One of the highlights of my year is the annual Americana Music Association conference and awards show in Nashville in September. Needless to say, it didn’t go on this year. The AMA brain trust had enough time, and common sense pragmatism, to realize this was going to happen. So they put on an alternate, virtual event, the Thriving Roots Conference. I viewed 2 of the 3 days in live mode, making the decision on what event to sit in on and what to skip or watch later. As you would expect, there were high points and not-so-high points. What began to dawn on me is there’s probably a place for these virtual events even after things get back to “normal”.
I say that because a couple of events–the Mary Gauthier/Jaimee Harris songwriting workshop and the Roseanne Cash-led discussion of protest songs and how they relate to the Black Lives Matter movement–would have been things that could not have been done as well in the physical world. Musically, we’ve all seen plenty of streaming shows by now, and it turns out tribute shows (like the John Prime remembrance) work, arguably, better in the pre-recorded format. Don’t get me wrong, there were all the normal issues of screen fatigue and intermittent Internet glitches. On the whole, though, I’d go to a virtual event like this again. So that said, here were my highlights of Thriving Roots 2020.
Mary Gauthier/Jaimee Harris Songwriting Panel: This was a Zoom call at its very finest. The pair’s charisma, especially Mary’s, was off the charts. Personality and passion and sincerity just oozed through the screen in a way that simply couldn’t happen in a hotel meeting room where this kind of event would normally be staged. Musically, they took the time, or had the experience, to use the right microphone and pick the right guitars for the room they were in. Given the limits of internet streaming, it sounded really good.
Roseanne Cash’s ‘Love & Vigilance’: Roseanne led a panel discussion about some of the history of protest songs and how that movement in the 50’s and 60’s relates to current events. Ry Cooder and Bonnie Raitt represented the musical community. Cooder had some very personal stories about how his dad was blacklisted during McCarthy-ism and how the folk music of the day influenced him. Representing the Black Community were Angela Davis and Alice Randall, noteworthy for their social activism, but also aware of music’s relationship to the cause. I don’t think this could have happened in a physical setting, because it would have been impossible to get both Davis and Randall with the travel commitment it would have taken. Cash did a wonderful job of moderating.
Striking A Chord – Insight From Americana’s Instrumentalist Of the Year Nominees: This featured all 5 of this year’s nominees; Brittany Haas, Rich Hinman, Annie Clements, Zachariah Hickman, and Ellen Angelico. Moderator Scott Goldman was brilliant and in 30 minutes managed to get the audience up-to-date on what all 5 musicians have been doing during the pandemic and some musings on how they got their start.
British Underground, CIMA, and Sounds Australia Present Country Connections Live: One of the shindigs at AMA I always made a point of attending was the Aussie BBQ. Sounds Australia would, in a couple of hours, showcase 6-8 emerging artists. In the average year I would probably seek half of them out to see again. This year Sounds Australia partnered with fellow Commonwealth music associations and presented 2 hours of the best of Canadian, British and Australian Americana artists.
About the author: I've actually driven from Tehatchapee to Tonopah. And I've seen Dallas from a DC-9 at night.