A Conversation With the Americana Music Association Chief

The 16th annual Americana Conference and Festival, which opens with the Americana Music Awards Tuesday night (9/15), represents a big moment for Jed Hilly. The longtime Americana Music Association Executive Director has watched the once-tiny organization, founded by a handful of artists, turn into one of the nation’s premiere gatherings of organic music lovers. With Lucinda Williams, Lee Ann Womack, Rhiannon Giddens, Sturgill Simpson and Jason Isbell vying for Artist of the Year, it’s five days of the most eclectic music at any sane-sized music-industry conference in the nation.

But just as importantly for the man who once served as the mastermind behind Creed, the confab is an opportunity to support and grow artists who come from a strong songwriting and roots-music orientation. Managing growth, advocating on Capitol Hill, curating a series at Lincoln Center, even getting the word “Americana” in Webster’s Dictionary all drive Hilly, who's been working 80-hour weeks leading up to the Sept. 15-20 extravaganza. Hard to believe he slowed down long enough to talk to HITS’ fast-talking Holly Gleason.

You’re getting ready for your biggest conference yet.
Yeah, we’ve gone from 900 conference attendees to 2,000, and cumulatively gone from 5,600 to somewhere just over 15,000 for the five nights. Or to make it cleaner, there are over 12,000 unique emails from attendees last year. That’s a long way from the 180 registrants in year three.

What changed?
Well, when Johnny Cash showed up in 2002, we went from nothing to the Chyron on CNN saying “Johnny Cash Wins First Spirit of Americana Award at the Americana Awards in Nashville.” That was pretty big. We were on the map—and it was also the last time Johnny and June Carter performed together in public. That, in some ways, is even more special, because of what they both meant to this music.

We’re a long way from 2002, though, to here. Were there any other key moments?
When Levon Helm came here and let us put the “Americana Music Association Presents Levon Helm’s Ramble at the Ryman,” other artists noticed. That was 2007, and it encouraged artists like Lyle Lovett to come and be part of, Bonnie Raitt, T Bone. And when you have Alison Krauss [pictured below] and Robert Plant coming to be part of your awards, you really have some of the biggest and most respected names in music saying, “We care about you honoring this music.”

In more literal terms.
I can still see Grace Potter, who’d just put out her first major-label record, sitting in the front row, looking up at Levon. Her now husband Matt Burr is a huge fan. The look on their faces—they were like little kids. But you could also tell they recognized they were part of a heritage of American music that extends a long back and through them.

You could argue 12,000 names or 15,600 people in five nights isn’t much.
Or you could talk about Mumford & Sons and Emmylou Harris doing CMT’s Crossroads—and having a 600,000-piece five-day. You could talk about the Avett Brothers doing 185 people on a little stage for us, and now they’re the act on the Main Stage at Bonnaroo before the final set of the weekend.

That’s the thing—who’s listening and how they consume. They’re individuals, but they follow music. They show up for shows and festivals. Bonnaroo is just one of many festivals these acts anchor, from Jazz & Heritage Festival to Hardly Strictly Bluegrass. It’s why we decided to have a big festival show, too. And in the spirit of the “tomato” controversy, it’s loaded with women: Loretta Lynn, Tift Merritt, Nikki Lane, Valerie June, Emmy Rose Russell. We have Steve Earle for testosterone, then Gillian Welch closes it at the new Ascend Amphitheatre.

"We’re getting a lot of college kids coming for the music, which is so healthy
for the future of the genre."

In a lot of ways, the Americana Conference and Festival has become what South by Southwest was.
I can say from Day One, the structure was based on the model of South by Southwest. I wasn’t here when this started—I was working for Barbara Orbison at Orbison Records—but it’s the same template: showcases at night, panels and discussions during the day and an awards show to celebrate the year. The idea being to bring likeminded music fans together.

But there is more to the Americana Music Association than just the four days, right?
Coming out of the recession of 2008-09, the first order or resolution was to open the door to everyone. The more people who hear these great artists, the stronger Americana becomes. We as a group try to focus on retail, radio, marketing, and you can hear about those things at the panels. But really I’d like to think our mission statement is to advocate for the authentic voice of American roots music. And even beyond the people who’re officially part of the AMAs; I think we have 175 sanctioned artists this year, but with renegade events around town, there are another 100, 150—and all the artists who make this kind of music who don’t come to town.

You mentioned, beyond the number, the quality of who makes up that number. What defines it? And is it changing?
Well, it used to be a 45-to-60-year-old driving a Saab or a Volvo. They had a college education and listened to NPR. That was typical.  Over the last few years, we’ve watched the numbers really come down. You look around and you think, “Where did all these 20-somethings come from?” Because we’re getting a lot of college kids coming for the music, which is so healthy for the future of the genre.

And the sponsors, do they recognize quality over quantity?
We have 40,000 dedicated Twitter followers. Guess how many we follow? Maybe 300, and they’re mostly artists. Most start-up festivals have 2000 followers, but they’re also following 2,000.

We get that. We’re very careful about how we align, because they don’t want to be marketed to like that. We have opportunities bubbling up, but it’s tricky—because corporations see media opportunities and the association. But it’s because of how we’ve maintained an integrity of who we are with our people.

We need money to do the work we want to do, but I’m very cognizant of how the alliances will work. Nissan has been an incredible sponsor: they don’t want their name on the backdrop of the award show at the Ryman. They know the power of our brand, and also how to ruin that impact.

You’re also getting involved in legislation.
You realize you can’t just sit there and say nothing when you realize what’s at stake, with copyrights becoming public domain, with radio not paying the artists. Those are big issues. I think when you take someone like Rosanne Cash to Capitol Hill, people listen. Before we did that, it was eight men at a dais, mostly lawyers, not creators or someone who derives their living from these incomes streams. So here’s a woman who’s an artist who can really talk about the Fair Play, Fair Pay Act from living it. That changes the dynamic completely—and that shift is important.

"In the next year or 18 months, you will see us start compiling a meaningful list of all the radio stations playing this music in any meaningful way." 

It’s been said that Americana can’t field a meaningful radio panel.
We’re a small organization, so there’s only so many things we can do. But in the next year or 18 months, you will see us start compiling a meaningful list of all the radio stations playing this music in any meaningful way. Not just the random Patty Griffin single, mind you, but incorporating this music into what they’re doing, because the artists are pretty varied.

Bonnie Raitt, for example, appreciates the blues, it’s not what she does. It’s in the music, but it isn’t her basket. Norah Jones is another one; Willie Nelson. To have a chart where Rodney Crowell and Emmylou Harris’ new record can exist alongside The Alabama Shakes or Drive-By Truckers. Start there. I want a map that goes Portland to West Palm Beach, Madison, Milwaukee and Chicago, from Pensacola to New Orleans, across Texas to Juno.

Can it work outside the traditional system?
I didn’t know Ahmet Ertegun, but I don’t think he cared as much about the #1 single as he did the artist. I think he built Atlantic on the music, then watched it perform. When I look at Jason Isbell, he’s got no format for radio, yet he’s sold out the Ryman four nights in a row—without a new record being out. People want to hear him, and they keep coming out.

It’s like the Avetts: Six or seven years ago, they were playing to 115 people; now they’re selling out arenas. The same thing with Sturgill Simpson or Alison Krauss. As Seth Godin says, it’s about building a community.

2014 AMAs finale (l-r): Rami Jaffe, Sam Bush, Darrell Scott, Jim Lauderdale, Brittany Howard, Don Was, Emmylou Harris, Buddy Miller, Bonnie Raitt, Brady Blade, Richard Thompson, Amy Helm, Teresa Williams, Larry Campbell and Booker T Jones performing "The Weight" onstage at the Ryman.


Photo credits: Jeff Fasano (Hilly), Erika Goldring (Krauss)


A not-so-subtle reminder to fill out that ballot. (10/15a)
The lives behind live music. (10/14a)
The Grammy chief takes our call. (10/14a)
It will rain again this fall--we guarantee it. (10/13a)
First music in 15 years. (10/14a)
Bring your umbrella.
Mulling possible surprises.
Why not wear a mask indoors?
What drugs will help us get there?

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