Retired forester Brant Miller is on a Nashville rooftop, spruiking his band’s prizewinning ditty. As we survey the city’s ever-evolving skyline from the hip Thompson hotel in The Gulch, Miller tells me “The Roadkill Bill” was inspired by a Tennessee law permitting human consumption of roadkill such as deer. At the time, the legislation inspired a truckload of jokes – as well as the lighthearted tune from Miller’s trio, 2nd Nature. The band’s line-up includes a colleague from Miller’s days at the state’s Wildlife Resources Agency, which still administers the roadkill law.
As Miller hands over a CD of his band’s latest tunes (the mixes aren’t final but the selection includes a song about a motel, cigarettes, cheap perfume and a love triangle that’s very Raymond Chandler meets the Coen brothers), his cap catches my eye. Is that … a plectrum poking through the brim? Yes it is, which is one way of announcing your musical chops to a rooftop party packed with people who are deeply into Americana – a genre christened only in 1995. According to the Americana Music Association (AMA), the style is “contemporary music that incorporates elements of various American roots music styles, including country, roots-rock, folk, bluegrass, R&B and blues, resulting in a distinctive roots-oriented sound that lives in a world apart from the pure forms of the genres upon which it may draw”. AMA executive director Jed Hilly describes Americana as “virtually the default sound of live music on late-night network television”. If you need examples, think Steve Earle, Alison Krauss, Wilco, Lucinda Williams and the like.
The AMA celebrates the genre with one hell of a hoedown – and it turns out that this year’s AmericanaFest coincides with my long-awaited visit to Nashville, also known as Music City. For a girl such as me who grew up on a steady diet of Kenny and Dolly, the schedule is something close to nirvana. Taking up the best part of a week, AmericanaFest incorporates everything from record-label launches (best of luck, Folsom Records) to singer-songwriter interviews, book readings, panel discussions, a dizzying roster of gigs all around town and, to wrap things up, a gospel brunch. Hallelujah.
The festival’s pinnacle, the awards show, is scheduled midway through the week. I’m late filing into the downtown Ryman Auditorium, not expecting the long queue, metal detectors and bag searches at the entrance to the historic venue that hosted the Grand Ole Opry before the show moved to Opryland, in suburbia, in 1974. Inside, I’m surprised to find my backside parked on a bare timber pew – at least the Grand Ole Opry House cushions its pews – and throughout the night I shift from one buttock to the other. That’s partly because of the unforgiving seat but just as much about the bloke in a hip fedora seated directly in front of me. To be fair, it’s a great hat and I have ample opportunity to study its taupe felt, high dimpled crown and flat brim. I contemplate asking whether he could possibly remove it – especially since every time he tips forward to speak to the young lady in the next row, it’s like the sun coming up, entirely blocking my view of the stage. Instead, I tilt from side to side to see Jim Lauderdale on hosting duties, stalwarts such as John Prine, Iris DeMent, Van Morrison and Emmylou Harris, Nashville power couple Jason Isbell and Amanda Shires, and performers I’ve never heard before such as Rhiannon Giddens. At one point, Kasey Chambers is namechecked – and I lean forward to peer past the hat. Australia’s hillbilly queen is indeed in the front row.
We get word that the after-party is at Robert’s Western World – a Lower Broadway honky-tonk where the shelves are lined with cowboy boots. After an hour of balancing our beers as we squeeze through one bachelorette party after another, we call it a night. Certainly, I’ve squeezed a lot of musical fun into one midweek day. At Howlin’ Books – an indie bookstore on 8th Avenue South that specialises in music literature – I’ve rocked up late for a Q&A with John Oates. There’s standing room only so I make a radical decision – to dive onto the floor to sit cross-legged at Oates’s feet. Best decision ever. I enjoy a full-frontal, unimpeded view of the musician, who looks pint-sized but is the same height as me – so perhaps not so tiny after all. Other things learnt from the encounter: Oates is left-handed but plays guitar right-handed, and he co-wrote Icehouse’s 1987 hit, “Electric Blue”. Later, I hear that trendy East Nashville is home to a business called Haulin’ Oats, which sells organic oatmeal blends in mason jars.
From the bookstore, I zoom over to Music Row – an area separated from downtown by an interstate highway. The neighbourhood is home to record-label headquarters, radio stations and recording studios, including RCA Studio B, which recorded the likes of Elvis Presley and Dolly Parton, and is known for helping to develop the Nashville sound. I’m headed to the “Hillbillies and Hotdogs” party at Compass Records, which has a roster that includes Australia’s The Waifs. Once handed a local Yazoo beer – thanks y’all – I head upstairs into a studio for intimate showcases from A. J. Croce (son of Jim) on piano and an acoustic set from Colin Hay. The former Men at Work frontman confesses what a shock it was to go from playing packed stadiums to an audience of just four people in Melbourne, and performs a haunting version of “Down Under”. Again, I must peer past a bloody big hat. This is where I first bump into Brant Miller, who’s curious about Hay but doesn’t know much about his career.
The thing about a really good festival, besides bumping into the same people all over the place, is the exquisite pain that comes with going to one gig, knowing you’re missing out on something equally fabulous at another. Turns out, on that day legendary Memphis songwriter Don Bryant gave a goosebump-inducing performance of his hit “I Can’t Stand the Rain” to a packed audience at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum. I have to satisfy myself with watching it later on YouTube.
Still, can’t complain. My musical highlight comes at the Egyptian-style Downtown Presbyterian Church. I slide into a pew – naturally, a big hat slides in front of me – to hear Joe Henry perform a set that includes “Trampoline”, but not my favourite song, “Ohio Air Show Plane Crash”. Never mind. Here come Alabama sisters Allison Moorer and Shelby Lynne – each an Americana star in her own right but promoting their first joint album. Hearing them rip up Nirvana’s “Lithium”, I could have died and gone to heaven.
AmericanaFest also scheduled Australia-specific showcases featuring the likes of Chambers, Hay and All Our Exes Live in Texas. Another Australian artist came to the notice of Rolling Stone, which named Ruby Boots among the 20 best things at this year’s festival. The good news for Americana fans Down Under is that the first annual Australian Americana Music Honours night will unfold at Melbourne’s Thornbury Theatre on Monday. The line-up includes emerging talent such as Boots, and Nashville veterans Old Crow Medicine Show. Kasey Chambers, along with Out on the Weekend festival founder Brian “BT” Taranto, will receive Americana Vanguard Awards from the AMA. If you’re going along, here’s a tip: steer clear of those big hats.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Sep 30, 2017 as "Hats off Americana". Subscribe here.