A reminder that Americana is very much alive and thriving in Australia

It was roots’ music night of nights celebrating the First Annual Australian Americana Music Honours Night at Thornbury Theatre in Melbourne on October 2nd. Performing was Kasey Chambers, Old Crow Medicine Show, Valerie June with Busby Marou, Shane Howard, Bernard Fanning, Catherine Britt, Kevin Welch, Henry Wagons, Emily Barker, Ruby Boots and Jordie Lane & The Sleepers.

The night began with Tennessee natives Old Crow Medicine Show descending the back stairs in marching-band fashion, before walking through the crowd and onto the stage with ‘Rainy Day Women #12 & 35’ and ‘Wagon Wheel’, the song they penned with Bob Dylan.

There was excitement in the air! Made all the more special in the regal auditorium of the 1920s Thornbury Theatre.

Hosting the night was Denise Hylands from Triple R radio and the Americana Music Association’s Executive Director Jed Hilly, who firstly tried to describe Americana music. Honestly, before the night, I didn’t really understand what it was myself.

Denise said, “Americana artists build careers whose songs become the soundtracks of our lives.”

Jed added, “When I came in it was called Alt Country. It grew out of that frustration that major record labels were ignoring the greats of Johnny Cash, Dwight Yoakam, Emmylou Harris. That’s how Americana was born. But to me, it always meant so much more. It meant a community.

In the fall of 1999, the Americana Music Association was born by group of passionate individuals determined to shine a light on those artists who otherwise might not be heard in the commercial, mainstream market place. In 2008, the Grammy’s created a best Americana Album of the year. In 2009 and 2010, they added Best Performance and Best Song. 2011, Merriam-Webster put that definition into the dictionary. Last year and the year before, Billboard added the Americana sales chart and significantly, in the UK the official sales chart company added an Americana chart there.”

Old Crow Medicine Show’s Ketch Secor later saying, “When I think about this genre of music, I think so much about the kind of synergy between the artists who make it. We share a commonality often defined by what we are not than by what we are, but we are an impassioned lot those of us who make Americana music.”

Brian Wagner of Tourism Tennessee, after a brief, yet-unnecessary, heckling from one crowd individual, went on to say: “It’s a big honour to be here and it’s my privilege to represent the great state of Tennessee. This is an incredible night. We like to say the soundtrack of America was made in Tennessee. We’re celebrating the roots of so many genres of music – indigenous, blues, bluegrass, country, gospel, soul, rockabilly and rock n roll all come from this one small state, so the impact of this music has been an incredible and around the world and tonight is living proof of that.”

There was a definite feeling of community in the audience. I stood towards the back and everyone seemed to know each other as they walked past me. Artists moved effortlessly around the room, talking to fans and members of the industry.

But after all the formalities were kicked off and the crowd growing ever more enthused, impressive newcomers Jordie Lane & The Sleepers (who recently signed with ABC Music) performed next; followed by Queensland duo Busby Marou and a very heavily pregnant, Catherine Britt. Most artists sang one song each and then a duet with the next performer on the set-list. Although there were exceptions to this rule; Busby Marou and Catherine Britt kicked off the duet theme of the night, something that made the night just that little bit extra special because rarely do you get to see so many talented artists performing together.

Best known as the writer and performer of the award-winning theme to the hit PBS Masterpiece drama Wallander starring Kenneth Branagh, emerging artist Emily Barker then took the stage. Born in Western Australian, now living in the UK; she has played at Americana Fests in America, as well as the first Americana Fest in the UK.

She described her music as, “never quite twang enough for country, pop enough for mainstream, hip enough for indie, or folk enough for British folk. There was a whole bunch of bands and musicians like me and what happened was we realised we had a community. It was pretty special”

Next up was Kevin Welch, who started the record label Dead Reckoning Records with a number of musicians as a way of getting their music out. The American singer/songwriter has been living in Texas for the better part of ten-or-eleven years.

Now living in East Nashville, but originally from Western Australia as well, Ruby Boots recently signed with Bloodshot Records. The powerful singer sang two songs, one of her own and the second with the charismatic Henry Wagons.

Dressed in a bedazzled leopard-print jacket, Henry stole the show while performing ‘King Hit’. Most of the artists played the guitar so they stayed in the one spot, as Henry was just on the mic, he moved around the entire stage with his signature swagger and delighted the audience with his comedy genius as well.

He stated, “This is a true galvanising spirit of an ever-growing musical genre taking over, brainwashing the world, around the world for Americana. It’s great celebrating the start of something big tonight!”

A second highlight was the surprise appearance by indigenous performer Yirrmal who, with his duet with Shane Howard, received the only room-standing ovation. I’ve witnessed many incredible moments in my life, but none comes close to this!

I honestly didn’t think that performance could be topped, but Kasey Chambers powerful performance of ‘Ain’t No Little Girl’ came pretty damn close, proving why she’s one of Australia’s most well-known performers. Dressed in a purple maxi-dress from Tree of Life, she later performed ‘Watch Over Me’ with Bernard Fanning, who thanked the audience for letting him “crash the night with his mainstream music”.

The last to perform on the night was American singer-songwriter, Valerie June, who later closed the show in the group-sing-along ‘May The Circle Be Unbroken’ with Old Crow Medicine Show, Kasey and Kevin. All artists on the night were backed by a house band consisting of Bill ChambersGlen HannahSyd Green and Ben Franz.

The night wasn’t just about the killer performances or the community spirit; it was about acknowledging those who have contributed to bringing light to the genre that is Americana and roots music. As in the title, it was an Honours Night and Awards were given. The Awards themselves are like works of art. Willie Nelson once described them as the nicest he had ever seen. First they’re cut and shaped, before being hand-painted into one of the music industries most unique awards.

The recipient of the first Vanguard award of the night was Brian ‘BT’ Taranto for his contribution to the Americana community. Old Crow Medicine Show’s Ketch Secor presented the award saying, “When you’re in Nashville, whenever the conversation turns to Australia, this gregarious lot of Americana musicians pontificating about the South Pacific, we always talk about BT. There’s a great, generous heart in Brian Taranto and we thank and honour him here tonight.”

Brian thanked firstly his Mum and Dad, “who turned me onto country music”; his children who would walk into lounge rooms “with honky tonk hillbillies doing all kinds of shit in my house”; and friends. He thanked his staff at Love Police, venues, artists, the Americana Music Association and radio stations “without them, we’d be lost”.

He went on to say, “The most important thing, we need your support for this genre. If you’ve never been, just come! It’s the greatest day of your life! Don’t mess around – what else are you going to do? Support it. Let’s all make it something really special. We’re all in this together.”

The other Vanguard Award was presented to Kasey Chambers, who called her brother Nash Chambers on stage to receive the award with her.

“This is such an honour. My brother and I have been connected to this genre of music for our whole lives. It didn’t have this name back then. When I was a teenager and we started choosing to make this style of music, we honestly felt like outcasts. Now we have a place that feels like home. It’s a really beautiful thing to be a part of.”