Almost exactly a year ago, a gala multi-artist show at a century-old theater climaxed with Robert Plant and Mumford & Sons performing together. Awards were bestowed on Nashville’s Jason Isbell, British folk quartet The Wandering Hearts and many others. The venue was the Hackney Empire theater in London, and it had a similar reverent energy to the Americana Honors & Awards held every Fall at the Ryman Auditorium.
Siobhan Kennedy, Liverpool born and Nashville based musician and artist champion, was there, and she said it felt like a breakthrough for a young trade organization, where she is a board member.
“I really felt like that moment last year at the Hackney Empire was solidifying. Here we are the Americana Music Association UK. A full house. Yeah, it ticked all the boxes,” she said. Next week, between Jan. 29 and 31, the AMA UK will hold its fourth such gathering with a strong sense of momentum. “The very first conference was so tiny, and the award show was in a very small place, Kennedy said. “But as we’ve gone along it’s just got bigger and bigger.”
It began in 2012, when two English talent agents named Bob - Butler and Patterson - got the Americana Music Association to bless their idea of forming a UK chapter. They called on a network of industry figures, including people in record retail, venues, festivals, management and artists themselves, to form a board and launch an annual winter convention. According to one of those members, current CEO Stevie Freeman, the group became an accelerant for developing talent and broker of a UK focused record chart. She told writer Rudie Hayes in mid 2017 that “the charts took two years to come into fruition and are now a great asset to the genre, the bands and the labels as well as the retailers.”
The trade mission is a two-way street. American artists travel to showcase in London where talent buyers from across the UK will hear them. That includes Nashville’s Amy Speace who says audiences there crave story-driven, lyric based music. “My biggest audience it seems these days is in the UK,” she says. “My music seems to really fit in over there. The quietness of British audiences was initially off-putting. Then I realized they were actually listening. So they’re my people!”
Conversely, AMA UK is a vehicle for boosting artists from that side of the Atlantic to American audiences. Mumford and Sons made an improbable journey up the US pop charts before AMA UK existed, earning them the “Trailblazer Award” at last year’s AMA UK. But there were something of an aberration. Today, besides the Wandering Hearts, songwriter Jade Bird and soul/country powerhouse Yola Carter are making US-based headway but they are far from widespread names.
Kennedy says the stars are starting to align for some breakouts. “We’re almost ready to have a big famous Americana UK act,” she says. “I don’t think it’s happened yet. Out of our whole thing somebody is going to happen really soon.”