Heading down to the Nashville Americanafest, my heart is light. It’s the first time I’ve attended an event like this as an observer, rather than a participant. With no new record to promote or even a music career to speak of, I’m just here to listen – hopefully discovering the true roots of the term “Americana,” and if there’s room for Canadian artists under that umbrella.
Waiting for my bags in the airport, I meet young Shantaia from Saskatoon. Here to perform in the “Breakout West” showcase, this denim-clad, fresh-faced beauty immediately confuses me by stating she’s not sure she’s going to fit in because she is “real country.” Well, what’s wrong with real country? My impression is that of all the traditions that contribute to Americana, surely “real country” is somewhere near the top of the list.
I didn’t hear much of it at the Canadian Country Music Association Legends show in Calgary the Friday before I got on the plane. Jeff Bradshaw, Alberta steel-player extraordinaire and country music purist, noted to me in advance that the bill was woefully in need of a true legend. Having toured with Canadian icon Ian Tyson for many years, he has perspective. The joke was on him, however, when he was himself invited to play – so they got their legend after all. Whether headliners Michelle Wright, Carolyn Dawn Johnson and the Wilkinsons rate legend status I leave to you. But despite excellent performances the only “legendary” material I heard was cover versions of songs by rock artists such as Bryan Adams, Alanis Morrisette and the Tragically Hip – which is fitting, because much of what passes for country music in Canada today sounds like pop rock from a decade ago to my ears. Whatever the Americans may think of Shantaia, I’ve made a mental note to catch her show, hoping that this little gal heralds the return of “real country” in Canada.
The artists I’m traveling with represent a fairly comprehensive snapshot of Americana-inspired Canadian music-makers. Each is coming with a different perspective, but we are all united by a love of roots music. All of us are scratching our heads to find ways to make music financially feasible. Angela Harris, who has just released her fourth collection of self-penned songs entitled A Woman Like Me, grew up hunting deer and moose in the BC Chilcotin. Blessed with a voice as pure as mountain dew, she is perhaps the closest thing we have to Dolly or Emmylou in our neck of the woods. Angela works her ass off on not only her own career but a roster of nine other artists, offering marketing and promotion services through her company, Fair Wend. Rockin’ roots act Taylor James is here promoting her hot-off-the-presses fifth release, Backbone, which has garnered 100,000 plus streams and which, I hasten to add, includes three of my own tunes. She is also working her YouTube talk and live performance production, “The Taylor James Show,” where she tears it up with her own band as well as guests such as Aaron Prichett, Jim Byrnes and Sean Verrault (Wide Mouth Mason). Jay Gavin, who bangs nails when he’s not bashing out dusty, rusty Prine-sque compositions, is a workingman’s poet combining elements of bluegrass, folk, and indie rock on his current release, Boat On A Whale. Rounding out our crew is scrappy country-punk ingénue Kaitlin Deavy of the Cat Murphy band, who works five jobs to make ends meet. Bright-eyed and bushy tailed, she’s got a FACTOR-funded recording about to be mixed by Vancouver producer John MacArthur Ellis. Following the opening night bash on the rooftop of the BMI building, she shows up at our digs with headliner Billy Strings’ signature inked upon her ass. The kid has taste. With his blistering take on contemporary bluegrass, Billy sets the bar high for the rest of our festival adventures, and we are not disappointed.
Each of us experiences the fest in a way expressive of our personalities, focuses and attention spans. Every morning, Angela shames the rest of us by rising early and heading down to the conference to catch as many of the business panels as she can. Taylor and I are slowed by the lack of a full-length mirror in our digs, but she exudes star appeal while I am busy plucking grey hairs out of my eyebrows. Constantly perusing the fest app on her phone, she manages to get herself on the list for Sheryl Crow and Bonnie Raitt, up close and personal. The rest of us are out of luck, but Kaitlin manages to sneak in while the Sasquatch-sized security guy is happily having his picture taken with Taylor. Jay has disappeared somewhere and will later let us know what we missed. We quickly learn to trust his instincts, which lead us to lesser-known but equally great acts like Sarah Shook, Doug Seegers and Sierra Ferrell.
Nobody but Angela is much interested in the panels. Kaitlin, Taylor and I attend a depressing affair about digital marketing, which indicates just how much work we need to do away from the mirror to get ourselves noticed. Jay, who is hoping to unbuckle his tool belt permanently, looks for panels that can help him get on and stay on the road. Angela gives a bunch of prehistoric major label heads hell in front of a packed room for failing to come up with an inclusive business model that supports new artists, after one blatantly admits that he’s not interested in art; he’s interested in shareholders. He suggests she wants to start a commune, and the crowd goes wild. The fire alarm goes off, and the panel scrams with their tails between their legs. Angela doggedly follows, to their dismay.
Everybody gathers daily in the Westin lounge for happy hour to trade notes before heading out to catch live shows in the evening. Here I meet another Saskatchewan artist, JJ Voss, who explains ruefully that he was told he didn’t get a showcase because his music is “too mainstream.” Wearing leather, denim, hankie, and five-o’clock shadow, he lacks any of Shantaia’s youthful and polished appeal, but he looks “real.” And here Shantaia comes, travelling clothes traded for sequins, satin and false eyelashes. The transformation is dizzying. For a minute, I can’t remember her name. What was it – Shania? She tells me she’s just come from rehearsal, and that her focus at the fest is to explore options and grow her “team” (This a word I will hear ad nauseaum throughout this festival. My team consists of four other hapless artists. Never mind. We have each other’s backs).
I’m introduced to an unofficial member of said team, Kaelen Kypak of Saskmusic, the same provincial association who explained to JJ that they needed to exclude him in order to protect the authenticity of the Americana brand from “mainstream country.” Later, I get to hear him play a version of Jason Isbell’s “Last of My Kind,” and a couple of his own tunes. From the honesty and directness of his own value-driven writing, I can tell he identifies fully. So if this kind of “mainstream country” doesn’t fit the Americana brand, what does?
I figure the awards show should provide some clues. While Kaitlin and Jay are out carousing God knows where, the rest of us gather at City Winery to watch a telecast of the event while enjoying a free glass of wine. We’re knocked out from top to bottom – from the perfect pitch and dry wit of hosts the Milk Carton Kids, to Rihannon Giddons’ crystalline take on the classic “Wayfarin Stranger,” to the finale featuring the truly legendary Mavis Staples. Outside, I share a smoke with a distinctive elderly black man in spats, suit and hat, who turns out to be blues musician and sociology professor Clarke “Deacon Bluz” White, here to deliver a talk about the history of Americana. He tells me that in recent years, the Americana Association has begun to include more black blues and folk acts, which makes sense, since these traditions emerged along with the history of America itself. Later, Angela herds us to Buddy Miller’s show at the Basement, which combines these influences brilliantly, along with a dash of “real country,” and features a surprise appearance from Maria Maldaur. Celebrating her 76th birthday, she delivers a powerhouse performance that belies her age. My definition of Americana is expanding.
The Canadian Independent Music Association’s definition includes a pretty wide spectrum. Their “Canadian Blast” showcase features highly original French pop from the Les Hay Babies, sporting Bowie-esque face makeup and unpredictable chord progressions. Closer to the Americana mark by my estimation are the excellent songwriting and assured delivery of Nova Scotian Mo Kenny and the big-voiced barroom blues of Ontario native Terra Lightfoot. Indigenous artist and Juno award winner William Prince charms everybody with his warm-hearted, everyman anthems and his pedigree might have even trumped the blues as true Northamericana, except for the fact that it sounds mostly like folk rock to me. Not a trace of “real country” here. Maybe if they’d included at least one artist from Western Canada, we might have gotten some.
CIMA rep Trisha Carter defends the exclusion of country music from the bill, echoing Kaelen Klypak’s observation that the Americana Association has been known to reject artists they consider to be “too country.” She does think that Canadians bring something unique to the table, based on geography and the stories we tell. Shauna DeCartier from Six Shooter Records agrees.
“I find our songwriting might be a little more complex, which is maybe a function of the differences between Canadians and Americans,” she says. “Canadians have the luxury of being a little more subtle. It’s a lot harder to break through in American culture, because everything is so big. People have to pick a lane and stick to it. Canadians switch lanes all the time, because they get bored. And they have to be generalists in order to succeed. The market is not big enough. In America, if you are the very best at this one particular thing, you can make a lot of money. In Canada, you’ll starve.”
She cites Jason Schneider’s book Withering Pines, asserting that the Americana movement actually began with Neil Young and the Band. I remember that nobody thought to cover this truly legendary music at the CCMA’s.
When I arrive (late) at the Breakout West showcase, I’ve sadly just missed the Bros. Landreth and am roundly scolded for it by my mates. In short order, wearing white shorts and gogo boots, Shantaia is at the mic. With impressive vocal command, some hooky tunes, a killer band of Nashville pros and all the right moves, she looks and sounds like she belongs at the CCMA’s. She’ll probably get there, as long as she doesn’t let her roots show. As long as she’s packaged to get airplay on what passes for country music radio in Canada and makes money for advertisers. A&R creative director Jordan Howard of CCS Rights Management says that terrestrial radio is still the key to record and ticket sales, and these are what drive business. Whatever “real country” is or was, it’s value pales beside that of the dollar.
Nobody knows this better than Alberta farm boy Corb Lund, who has collected countless nominations and awards for his roots-based country music from the Junos, the CCMA’s, Americana Music and numerous other associations, but still struggles to find a place on Canadian radio. I catch up with him at the closing party on the rooftop of the Westin, where his act follows a stream of luminaries including Suzy Boguss, Gretchen Peters and Jim Lauderdale. From the stage he apologizes for the fact that he’s got a pinch-hitter in for his drummer, who is back home haying – “and that’s pretty country, by my lights,” he says. Not that Corb needs to justify his country lineage.
“There are all kinds of names for it,” he says. “Americana, roots music, underground country or folk. You know how they talk about heat entropy in the universe? Things just eventually lose heat and de-complexify. I feel like everything just entropies into mid-tempo rock’n roll. Music scenes are always kind of lame, anyway. I don’t mean the Americana scene in particular. Even when I was in my rock band, for each rock genre, there’d always be two or three poster children for each genre, and then about thirty hangers-on. I like all kinds of artists – Slayer, Coltrane and Julie Andrews.
I mean, people are here to do business. And there will always be people who are going to make generic music, because it makes more money than art does. It’s the difference between a McDonald’s hamburger and a good steak. You pay more for one, and it’s harder to get, but it’s gonna keep you going. It’s not even a musical thing. It’s a corporate thing. There’s a reason pop country is on the radio. It’s a money-maker. I’m not saying it’s bad. But my goal is to make art.”
After six days and nights of non-stop music, my crew is worn out, hungover and dreading early morning flights. We order a pizza and chow down, trading notes and stories about what we’ve seen and heard. Despite the late hour, inevitably, guitars come out and before long we are all throwing out lines, trampling over each other with song ideas. We want to make art, too.
“Woke up this morning, put on my boots.
Left my hometown just to find my roots.
I got a song that I wanna sing
and I don’t give a damn what these people think
Headed down to Broadway carryin’ my axe
Weight of the world upon me and the cold hard facts
I got a story I wanna tell
And I don’t give a damn if I go to hell
In Nashville Tennessee
Yeah Nashville’s where I wanna be . . .”
Flights be damned. Canadianamericana, too. Good music has no borders, and we may never get out of here.