Photo: David McClister
Beginning on Sept. 19, more than 250 artists will perform or participate in panel discussions and interviews during a packed AmericanaFest Week. Saddle Mountain Post sat down with Jed Hilly, the organization's Executive Director, to get a preview.
SMP: What year is this for AmericanaFest?
Jed: It’s our 23rd annual AmericanaFest and our 22nd Annual Americana Honors & Awards.
SMP: What is Americana music?
Jed: Well, the Miriam-Webster definition is a musical genre that honors and derives from traditional folk and country music. That really needs to be updated because the genre encompasses so much more of the American roots traditions.
SMP: What are you most looking forward to at this year’s AmericanaFest?
Jed: I just love bringing the community together. As Allison Russell calls it, it’s a family reunion. Some people don’t see each other all year but they see each other at AmericanaFest. It’s like-minded souls who like the same kind of music, the same kind of food, the same kind of beer (laughs). It’s a great hang.
I just love seeing new artists come and walk through the conference. This year on the conference floor we have interviews with Marty Stuart, Lucinda Williams, Rufus Wainright, Emmylou Harris, Lyle Lovett, Bettye LaVette, all hanging out, basically mingling. That’s a really cool thing. Legends and the next generation co-mingle. Artists meet other artists. They meet managers and publicists. They’re able to make connections that can help their career. It’s an extraordinary week.
SMP: It must be gratifying to you personally watching the growth over time.
Jed: This is my 15th year. I started in 2007. It’s been incredible. My first year there were 791 members of the association. There are more than 3,700 today. There were nine venues over the course of three days. It’s now five-plus days, 60 venues. We had 54 artists my first year. We’re looking at 250 this year. More opportunities have come about for artists. We’ve cultivated a great community. I’m proud of that.
SMP: Saddle Mountain Post exists to serve this music community. Tell me how you see the Americana music community.
Jed: About 10 years ago I went and bought a map of the United States. One of those plastic maps you might see in a 5th grade classroom. And I got some pushpins and we put pushpins on every town that might have a radio station that was playing Americana music. And there were 60-70 radio stations. They weren’t 24-7, they weren’t commercial, but they were playing our music. And when the map was completed, and you could see that there were huge gaps, 2-300 miles, or more out West, between the stations, and so it just seemed natural to take a string and connect them. It was a funny exercise because as things grew, I learned that in all of those communities, there was a community of people that believed in this. The same was true in Australia, the UK, Stockholm, Amsterdam, all these pockets. And what we’ve successfully done is tied strings to all the pushpins.
I think Americana music represents the best of who we are as a country and what we represent, what we should represent. Rock-n-roll, jazz, Americana, these are all intrinsically American art forms. It’s our greatest asset, and if everyone listened to an hour of it, we’d have world peace.
SMP: What differentiates Country music from Americana music?
Jed: Our mission is to advocate for the authentic voice of American roots music. The Country music establishment is very clear on who they are, what they do and what they represent. They represent the business that is country music. The difference between Country and Americana is one is a commercial art form and the other is a fine art form.
SMP: What are some of the most memorable AmericanaFest moments for you over the years?
Jed: Oh there’s been so many wonderful moments. Walking into the bar and seeing John Prine ten feet in front of me and just being there. Lucinda Williams dancing at the old Mercy Lounge. Robert Plant walking out unannounced to sing a song with Buddy Miller.
But one of my most memorable moments was in my first year when Lyle Lovett came. He was going to perform on the show but didn’t come with a song. So we were in rehearsal with Buddy Miller, Tony Brown and the crew. And Tony suggests, “If I Had a Boat.” So they pipe the song into the empty Ryman Auditorium. Buddy starts noodling, the drummer starts noodling. Greg Leisz starts noodling on steel. About 30 seconds in, Buddy looks around and says, “I think we got it.” Lyle steps to the center mic. These guys had never played together! And I watched the song be created and unfold and by the second verse, they were locked in. That was pretty awe-inspiring. That’s the beauty of these artists. They’re here to play. They enjoy playing. They don’t need hair and makeup. They don’t even need a soundcheck! They’re musicians. Players who can play. Writers who can write. Singers who can sing. That’s the package.