Based in Nashville, Tennessee, the Americana Music Association is a nonprofit organization dedicated to celebrating and cultivating the community of Americana artists across the country. The AMA works around the clock to host events, participate in conferences, conduct research and keep fans in the know. They also know how to put on some incredible concerts, which have featured such influential artists as Lyle Lovett, Nanci Griffith and Buddy Miller. We had the chance to catch up with Executive Director Jed Hilly to hear all about the exciting events and initiatives that the AMA has done in the past, as well as their plans for 2011.
OS: As Executive Director, what is your role in the AMA?
JH: My job was designed to shed light on those artists who otherwise would not be heard. The association was created in 1999 and the group of 30 some-odd folks who became our founding council created the organization pretty much in response to the commercialization of radio in the ’90s and how artists like Steve Earle and Roseanne Cash, these great artists of integrity, were pretty much shut out from airplay. So that’s where it started from. We’re a trade association, but I feel like I work for the artist. The beautiful and wonderful thing that seems to be happening in the last couple years is that there’s a tremendous momentum in the Americana world. Some of these artists that have embraced the Americana community and style and genre of music, they don’t need me to shed any light on them at all…artists like Elvis Costello and John Mellencamp and Robert Plant, and yet, I’m thrilled that they’ve embraced this style of music because my job is to raise the tide for all ships. The participation and support of artists like that really helps.
OS: What are the advantages to joining the AMA?
JH: Well, I tell people that we are a non-profit with a very small staff…there’s actually only 2 full-time employees. I wish we were larger…people think we’re a much bigger organization. Because of the passion of the volunteer efforts that we receive, we put on a festival and conference each year. It’s an exceptional event and an amazing volunteer effort. About 150 people join forces with me and Dana Strong, our Director of Operations, and make it this wonderful community gathering. The benefits [of becoming a member]…you get a discount on our community gathering, we keep you updated, we’ve joined forces with an independent insurance plan, which is really helpful for artists who are always on the go. I would encourage people to support what we’re doing because I truly believe that we’re changing the landscape of the music business and it’s long overdue.
OS: The AMA recently announced the Top 100 Americana albums of the year. How is this list compiled?
JH: We have about 75 radio stations that are sanctioned certified reports, what they call a “radio panel.” When somebody says to me, “How do you define Americana?” This is our tool. Through these stations, they report spin counts—the number of times they play a particular song from a particular record. When you add them all up across 75 stations, your Top 40 chart is going to look different from every station, unlike mainstream stations, where it’s 10-20 songs played over the course of a week in every city in the country. This is unique, it’s a cross-section of 75 stations and specialty shows and the like, where we’re getting their definition of what Americana is. As spin counts accumulate, they bubble up. When you look at that over the course of a year, there could be a debate about some of the artists that could be at 700 or 800, but when you get to the Top 100, there’s your definition. There’s your landscape of the Americana world. Our radio stations are our heatseeker chart, if you will.
OS: Every year, you have a showcase at the Americana Music Festival & Conference. What do you look for in acts that submit applications for this opportunity?
JH: Similar to the way you’ve got 75 stations who are putting forth what they perceive to be the songs most worthy of airplay on their stations, so too do we have a committee that both surveys online and physical product that is submitted to us. They go through it, and I love what they do. Last year we had over 800 acts submit to play our event. The worst month of my year is when the 700 letters of regret, as we call them, go out, because we’re a small organization. We can only invite between 85 and 100 artists to be a part of this and it’s not necessarily the best of the best. Sometimes artists’ schedules change and they can’t come, or vice versa. But the bottom line, musically, is that Americana music— as we define it—is contemporary music that honors or derives from American roots music. And after that, a number of factors come into it. We’re grateful because the venues extend to us their homes, for free. This is our annual fundraiser. One of our venues, for example, is the world famous Station Inn in Nashville, which is the mecca of bluegrass. What you’ll find in that particular venue are more singer-songwriter, bluegrass-oriented performances. The room holds about 200. By contrast, we use the Cannery Ballroom, which holds over a thousand. That’s where we put people like Dirks Bentley, who played our event last year. So in the case of some of these artists who we’ll put in the Cannery, it’s because they can put a thousand people in there, and that’s how we make some money to survive.
OS: The AMA endorses Sound Healthcare. What can you tell us about this initiative?
JH: That’s our insurance plan. Sound Healthcare is an organization that has gone to a number of nonprofits, like the AMA, or the Country Music Association or the Folk Alliance. It’s a managed healthcare plan by consolidating these non-profit groups. An organization like the CMA has anywhere between 4,000 and 6,000 members. We have 1,000…but it’s great that we are all a part of the same plan that gives us the volume and numbers to support getting reasonable rates by being part of it. I think it’s a brilliant idea that the folks over there put together and we’re thrilled to be part of it as a benefit from our membership.
OS: What is your most memorable experience from an Americana Honors and Awards Show?
JH: It’s hard for me, because I’m working that day! (laughs) I’m a ball of stress, hoping everything goes well and it always does. But I remember a few years ago when Lyle Lovett came. He showed up at rehearsal and the great Buddy Miller is our band leader. We generally ask people to tell us what song they’re going to do and Buddy puts together this incredible all-star band. Last year, the band featured Buddy on guitar, Don Was on the upright bass, Greg Leisz on steel…just an amazing array of musicianship supporting the artists who perform in our show. Lyle didn’t deliver a song to me or Buddy, and quite honestly, I’m not going to push Lyle Lovett to a decision! So Lyle shows up and Tony Brown, the great producer, happened to be in the house. So Lyle’s standing there and he says, “What should I do?” Tony says, “If I Had a Boat!” and Lyle says, “Does anybody have a copy of ‘If I Had a Boat’ for the band to hear?” And they pulled it up off iTunes and there was dead silence. One by one, Buddy and the members of the band start playing along with it, halfway through the song. The song finished and Buddy said, “Can we hear that one more time?” And they ran it through, and it was amazing. Just watching this level of artists and musicians listening, thinking, absorbing…and about 45 seconds into it, They went and did this first take, not ever having played the song together. It really was an extraordinary moment, sitting there for the next four and a half minutes, and they stopped and Lyle said, “I think you got it!” (laughs) It was truly wonderful and the essence, I think, of what the Americana community is all about. It’s about the enjoyment, the passion and the love of music and it’s about the talent level. Man, they nailed it.
OS: You’ve said that, “The typical Americana act is in the music business for the long haul.” Why do you think this is?
JH: I think they’re artists. I heard Emmylou Harris talk a couple years ago…she had been presented with one of those big platinum awards, commemorating 15 million records sold or something. She looked around at the room and said “I’m honored and privileged to be able to do this, but I’m honored and privileged to play with all of you. Whether we made money on this or not, I think we still would have done it, and I think we still would have been playing music, because that’s what we do.” Living in Nashville can be so hard. There’s that old bus station story about Nashville, where you show up with your guitar and you leave without it to get the bus ticket out. But that’s not this community. This community is about telling a story through song in the best way they know how. It’s not about selling records. To me, it’s the difference between fine art and commercial.
OS: What are some events that the AMA has coming up in 2011?
JH: We will be back at SXSW and doing our annual showcase there. We’re thrilled that the organizers of that great event give us a pretty nice venue. We get to be at historic Antone’s every year and have had some wonderful performances. I’m not at liberty to say who will be performing this year, but what I can say is that it will be a cross-section of 5 or 6 artists, among them will be some newcomers and truly legendary figures from the American music world, which will be pretty special. We do a Bluebird series, which is a pretty nice little event. It’s a benefit. We’ve had artists from Nanci Griffith to Rodney Crowell put on shows for us. About 100 people fit in the room. We don’t make a ton of money on it but it’s a pretty magical event. We’re planning a little mini festival that will be a benefit to support the AMA that will take place at Blackberry Farm, which is truly one of the country’s finest inns. It’s a magnificent inn and spa and culinary experience.
The 12th Annual Americana Music Festival & Conference event dates are set for October 12th – October 15th 2011 in Nashville, TN. For more information on the AMA and to register for the conference, visit their official website!