Up in the Hollow: Americana music — what it is, and what it isn’t

I’ve written about a lot of things in this space, from kudzu to baseball, but this particular column is simply a shameless self-promotion for the upcoming Rappahannock Americana Music Festival on Saturday, May 17 in Washington, Va.

(I put Virginia in there in case someone might confuse our county seat for our nation’s capital. Some make the distinction by saying that we are “Little Washington” or “The Original Washington” or “The First Washington.” Or one could refer to our town as “The Civilized Washington” or “The Quiet Washington” or “The Country Washington.” Out here in the Hollow, we just call it “up town,” as in, “I’m goin’ uptown, you need anything?”) But I digress, as usual.

When I mention to folks that Alma and I are putting on an Americana Music Festival, they almost always say, “That’s great! Uh . . . what’s Americana music?” So I will attempt to explain the genre and the event, in hopes that you will join us and help us spread the word.

I’m surely not the first to say this, but “writing about music is like dancing about architecture.” It is almost as easy to say what Americana music isn’t rather than to say what it is. It isn’t bland, it isn’t pre-packaged, and it isn’t made to a formula. You are unlikely to hear it in a Vegas club, in a Broadway show or being sung by Justin Bieber, Wayne Newton or Beyoncé.

It is definitely not under the control of the corporate music industry. I think that one big reason it has become so popular is that it is hard to put a label on it, or to fit it into a niche. It tends to be more homemade than factory built. And it touches every culture in a nation which is more culturally diverse than any other.

Americana music has come to mean music which is open to a lot of influences. It is rooted in the traditional music of the national experience. In Americana, you will hear echoes of mountain fiddles and banjos, of Cajun hoedowns, of Delta and Piedmont blues, of Nashville twang, of Western swing, of New Orleans rhythm and blues, and of good ol’ rock and roll.

There is a wonderful amalgamation in Americana music because the artists are not trying to sound like anybody else or to fit into the cookie cutter pre-conceptions of the “music business.” You will find that folk singers fit right in with bluegrass bands and blues guitar pickers and honky tonk country rockers and acapella gospel singers.

It has been called a lot of things, but Americana works because it is indeed a mosaic of American-made music. If you like the music on, say, Prairie Home Companion or Austin City Limits or at The Birchmere, then you like Americana music.

The Rappahannock Americana Music Festival will have an afternoon concert at Avon Hall from noon to 6 p.m. and an evening concert at the Theatre in Washington from 8 to 10 p.m.

Performers at the afternoon venue include The Gold Top County Ramblers, Ben Mason, Mandalele, and Big Buster and the Dirty Dawgs. Special guests will include Craver, Hicks, Watson and Newberry, an esteemed “old timey” string band from North Carolina, and singer/songwriter Irene Kelley, an honored Nashville artist.

The evening concert at the Theatre will feature David Olney and Sergio Webb. The legendary songwriter Olney is joined by Webb, a wizardly multi-instrumentalist. These two have performed throughout the U.S., Australia and Europe for many years.

Topping the evening off, the Festival is delighted to present Robin and Linda Williams and Their Fine Group, who have been going strong since the 1960s and seem to get better and better as time goes by.

Tickets for the afternoon concert are $25, as are tickets for the evening venue at the Theatre (tickets for both concerts are $40 until the Theatre is sold out; 12 and younger free). The afternoon concert will be festival seating, so folding chairs and blankets are recommended. Food vendors will be on the grounds, and concert-goers will also be given armbands which will allow them to come and go from the show to shop or eat in town. Parking will be free in clearly marked areas.

For tickets and info, check out rappahannockamericana.com.