Nashville, Tennessee is Music City, and its citizens don't let you forget it for a moment. As soon as you step off the airplane, ads featuring Faith Hill, Clint Black, and other CMT heavy hitters beam down. The cab drivers lay on the boosterism, too. One introduced himself as "The Mayor of Music Row," while another kept me in stitches on my way back from Katy K's Ranch Dressing, lambasting Wynonna Judd and telling tales of frequent passenger Little Richard.
There was plenty of chatter and cheerleading at the 2006 Americana Music Association conference, too. Fortunately, most of it proved either enlightening or entertaining, or both. After a panel on the importance of CD cover art, Seattle artist Datri Bean asked Billions booking agent Mary Brabec and me to reappraise the graphics for her self-released debut album. (We both gave it honest thumbs up.)
But music was the number-one priority, and with a modest five venues and staggered starting times, it was possible to catch at least part of almost everything a body might want to hear. I already knew that Ghost Repeater, by incisive singer-songwriter Jeffrey Foucault, was a contender for many 2006 Best-of lists... and during his mesmerizing set at the historic Station Inn, I also learned to pronounce his name correctly. Australian "it girl" Anne McCue kept me going, despite my mounting fatigue, with an electrifying set of tunes from her new Koala Motel. And Mindy Smith may look like an emaciated goth waif, but her moody bluegrass tunes plucked from Long Island Shores could have knocked the Rock over like a balsa-wood cutout.
Old favorites were out and about, too. Although he turns 80 next year, Charlie Louvin navigated his way through a full set of Louvin Brothers' classics like "Must You Throw Dirt in My Face" without any big flubs—"senior moments," as he called them. After a career that makes Courtney Love look like a PTA mom, Carlene Carter (grandchild of Maybelle, daughter of June) rebounded with a boisterous show that included tunes from her initial '80s heyday ("Cry"), her brush with mainstream stardom ("I Fell in Love") and a smattering of promising selections from her forthcoming Stronger. I even spotted Jon Bon Jovi watching the Derailers, although behind his lofty coif he was nigh indistinguishable from many a Nashville native.
Friday evening found the Ryman Auditorium full of stars for the 5th Annual Americana Honors & Awards. Vince Gill introduced Rodney Crowell, who received a Lifetime Achievement Award for Songwriting, with a nuanced reading of "'Til I Gain Control Again" and uncensored anecdotes about over-imbibing, magic mushrooms, and the movie Arthur. Kudos to Master of Ceremonies Jim Lauderdale, who kept things rolling and was genuinely, off-the-cuff funny... even when Album of the Year winner James McMurtry was MIA as his victory was announced, and had to be fetched from—where else?—Tootsie's Orchid Lounge, across the alley.