Out of Place
The genre we now call “Americana” was born in the ‘90s to sate the hunger many Americans felt for authenticity. There were already several genres catering to this same hunger, but they were off-putting to the people who would ultimately become Americana fans—baby boomers, hipsters, Northeastern urbanites, and liberals. Country was too commercial and conservative; folk, too embarrassingly earnest; bluegrass, too working class and rural. Though it drew on many of the same strains of music already on the market that evoked the pre-World War II South, Americana repackaged them in a form that baby boomers, hipsters, Northeastern urbanites, and liberals could feel comfortable—even righteous—purchasing.
The term “Americana” is an interesting one for a genre whose principle audience is in America. The most germane definition offered by the Oxford English Dictionary is, “Things relating to, associated with, or considered characteristic of the history or culture of the United States, or the lives of its citizens.” Is it meant to suggest that the Americana genre is somehow more characteristic of the United States than any other music originating in the 50 states? Musicians in many other genres would certainly object—some fiercely—to the implications that their music is somehow less American. Country music, widely regarded as Americana’s foil, would take umbrage. Famed for its swaggering patriotism, it already claims to be “America’s Music.” The Academy of Country Music even calls its annual awards show the American Music Awards.
I think, however, that the application of the “Americana” label to this emerging genre actually responds to country music’s claim of American-ness by reflecting a general wariness of claims about national identity. Nashville’s version of American music is thoroughly homogenized. If you don’t like Rascal Flats, Toby Keity, or Carrie Underwood, the other options on country radio don’t give you a whole lot else to choose from. Commercial country’s incessant boasting and patriotism (which crosses the line into jingoism at times) can leave someone unmoved by the music to feel like they’re being called un-American. Rather than claiming to be especially “characteristic” of America, the Americana label invokes the softer part of the word’s definition. It is music “associated with” American culture and history, seen through the idiosyncratic filter of an individual artist.
So then, Americana embodies a tension between a hunger for the authentically American with a skepticism of claims to American authenticity. Often, these twin impulses are reconciled through irony. No text reveals this better than the music of the Cohen Brother’s 2000 film, O Brother, Where Art Thou, which serves up Southern culture as a set of icons that can be scrambled without regard to their actual historical provenance. Never mind that bluegrass was invented after World War II, it can still be the popular music of 1937. The artist largely responsible for movie’s soundtrack, visionary singer/songwriter Gillian Welch, combines Southern iconography more meditatively in her own work. Where O Brother sounds sloppy, albums like 2001’s Time (The Revelator) is a collage of images that uses dislocation to make the familiar excitingly strange and the strange uncannily familiar.
Carve It to the Heart by Linda McRae prompted this meditation because it is the latest of a series of Americana CDs recorded by foreigners that have crossed my path in recent months. The act that most caused my global vertigo is the Afro-Norwegian Olav Larsen, who fronts a band of Norwegians called the Alabama Rodeo Stars. McRae is Canadian, which some might say is essentially American by another name. (When some say that, they may get whacked by a pissed-off Canadian.) Certainly, she ably swims through Americana’s old-timey waters, evoking Appalachia with a healthy helping of clawhammer banjo (bluegrass’s low-key predecessor) and reverb-laden guitar. The old-time Western feel of “Living in the Past with You” and “Really and Truly” would make them at home coming out of Dale Evan’s mouth in a ‘30s cowboy movie. And yet, McRae’s effort to overcome the distance from the places she sings about didn’t quite ring true to me after repeated listening.
Appalachia has a special place in Carve It to the Heart‘s musical landscape. McRae’s dark banjo strum is especially evocative when combined with the sing-song of Nova Devonie’s accordion, fusing into a single voice that is both plunky and ethereal. This combination, with the addition of a chirping mandolin and an ominously booming timpani, makes “How Can I Bring Her Back” my favorite song on the album. Devonie also supplies vocal harmonies that brings to mind the mountains’ foggy nooks and open sky.
As if to boost her street cred—well, maybe “hill cred” is more appropriate—McRae records a classic by one of Appalachia’s best-known songstresses, Jean Ritchie. Ritchie wrote “The L&N Don’t Stop Here Anymore” about the slow death of her hometown, Hazard, Kentucky, after the coalmines shut down. The reverb on Stephen Nikleva’s hard-nosed electric guitar conjures up images of the trains that used to bring wealth to the region, technology that “now stand[s] rusty, rolling empty.”
Kentucky is the setting for one of McRae’s own songs, and it is here that things begin to feel out of place. “The Little Red Shoes” is a stream-of-consciousness tale about a Kentucky family “underneath a blue Kentucky sky” in which a jealous “Aunt Boyd” picks up daddy’s “big stick” (what flatlanders might call a gun) and accidentally shoots the baby. For some reason I couldn’t quite figure out, the difficulty of getting the girl to the doctor was somehow linked to her not having shoes. The doctor refuses to see them—“the doctor said, ‘She’ll soon be dead because you have no money’”—so the poor parents wind up stealing shoes for her and running all the way home. The rambling lyrics are not the most vexing thing about this song, however, though it’s lack of a consistent rhyme scheme inadvertently makes the tragic accident sound comic:
Old Aunt Boyd one jealous night
Swingin’ that stick with all her might
“I’ll kill them dead” was all she said
She missed and hit the baby
What irks me is that this tale of the Kentucky hills is set to a Cajun/Zydeco beat, complete with washboard. If McRae had taken a more kaleidoscopic approach to her influences rather than giving the impression of trying for authenticity with “The L&N Don’t Stop Here Anymore”, I could put this anachronistic Kentucky/Louisiana collision aside. But it feels like McRae wants to have it both ways, and that bugs me. The Canadian seems to be claiming some level of Appalachian authenticity on the one hand while treating Southern music as a pallet without variations across state lines.
Now, this is an idiosyncratic objection, and readers should take it with a grain of salt. Maybe I’m being more a purist than I care to admit. I was forced to ask myself why McRae runs afoul of my sensibilities while I feel like Gillian Welch is a model for navigating the problem of authenticity and irony in Americana music. Welch swims in the same Appalachian waters as McRae, and is no purist when it comes to mixing her ingredients. The banjo-backed “My First Lover,” for example, invokes a Steve Miller tune, while a Mississippi John Hurt song emerges from the guitar accompaniment to “I Was Thinking Last Night about Elvis”.
I think the difference lies in two things: First, Welch’s musical mix-ups seem to be specific, rather than stylistic. That is to say, she isn’t mixing in classic rock or Mississippi blues as broad styles, but rather quoting specific songs, “Quicksilver Girl” and “Candy Man”. The second has to do with production: The clean, almost Spartan sound that has come to be associated with Gillian Welch and her production partners, T-Bone Burnett and David Rollins, aestheticizes the old-time musical artifacts in a way that seems to make no claim to the authenticity of Welch’s performance. Her music revives the musical past as if from the bottom of an underground spring—its glittering features are crystal clear and beautiful to watch, but they remain refreshingly remote.
McRae’s sound, on the other hand, is much more front-porchy. It was as if her warmly recorded voice beckoned me close enough to see that her backdrop was not an actual mountain shack, but a set piece on a Vancouver street.
McRae’s arrangements reveal a good ear for creatively rearranging America’s musical artifacts. I hope that her next album will eschew the remaining notes that seam to strive for the authentic. Neither she nor I will be Kentucky miners any time soon, and I don’t think they have too many of those in Canada.