AmericanaFest 2017: The Value of Singing Other People's Songs

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AmericanaFest 2017: The Value of Singing Other People's Songs

One of the many highlights of last week’s Americanafest was the program with Shelby Lynne and Allison Moorer at the Country Music Hall of Fame. In the museum’s cozy, sandstone-walled Ford’s Theatre, the two Alabama sisters sat in overstuffed gray chairs and talked about their new album, Not Dark Yet, their first co-credited project in a lifetime of singing together. Nine of the 10 songs were written by other people, and National Public Radio’s Ann Powers asked the sisters why they continue to sing other people’s songs when they’re such accomplished songwriters themselves.

“Because that’s how you become a songwriter,” Moorer replied. And that’s how you get better as a songwriter, she added. When you internalize a great song well enough to sing it, you understand how it was put together—and how you might assemble a similar one yourself.

That was the theme of the week, as the Americanafest presented six days of showcases, interviews, awards, workshops and parties at venues all over Nashville. There are many ways to define Americana artists, but a useful one is that they refuse to believe that the world began in 1991 nor that it ended in 1970. They are neither trendsters who erase the past nor traditionalists who are trapped by it. They want to sing songs older than they are, but only if it feeds their ability to write new ones.

The sisters had performed the entire album on Thursday night at the Egyptian-themed Downtown Presbyterian Church, and on Friday afternoon at the Hall of Fame, they told the stories behind those songs. Before they performed Jessi Colter’s “Looking for Blue Eyes,” for example, they recalled how they listened to its source album, Wanted: The Outlaws! for months as young girls and how that sound in their throats taught them not only how to sing, but also how to write.

The album’s songwriters range from Merle Haggard and the Louvin Brothers to Kurt Cobain and Nick Cave, but they named the record after a Bob Dylan composition. When they sang that song at the Hall of Fame, one could hear how the past linked up to the present—and maybe the future—as the lustrous female voices of Lynne and Moorer transformed Dylan’s old-man croak into something clearer and more inviting. Not better, but different.

That’s what distinguishes interpretive singers from tribute bands. The latter is trying to recreate the original recording as exactly as they can, while the former is trying to give the same material a new personality. To my mind, there are only two reasons to perform a song written by someone else: to do it better than the original or to do it differently enough that it has new connotations.

Joan Osborne’s new album is called Songs of Bob Dylan, and like Lynne and Moorer, Osborne brings not only a clarion female voice to the songs, but also a distinctive female spirit. Songs almost always change their subtext, often in revealing ways, when the gender of the singer changes.

Osborne sang her new arrangements of Dylan for the Americanafest Tuesday night, and she followed Lynne and Moorer at the Country Music Hall of Fame Friday afternoon for the program “Southern Blood: Celebrating Gregg Allman.” She demonstrated the art of interpretive singing again when she sang “Ain’t Wastin’ Time No More” and “Sweet Melissa,” accompanied only by Aaron Lee Tasjan on acoustic guitar.

The Old Crow Medicine Show has its own new album of Dylan interpretations: 50 Years of Blonde on Blonde. The string band kicked off the Americana Music Association’s Award Show at the Ryman Auditorium Wednesday night by strapping two drums to their backs and blowing their harmonicas like trumpets as they marched from the back of the hall to the stage like a Mardi Gras Parade band. Once on stage, they segued into “Rainy Day Women #12 & 35,” emphasizing the New Orleans street band feel hinted at on the original.

Dylan was famous for building bridges from folk music to rock’n’roll and from folk to country, and the Americana movement lives on those spans. As much as Dylan, Don Williams helped create the latter connection, shifting from his early career in the folk group the Pozo-Seco Singers to his later career as a bona fide country-music star. Former folk singers from Kathy Mattea to Mary Chapin Carpenter owe Williams a lot for demonstrating how to make that journey.

Williams died on September 8, four days before Americanafest began, and the salutes to his influence were plentiful and powerful. When the awards show brought out the whole cast for the encore, the song they sang was “Tulsa Time,” a #1 country hit for Williams in 1978, the same year that Eric Clapton recorded it. At the Ryman, Danny Flowers, who wrote the song, played guitar and shared the lead vocals with Jim Lauderdale, Larry Campbell and Emmylou Harris. When Bruce Robison did a songwriting workshop at the Hall of Fame three days later, he introduced his song “Desperately,” a big hit for George Strait, as “my attempt to write a Don Williams song.”

The Little Big Town concert at the Ryman Friday night was not an official Americanafest event, but it seemed to pick up on the spirit of the festival going on all over town. The group’s two men and two women sang with sophisticated blending, rocking momentum and rare good taste that make them stand out in today’s commercial country mainstream. And they, too, paid tribute to Don Williams by applying those Fleetwood Mac-like harmonies to two of Don Williams’ 17 #1 country singles: “I Believe in You” and “Lord, I Hope the Day Is Good.”

Music City Roots, Tennessee’s popular live-radio show, took over the big white tent in Nashville’s booming Gulch District on Thursday and presented a long night of music for Americanafest. The bill included fine sets from the Cactus Blossoms, Angaleena Presley, John Paul White and Ray Wylie Hubbard, but the evening peaked with Lee Ann Womack hosting a variety show of her favorite Nashville singers and songwriters.

The climax of her show was her pair of duets with Jamey Johnson. Johnson released two of this century’s best country albums in 2008 and 2010, but hasn’t released an album of original songs since. But his splendid voice was intact when he joined Womack on two Don Williams songs: “I Believe in You” and “Til the Rivers All Run Dry.” Williams brought a folkie understatement to the often ostentatious world of country singing, and one could hear Johnson and Womack restraining their powerful voices in tribute. The tension in that restraint produced one of the week’s most powerful moments.

Jim Lauderdale and Amanda Shires

In the same white tent, Womack helped John Fullbright sing a powerful version of his “The Walls of Jericho,” and the Secret Sisters helped Womack sing Rodney Crowell’s “Ashes by Now.” Among her other guests were Jim Lauderdale, who had hosted the awards show the evening before with his usual wit, and Amanda Shires, who had won the award for Emerging Artist of the Year that night.

The Americana Music Association’s annual event at the Ryman is the best awards show in show business: few categories, little talking and lots of music with an all-star house band. It was a treat again this year, even if the mood was dampened by the absence of music director Buddy Miller and award-winner Crowell, who had both succumbed to the flu raging through Nashville.

Crowell won the award for Song of the Year (“It Ain’t Over Yet”), while Sturgill Simpson won Album of the Year for (A Sailor’s Guide to Earth). Marty Stuart & His Fabulous Superlatives won Duo/Group of the Year, and Charlie Sexton won Instrumentalist of the Year. Lifetime Achievement Awards were given to Iris DeMent, Van Morrison, Graham Nash, Robert Cray, Hightone Records and the Hi Rhythm Section.

John Prine took home the grand prize of Artist of the Year and celebrated by dueting with DeMent on the hilarious “In Spite of Ourselves.” He then led his road band through a hair-raising version of perhaps his greatest song, “Lake Marie.”

The week had begun on Tuesday at the War Memorial Auditorium with “The People Sing!” a special concert of older political anthems sung by today’s generation. Thus you had Billy Bragg singing Woody Guthrie’s “Ramblin’ ‘Round”; Joe Henry singing Yip Harburg’s “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime,” Rhiannon Giddens singing Lydia Mendoza’s “Mal Hombre,” the Drive-By Truckers’ Patterson Hood & Mike Cooley singing Neil Young’s “Ohio” and Valerie June singing Randy Newman’s “I Think It’s Going to Rain Today.”

It was another example of established songwriters renewing their inspiration by returning to the well of all the songwriters who came before. When the Truckers sang their recent song “What It Means” at the awards show, you could hear its roots in the examples of Young and Dylan. When Giddens sang her own song about a slave named “Julie” at the awards show, you could hear the payoff for singing all those songs by Mendoza and the Staple Singers.

A whole lot of great songwriters were on hand for Americanafest, though some of the best had to be searched out in the more obscure corners of the proceedings. For example, James McMurtry, perhaps the best writer of our time, performed only once, at a dinnertime industry party. But he was in unusually good voice and delivered as good a solo-acoustic performance as can be imagined. If there’s a more devastating song about missed opportunities than McMurtry’s “You Got to Me,” one might not be able to survive it.

Kevin Gordon, an even more underrated songwriter, was relegated to a dinnertime show at Bobby’s Idle Hour, a dive bar on Music Row. Backed by his producer Joe McMahan (also the guitarist for Womack and Lynne & Moorer), Gordon previewed the remarkable “Saint on a Chain” from his forthcoming album. If the dirtiest of rivers can shine like a Saint Christopher medal when the light hits it right, he cried over scorching rockabilly guitars, why can’t he?

Don Bryant wrote such classic songs as “A Nickel and a Nail” for O.V. Wright, “I Got To Know” for the Five Royales and “I Can’t Stand the Rain” for Ann Peebles and Tina Turner without gaining much fame for himself. But the Memphis soul veteran displayed a terrific tenor when he showcased at 12th & Porter Saturday night. Backed by the skillful Bo-Keys, Bryant sang not only his famous songs but also the new songs from his recent solo album with a vitality that defied his 75 years.

Following Bryant was another R&B legend, Bettye LaVette, who reversed the week’s dynamic of younger performers learning from older songs. LaVette, still fiery in voice at 71, refashioned compositions by such younger Americana artists as Lucinda Williams into gospel-soul testimonials. When LaVette sang “Worthy,” a song about struggling for self-respect in a world determined to deny it, she teared up on stage—and so did the song’s author, Mary Gauthier, down in the audience.