Now that we’re on the other side of the longest Americana Music Festival & Conference on record — stretching five nights from Wednesday (Sept. 18) to almost midnight on Sunday (Sept. 22) — I’ve found myself counting the many different ways that the music community has of consciously playing up its roots.
During my favorite Americana Honors and Awards Show performance, Shovels & Rope aimed a spotlight on the fairly recent past — namely, theirs. The husband-and-wife duo of Cary Ann Hearst and Michael Trent did a warmhearted, in-the-moment rendition of their song “Birmingham,” which tells the story — all-American tall-tale style — of them finding each other and starting their band from scratch just a few years ago.
They’d go on to win the emerging artist and song of the year awards that night, the latter for that very tune. And the way they locked eyes with each other as they sang it and lingered over the lines that describe them making something out of nothing let the audience share in the freshness of their triumph.
The festival’s closing show featured Lucinda Williams playing through her quarter century-old self-titled album from top to bottom. She introduced the bulk of the songs by mentioning the more established singers who have been brave enough to record them and acknowledging the musicians who’d passed since they played on her album.
Besides drawing attention to the fact that Lucinda Williams is being remastered and rereleased for its 25th anniversary, Williams seemed to be commemorating the uphill climb of her early career and the moment people first began to regard her as a potentially important songwriter.
At that morning’s gospel brunch — while as many people as the Station Inn would hold scarfed down fried chicken and syrup-drenched waffles — the McCrary Sisters pulled off their own formidable feat of time travel. Familiar to Americana audiences from years of singing backup for Buddy Miller, Mike Farris and loads of other acts, and finally at the point where they’re featured as headliners in their own right, the four sisters dared play a set that veered from disco and funk-inspired contemporary R&B grooves to snappy, countrified ‘40s-style a cappella gospel.
In singing “Dig a Little Deeper,” just as their father, the Rev. Sam McCrary, used to with his renowned group the Fairfield Four, they were proving exactly how deep and personal their musical roots are.
I’d seen a similar historical narrative unfurled at the Grand Ole Opry House earlier in the week when Old Crow Medicine Show became the newest members of Opry and, quite possibly, the first inductees with a frontman, Ketch Secor, sporting both a youthful fauxhawk and Roy Acuff’s spirit of old-school showmanship.
Through a video produced for the occasion, the words of Opry announcer Eddie Stubbs and Opry members Marty Stuart and Dierks Bentley and Secor’s prepared remarks, Old Crow was presented as a busking street-corner-string-band-made-good in the tradition of such old-time Opry acts as the Fruit Jar Drinkers. Anyone who didn’t already know Old Crow through the band’s signature song “Wagon Wheel” would immediately recognize that they fit squarely within the Opry’s string band lineage.
On a visit to the headquarters of Jack White’s Third Man Records on Friday, I witnessed the unveiling of a fascinating, backward-looking behemoth of a boxed set. At 24 pounds, The Rise and Fall of Paramount Records Volume 1, 1917-27 — a collaboration between Third Man and the late John Fahey’s Revenant Records — holds 800 songs (both on vinyl LPs and a USB drive) and the history of the pioneering record label Paramount, right down to vintage print ads that suggest just how off-the-cuff genre categories were at the time. The meticulously assembled set will definitely be a luxury item but one that nonetheless helps place the entire history of American popular music in proper context.
When I left Third Man’s surreally swank, retrofied digs, I headed straight over to the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum for an event promoting music critic and historian David Cantwell’s book Merle Haggard: The Running Kind. It’s not a biography of the Hag, but rather a close reading of a body of work that spans a half century, against the backdrop of radical social, political, musical and personal change.
Cantwell devotes his book to illustrating how much richer and more complex Haggard’s music is than the Country Music Hall of Famer is given credit for anytime he’s reduced to the guy behind “Okie from Muskogee” and “The Fightin’ Side of Me.”
And when it comes to motivations for summoning the past, doing justice to a towering, expectation-defying artist struck me as being an excellent one.