When a Shelter Becomes a Home

Rosanne Cash
Wall Street Journal

By Barry Mazor

The Americana Music Association's annual awards show returns to Nashville's Ryman Auditorium Wednesday night. A capstone of the growing genre's music festival and conference that runs in venues across the city through the weekend, it features the panoply of American roots-music luminaries audiences have come to expect.

Among those on hand for the awards will be Stephen Stills and Richie Furay, Dr. John, the duo of Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell, Richard Thompson, David Bromberg, Bobby Rush, Lucinda Williams and Rosanne Cash. Also honored and appearing will be rising artists, including Jason Isbell, Shovels & Rope, The Lone Bellow, and John Fullbright, representatives of a new generation of performers who, as Association Executive Director Jed Hilly notes, are increasingly driving the Americana train.

"There's been a passing of the torch," Mr. Hilly said in a recent interview. "A sharing of the torch, really. We'd had roots-music veterans finding a refuge in Americana and attracting younger artists to it; now there's discovery and appreciation of the established artists because of the popularity of this next generation—of Mumford and Sons, The Civil Wars, The Lumineers and Avett Brothers. This is an active, creative community that spans generations."

Ms. Cash, who transitioned from making hit, pop-friendly country music to more personal, reflective songwriting and performing in the 1990s, spoke, in a phone interview, of how easily she identifies with Americana—formally organized just a few years after that shift—for its emphasis on narrative and emotionally authentic, personal songs. She will be a presenter at the awards show, and introduce songs from her album "The River & the Thread," due out in January, at her showcase the following evening. She readily accepts the notion that her father, Johnny Cash—who at various times emphasized the rockabilly, country, folk or even indie-rock sides of his music and performed at the Americana Music Awards in 2002—would have been at home in this field from his 1950s beginnings had it been there then: "Oh, God; I totally agree with that, because Americana's so ecumenical. It's not just been derived from country; sometimes it's more folk, sometimes it's more blues or rock."

And she notes that Chelsea Crowell, her singer-songwriter daughter, who is also appearing this year, is continuing the multigenerational identification: "Chelsea's made a straight out kind of punk rock record, but it doesn't fit in that category, because she's a different kind of songwriter. I wish this had been there all along myself."

Family continuity is marked in Americana, Mr. Hilly notes. "We have, yes, Rosanne, daughter of Johnny Cash, and Holly Williams, granddaughter of Hank Williams; Lisa Marie Presley, daughter of Elvis; and Shooter Jennings, son of Waylon Jennings, all with us and performing this year."

More often, of course, younger artists step into the field having immersed themselves in American roots music by choice rather than by birthright. An example is the immensely promising and original Oklahoma-raised singing songwriter John Fullbright, 25, a nominee for Emerging Artist of the Year and Album of the Year ("From the Ground Up"), who, with his mix of piano- and guitar-driven gospel, country, hard rock and even Kurt Weill-influenced Broadway, can't imagine where else he could fit:

"I had to come to terms with it," he said, "having had trouble with the 'Americana' term at first, because I'm a contrarian, I guess. [The singer-songwriter] Mary Gauthier set me straight. I was complaining about the songs of a well-known band that was on the radio, and she said: 'You need to be glad that something that sounds like you is on the radio at all. You need to stop complaining.' And that's true. Americana isn't techno-pop done on a Casio keyboard; it's people playing wooden instruments, electric guitar included, and singing songs that they wrote—living, breathing music from our roots. That's what I like."

Mr. Hilly sees an object lesson for the broader music industry in the dedication Americana artists show to the music they make for its own sake, beyond careerism, and in the performers' relative freedom to vary their music, as Johnny Cash did, without regard to some rigid radio format or star image. The audience, he suggests, feels connected to the genre for the same reasons.

He's also been moved by the artists' demonstrations of strong ties to Americana: "When Bonnie Raitt, Robert Plant or Rosanne Cash participate in our events, they're doing it in part because we represent their sources of inspiration. Rosanne invited me and my kids to visit her dad's original home in Dyess, Ark., which was just being restored, and when I got there I realized we were the ones she'd invited to see it with her immediate family, as she walked through Johnny Cash's restored house for the first time. It was very moving, and I was humbled that Rose would want me to be there, representing Americana."

That was the very time, as Rosanne Cash recalls, she was finding "you can go home again," a passage that was both cross-regional and cross-generational— and a touchstone for her next, very Southern-derived album.

"I started to go down South, and to the Delta again because of the restoration of my dad's boyhood home in Arkansas," she recalled. "That started the whole project. I reconnected with Marshall Grant, my dad's original bass player, who was like a surrogate dad to me; visited the Delta, and with friends in Florence, Ala. After over 20 years as a New Yorker, I had enough distance to let all of this new love for it all open up, for my heart to open to it in a whole new way."

Music from the heart reimagined with perspective "in a whole new way"—that's practically the definition of "Americana Music."