Tag Archives: Americana Music Association

Moby Grape: Americana Lost and Found

God only knows how many ways I’ve tried to avoid using the term “Americana” in describing the music I love. My go-to response has at times been “it’s a radio format, not a genre,” but I’m aware it’s deeper than that. I just don’t like the word, and it’s an itch I can’t seem to scratch. And when even the Americana Music Association can’t exactly understand or articulate it — handing out lifetime achievement awards to folks like Richard Thompson, Robert Plant, and this year’s recipient, Van Morrison — a singular music blogger would be best served by just falling in line. So I have, at least for this moment, chosen to bend in the blowing wind and accept the inevitable. Go pitch your enormous tent, throw it all under the canvas, and call it whatever you want. I surrender.

 

It was actually something that Jason Isbell said while on the Charlie Rose Show that tipped me over. Wish I could remember exactly what he said, and I’m too lazy to hunt it down. But it was much more convincing than AMA’s honcho Jed Hilly’s description: “If you can taste the dirt through your ears, that is Americana. It is music that is derived or inspired by American roots traditions. I think that’s pretty solid.”

I think it’s pretty lame, but Jed’s heart is in the right place so he gets a pass and I get off my horse. Go forth Americana … and to quote No Depression co-founder Peter Blackstock from when O Brother, Where Art Thou? broke out into the mainstream, “This is the next medium-sized thing.”

 

Y’all probably remember Moby Grape, but if not let me give you the thumbnail version. Three guitars, a bass, and drums. Everybody sang, everybody wrote. Infinitely talented. They wore cowboy costumes: boots, buckskin fringe jackets, and other similar Western wear. Their incubation occurred 50 years ago in San Francisco during the infamous Summer of Love, and they were victims of poor management, record label ineptness, marketing plans that undermined their music, and at least one member suffering from mental illness. In later years, another ended up homeless.

 

Rolling Stone, prior to it becoming a fashion magazine with occasional music marketing fluff, called the band’s debut album “a stunning artifact of San Francisco rock at its ’67 peak. Jerry Miller, Peter Lewis, Don Stevenson, Bob Mosley, and Skip Spence all sang like demons and wrote crisp pop songs packed with lysergic country-blues excitement. And the band’s three guitarists – Miller, Spence, and Lewis – created a network of lightning that made songs like ‘Omaha,’ ‘Changes’ and ‘Hey Grandma’ shine and sizzle.”

 

While those three songs are probably their best known, I’ve often preferred the more acoustic ballads and straight country blues they offered. And in addition to the debut album, all of their work still stands the test of time, with songs that sparkle and shine and are ripe for rediscovery.

 

I was fortunate to have seen the band several times in the late ’60s, and each set remains etched in my brain. They are a touchstone and tentacle to my youth, and although I often enjoy reminding people of their existence, I imagine that they’ll never get the institutional recognition from the Americana cartel. Without a label to promote them, a new product or tour to promote (Hi Van … hope to see you on the road later this year), a rabid publicist, or tragic demise, they are destined to remain in the dustbin of time. ’Tis a shame.

 

 

Postscript: Skip Spence died of lung cancer two days before his 53rd birthday on April 16,1999. He was survived by his four children, 11 grandchildren, a half-brother, and his sister. Oar was his only solo album, recorded in Nashville over seven days in 1999. Originally meant to be simply a group of demos, his manager convinced Columbia Records to release it and it holds the distinction as being the lowest-selling album in the label’s history.

Ross Bennett from Mojo magazine:

“Combining the ramblings of a man on the brink of mental collapse with some real moments of flippancy and laughter, Oar is a genuinely strange record. Unsurprisingly, the journey from “Little Hands”‘ Grape-esque guitar grooves to “Grey/Afro”‘s terrifying nine minutes of mantric drone isn’t an easy one. Even when Spence builds his songs around a familiar sound (primarily minimalist country-folk), unsettling oddities and ominous modulations creep in.”

More Oar: A Tribute To the Skip Spence Album, an album featuring contributions from Robert Plant, Tom Waits, Jay Farrar, and Beck, among others, was released a few weeks after his death. Prior to its release, the CD was played for Spence at the hospital, in his final stages before death. Spence is interred at Soquel Cemetery in Santa Cruz County, California.

 

This article was originally published as an Easy Ed’s Broadside column over at No Depression: The Journal of Roots Music.

Music, News and What Not: The Pirate Broadside

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For those of you who visit No Depression: The Journal of Roots Music website for the latest music news, reviews and columns…May 2017 marks the month that the site has hit the pause button on fresh content in order to run a subscription drive for their quarterly print journal. You can read about it here, but the deal is this: you commit to just $6 USD per month and you receive four copies of incredible music journalism each year delivered to your doorstep. And you can cancel at any time. Took me a second to punch in my numbers and take the plunge.

To give you an idea of the quality of writing you’ll be getting, No Depression has sidelined all new content this month in favor of running some of their past long form stories that originally were published in the print journal. So if you want a sampling, here’s a few complimentary stories to check out:

Songs from The Gut: A Conversation with John Prine from Holly Gleason

Sweet Freedom: Jason Isbell Has Hit His Stride by Kelly McCartney (No relation to above pirate.)

Re-Trace: Jay Farrar Looks Back on 20 Years of Son Volt from David McPherson

So there it is…my personal Public Service Announcement; a swing and a pitch to keep No Depression alive and well. Keep in mind this is a non-profit organization, and most of us who contribute do it for literally peanuts or soy beans. Money and writing are like oil and water these days, so unless you’re James Patterson or Stephen King, flipping burgers is in your future.

Enough….let’s pull something new out of the ether and take a music break. Even though No Depression is in ‘send me money mode’…there is plenty of news, music and what not. Here’s Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit performing ‘If We Were Vampires’ live in TV Studio A at KCPT in Kansas City, Missouri. This is on the new new album and it sounds great.

The 2017 Americana Music Awards‘ nominees announcement ceremony included special performances from the Milk Carton Kids, the Jerry Douglas Band, Caitlin Canty and more — but it also featured one particularly special moment: Jason Isbell and the Drive-By Truckers‘ Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley coming together for an acoustic performance.

Isbell, Hood and Cooley sing “Outfit,” originally from the Truckers’ 2003 album Decoration Day. Written by Isbell alone, the song is one of two songs that the then-24-year-old penned for the album; the other, also written solo, is the record’s title track. Earlier this year, in late January, Isbell — now, of course, a solo artist — reunited with his former bandmates during a Drive-By Truckers show at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium. (From theboot.com)

Speaking of the AMA awards, I was taken aback by the announcement of Van Morrison receiving a lifetime achievement award for songwriting. No disrespect: Van is indeed The Man, and we know that the organization loves to recognize those from the UK (Richard Thompson and Robert Plant were past recipients), but I just don’t get it. Although I know this guy probably doesn’t give a damn and wouldn’t show up anyway, I think he might be deserving of anything with the tagline ‘Americana’ in it.

The folks over at Pitchfork have published a User Guide to The Grateful Dead that focuses not on their studio work but rather the gazillion of live tracks that are out there. Which reminds me…Jerry Garcia and Robert Hunter…a songwriting team that deserves acknowledgement from the Americana cabal. You know, since the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame people are often slapped around for missing folks like Gram Parsons and The Flying Burrito Brothers, the AMA might be moving into their elitist territory. Sad…to quote the POTUS.

By now you’ve heard about the sad passing of Austin singer-songwriter Jimmy LaFave. Local radio station KOKE-FM published the statement from his label and family, and you can find it here. And No Depression co-founder Peter Blackstock covered LaFave’s Songwriters Rendezvous for the Austin American-Statesman, and I think it’s a beautiful piece of writing. Click here to get there. This video was recorded at SXSW in 2011. Rest in peace.

“Every day, every minute, someone in the world is singing a Pete Seeger song. The songs he wrote, including the antiwar tunes, “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” “If I Had a Hammer” and “Turn! Turn! Turn!” and those he popularized, including “This Land Is Your Land” and “We Shall Overcome,” have been recorded by hundreds of artists in many languages and have become global anthems for people fighting for freedom.” So begins a story of Pete, and how we keep his spirit alive.

Writer Susanna Reich and illustrator Adam Gustavson have produced a book dedicated to that objective. In 38 pages of text, paintings and drawings, Stand Up and Sing! Pete Seeger, Folk Music, and the Path to Justice provides a wonderful portrait of Seeger, focusing on how his strongly-held beliefs motivated his music and his activism. The book introduces children to the notion that music can be a powerful tool for change. As Reich notes, Seeger saw himself as a link in “a chain in which music and social responsibility are intertwined.”

Read more about Pete and his music in this wonderful article posted at Common Dreams.

This year marks 50 years since Otis Redding died. He’d ignited the crowd at the Monterey Pop Festival in the summer of 1967; later that year, he and his band were en route to a show in Madison, Wisc., when their plane hit rough weather and crashed in an icy lake. Redding was 26 years old. Half a century later, Redding’s influence as a singer and spirit of soul music remains. Author Jonathan Gould, who’s written a new biography called Otis Redding: An Unfinished Life and you can read more about it here.

Guess it’s time to close the ‘pirated’ version of my Broadside column out with something that captures Mr. McCartney’s early acting career. In the meantime, while I’m officially on hiatus, please feel free to come visit me at therealeasyed.com ,  The Real Easy Ed: Roots Music and Random Thoughts which is my Facebook home where I aggregate daily and feel free to subscribe to my Flipboard e-mag of the same name.