Putting together a multi-day music festival that takes place across the city is no easy feat. As such, there are many behind-the-scenes groups who work hard to make AmericanaFest the best it can be, including the Americana Music Association’s board of directors. One of the newer members of the board is Dr. Tressie McMillan Cottom, whose multihyphenate bona fides include teaching sociology at UNC Chapel Hill, writing the National Book Award finalist Thick: And Other Essays, covering race and culture for outlets like The New York Times and, in 2020, earning a MacArthur Fellowship (aka a “genius grant”). She is also a wellspring of knowledge on music and its intersections with race, class and gender, which she’s explored in pieces for Vanity Fair, among other outlets, and in her Substack newsletter Essaying.
The Scene caught up with Dr. Cottom by phone to chat about joining the board, efforts to diversify the festival’s audience and the importance of grassroots organizations like the Black Opry.
Earlier this year you announced that you joined the Americana Music Association’s Board of Directors. How did that come about, and what drew you to the role?
A person who I think is well on her way to becoming a fairy godmother and making a lot of really interesting connections is the reason why I’m on the board. And that is one Miss Allison Russell. She’s just a light. She’s a light in a body. We met — I interviewed her for a piece — and we hit it off. And I think Allison hits it off with everybody. After we did that piece, she reached out to me to say, “Hey listen, I think you understand what the complicated history of Americana is, but also this moment in time and what it could be.” She’s really pushing for diversity and depth on the board, and asked me to consider doing it. Americana was this interesting space where Black and queer people were really opening up some sounds. And then Allison would be there. So I thought, “Yeah, I’ll do that.”
What has your experience on the board been like so far, particularly regarding programming for this upcoming festival?
The board is mostly there to say, “Hey, that’s cool. Is there any way we can make this cooler or doper?” That’s certainly how I feel like my role is. I think what I’ve really enjoyed is finding ways to make more communities aware of [the festival]. So it’s about amplification. The board itself and the organization itself have the programming component of pulling off this really complicated event down to a science, considering the scale of it and its growing popularity. Think about how small that staff is; it’s really kind of miraculous that they make it happen. What I’m really excited about is translating the work of the board to audiences that should be an Americana audience but just don’t know it yet. It’s been interesting and fun, with a really good group of people.
There are always a lot of conversations around music festivals and the diversity, or lack thereof, of their lineups, but not as many about the diversity of attendees. What have your conversations about broadening the audience looked like?
Allison had been part of the push for there to be a diversity committee within the board. So I’m also on that board. Some of the existing board members said, after the festival that took place before COVID [in 2019], that some of the feedback that they got from people was, “We didn’t know we’d have such a good time at AmericanaFest. We didn’t know how dope this space could be.” They were right there at the beginning of really starting to crystallize that it could be a safe audience.
Sometimes people are afraid to go into these spaces. I’m a lifelong country and roots fan, and I’ve never been to a legit country music concert until recently, because the spaces don’t feel like ones where I would have a good time. So some of that was just about showing that it can happen. And then COVID happened, unfortunately. We’re hoping to pick back up on that energy this year. The audience is there and is ready. We just need to show them this is a place where they can have a good time.
Americana is so often presented as a home for artists who don’t fit the mold of stars — straight, white, typically male, though increasingly, white women are in the mix too — that we see in commercial country music. But that doesn’t mean that the Americana genre doesn’t still have some work to do itself. What are some changes that you would like to see happen within the Americana community?
We can’t take for granted that the audience knows Americana is fundamentally Black music. Black people know it, of course, and historians or your uber-fans, but I don’t think the popular audience sees it that way. So we have to say it. “This is soul music.” “This is gospel.” There is no American art form without the formerly enslaved people who brought the instruments and the sound and the vocalization … and mixed them with the sounds that were here. That is Americana.
Some of that work is ongoing, but I just think we have to continue to say it flatly. We can tiptoe around the words, I think, a bit too much, especially the closer you get to the country music industry — where, you know, we’re not supposed to even say the words “Black people.” So some of it is getting everybody comfortable with that, really stripping it down and saying, “This is a place that is built on the foundation of Black music.” Because once we say that, I think we open it up to everybody in a really concrete way.
A story that’s been wonderful to watch unfold over the past year-and-a-half is the success of grassroots organizations like the Black Opry. When you look at these efforts, which bypass traditional gatekeepers and institutions like country radio or the Grand Ole Opry, how do you see them fitting into this broader country and roots landscape in the coming years?
I hope it becomes the default. I cannot say enough about the Black Opry. The fact that it’s been so hard to have a sustainable space for Black artists in Nashville to be together to create is, to my mind, one of the big shames of Nashville. I want everybody to give the Black Opry money. It’s as simple as that. They need the money and the resources. They’ve got the creativity down pat. They’ve got the industry down. They know how this thing works. But what they have never had before is real resources and access.
I think our challenge is to make sure we support it without co-opting it. I hope we look up in, like, seven years, and you can’t be considered a new country or Americana starlet or whatever unless you’ve done your chops at the Black Opry. You know — it should be one of those ways where you know a new act in Nashville has arrived, because they’ve done a set with the Black Opry. I want them to be part of the machinery of making artists for Nashville, because the influences they have are so much more diverse than what normally comes into that big Nashville system. And I just think they also make dope music.
On Sept. 14, you’ll participate in a panel called “A Genius Speaks the Truth” as part of the conference portion of the festival. Without giving too much away, what can we expect from that conversation?
I hope people will have a lively discussion about the things we don’t talk enough about, in concrete terms: culture, race, gender, class and the music that we love making and listening to. So it’s sort of a lively survey discussion of the work that I’ve done in thinking about country music as a culture, but also how I’ve experienced it as a fan and as a person now with a lot of friends in the industry. We’re going to try to take it from both sides. Lively, real talk. A little Southern straight shooting, which shouldn’t be too unfamiliar to Nashville.
AmericanaFest Preview 2022
Ahead of AmericanaFest, we talk with The Mavericks’ Raul Malo, run down our favorite shows of the fest and more