Interview: AMAUK CEO Stevie Smith teases AmericanaFest 2021 artists

We are fast approaching the highlight of the UK americana community’s year when the Americana Music Association UK (AMA-UK) hosts AmericanaFest 2021 from 26-28 January 2021. While the UK has been struggling under COVID constraints, AMA-UK have been working hard to develop a virtual version of AmericanaFest 2021 and another eagerly anticipated event, the release of the  details of the showcase artists for AmericanaFest, is scheduled for Tuesday 17th November, 2020. Anyone who doubts the importance of AmericanaFest just needs to look at the list of previous award winners, which includes artists of the calibre of Robert Plant, Nick Lowe, Joan Armatrading, Richard Thompson, Van Morrison, Billy Bragg, Yola, Mumford and Sons, Brandi Carlile, Jade Bird and Joe Boyd, and it becomes immediately clear just how significant the event is for all members of the UK americana community.  While this year it will be a virtual event, somethings never change and Bob Harris is again the, virtual,  host of the event. Americana UK’s Martin Johnson meet up over Zoom with AMA-UK CEO Stevie Smith to discuss AmericanaFest UK 2021, the role the organisation has played in helping not only artists, but the whole americana music community adapt to the challenges posed by the pandemic and the hopes for 2021. Stevie also let slip  a scoop on an artist who will be included in the AmericanaFest UK Showcase, in advance of the formal announcement.

I hope everything is OK with you and your family and friends  COVID-wise.
Yes, thankfully we have managed to escape the worst of COVID.

How is AMA-UK as an organisation coping with the challenges of COVID?
We were able to move very quickly to Zoom for meetings and what have you and so as an organisation, we adapted very easily and quickly to the challenges and the government’s instructions. The real challenge has been for our artists. Not many people understand the life-cycle of an artist’s annual touring schedule. With americana artists, the festivals are a key part of the year and these are scheduled nearly a year in advance. Factor in the fact that most festivals have slipped their 2020 roster to 2021 and you can begin to see how this year has been for all artists, but particularly emerging artists who rely on touring to start building a career. I am personally aware of artists taking delivery jobs just to make ends meet. For our artist members, we have been able to run virtual seminars with various experts to help give them the knowledge and tools to better deal with the current challenges. The seminars have covered everything thing from live streaming, funding during COVID, YouTube and social media skills,

AmericanaFest UK 2021 is the latest in what is now a well-established tradition. How are you dealing with the current restrictions?
What everyone needs to understand is that while AmericanaFest UK is our shop window and the main event to launch the year it is not the only event we produce. Like most organisations, we have become better at staging virtual events and this expertise we have built up over the year will be used to produce a virtual show that musically will match anything we have done in the past. When all this started I didn’t really know that much about virtual concert production but I’ve learnt very quickly. We will have 75 artists appearing during AmericanaFest UK 2021 and the actual line-up will be announced on 17th November 2020. We are dropping the seminar part of AmericanaFest UK  this year as we think people can only cope with so much screen time at once. This was a hard decision as the seminars have proven to be a popular part of the whole experience.

One of the great things about regular events and festivals are the personal connections and relationships that can be built up. What does this mean for the virtual festival?
That is very true. I was at a digital event in Nashville not too long ago and I saw someone in the chat  I hadn’t seen for a while and it was great to catch-up, so it is still possible. Mind you, one of the limiting factors when you have a physical festival is that not everyone who wants to attend is able to attend. The virtual festival gives a lot more people the chance to attend.  The thing we need to remember is that the whole americana community is really one big family where ever it is in the world and we will all do everything we can to support the music we love. I was supposed to be in Hackney this week and I felt really sad that we wouldn’t be there in 2021 because it is such a part of the whole atmosphere of AmericanaFest UK. We will continue to maintain close links with the area during the crisis and we will be back there as soon as the situation allows, it is our home.

Bob Harris still has that golden touch to bring publicity to americana music. How key has his support been to you being able to build a viable organisation?
Bob is amazing. His enthusiasm and active support of new artists has meant everything to the growth of americana music in the UK. It was a great pity when he lost his evening Radio 2 show because that limited the amount of air time for new acts and he still uses his personality and energy to support the music. People needn’t be worried, Bob will be hosting AmericanFest  UK 2021, virtually.

How effective is the lobby to Government by the Independent Music community in the current pandemic?
When we talk about the music community we need to remember all the people employed not just the artists, there are the tour managers, the electricians, the stage designers, the sound engineers and a whole plethora of roles that keep the whole show on the road. Some of these people have been hit very hard, particularly those who are self-employed. Mark Davyd  and Beverley Whittrick from The Music Venue Trust are doing an incredible  job to help support venues and their infrastructure through advice, fundraising and lobbying. (The Music Venue Trust website can be found here).

How do you think the UK americana music business is doing?.
Apart from the COVID threat, I think it is very healthy. AMA-UK has successfully built links with colleagues and sister organisations in America and Canada, as well as other parts of Europe and Australia. Obviously, americana is heavily related to what happens in Nashville but the UK is building a reputation for excellence as well. We are seeing UK record labels driving the popularity of americana recorded music. Thirty Tigers has a very impressive roster of artists, including more UK artists each year, and is one of the leading americana record labels and they decided to open offices in London reflecting the importance of the UK scene. The UK’s own Loose Music, Europe’s premier americana and alt-country label,  has formed a very productive partnership with USA labels and brings incredible US artists to the UK. The weekly Americana Music Chart helps bring a focus to what is happening in and around the UK americana music scene.

Do you have a view on americana being home to such massive legacy artists as Dylan, Springsteen, Young, Petty and from the UK, Morrison, as well as a plethora of independent artists?
I think americana is a very robust genre in its own right and is not dependent on the so-called legacy artists. The legacy artists have such a long history and the americana influences in their more formative years may not have been so obvious. However, as their careers have matured these influences either become more pronounced or we are simply just more aware of them. Robert Plant, who won a Lifetime Achievement Award in 2018, is a clear case in point. It was only in the latter part of his career that started to really show the depth of his americana influences that had always been in his music.  I am always amazed at the quality of the output of our americana artists and many of these artists faced a very difficult question this year of whether to release an album or not. One of the reasons the AMAUK Board wanted the 2021 Awards to go ahead was to reward those artists who still managed to produce new music despite the very challenging conditions.

What can fans of americana do to help during these challenging times?
At the moment it is very simple.  Earlybird tickets to the 2021 Awards Show and Showcase of 75 acts over three days are available now for purchase on Dice.FM at £20 per ticket. You can buy your tickets here.

What are your hopes for 2021?
I am very confident that 2021 will be a good year because as well as the hope that we will see the end of the pandemic, I believe the whole music industry is prepared to take full advantage of any gradual easing of restrictions. As an example, I have been speaking to the organisers of the Black Deer Festival and they believe they have the space on their existing site to improve social distancing by opening up a greater part of the site to the public and controlling the people flow. Sage, up in Gateshead, are looking at moving concerts that would normally be held on Sage 2 to Sage 1 so that they can ensure social distancing at live concerts. Artists will continue to release great music and there will be new music to discover. Our Australian Showcase at AmericanaFest UK 2021, as an example, will help bring new artists to wider attention in 2021 and hopefully make people aware of the wider Australian talent pool. Americana is a very strong and adaptable genre of music. A few years ago there was a trend to a more horn-based sound, something like that that came out of Muscle Shoals, but recently the main trend has been more towards indie-folk type music. It will keep going and adapting to the times.

We like to share new music with our readers so currently what are the top three tracks on your playlist or your current 3 favourite albums?
Ooh, I wasn’t expecting that, let me have a quick think. Tom Petty’s ‘Wildflowers & All The Rest (Deluxe Set)’ is superb and I think Disc 3 could possibly be the most perfect disc of record music I have ever heard it is that good. I’m not sure if you have heard of Emma Swift?

I had heard of her but I had never heard any of her music until this year’s album of Dylan covers ‘Blonde On The Tracks’ and I was blown away at how she was able to bring her own  unique interpretation to the songs. I also know she is Australian.  She was kind enough to be interviewed by Americana UK which can be read here.
I agree it is a superb album and definitely one of my current favourites. I can give your readers a little scoop that Emma Swift will be one of our Showcase acts at AmericanaFest UK 2021. Another of my current favourites is Emily Barker’s latest ‘A Dark Murmuration Of Words’, which I also think is probably her best album. When I was a record retailer with Union Music Store, Emily Barker was possibly the most featured in-store artist we ever had. I love her music.

She was also interviewed by Americana UK and the interview proved very popular and can be read here.  She is of course another Australian so something must be happening.
To be fair she also has a British passport so we can claim part of her.

Is there anything you want to say to Americana UK readers?
Just follow the link and buy those wristbands so we can have a positive start to 2021 and ensure we keep our music infrastructure in place for the better times that will surely come. If you didn’t order them on the link above, don’t worry you can get them here.

Nick Lowe at AmericanaFest UK 2020

AmericanaFest UK 2020 Awards

Author: Martin Johnson

I've been a music obsessive for more years than I care to admit to. Part of my enjoyment from music comes from discovering new sounds and artists while continuing to explore the roots of American 20th century music that has impacted the whole of world culture.

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