I started out Wednesday night by catching most of the Muscle Shoals Tribute at the Cannery, emceed by longtime Nashville singer Webb Wilder. As you may know, they recorded a good bit of soul, pop and rock 'n' roll in the Shoals area of northwest Alabama — soul fans usually triangulate Nashville, Memphis and Muscle Shoals to get the big picture of '60s and '70s soul music. The band included rhythm guitarist Jimmy Johnson, a prime mover in Muscle Shoals' recording history, along with keyboardist Clayton Ivey.
The Muscle Shoals tribute also featured famed Nashville bassist and producer Norbert Putnam sneaking out on bass for Arthur Alexander's "Anna" — another seminal slice of Alabama-Nashville soul. The great '70s soul singer and disco diva Candi Staton sang a number, and was in great voice. Hendersonville, Tenn., native and Lake Street Dive vocalist Rachael Price took off her glasses and turned sexy to sing Ronny Shannon's "I Never Loved a Man (The Way That I Loved You)," which you may know from Aretha Franklin's version. Price was amazing — her control was fabulous, and for once I heard a white-soul singer doing melismatic tricks that were effective.
Americana is also about the high, lonesome sound of such singers as Jimmie Dale Gilmore, who appeared at The Station Inn with a quasi-bluegrass band called The Wronglers. Gilmore is a subtle vocalist whose sound seems to recede even as you listen hard, and if The Wronglers seemed a little lacking in subtlety, Gilmore's soothing presence mixed well with the group's undeniable velocity. I stuck around to hear Kelly Willis and Bruce Robison, whose accomplished, small-scale synthesis of country and pop remained as charming as ever.
I ended up Wednesday checking out The Dirt Daubers, a Kentucky trio led by Legendary Shack Shakers frontman J.D. Wilkes, who wore steel-rim glasses and made funny grimaces as he played banjo. The group did a Dock Boggs song and some other stuff — it all sounded exactly the same to me, but I liked it.
Thursday morning I caught some of the "Land of 1,000 Dances" panel discussion at the Country Music Museum and Hall of Fame. Featuring Staton, Oldham, Johnson, Putnam, Dan Penn and producer Rick Hall, among others, it showcased some stone-cold R&B fans trying to make their way in a world dominated by country music and The Beatles — and succeeding. A high point for me was the conversation between producer and keyboardist David Briggs — another prime mover of Southern soul — and Putnam on the subject of the quality of the early Muscle Shoals recordings. Briggs said Arthur Alexander's "You Better Move On" sounded like "a bad country demo," while Putnam defended it. "All hits are great records," Putnam said. "So we missed a few chords."
Putnam gave props to Hall as a producer who forced musicians to "think outside the box," and the soft-spoken, laconic Oldham told the story of recording "When a Man Loves a Woman" with Percy Sledge. "Percy just stood up and sang the song," Oldham said. It was an engrossing history lesson.
Fortified with sushi and sweet iced tea, I crammed myself into a pew at The Ryman for the Honors and Awards Show. The AMA says this is the first time the show has sold out in its 10-year history, and it was packed. As always, Jim Lauderdale guided the proceedings, which saw Emmylou duet with Alison Krauss, Lucinda Williams get the AMA's Lifetime Songwriting Award and do a number off her latest record, and bandleader Buddy Miller win several thousand awards. OK, Miller won twice, but he did a greasy version of "Gasoline and Matches" with singer Regina McCrary and played superbly throughout.
I enjoyed seeing Cody and Luther Dickinson — sons of the late, great Memphis producer Jim Dickinson — play with the house band. Staton presented Rick Hall with something called the Jack Emerson Lifetime Achievement for Executive, but it didn't much faze the great Alabama soul auteur, who looked as though he were dressed for an after-church party on the lawn.
And, let's see: Gregg Allman got an award and looked well after recent illness, The Avett Brothers played, and another Alabama group, The Secret Sisters, paid tribute to Hank Williams Sr. with their version of "Why Don't You Love Me." Honorary American Robert Plant was on hand to accept the award for album of the year, and sang with his group, The Band of Joy. Nominated in three categories but winning none of them, Elizabeth Cook and husband Tim Carroll nonetheless tore it up on "El Camino," from last year's Welder full-length.
So that was it, and I was sore, stiff and in need of a drink. I finished off at The Basement with Amanda Shires, a very good singer from Lubbock, Texas, who wears cowgirl boots with her name on them. Her perfectly controlled vibrato and canny phrasing put her a notch above the run of Americana revivalists — her torchy twang really works, and she writes some very catchy, intelligent songs. And plays the violin acceptably, but then everyone seems to these days. Or mandolin, or banjo, or resonator, or some such. Still, Shires is basically a singer-songwriter with a certain flair, which ought to lead you back to the definition of Americana I started out with, before I threw out my back at The Ryman.
Of all the acts I've seen so far, only Malcolm Holcombe — an insurgent getting older, and a man who lived through Nashville's indifference in the pre-Americana age — pushed the envelope in significant ways. Sure, he's a singer-songwriter, but the North Carolina native made real in-the-moment music last night with his acoustic-bass/guitar/resonator trio. Holcombe likes to insert small pieces of strange, dark matter into his song structures, and the trio played his songs with bite and drive. Holcombe's gruff voice worried his lyrics until they became floating images, and the music had an undeniable elegance. The audience loved it — they sensed something was happening in front of them. And that's as American as you can get.