To fall back on a cliché, trying to define “Americana” is not unlike herding cats. It’s damn hard.
Not only is the question of “What is Americana?” open to debate, but so is the very “Americana” label itself. After all, the genre has a variety of colorful monikers: “Insurgent Country”, “No Depression”, “Cowpunk”, and “Alternative Country” — probably the most well known — to name a few. Indeed, No Depression, the genre’s ex-officio magazine, routinely adds to its masthead “The Alternative Country (Whatever That Is) Bimonthly”, in effect, good naturedly throwing its hands in the air while pointing more seriously to the dialogic nature of genres.
These are issues explored in The Rough Guide to Americana, part of “The Rough Guide” series, a noted source for introductions to global music that has worked in collaboration with “The Rough Guide” travel book publishers since 1994. (World Music Network also maintains relationships with a number of development and human rights organizations, such as Amnesty, Oxfam, and VSO.) “The Rough Guides” music series puts together diverse, mid-price compilations of world music, with albums focused on genres (e.g., Tex-Mex, Calypso & Soca, South African Jazz, Global Dance) and countries (e.g., Indonesia, Wales, Japan, Zimbabwe.) These discs are broadly representative and also provide helpful notes. The Rough Guide to Americana, compiled by Mojo magazine’s Sylvie Simmons, does a nice job of creating a compelling picture of alt.country and its diversity — in effect, herdin’ them kitties.
Simmons begins with a definition in the disc’s linernotes: “In essence [Americana] is a convenient umbrella term adopted by, or imposed upon, a disparate group of performers . . . who mostly operate either on the margins or entirely outside of the mainstream music business, and who all draw, in their own different ways and to different degrees, on American country music as an inspiration”. Simmons’s understanding is consistent with those of No Depression and David Goodman, whose Modern Twang: An Alternative Country Music Guide and Directory (Dowling Press, 1999) is easily the most comprehensive text about the genre. They all point to the diversity of this alt.country, which works on a number of levels, though perhaps most obviously, alt.country is the antithesis of the dollar-and-test-audience-driven model that dominates Nashville’s Hot Country machine.
Selecting the artists and songs that make up a sampler is no easy task: the compiler has to be aware of significant singers and songwriters, historic, musical, and geographic influences, and have a sense of the genre’s future. Moreover, there are always questions of who’s included and who’s not (in this case, well knowns such as Johnny Cash, Gram Parsons, Steve Earle, Gillian Welch, The Jayhawks, and Lucinda Williams, all of whom appear on No Depression‘s 1999 sampler, Exposed Roots: The Best of Alternative Country on K-tel Records). Song selection is equally questionable (e.g., Why not use Townes Van Zandt and Dave Alvin originals? Don’t The Waco Brothers have materials that would fit better here than “Hello to Everybody”?) You get the idea. Simmons has, overall, done a fine job of showing the wonderfully postmodern diversity of alt.country as well as creating a subtext that comments on the nature of record label politics and the music industry.
First, The Rough Guide to Americana has included a wide variety of styles: everything from the Neo-gothic (The Handsome Family’s “Weightless Again”; Johnny Dowd’s “Ft. Worth, Texas”) to the traditional (Townes Van Zandt’s “Lost Highway”; Dave Alvin’s “Railroad Bill”; The Long Ryders’ “You Don’t Know What’s Right, You Don’t Know What’s Wrong”) to the folk-influenced (The Original Harmony Ridge Creekdippers’ “Run with the Ponies”; Neal Casal’s “Me and Queen Silvia”) to the just plain bizarre (Andre Williams & The Sadies’ “Pardon Me, I’ve Got Someone to Kill”; The Gourds’ “Meat Off the Bone”; Split Lip Rayfield’s “Kiss of Death”). As Simmons astutely observes, “The one thing that links them is their discovery of just how weird and wonderful, rich and subversive, traditional American music really was”. Simmons has added some alt.country founders (Van Zandt; former-Blaster Alvin; Sid Griffin; Mekon Jon Langford; former-Jayhawk Mark Olson) and the relatively unknown (Oh Susanna, Neal Casal, The Handsome Family, The Arlenes). These are all essential voices in the dialogue of Americana.
This collection points to the geographic diversity of Americana as well: Texans Van Zandt and The Gourds; Canadians Neko Case, The Sadies, and Oh Susanna; Californians Dave Alvin, The Long Ryders, Cowboy Nation, and The Harmony Ridge Creekdippers; Midwesterners The Handsome Family, Waco Brothers, Split Lip Rayfield, and Utah Carol. With The Arlenes and Langford, Britain is represented — though it’s worth noting that half of The Arlenes is American. That is to say, here’s a great example of how the melting pot manifests itself in alt.country.
Another significant factor is the absolute inter-connectedness of the Americana community. For example, The Sadies and Neko Case often work together. Sid Griffin, whose Long Ryders provide an essential link between the country-rock of The Flying Burrito Brothers and later alt.country, is heard in an early band (Long Ryders) and in a later one (Western Electric). Griffin has also been a tireless advocate of Gram Parsons, by many considered the Father of slt.country — and here, Hazeldine covers Parsons’s “A Song for You”. Also included is Townes Van Zandt, one of the great songwriters of the last century, doing a Hank Williams song, while Dave Alvin performs a folk tune, long part of the American music tradition — and one ought not overlook Utah Carol, a duo named for a Marty Robbins song or Nadine whose Neil Young roots are readily apparent. Then there’s Mark Olson whose work with The Original Harmony Ridge Creekdippers is radically different from that of The Jayhawks, one of the founding bands of alt.country.
All of this illustrates not only the evolution of a genre but also how the artists grow and change. To provide a contrast, Hot Country’s Brooks & Dunn haven’t varied from the successful formula that kicked off their career in the early ’90s, and it’s probably safe to say that they’ll be “boot scootin'” into their dotage. Americana artists, however, work from the folk singer-songwriter tradition, and their careers show artistic change and growth, not response to focus audiences. Griffin’s and Olson’s careers provide especially good examples.
Americana builds on the themes and sounds of traditional country, something very much absent from Hot Country. While Nashville’s current “Come-on-Get-Happy!” ethos may appeal to a large commercial audience, it doesn’t have much to do with the music of the Carter Family or Hank Williams. A central characteristic of Americana is the way in which it recognizes and builds on its historical base. It’s impossible to imagine, say, Garth Brooks covering Johnny Paycheck’s “Pardon Me, I’ve Got Someone to Kill”, but the song is consistent with country’s traditional murder ballad, and here R&B veteran Andre Williams’s voice works perfectly with The Sadies’ “Spaghetti Western” sound, putting a new spin on an old style. Much the same can be said of Johnny Dowd’s “Ft. Worth, Texas”, a song from death row performed on the eve of the singer’s execution. Dowd’s voice is a ragged sheet in the West Texas wind, buffeted by minimal accompaniment. The song is the singer’s death wish, a dark part of the country tradition — and not one we’re likely to hear Alan Jackson singing about anytime soon. Similarly, the death-haunted music of The Handsome Family, with its contemporary sounds and bizarre lyrics about extinct Indian tribes who had forgotten how to start fires, is consistent, thematically, with concerns raised by Hank Williams and George Jones — not those tidy, sappy love songs Lonestar uses today to move millions of units.
Neko Case has a wonderful honky-tonk voice that all the Faiths & Shanias in Nashville can’t touch. With “Guided by Wires”, she sings of the kind of powerlessness that was so much a part of early country. Similarly, Hazeldine’s “A Song for You” is a great country-rock collaboration, with just the words, harmony, and an acoustic guitar. No hiding in a production studio. (Take note, SheDaisy.) And Oh Susanna’s original work “Oh My Good Ol’ Gal” has echoes of Appalachia surrounding Ungerleider’s voice and a couple of guitars as she recounts two lovers’ conversation.
Another point highlighted on The Rough Guide to Americana is the genre’s emphasis on songwriting, a significant departure from Nashville, which still favors the Tin Pan Alley tradition. Take, for example, Neal Casal’s “Me and Queen Sylvia”, a wonderful prelude to a journey: “Me and Queen Sylvia, we’re headed west or maybe India / Either way, we’re leaving”. Or there’s Noahjohn’s postmodern hillbilly in “Standing on a Snake” as the male singer describes a woman with “one foot in the grave and another standing on a snake”. The song is an unsettling portrait of a woman who’s been given no breaks in life and who hopes for a prince who will take her and her son not to a castle but simply to a factory where she can get a decent job and a better life. But the story comes to us from a singer who is her “best friend for the minute”, suggesting that she’s been reduced to prostitution, and he’s just another John taking advantage of her desperation. The pedal steel guitar that haunts the vocal underscores the nightmare quality of her life.
Americana’s innovative musicianship is front and center as well. Too often, when it comes to Hot Country, if you’ve heard one song, you’ve heard them all. Not so with alt.country. For example, take the Gourds’ mix of traditional country instruments and themes with clear rock influences, a blend of old and new sounds. The fiddle, accordion, and steel guitar all get solos — in a neohillbilly song about masturbation, or “pulling the meat off the bone”. Similarly, Split Lip Rayfield combines bluegrass with speedmetal. In “Kiss of Death”, the singer, to a frenzy of bluegrass instruments, explains that he’s the final driver for any vehicle: “Give me the keys, and see / The car is history”. It’s not only a musical breakdown but a thematic one as well — and a new take on the classic country theme of death.
Interesting, too, is how outside the commercial music structure Americana functions. For example, the “biggest” label mentioned here is Bloodshot, an indie label out of Chicago that consistently supports alt.country. Most artists are on small labels or have their own. Several are signed with Glitterhouse, a German label that provides a haven for underappreciated American artists. There’s no MCA-Nashville or Sony calling the shots and creating marketable products.
A lack of mainstream industry support hasn’t slowed alt.country. As Simmons puts it, Americana “continues to grow like an enormous tumbleweed”. Overall, The Rough Guide to Americana illustrates this point nicely with a particular emphasis on the genre’s diversity. It’s worth noting, however, that toward the conclusion, there is a bit of sonic repetition. For example, included are Utah Carol and The Arlenes, both with similar sounds; the collection would be stronger if some material from, say, the Redneck Underground or Tex-Mex/Conjunto had been included.
In the end, in terms of herding cats, Simmons’s The Rough Guide to Americana does a good job of rounding up the kitties, creating a compelling herd that represents the diversity of Americana.
All I can say is, “Whoopie-Ti-Yi-Yo”! — set to a nice, sonorous Handsome Family beat, of course.