by Mindie Lind
Last September HearthPR sent me off to Nashville for my very first big-girl trip to the Americana Music Association Conference. And oh what a trip it was. My days were spent lugging bags of freebees from one interesting music industry panel to the next, undoubtedly hung-over from the night before. It was pretty surreal to spend my evenings hopping from bar-to-bar, listening to some of the best acts in music today in one of the most saturated music towns in America, and calling it all work. At some point during the festival I began to notice the low hum of a question being screamed over the mounds of booze and crowds, as strangers were both embarrassed and eager to ask each other, “What is Americana?”
I remember it hitting me that I really had no idea what Americana really is. Most folks refer to the genre as a contemporary potpourri of country, roots-rock, folk, bluegrass, R&B and blues, while others would spout off some tidbits about the early 90’s, when Americana was first reported on radio charts. Audiences shrugged and proposed, “American roots music?” “Modern day country?”. Whatever this elusive genre refers to, Americana’s roster is impressive, by any criterion: from Loretta Lynn to Emmylou Harris, Milk Carton Kids to Hurray for the Riff Raff, The Fairfield Four to Valerie June… I left Nashville thinking two things: 1.) What Americana is still remains nameless to me [and] 2.) I do very much like it. I was also quite overwhelmed by the idea that everyone in Americana music, including those at the AMA Conference, came from their own specific place and are their own specific marker for what American music looks like today, and this only adds to the very special, very awesome mélange that is the modern American roots scene.
With that said, I am excited to share with you three quick-stop interviews I had with three very different Americana artists: from The Cactus Blossoms’ new engagement with the Americana community and life on the road, to Shakey Graves’ unofficial induction into roots royalty, and Leo Bud Welch’s long life/late arrival sharing his music with a larger audience, here are three conversations I had at the 2014 Americana Music Association Conference.
The Cactus Blossoms at AMA
Mindie Lind: Who have you seen here that’s been inspiring to you? Or intimidating?
Cactus Blossoms: At the AMA Awards, sitting next to a gal I asked, “What’s your name?” And she said, “Suzy Bogguss.” I had heard of her. My dad had her albums when I was young… “That’s cool and you’re sitting right beside me watching Loretta Lynn”. We got to see Loretta Lynn sing, “Coal Miner’s Daughter,” on the 54th anniversary, to the day, of her first performance there. That one song was the highlight of the week for me.
So, you guys are playing around a lot and travelling? What’s it like to be travelling musicians? Is that new for you? Or is it old hat?
CB: We first started travelling around playing music 2 years ago and have slowly been ramping up the amount of time we’re on the road. It’s been a lot of fun, seeing towns and driving through open spaces. This year we’ve been to way more cities and states than I’ve been to in my whole life before that. So, it’s been really fun to go to all corners of the states. We’ve still got to make it out to Europe one of these times.
So the tour cliché is: Sex, Drugs and Rock and Roll. True or False?
CB: Yeah, I think those things are all out there. It’s just what you prefer to indulge in. For “Mötley Crüe” there might be a bunch of girls backstage, wrangled up by their manager. Some bands probably have that on their contract as a rider but I think, for most people, it’s just that they’re meeting a lot of people, there’s no strings attached… I think that happens a lot. I think they’re all very available to certain people who travel. If you want them to be available; if you’re looking for drugs, you’ll know people, you’ll find it. If you’re looking for women in every town you go to, you’ll find them…We’re lucky if we can just get a little Rock N’ Roll going on!
What do you want to do with your music in this next year?
CB: Release a new album. We started recording and we’re really excited about it.
Do you have any goals for the album?
CB: We’ve never had really specific goals other than to work on what we’re doing and accomplish what we want to do musically. So far that has brought good things our way, as we improve with what we’re doing, better things happen. I think that I’m open to wherever it leads. I’m most concerned about the music and seeing where that leads us. Playing old-fashioned music, I understand that people want to put that in a niche. I like the idea of all sorts of people getting into what we’re doing and not just Old-Timey or purist-mind set people who think it’s neat because it’s old-fashioned. I would like to reach a bigger audience. I think, at this point, it’s been fun to become familiar with more people around the country that are doing the same thing as us. Then finding that we’re in good company and following the trails.
What’s up next for y’all?
CB: Next week, we’ll be on the road with Dale Watson for a while and we’ve done some shows with JD McPherson and those are some of our favorite performers out there right now. We really are big fans of them, so, some of that’s already happening. They’re older than us and they have things to teach us and tell us and show us. It’s been fun to find some mentor-figures in the music world because the only way to really meet them is to be at the same place at the same time and happen to see each other play.
Shakey Graves, interview at The Basement, Nashville, TN
Mindie Lind: So you grew up in Austin?
Shakey Graves: Yeah, my parent’s property was a bunch of 20-somethings in the 80s who moved into a house together. It was a big, old seven-bedroom farmhouse and we had a full-sized dance studio inside and there was a modern dance company and their kids. I grew up with nuts and bolts weirdos. I guess Austin is a good example of how my music ends up sounding. It’s not country music.
What are the themes in your music?
SG: My mom’s always been a playwright, it’s all theatrical. I grew up surrounded by a lot of complex themes as opposed to being surrounded by a music family that writes straight-up bluegrass or traditional blues music. My saturation was: early memories of my mom doing this really fucking, crazy play that has Nazis in it and angels. It’s about a Hispanic girl. It’s all linear but then it will dissipates into playing on the theme, “Is everyone dead?” A lot of that central Texas, Mexican Juju theater bullshit has permeated into my own storytelling … I’ve always appreciated Elliot Smith’s songwriting contrast stuff because he writes really bitterly a lot of the time and then it’s this super sweet song.
Your songs do that a bit. The songs are really pretty and the lyrics can be quite punk. I love that line, “City boys in country clothes.” …that position is punk as fuck! Is that coming from what your saying is your mom’s influence/the weirdo theater folks?
SG: My taste, as I got into music, is what I think of as “genre smashing”. In high school, I played with a bunch of shitty scream stuff and got into some really obscurebasement noise bands. I loved the sound and what they would sing about and how they would juxtapose everything and having a band called, “Girls Poop Too”.
You named a band “Girls Poop Too”?
SG: I didn’t entirely name “Girls Poop Too.” That was a collective effort. But we can name bands all day; we make great band names. If anything, I’ve named more bands than I’ve ever played in.
Have you had any moments with your music where you thought, Hey, my 12 year old self would totally think this is awesome.
SG: At Newport [Folk Festival] they do the big finale. The whole Newport experience was mind blowingly surreal. I didn’t realize that this was the first year at Newport Folk Festival that Pete Seeger hadn’t been there … With Pete not there to lead, he’s been the icon in that festival for a long time, it was a big changing of the guard. There’s all these people that I had albums of in high school, like Bryan Adams was there, Conor Oberst was there, Jeff Tweedy, Nora Jones. You’re just like, “Is that Nora Jones?” And then Nora Jones is like…“Yeah, dude, and that’s so and so.”… And at some point, we’re all watching Mavis Staples murdering it on stage…For the big finale, everybody goes on to sing “We Shall Overcome”
Do you know that song? Is there a teleprompter?
SG: No, because that used to be Pete Seeger. Pete Seeger used to go out and sing, “These are the words” and instead, it’s a whole new band of young musicians that are doing their own thing, the flag’s flying at half-mast and Mavis is out there leading it but it’s totally different. It doesn’t seem to matter and it’s sweet in a tragic way…But that moment was absolutely insane. You can’t take that away from me.
Leo “Bud” Welch at AMA
Mindie Lind: Tell me a little about playing music when you were young
Leo ‘Bud’ Welch: I thank God that my first cousin had a guitar, my bigger brother and I started picking and banging on his guitar and learned how to play guitar and learned how to sing and learned how to tune them. I been playing guitar for about 67 years now. I was born in 1932.
How old does that make you? I’m bad at math.
LBW: Well, I’m 82. This year I was 82, the 22nd day of March. I had a twin sister; her name was Cleo. Leo and Cleo, and she died in Chicago…. we buried her way out on the South side. She stayed there for 30 years, never did come back to Mississippi and I never did go up there. I don’t know why but that’s how long we stayed apart. She was my twin sister. I have some twin daughters myself.
Your album just dropped January of this year. So, what’s that like for you to get noticed so late in the game?
LBW: It’s a great pleasure and a great interest to know that I’m getting noticed all over the world. All these years I’ve just been playing, I call it “back in the sticks, living in the country”, playing in the country and I wasn’t going to any big cities. Since Vencie Varnado got to be my manager, I’ve been out on the road, for about 14, coming up to 15 months now. I’ve been doing great because if it weren’t for him, I wouldn’t be here tonight. He’s the one who takes care of me, keeps me on the road. If it ain’t too far, he drives; if it’s too far, we fly. I used to say I wouldn’t ride in an airplane. The first ride and then the second ride convinced me; ain’t no big deal to be on an airplane. That’s the best ride you can get. I love riding the planes now.
Me too. It’s a miracle. You’re in the sky, flying like a bird.
LBW: Flying like a bird and look down on the clouds and above the clouds and all that.
Okay Leo, I got one more question for you. What do you think the biggest divide between blues and gospel is?
LBW: Some people call it spiritual. They don’t believe in the blues but there ain’t no difference. Blues is something about your life and the gospel is something all about Jesus Christ. But I don’t see any difference. It’s all good music….but the blues are greater in my book. I just love the Blues.
Why do you love the blues? Do you like being sad?
LBW: Oh, yeah. I love the blues because sometimes my girlfriend likes me to sing the blues about her.