It’s Americana week in Nashville and Americana Music Association executive director Jed Hilly was fired up with excitement about it when he sat down for our CMT.com interview at the Ryman Auditorium’s Café Lula.
On Wednesday (Sept. 21), the Mother Church of Country Music will host the 15th annual Americana Music Association Honors & Awards. The night will honor five lifetime achievement honorees including Bob Weir, a founding member of the Grateful Dead, and celebrate nominees in six music categories.
Throughout the show, Buddy Miller will lead an all-star band to back 22 acts representing an amalgam of American roots music including Rodney Crowell, Steve Earle, Jason Isbell, Alison Krauss, Parker Millsap, John Moreland, Margo Price and the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band.
George Strait will be there to perform a musical tribute to Wagonmaster Award recipient Jim Lauderdale, marking one of the first times in music the King of Country will share a bill with a founding member of the Dead. The legendary Woody Guthrie will also be honored.
In between sips of fruit tea, Hilly was all smiles at the table while talking about the AMA’s accomplishments since its first convention in 2000.
In May, Billboard introduced the new Americana/Folk Albums chart, following the January launch of the U.K. equivalent. In 2011, Merriam-Webster added the word Americana to its dictionary, and in 2009, Levon Helm’s Electric Dirt won the first Grammy for best Americana album at the Recording Academy’s 51st annual Grammy Awards.
The annual AMA event has also staged music memories that will last a lifetime. The inaugural Americana Music Awards in 2002 closed with one of the final public performances by the late Johnny Cash together with his bride the late June Carter Cash. That night, Cash was presented the Spirit of Americana Free Speech Award and sang background vocals on “Sinking in the Lonesome Sea,” a relatively obscure title from the Carter Family’s extensive song catalog. Then Cash and his wife sang a duet of “Temptation,” a Jo Stafford pop hit from 1947.
Hilly will continue to act as an advocate for the genre until he sees a greater societal change where musicians are recognized as the geniuses they are and compensated fairly for their contributions to culture. His biggest concern is that American music fans will miss their next class of legends as music continues to compete with other forms of entertainment in the Internet age.
“Americana music 15 years after Sept. 11 is absolutely our greatest export,” he said. “The biggest goal that I have, and I don’t know if it’s tangible or realistic, but in Ireland, a working artist who pays his bills by way of his art, doesn’t pay taxes. In France, a painter is revered and respected. We don’t have that in America. Rosanne Cash should not have to stand before Congress to say, ‘Pay the artists.’
“Fans need to appreciate intellectual property because if they don’t, the creative life blood of our society will go away. The problem that music has with technology is that it’s so dang easy [to access]. It’s moved too fast. Fans need to understand that art is important and that music is important. They need to pay for it and if we don’t pay for it our favorite artists won’t be there anymore.”
Intellectual property will be a hot topic of conversation in panel discussions at the 17th annual Americana Music Festival and Conference starting Tuesday (Sept. 20). The five-night event will be held across 14 Nashville venues and feature live music by more than 215 acts poised to be 2017’s most-talked about entertainers.
Panel discussions at the downtown Sheraton will include a conversation on where country and Americana collide, as well as a keynote address from T Bone Burnett. On Thursday (Sept. 22) afternoon, Weir will sit down with Miller for a performance and interview at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum. On Friday (Sept. 23), Burnett and writer, film producer and scholar Jon Taplin will address the fight to save American culture and democracy from Internet monopolies.
“If you ask a Brit on the street, ‘What is Americana music?’ They will tell you that it’s based on American traditions,” Hilly added. “They might not be as specific and they certainly won’t be as colloquial. My definition is if you can taste the dirt through your ears, that’s Americana. My definition is an artist who writes a song to tell a story in the best way he can or she can through music.”
Here’s a complete list of the 2016 Americana Honors & Awards nominees:
Album of the Year
Something More Than Free, Jason Isbell
Producer: Dave Cobb
The Ghosts of Highway 20, Lucinda Williams
Producers: Greg Leisz, Tom Overby and Lucinda Williams
The Very Last Day, Parker Millsap
Producers: Parker Millsap and Gary Paczosa
Traveller, Chris Stapleton
Producers: Dave Cobb and Chris Stapleton
Artist of the Year
Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell
Lake Street Dive
Milk Carton Kids
Tedeschi Trucks Band
Nathaniel Rateliff & the Night Sweats
Song of the Year
“24 Frames,” Jason Isbell
“Dime Store Cowgirl,” Kacey Musgraves
“Hands of Time,” Margo Price
“S.O.B.,” Nathaniel Rateliff & The Nightsweats