No matter where you roam on the grounds of Montgomery Bell State Park in Dickson this Saturday, Oct. 21, for the third annual American Folk Festival, you’ll hear music—sounds that span a wide range of styles, but that all demonstrate a devotion to songcraft, an uncommon literacy and intelligence, a grounding in the roots of American music and a piercing focus on our shared humanity.
The guiding notion of the AFF turns the typical music-festival mentality inside-out—instead of shuttling artists on- and offstage in an assembly line, the festival offers artists an enjoyable, soothing weekend for those who will trod its boards. The audience, which has already grown from 200 in 2004 to 3,000 last year, benefits by getting performances from artists who are rested, refreshed and ready to rock (albeit acoustically).
“I didn’t create it for the audience,” says founder Dara Carson, who has since become events coordinator for the Scene
(a sponsor of the festival). “I chose to design an event that focused on treating the artist well, hoping that if I made the artists happy, they’d tell their friends and colleagues. It’s sort of happened that way.”
The performers are invited to bring their families and stay the weekend in lakeside cabins, allowing for relaxation and perhaps a little friendly networking with fellow tunesmiths. Imagine a bunch of dazzlingly talented singer-songwriters spending a weekend hanging out, sharing songs and ideas—and having a few thousand friends out to listen in on Saturday in a lush, green environment that also features an arts village, a wide array of natural home-grown foods and other lovely ways to while away the day.
This year, those ticket-buying “friends” will be treated to an especially wide variety of artists spanning a broad stylistic expanse. Headliners Patty Griffin and Mindy Smith hail from the folky region of Americana, in keeping with the festival’s moniker. But, of course, both “Americana” and “folk” have myriad meanings, and surely one of them applies to Chely Wright’s acoustic-based country, Carey Ott’s melodic pop-rock, Jordan Chassan’s country-folk, the Avett Brothers’ rock-skewed bluegrass, David Mead’s dreamy pop, Thad Cockrell’s trad-country and all manner of other musical strains. All share intelligence, emotional directness and, most importantly, great songs. Here are just a few of the festival’s standouts.
In only a decade, this Maine-born Austin resident has built a deep catalog of songs covered by everyone from the Dixie Chicks to Bette Midler to Jessica Simpson. Now, Griffin is preparing to add to that catalog with a new album, Children Running Through, which she recorded with the help of Spoon producer Mike McCarthy. Griffin reports that the disc is finished, freshly mastered and set to hit stores on Feb. 6. “I took a little more time with this one than I have been able to take with some of the others in a while, and it’s been nice,” explains Griffin. “I really, really cut way back on my time on the road in the last couple of years, and tried to settle in and write for extended periods of time.”
Griffin is tight-lipped about what we can expect to hear on Children
(“It sounds like music to me,” she says), but promises she’ll play several of the new album’s songs during her AFF set. She shouldn’t be surprised to look out into the audience and see several of the artists who happen to be sharing the bill with her, several of whom are enormous, effusive admirers.
“I’m probably her biggest fan,” announces Mindy Smith. “There’s something about her that’s tremendously anointed. I look up to her.” Likewise, Chely Wright jokes that, just as some religions forbid the name of God to be spoken, she will not say the name “Patty Griffin.”
“It’s very nice to have people tell me that they’ve been influenced by what I do,” Griffin says. “It’s strange to think, ‘Oh yeah, I am
42. I have
been around a little while.’ I feel like I just started. I’m really looking forward to learning what I can and getting better at what I do. I just would like to continue my education.” (pattygriffin.com
Mindy Smith named her just-released sophomore album Long Island Shores for the land of her birth—but her music was born in Tennessee. “I never considered learning to play guitar or write my own songs until we moved to Knoxville in 1994,” she recalls. “That’s where I was introduced to Alison Krauss and Shawn Colvin and Patty Griffin.”
A Nashvillian since 1998, Smith pays tribute to her adopted state in the Long Island Shores
song “Tennessee.” “Clearly, I’m a Yankee,” she says, her New York accent standing out amid the lunchtime din at Yellow Porch. “I’ve occasionally been misunderstood, but for the most part, people here are incredibly warm and inviting to me.”
She has integrated herself even more fully into the Nashville community with this record, which features several tunes written with a few of the city’s finest local writers. “Somebody has to really strike a chord with me for me to wanna sit in a room and churn out a song,” she notes. “I’m not one of those people that cranks out songs every day. I wish I was, I’d probably be making a lot more money. [The co-writers on the album] are a happy mix of people I can actually learn something from, musically. And that’s what I did.”
While she was at it, Smith also learned the perks that go along with co-writing in Nashville. “It doesn’t always result in a song,” she observes. “If nothing happens, we’ll just go and get a cup of coffee. Or better yet, a beer.”
Smith is looking forward to seeing several of her musical friends on the AFF bill, including Thad Cockrell and Old Black Kettle—as well as Ricky and Micol Davis of Blue Mother Tupelo, whom she has known since her Knoxville days. “At those kinds of moments, where you come full circle, you realize how fortunate you are to get to do music,” she says. “We all have been blessed enough to be able to run out to Dickson and hang out together, and other people are welcome to join us.” (mindysmith.net
Perhaps the most surprising name on the 2006 Americana Folk Festival bill is Chely Wright. What is the woman best known for mainstream country hits like “Single White Female,” “It Was” and “Shut Up and Drive” doing with all these acoustic-guitar-toting singer-songwriter types?
Toting an acoustic guitar and singing the songs she wrote, as it happens. Queasy with the increasingly slick music she was making in the major-label system, Wright signed to indie Dualtone and self-produced last year’s Metropolitan Hotel
. It was a transitional effort that found her keeping one foot in radio-ready country while simultaneously digging deep into her personal history for striking, stark songs like “The River” and “Between a Mother and a Child.”
“This noncommercial Music Row world is intriguing, and I want to put my foundation down there,” she says over coffee at the East Nashville Bongo Java. “I’m not one of these artists who’s pissed at country radio. I have no bitterness. But I’ve got to grow, and I’ve got to look at it objectively and see where I’m going to fit.”
For Wright, heading to Dickson this weekend is part of that process. “I think being on the AFF is a great way for me to slowly step in,” she says. Wright plans to leap in head first with her next album, which she says will be a full-fledged singer-songwriter effort—unlike the bet-hedging Metropolitan Hotel
, which she now calls “a half-assed attempt at growing as an artist. This next album will be a full-forced attempt.”
Wright now has a stack of entirely self-penned new songs in hand and is looking forward to recording them this fall. “At this point in my life, I’m still pretty fired up about music,” she says before heading out the door for her daily 13-mile bicycle ride. “I feel like a brand-new artist.” (chely.com
Jordan Chassan’s 2005 album East of Bristol, West of Knoxville was his first in over a decade. “I take a lot longer to write and finish a song than just about anybody else I know,” he admits with a rueful chuckle. “I don’t want to be embarrassed by anything I’ve written.”
Unlikely. Chassan has been honing his craft since his teens, which he spent rocking out in the 1970s New York City underground centered around the legendary CBGB nightclub. A Nashville resident since the early ’90s, the veteran singer-songwriter is pleased to have found a home in the Music City Americana scene. “The kind of music that I do, I’m not straight-up anything,” he says. “To have come South and experienced the deep cultural roots of American vernacular roots music—for lack of a better word—was an interesting thing to add onto the whole New York aesthetic. I don’t really fit neatly into any category, particularly.”
And that suits him fine—no matter how difficult it is to sell. “The thing that’s so pathetic about our culture now is that everything is all about marketing,” says Chassan. “To me, it’s not about marketing, it’s about making it sound good.”
Chassan is looking forward to making it sound good again at the Americana Folk Festival. He’ll be traveling to Dickson with Rags, his one-eyed yellow Labrador/Airedale mix, in tow. “I think it’s fantastic,” he says. “I played last year, and the audience was there to hear music. I didn’t really know what to expect, and it just really clicked.”
In the meantime, Chassan is preparing to record his follow-up to East of Bristol
at his home studio, Inglewood SoundBarn. “I’ve been testing out some of the material at gigs, and they seem to hold water,” he says. “I feel like I’m really onto something now.” (myspace.com/jordanchassan
Carey Ott answers the phone and turns down the TV. He’s been watching the little-remembered 1990 Dana Carvey vehicle Opportunity Knocks. “Quality,” he declares with a laugh at his guilty pleasure. “I got Netflix, so I just get random stuff.”
When opportunity knocked for this Chicago native—in the form of a recording contract with Nashville’s Dualtone Records—he was more than ready to answer. The singer-songwriter loaded up and moved to a house in the Hundred Oaks area about a year ago. “I can see stars and hear bugs and birds,” he notes. “I can hear the train at night, off in the distance. It’s what I needed at this stage of my life. I was in Chicago for over 10 years and I’d had enough. I lived on a busy street corner with a lot of noise. You’d walk out and get a faceful of bus fumes. I was getting tired of it.”
The result of the move was his latest album, Lucid Dream
, an insinuating mix of hooky pop and rootsy rock. “I’m into everything from Elvis Costello to The Band to The Beach Boys to The Kinks to Van Morrison,” he says. Ott is proud of the record, but admits that he’s “already creatively moved along. A lot of it was written a while ago, and I’m always moving forward. I’ve got enough tunes for two records. I share a lot in common with Ryan Adams,” he chuckles, “as far as productivity is concerned.”
Ott’s next album should reflect his newest love: co-writing. “I’ve been digging it, because it’s total collaboration,” he says. “It’s opened my eyes to a lot of things. I approach songwriting now more as fun than work. It was always catharsis, but this has broadened everything.” (careyott.com
Tickets are available at americanafolkfestival.com.