Popular Movement 

Convention suggests Americana format is still viable

Convention suggests Americana format is still viable

Several weeks ago, when the Gavin Report trade magazine announced that it was going to discontinue its Americana chart, radio programmers, independent record labels, musicians, and music fans were dismayed by the news. Now, however, people are beginning to realize that the demise of Gavin’s Americana chart may not have hurt the cause of alternative country music—it may actually have helped. It certainly seemed to help the first annual Americana Music Association convention, held Nov. 10-11 at the new downtown Hilton. Whether because of concern about the format’s future, or as a show of solidarity from a famously independent group of grass-roots mavericks, attendance at the two-day convention more than doubled the expected number.

The Americana Music Association is a fledgling trade association designed to promote public awareness of the genre while bolstering its economic viability. Situated symbolically across from the new Country Music Hall of Fame, the AMA convention drew 367 registered participants, including musicians, writers, label staffers, and radio programmers. But actual attendance was over 400, according to AMA volunteer Renee Grace—far beyond the 150 initially expected. What’s more, she said, in defiance of the bad news from Gavin, “it’s been very positive.” The upbeat, almost insurrectionary spirit of the conference seemed to take everyone by surprise. “The turnout shows how much faith people have in the music,” said Bill Lloyd, who performed with Greg Trooper at an early-morning First Amendment Center keynote presentation.

Balancing the broad, freewheeling, omnivorous tastes of Americana fans with the demands of advertisers and retailers was a recurring topic. First off, the name is Americana—not alt-country, not “no depression music,” not twangcore or insurgent country. Throughout the convention, there was agreement that for the sake of a united front, the hard-to-define music and its surrounding industry needs to coalesce behind a specific brand, and that brand is Americana. “I’ve been saying ‘Americana’ on the air for four years now,” said Mattson Rainer of the New Braunfels, Texas, station KNBT-FM, to cheering and clapping from the approximately 200 conventioneers at a Saturday-afternoon radio panel.

Even if someone makes a good record, said Jeff Weiss, founder of the online independent-music store Miles of Music, a record label faces an uphill battle convincing a distributor it’s worth selling—and the distributor then has to convince retailers. In this regard, artists as hard to classify as those under the Americana umbrella—which encompasses everything from honky-tonk to bluegrass to low-fi indie rock—would seem to face an especially tough struggle. For that reason, panels stressed the need for Americana artists to develop some savvy about the means of production, promotion, and distribution, from the development of press kits and promotional material to building relationships with retailers and radio stations.

At the same time, champions of Americana radio, such as Rainer and program director Mark Keefe of North Carolina’s WNCW-FM, said that playlist diversity is a strength, not a weakness. Both Keefe and Rainer said that listeners have come to expect different kinds of music from their stations. “I hope we never get branded enough that we have to play Faith Hill, Shania Twain, or Garth Brooks,” said Liz Opoka of the cable music channel Music Choice. Yet Keefe cautioned against overestimating Americana’s recognition factor. If you hang out with the same people all the time, he said, you can get convinced more people know about your station and your format than is true.

As amorphous as Americana may be, though, its vitality as evidenced at the convention is undeniable. Throughout the weekend, conventioneers were served a smorgasbord of American music, from the bar-busting rockabilly of Sleepy LaBeef to the stark honky-tonk of Mike Ireland & Holler. Any format that finds room for these artists, along with Porter Wagoner, rising bluegrass star Rhonda Vincent, and the rootsy pop smarts of Bill Lloyd, is worth fighting for. Without the Gavin Report chart—which kept no track of sales and had no discernable impact on them—the Americana Music Association will have to find a new and better way to keep score of the music’s impact. If the convention is any indication, maybe there will be more to tally.

—Jim Ridley

Holidays in style

Benita Hill’s third CD for Watermark Records, Winter Fire and Snow, features the popular area vocalist exploring holiday standards, but the disc differs from most Christmas offerings in that it’s a live date. Hill’s leads are nicely backed by the trio of pianist Kevin Madill, bassist Jim Ferguson, and drummer Bob Mater. The CD includes several original numbers as well, the most memorable of which is “What Will You Give Me for Christmas,” a song Hill cowrote with Mike Kernell, Pam Wolfe, and Sandy Mason.

Hill, who penned “Two Piña Coladas” and “It’s Your Song” for Garth Brooks, ranks among the city’s finest jazz and pop vocalists. Here, she gives these holiday selections a distinctive touch; such songs as “Santa Baby” are much more musically intriguing and arresting than the typical retreads of “Joy to the World.”

Two dollars from the sale of every CD will benefit Gilda’s Club, a nonprofit support center for people with cancer and their families, and Alive Hospice, which ensures quality at-home care for people with terminal illnesses. Winter Fire and Snow is available at area record stores or by writing to Watermark Records, P.O. Box 50947, Nashville, TN 37205.

—Ron Wynn

Organic compound

Organist Moe Denham, a longtime soul, jazz, and blues stalwart, recently returned to Nashville after spending the past few years on the road. He’s been making a number of local appearances recently, and he’ll be playing this Saturday afternoon at Jazz in Bellevue Center.

Denham’s résumé is impressive: He was playing with the immortal guitarist Wes Montgomery at 21, and he’s also toured with such giants as Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown and Richard “Groove” Holmes. A blistering, funky instrumental soloist, Denham is also a solid vocalist. He shines at both on his current CD, Little Blue Volkswagen (Burnt Weenie).

The 11 selections include such standard items as “Over the Rainbow” and “Honeysuckle Rose,” but Denham also covers potent rhythm tunes like “Bugs Boogie” and “Rapid Shave.” His solos reflect the approach of players like Jimmy McGriff and Charles Earland, who place more emphasis on backbeats and grooves than on swirling lines and flashy statements.

The date was produced by Joey DeFrancesco, another fine organist, who matches grooves with Denham on the title cut. On every other selection, Denham ably handles organ duties on his own; he also plays piano, synthesizers, and keyboard bass. Denham labels his music “blazz,” since it contains equal amounts of blues feeling and jazz sensibility. Anyone who loves gritty funk and expansive organ licks should enjoy Little Blue Volkswagen.

—Ron Wynn

All's Fair

There’s plenty of visual and verbal fluff in Vanity Fair’s current music issue. However, there are two essential features. One is an excellent piece on Charlie Parker by Geoffrey C. Ward. An award-winning historian, Ward has been the chief collaborator of filmmaker Ken Burns for the past 17 years. The duo’s latest project, Jazz, A History of America’s Music, will air in January, and the Parker piece is an excerpt from the companion book to the series.

The other great article comes from Elvis Costello, who selects his 500 favorite albums. His list may be the most eclectic and comprehensive ever submitted for this type of project. His choices range from avant-garde classical and jazz to gospel, rock, blues, and soul. Any survey that includes Ornette Coleman, Howard Tate, Milton Babbitt, and Aretha Franklin alongside the Fairfield Four and John Coltrane certainly deserves kudos.

—Ron Wynn


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