festival and Conference was Duane Eddy’s guitar introduction to “Rebel Rouser” Wednesday night at the Ryman Auditorium. Eddy had just received the Americana Music Association’s Lifetime Achievement Award for Instrumentalist, and in introducing the award legendary BBC-radio DJ Bob Harris had described how in 1958 a 20-year-old Eddy had transformed the hillbilly guitar licks he had learned as a kid in Arizona by drenching them in amplifier resonance. When the 75-year-old musician came out in a black cowboy hat and silver goatee, he played the two-bar opening lick for his first top-10 hit with that same signature guitar tone—low, rumbling and ominous. It was the sound of a rebel who was not going to burn off his adolescent energy in a burst of pop enthusiasm but who was drawing on a longtime tradition for a long-term struggle.
Standing behind Eddy was the AMA Awards Show house band, featuring two guitarists—Buddy Miller (former music director for Emmylou Harris and Robert Plant’s Band of Joy) and Larry Campbell (former music director for Bob Dylan and Levon Helm)—whose faces were just beaming at the sound of Eddy’s instrument. You could hear the clear echo of that sound in Miller’s and Campbell’s own playing, as they proved by jumping in on “Rebel Rouser.” You could hear that same echo when the Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach joined Miller and Campbell in backing up Dr. John on “Walk on Gilded Splinters,” after the New Orleans pianist had won a Lifetime Achievement Award for Performance. You could hear it when Richard Thompson joined Miller and Campbell for a version of Thompson’s “Good Things Happen to Bad People.”
That bottom-pitched, reverb-laden riffing was a kind of glue that held the five-day festival together. You could hear it Thursday night at Third & Lindsey when John Leventhal played behind his wife Rosanne Cash’s singing “A World of Strange Design” or when the Wood Brothers’ Oliver Wood played archtop guitar on “Postcards from Hell.” You could hear it Friday night at the Cannery Ballroom when Miller sang a duet with Regina McCrary on “Gasoline and Matches.” You could hear it Saturday night at Mercy Lounge when the Bottle Rockets’ Brian Henneman and John Horton ground up their guitars underneath “Thousand Dollar Car.”
It’s significant that these riffs avoided the fast-and-trebly approach of most rock guitarists. By going slow-and-low, they were emphasizing the adult aspects of the blues and hillbilly traditions. These were songs about work and marriage, not school and dating. These songs weren’t in a hurry to talk about tonight; they were taking their time to talk about yesterday, today and tomorrow.
Americana is a big umbrella, and there were a lot of acoustic string bands and solo singer-songwriters at the festival as well—and some of them were even good. But this year’s festival was dominated by bands playing electrified folk-rock and country-rock, and it was fascinating to hear how both halves of each formula could be heard wrestling with one another—the timeless observations on right and wrong being updated but never obscured by changing technology and social context. Several times during the festival, Billy Bragg offered his new definition for Americana: “Country music for people who like the Smiths.” As an American, I prefer the formulations, “Country music for people who like the Replacements” and “Blues for people who like Husker Du,” but the point is well taken.
One of the odd subplots of the conference was the way foreigners such as England’s Bragg and Thompson, Canada’s Corb Lund and Australia’s Paul Kelly made nervous jokes about presented as “Americana” artists. Their music is so obviously rooted in American sources that the concept made sense, even when their lyrics were specific to their homeland. Even when Thompson sang about British places and motorcycle brands in “1952 Vincent Black Lightning” or when Kelly sang about celebrating Christmas at the height of summer on “How To Make Gravy,” their debt to Bob Dylan and Woody Guthrie was clear. Kelly, by the way, was the subject of a terrific documentary film, Paul Kelly: Stories of Me, which was shown during the festival. When Kelly played “Deeper Water” in the movie, you could hear the echo of Eddy’s guitar all over again.
You could also hear it when James McMurtry played “What’s the Matter” at the Bristol Rhythm & Roots Reunion, a delightful festival at the eastern edge of Tennessee that overlaps with the AMA Fest and books many of the same acts. “What’s the Matter” was one of two new, unrecorded songs that McMurtry played during an impressive set in a city park. He didn’t play the AMA this year, but the evidence that he was writing strong new material even now after a prolific career was heartening. The same had been true in Nashville, where the Bottle Rockets, Rodney Crowell and the Wood Brothers all premiered songs that haven’t been released yet. Rosanne Cash played her new album, due in January, from start to finish, and it featured her best songwriting in years.
When we go to festivals and conferences, we often go looking for the next big thing by checking out all the fledgling acts. There were some interesting new artists at the AMA (White Buffalo, St. Paul & the Broken Bones and the Ben Miller Band) but they were intriguing more for their potential than their actual accomplishment. The most encouraging news for the future was the terrific new songs being unveiled by older artists. Cash’s “A River Runs Through Me,” Crowell’s “East Houston Blues,” McMurtry’s “Copper Canteen” and the Bottle Rockets’ “Goes So Fast, Won’t Slow Down” are all good reasons to feel good about 2014.