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Rhiannon Giddens, Patty Griffin And Shakey Graves—A Musical Conversation

"I think songs can have different lives," said Rhiannon Giddens in the conversation that flowed throughout NPR Music's "Songs We Love: Americana Fest Edition" panel on September 16 at Nashville's historic RCA Victor Studio A. "Each song has its own way that it likes to be done, but it can be more than one way," the Carolina Chocolate Drops multi-instrumentalist and singer continued. "If you tap into it, you can feel it."

Sharing tunes and conversation with fellow Americana stars Patty Griffin and Shakey Graves, Giddens embodied the mood of the festival that would unfold over the following four days. Her selections during the daytime event, spanned Tejano music, Appalachian folk and '90s honky-tonk, illustrating the enduring truth that in a genre whose boundaries remain fluid, song craft remains the magnetic core. Griffin added to the conversation by showing how learning new things (perfecting her piano skills) and turning to old sources (re-reading James Baldwin) influenced her songwriting process on the stunning new album Servant of Love. Graves, a spontaneous raconteur, reflected upon the many different versions his songs take as they evolve – the waltz version, the slow country one, the "I'm yelling at you!" one. At one point, he performed a beautiful, spare take on Townes Van Zandt's "No Place to Fall" that showed how the poetry held within a song's musical frame matters most.

Throughout Americana Fest, artists used a wide range of stylistic structures to contain their lyrics. The festival, like the format it name checks, originated as a home for singer-songwriters too literate or tradition-minded for mainstream country music. As it's grown, Americana Fest has begun hosting more rock artists, and this year saw lively sets by mainstays like the Legendary Shack Shakers and Whitey Morgan, as well as relative newcomers like Low Cut Connie. Soul, too, has begun to find a footing, even if it's almost entirely the blue-eyed variety. Anderson East, a young revivalist who recalls early Robert Palmer or Boz Scaggs, got the usually sedate crowd at City Winery up and dancing; and Americana mainstay Jim Lauderdale found a new groove collaborating with the funky blues bros, Luther and Cody Dickinson. Such sets suggest the next avenue for Americana Fest to secure: R&B classicists like Anthony Hamilton, or jazz lights like Cecile McLorin-Salvant could forge a space within Americana that would expand its definition in crucial ways.

Yet songwriterliness still stood out and silenced crowds. From John Moreland's Central Plains tragedies, to Lera Lynn's self-aware noir, to the kitchen-sink psychedelia of Madisen Ward & the Mama Bear, stories by fine writers with captivating voices made for many of Americana Fest's most resonant moments. Artists stepping out of other contexts, whether Eagles kingpin Don Henley or Sixpence None the Richer chanteuse Leigh Nash, credited the flexibility and essential integrity of good songs as the source of their new inspiration.

The conversation at Studio A, peppered with stunning versions of the artist's favorite covers and illustrative originals, explored how songs shape us, challenge and even sometime defy us. "Every song has a heart, and I just go for that," said Giddens. That unassuming statement of purpose echoed throughout Americana Fest.

Listen to the entire panel with Ann Powers, and featuring exclusive music from Rhiannon Giddens, Patty Griffin (accompanied by David Pulkingham), and Shakey Graves above. Or scroll down for a single song and some sage words from each.

Rhiannon Giddens on "Mal Hombre"

"This is a song by Lydia Mendoza who's the first queen of Tejano music. And she was born in Texas and was, you know, also being a woman in a man's world, she was very, very important to that history and to that music. And she wrote [the music to] this song. She found the words on a bubble gum wrapper. It's her most famous song and it's pretty fierce. You know, there's a lot of songs that were sort of denigrating women and she came out with this song that was pretty much doggin' on the man for finding her and her innocence, her flower and pretty much abandoning her – all men abandon women. [laughter] And so she's going to tell him to his face what she thinks of him and what he is."

Patty Griffin.
/ Joshua Shoemaker for NPR
Patty Griffin.

Patty Griffin on "Take My Hand, Precious Lord"

"I feel like I kind of tried writing songs for a long time, and then I read James Baldwin and something kind of cracked open inside of me about writing and how it worked. I've been rereading all of his stuff after reading this biography about him. And I found that now, [unlike] 20 years ago you could go to YouTube and see him speak. And I found actually him singing a song on YouTube. He was singing this song, and it turned into my favorite song after hearing him sing it. It's a really famous song. A lot of people think Elvis Presley wrote it and he did not. A guy named Thomas A. Dorsey wrote this song and it's an old gospel song. Gospel music is so important. The tradition was to, you know, uplift the weary from some of the worst conditions imaginable. This song in particular is built to do that in one of the most eloquent ways I've ever heard anybody put together."

Shakey Graves.
/ Joshua Shoemaker for NPR
Shakey Graves.

Shakey Graves on "Word of Mouth"

"I like the concept of putting on a different persona to sing through. My parents didn't name me Shakey Graves. [laughter] I'm sorry to tell you guys that. But even that alone is like a costume I feel comfortable taking on and off. There are certain areas of performance and even songwriting that I feel more comfortable and confident going into because I have an alias, as opposed to, 'Alejandro is talking about shooting people and running to Mexico,' or whatever."

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