In Their Own Words: Americana Music Association Executive Director Jed Hilly On Inspiration

David McClister
– Americana Music Association Executive Director & AmericanaFest Executive Producer Jed Hilly
Music is a craft and it’s an art form and it’s a performance. I think as humans in general we strive to be moved. Art moves people, you know?

Looking at a great painting is moving. I can sit at the Tate Gallery in London and look at Turners all day in amazement. 

I mean it. In amazement for the craft and the creation … imagine being in Turner’s studio when he was painting. I think that would have been an incredible experience. 

Music moves people in the same way and discovery is an important aspect of that.

I may be biased, but I think that Americana music is our greatest cultural asset that has the ability to touch people all over the world. 

I do think if everyone in the world listened to one hour of Americana music it would be a better place to live. 
I think it’s because Americana artists strive to write songs that tell stories through music in the best way they can. They are writers who can write, they are singers who can sing, and they are players who can play. 
That’s an undeniable force that’s transcendent, and especially when you see it live.

When I hear Americana I can taste the dirt through my ears and that to me is what defines Americana, but it’s all very subjective. 

By and large Americana’s inspiration comes from the great traditions of gospel, rock ‘n‘ roll, traditional country, the blues, bluegrass and folk. 
It’s an amalgam of contemporary music that honors and derives from the traditions of great American roots music. 

We are very fortunate to have people like John Prine and John Hiatt performing at our AmericanaFest, but equally important, if not more important, are the new artists.
I would contend that you could go to any one of our showcase lineups, and there’s 250-something bands playing, and most people are not going to know every band that is on the bill. 
But I can tell you that you will walk out of that venue after watching four or five bands and at some point during the night you will have had your socks blown off. 

Music hits us all emotionally. I am often verklempt when I am in a room and I see magic. 
What is magic? Magic is Lyle Lovett showing up two hours before our award show is scheduled to begin and another 15 acts playing that night. 
They all had to submit their songs in advance so that the house band could be prepared to play those songs.

Lyle shows up and we didn’t know what he was going to play. He decides on “If I Had a Boat,” so Buddy Miller (our musical director) asks somebody to spend a dollar and buy the song off of iTunes and run it through the house speaker system. 

About a third of the way through the song Buddy starts noodling with his guitar. And the house band joined in. Lyle is just sort of standing and watching. The steel player picks up a riff, drummer comes in. 
One by one the other players in the house band sort of start patch-working the song. 

About two-thirds of the way through the song, Buddy stops, looks at Lyle, and says, “I think we got it.” 

Lyle steps up to center stage, takes the mic, has his guitar and they do the song in one take. 
It was jaw-dropping to watch. The whole experience was jaw-dropping. 
It wasn’t the finished product. 
The finished product was stunning when they did it during the show two hours later. 
What was jaw-dropping was watching the creative collaboration with these incredible musicians who, in about 142 seconds, pieced this classic song together with an artist whom they had never played with before.
That to me is the magic. 
It’s the inspiration. I love going to sound check. I love going into the studio and watching it happen.
I guess I’m spoiled that I have an opportunity to do those things, but that’s what inspires me. Then to see it on stage.  
But nothing moves me more than sitting in a living room with Rodney Crowell playing an acoustic guitar and he plays a song that he just wrote last night. 
That’s the stuff that drives me crazy happy.
Nashville has grown in the last 10 years and I think, in a semi-parallel way, so too has Americana.  
Granted, our community hasn’t exploded to the visible degree or the neon degree that Nashville has, but I do think it’s been a significant contributor to the backbone of what Music City is. 
The commercial county music is an important and financially rewarding world for the city, but Americana is the inspiration. 
It’s the backbone, it’s the heart and soul of this city and it’s in clubs, back yards, basements, and living rooms. 
When I started in this gig there were maybe 5,000 attending AmericanaFest over four days and since, it’s been constant growth.
Last year attendance was 51,000 over the six days, which included 28,000 unique individuals. 
What’s most inspiring is the growth of the community and, in some ways, that may be the hardest thing to manage.
Back in 2007 there were five venues all in one city council district. Last year there were 57 venues in eight city council districts. 
There’s a lot of people coming, we have grown in recent years from 95 acts performing to 110, to 135, to 160, to 230, to 300! 
And this year we tightened it up a little bit because it was hard for people to get through one show to another. We dialed it back to 260 but we’ve also added more events taking place during the daytime and cocktail hours.  
There’s probably going to be somewhere around 400 performances this year; they’re in backyards, they’re in restaurants, they’re in bars, they’re in our primary venues.  
It’s been inspiring and humbling to see this community grow.
I’m inspired when I learn that I might have helped. 
I once got a thank-you note from an artist named Amy LaVere who played at our 
She’s a wonderful artist out of Memphis, and several years ago she came to our festival and she sent me a thank-you note afterwards to say that she went to Europe for the first time, because there was a booker from the U.K. at AmericanaFest who got her a bunch of gigs overseas. 
I was inspired to be standing next to Margo Price watching her meet her soon-to-be publicist and agent before the album came out, before she was on “Saturday Night Live.” She found her team at AmericanaFest.
I was inspired when we’d selected an act called Oh Pep! from Australia. 
And they came, I don’t know from how many thousands of miles, 9,000 maybe, to come to AmericanaFest.
One of their showcases was a day party in front of about 20 people or something and I’m thinking, man, they came all the way from Australia, there’s 25 people in the room. 
What a commitment to make, and what a hard thing artists have to do as they’re developing and growing to build on something. 
They made a financial commitment, and what an emotional commitment to be standing on stage in front of only 20-something people. 
One of them was NPR’s Bob Boilen who invited them to do a Tiny Desk Concert the following week.
So, that’s why I do my job. When people call me and say, “Hey, what label should I go on? Who should I hire?” 
I don’t answer that question, I tell them to come to AmericanaFest and be open and friendly, kind and committed, and find your way.