Thriving Roots Day 3 Live Updates
Day Three of Thriving Roots kicked off with sublime star power as Rosanne Cash put together an hour of conversation about music and activism with Ry Cooder, Bonnie Raitt, Alice Randall and Angela Davis. At a time of division and national stress, these veterans’ lifelong commitment to unity and justice felt like a balm. Read on for a summary and watch later today for more updates as the conference closes out.
Nashville producer and songwriter Shannon Sanders moderated the week’s final discussion about diversity and inclusion, and while that’s been the hot topic, this hour had some fresh twists. Songwriter Gaelynn Lea, who lives in a mechanized wheelchair, spoke about the inordinate work it takes to book shows when venue owners and promoters have shirked their decades-old obligations to make their venues accessible to the disabled, and how hard it is to rally allies among fans and fellow artists to join that fight. At the same time, she spoke about her comfort communicating with audiences about how her uniqueness as a small person who sings in a high register and plays the violin like a cello is integral to the way she sounds. “If you enjoy my music you have to be okay with the fact that I’m disabled,” she said. “It’s just part of my identity.”
Glendon Francis, a journalist who contributes to Billboard and others, noted that he’s a black, queer man who gets assigned little but articles about controversies surrounding those identity issues, in essence those that senior white writers are nervous about taking on. “Let us write,” he said. “Stop giving us the assignments that are about pain and suffering.” And Ryan Butler, chair of the Recording Academy’s Diversity and Inclusion Committee said it’s vital that Americana, as well as other formats and industry sectors, back up commitment to more black and brown artists and executives with metrics, just like streaming numbers. “We can’t be what we can’t see,” he noted. Also on the panel, the singer and songwriter Shemekia Copeland, who said in her home genre of the blues, she’s watched a black genre grow so white, artists and audience, that she often is tokenized on festival bills. In Americana, she said, she’s found more sincere partnership, including her collaborations with Mary Gauthier and Jason Isbell. “I’ve been really proud of Americana artists,” she said. “It’s so important for the artists who have the larger names to help.”
Ken Burns and Dayton Duncan, creators of the epic PBS series Country Music held a session with Emmylou Harris that reviewed the themes of the documentary and the ongoing journey of the genre. Duncan said the film has reached tens of millions of Americans so far, while bolstering institutions that have been telling the story of roots music all along, like the Birthplace of Country Music in Bristol, VA. In other impact, Burns said “we clogged the charts for a long time” as historic artists covered in the series surged on the streaming and download services in the Fall of 2019. “The appetite and hunger for this music is always there,” Burns said. Harris recounted some of the story she told in the series of her own journey into country music by way of stressing the power of education to newcomers. And they all stressed how multifaceted and broad-based country music is, with numerous genres and borrowing across cultures. “I like the bleeding of forms,” Harris said. “That’s where country music came from.”
Rosanne Cash conceived her “Love and Vigilance” program as a way to talk about “the history of protest music, the long, hard journey of Black musicians to achieve justice, and the anger and longing of the present moment." It started with a one-on-one visit with Ry Cooder, who remembered the “revelation” of hearing Woody Guthrie and Leadbelly even as a young boy. As he got older he learned more about the context of the McCarthy era struggles of progressive artists and activists to speak freely. “People my parents knew had been ruined by (blacklisting). It was tragic. I heard that talk but the magnitude of it I didn’t know,” he said. He told of FBI agents visiting his home to pressure his mother for names of friends who were involved in the Communist Party. Then he performed Guthrie’s “Vigilante Man” on a double neck electric guitar with epic reverb.
Bonnie Raitt made a solo video for the event, performing “World In Motion” by her “brother” Jackson Browne. “I can’t think of anybody that (better) represents the melding of conscience, the clarion call to justice to peace. He’s put his life in service of bringing such beautiful music. It’s hard to write a political song that’s not corny or pedantic, but my friend Jackson Browne is one of the greatest.”
Then followed a remarkable three-way talk featuring Cash, author and songwriter Randall and famous activist and scholar Davis. It will certainly be one of the archival keepers from Americana’s twenty years of presenting thought-provoking content. Randall, who is the first black woman to write a #1 country song in Nashville, said “Songwriting to me has always been the elemental art form,” one that has, for more than a century, helped black people find and define their way “from trauma to transcendence.” And Davis noted that with the unprecedented participation of white citizens in this year’s Black Lives Matter marches, “something fundamental is happening.” She tied the legacies of the early blues queens and black songwriters to contemporary events defining the country’s future. “I do think the music helps those of us who want to stretch our imaginations – who are willing to try to imagine a different future,” she said. “Because the music allows us to feel together, communally, what might be possible. And in that sense it’s a beacon of light. It illuminates that which we do not yet know.”