Tag Archives: Americana music

My Favorite Un-Americana Music of 2017

Photo by Oliver Zühlke/Creative Commons

This is the season that I try to be the first kid on the block to beat out the barrage of those end-of-the-year lists from critics and pundits. At No Depression, and other like-minded music websites and magazines, the official music polls from readers, contributors, and reviewers will be coming in December. Had I been born a betting man, I’d lay down a few hundred bucks that there’ll be little variation or surprises between any of them. Ever since the term roots music has morphed into a more definable mainstream “Americana” tagline, diversity has seemed to have left the building. While you won’t get much disagreement from me on the quality and depth of music that has been released so far this year, it seems that I continue to find myself taking the road less traveled.

This year it feels as if I’ve been walking down the dark side of the street, whether we’re talking about  art, culture, politics, or simply life in general. There were health issues to deal with and the loss of a parent. I’ve found myself constantly concerned for my children that a madman lives in Washington who is one button away from annihilating the planet when he’s not chipping away at the fabric of our society by normalizing the abnormal. From the racist cries of “blood and soil” to an unjust justice system that tips to white skin and wealth to revelations of what we already know … that bad men do bad things to women and children … and to all the other natural and human disasters we’ve lived through so far, I’m only finding shelter by cocooning with music, books, and video.

So with that bright and shiny preamble, here’s some of my favorite aural oddities and mainstays for the year. As always, I use a different yardstick to measure and compile my list. This is what I have either discovered or gravitated to, undefined by such things as release dates. Whether it was brand new this year or merely recycled from the past, who cares?

The Entire Ry Cooder Catalog

I wish he would have titled one of his albums Pastrami on Ry, and I’m sorry that for most of his career I’ve largely ignored his solo work. Aside from a seemingly infinite number of songs he’s done session work on for others, the only albums I’ve really known inside out have been two from the ’70s: The Gabby Pahinui Band Volume 1 and his solo Bop Til You Drop. So now, thanks to the magic of touch and click streaming, I’m making my way through everything else. While skipping around and sampling from this era and that, I’m spending most of my time with Paradise and Lunch, Into The Purple Valley and Chicken Skin Music.

A Prairie Home Companion

While I know he’s trying his hardest and still growing into his role, Chris Thile’s voice reminds me of Opie Taylor and he’s yet to hone his comedic skills with timing and inflection. But on the other hand, he’s doing an amazing job at making great music with that killer band he’s assembled and presenting exceptional guests week after week. He’s going down the right path but one suggestion would be to please stop referring to Sarah Jarosz as “inimitable.” Why continually state the obvious? Finally, a note about Garrison Keillor. Over the years he’s entertained millions of us and his wit, humor and his support of musicians won’t be forgotten. And while it was sad to witness his termination played out in counterpoint to rapists and serial harassers , he had to go.

David Rawlings

I got a chance to see David and Gillian right before the release of Poor David’s Almanack, and it was the first time I’d ever seen them live in concert. Tickets have always seemed to get swallowed up the minute they go on sale and my budget doesn’t include StubHub. After 21 years of being a devout fan of their partnership, each and every note, song, and harmonic moment gave me a night of multi-orgasmic goosebumps.The album is simply perfect.

Freakwater and The Mekons

In September these two bands reunited as The Freakons and performed two nights in Chicago. Monica Kendrick for The Reader broke the news about a new album they’re now recording. She wrote that it’ll consist of “traditional songs about an industry that links the English Midlands, the Welsh valleys, and the ‘dark and bloody ground’ of Appalachia: coal mining. Haunting tunes in that vein came from both sides of the pond, and the Freakons take them on in the high-lonesome, rabble-rousing tradition of late West Virginian labor singer Hazel Dickens. Proceeds from the album, when it’s finished, will benefit Kentuckians for the Commonwealth, a grassroots organization that promotes voting rights and opposes mountaintop-removal mining.”

Rodrigo Amarante

Gotcha … right? A Brazilian singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist, Amarante is a member of Los Hermanos, a band that still plays live but hasn’t recorded since 2005. He partnered with The Strokes drummmer Fabrizio Moretti and American musician Binki Shapiro, who in 2008 released an album on Rough Trade as Little Joy. In 2015 he wrote and recorded “Tuyo,” which has been used as the theme song for the Netflix series Narcos. It’s an earworm.

Tom Brosseau

The ten songs on Treasures Untold were recorded live at a private event in Cologne, Germany. The album features six American folksongs and four originals. Brosseau was born and raised in Grand Forks, North Dakota, where in 2007 the mayor awarded him the key to the city. I think about that often. Since 2003 he’s lived in Los Angeles, has recorded a bunch of albums, and toured Iceland. Well … other places too.

 

Valerie June

I don’t pretend to understand her and I don’t listen to her albums. But I’ve seen her perform twice and she is the modern-day Nina Simone. Undefinable and undeniable.

Tom Russell

He celebrated his 68th birthday last March and has released 29 albums, two of which came just this year. The first was his tribute to his old friends Ian and Sylvia, and now he is out on tour supporting Folk Hotel, a collection of originals. Two shots here: Tom playing with Max De Bernardi “The Last Time I Saw Hank” at Knuckleheads Saloon in Kansas City, Missouri in  September 2017. And while I’ve been enjoying both new albums, I also want to share the song that was my first introduction to Russell and remains my favorite.

 

And to those who passed…

Down that dark side of the street we’ve lost too many folks this past year. I’m not going to list them all here, but we’ll close it out with this … a tribute to them all.

 

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

Americana Music: A Study in Black and White

It’s hardly a new story, but for whatever reason this year’s annual AmericanaFest down in Nashville came away a bit battered and bruised from articles published in both Billboard magazine and the Rolling Stone Country website questioning the lack of diversity in a commercialized genre that defines itself as being inclusive of multiple formats. Both articles made a point to mention that of the 300 performers that were showcased during the six-day conference and awards show, only 10 percent featured acts that weren’t comprised of exclusively white members.

Billboard broke it down even further:

That percentage held for the annual Americana Awards & Honors show as well, where only two of the 21 separate nominees stretched across six voter-influenced categories weren’t white. Rhiannon Giddens and Hurray for the Riff Raff, both nominated for Album of the Year, were the sole representations for people of color among nominees. Notably, not only has Album of the Year never gone to a person of color during the 18 years that the award has been given out, but only twice in the history of the Awards & Honors event has an act led by an artist of color won a voter-decided award: Alabama Shakes in 2012 for Emerging Artist of the Year and The Mavericks in 2015 for Best Duo/Group of the Year.

 

As a reminder, the Americana Music Association defines the genre as “contemporary music that incorporates elements of various American roots music styles, including country, roots-rock, folk, bluegrass, R&B, and blues, resulting in a distinctive roots-oriented sound that lives in a world apart from the pure forms of the genres upon which it may draw. While acoustic instruments are often present and vital, Americana also often uses a full electric band.”

Reverend Paul Foster and The Soul Stirrers’ above version of “I Am A Pilgrim” can be traced back to the 1930s, when it was first recorded by the Heavenly Gospel Singers. In the ’40s it was recorded and commercialized separately by both Merle Travis (who received the songwriting credit from BMI) and Bill Monroe, and it’s been covered multiple times by musicians black and white. As far as I can tell, it’s a perfect example of an American roots music song, albeit stolen by a recording industry ethos that has traditionally leaned white.

When interviewed by Rolling Stone Country, Rosanne Cash described her feelings when the term “Americana” actually became a genre:

It was like finding this really cool island that you tell all your friends about because the hotel is great and the weather is always sunny.

Yet it takes only a few minutes of conversation for Cash to bring up what she sees as the community’s greatest shortcoming.

The Americana community needs to embrace more black musicians. That’s the one area where I feel it should really strive to be even more inclusive. I, for one, wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing if there wasn’t some black musician who had suffered in the South. That needs to be honored and if amends need to be made, they need to be made.

If the Milk Carton Kids and Van Morrison and William Bell can co-exist under the same umbrella, then I think that some deeper blues artists could come under that umbrella as well.

 

The AMA’s voting members are broken down by two categories: Artist/Musician/Songwriter and Industry. Jed Hilly is the organization’s executive director and the man credited with successfully lobbying on behalf of the genre. While he acknowledges that past award showcases leaned heavily on musicians based in the Nashville area, he believes it’s an honor simply to be asked to participate. Speaking with Billboard, he says:

Membership is membership, and there’s not much I can do – or choose to do – to change how people vote. That would be an impropriety. All of the nominees are winners, to be frank. How membership votes, I think that’s a question that afflicts every [music industry awards ceremony]; I mean, good golly, take a look at the CMA Awards. I think it’s funny that people are asking me these questions, when I think we’re one of the most diverse industry awards shows in the business.

I can say from an organizational point of view, we have demonstrated our philosophy in the bigger picture through the honorees for Lifetime Achievement. I’m very proud of the gender, racial, and geographical diversity that we continue to highlight. I was very proud to honor the Hi Rhythm Section this year.

 

On the flip side of this question of inclusion, Rolling Stone Countryreached out to a number of people for their take on it. Charles L. Hughes, author of Country Soul, says “The most insidious part of American racial politics, music industry or otherwise, is the part that says race doesn’t matter. Americana is very directly tapping into that mythology.”

Alynda Segarra of Hurray for the Riff Raff makes her point on the festival: “No matter what, there should always be more people of color, and more women, and especially now more radically minded people onstage. That’s something that needs to change with all festivals, and I can help anybody if they want that.”

Kaia Kater, the African-Canadian roots musician who has performed at the last two AmericanaFests, graciously took the time to reach out to me and share her thoughs. ““I believe the AMA has a lot of work to do. First in recognizing that Americana as a genre would not exist without Black forms of music. And secondly, in searching out and inviting more artists and voices into the fold without putting any particular agenda on them. Letting these artists own both the stage and the discussion on their own terms. Only in this deliberate way can we move forward.”

Tamara Saviano is a past president of the AMA and is writing a book on the history of Americana. She wonders if the genre is starting to take on the characteristics of the country music establishment it set out to defy 20 years ago. From Rolling Stone Country again:

It all goes back to who’s connected. Let’s just say you’re a young artist, and consider yourself an Americana artist, and you’re out touring and doing your own thing, and you’re not on the Americana radio chart. Well, that might be because you can’t afford to hire a radio promoter who works the Americana chart. In some ways, it’s like we created the very beast that was the reason we started Americana.

Blues musician Keb’ Mo’ sits on the AMA’s board of directors and has expressed that he’d like the organization to expand it’s definition of American roots music to include jazz and hip-hop. “My hope is that it becomes a place where you can go to the Americana Awards show and it’s just purely about music and no categories.”

As Americana gains in popularity and crosses over into mainstream country markets, one hopes that it doesn’t devolve into a parody of itself. UK singer Yola Carter sums it up best by warning “it could turn into one single genre in which I wear plaid and play guitar music, which is basically indie rock with pedal steel, and sing about dusty roads and trains. Chill out about trains!”

Since much of this column relied on the interviews and work of others, I’d like to acknowledge Isaac Weeks at Billboard and Jonathan Bernstein for Rolling Stone Country.

 

Lead Belly began singing “Goodnight, Irene” in 1908 and said he learned it from his uncles. It’s possible it was written by Gussie L. Davis in 1892; the sheet music is available at the Library of Congress. Lead Belly was recorded by John and Alan Lomax in the early ’30s while he was serving a sentence at the Louisiana State Penitentiary. In 1936 he recorded it again for the Library of Congress, and it later received a Grammy Hall of Fame award.

The Weavers recorded their version of the song in 1950, a year after Lead Belly had passed. In June it entered the Billboard Best Sellers chart, where it peaked at number one for 13 weeks and was named the top song of the year. Their version cleaned up the lyrics a bit – Timemagazine called it “dehydrated and prettied up.”

 

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