Americana May Be Country, But Country Is Rarely Americana

During a recent conversation with some fellow critics, one colleague intimated that he wasn’t sure how to qualify the difference between country and Americana. Brave soul, he. The difference would appear self-evident to any self-respecting music lover and certainly to any practitioner within the Great Craft of Music Criticism. Right? Not so fast. The recent The Civil Wars Grammy scare, in which the Nashville duo was nominated for awards in both country and folk highlights the confusion. Well, sort of. Americana is neither country nor folk but it has elements of both genres deeply embedded in its pick guard.

Yes, we understand that genres, like metaphors, at some point, break down. You might even say that genre distinctions are arbitrary. Aside from the broad umbrellas of rock, jazz, blues, and country, popular music is a diverse nation in which citizens traverse the social spectrum with a fluidity that might never be awarded citizens of a place some might call “the real world.” In the musical world race, class, and gender are deeply prized currencies that don’t have to be debated or analyzed. In fact, the less we debate, the less we analyze, some might say, the more we can enjoy.

In music you can be born a poor Jamaican but eventually negotiate the halls of moneyed America thanks to tapestries, posters, and ubiquitous Greatest Hits collections; you can be blind and become the idol of those who have sight. You can be a functioning illiterate on your instrument and still line your walls with gold and platinum albums; you can be incapable of singing a note yourself but land a decent gig as a music critic.

Americana encompasses the many disparate reaches of American life––the former Confederate solider and the freed slave, the Women’s Christian Temperance Union member and the micro brewery manager, the stag film archivist and the anti-pornography crusader. It has deep roots that stretch from the southern swamps to the northern snow heaps, from New Amsterdam to New Mexico, from one Canadian coast to another and back again.

Few acts represent the true possibilities and full reach of Americana as well as The Band. Having come together in the late ’50s as the backing band for rockabilly icon Ronnie Hawkins, the group moved and morphed into several different configurations and a few different names in the coming years. There was a stint backing Bob Dylan during one of the most tumultuous and exciting periods of not just his career but of popular music as well. He’d gone electric, pulled a Judas on the faithful folkies who had followed him from the start––a consummate late century move just after the century’s middle.

These Canadian lads, who’d called themselves The Hawks––well, most of ‘em anyway––were there. When Dylan was sidelined by his legendary 1966 motorcycle accident, the band that had backed Hawkins, the outfit that featured Levon Helm and Robbie Robertson, found its way down to West Saugerties, New York and embarked on a fairly short but prolific and innovative run.

Now dubbed The Band, the quintet rehearsed in the basement of a house they called ‘Big Pink’, and emerged in 1968 with the album that may have launched the musical Americana movement as it appears today: Music from the Big Pink. A cross section of folk, country, rock, and deep southern influences that ran from blues to R&B with touches of New Orleans and a nod to European music thanks to keyboardist––and the only member with remarkable formal training––Garth Hudson, the music of The Band didn’t quite belong to the late ’60s. It wasn’t psychedelic––aside from, maybe, the Steve Winwood-influenced “Chest Fever”––and must have sounded––as it surely does today––as though it crawled, from a very different time, through the tubes and out the speakers.

The group’s rendition of “Long Black Veil”, which had been recorded nearly a decade earlier by Lefty Frizzell, sounded more like a page from a protestant hymnal than from the stage of a honky-tonk. “I Shall Be Released”, a Dylan composition, still sounds effortless and true today, as though Richard Manuel had not sung the song as much as he breathed it from deep within his core––a gift that makes each of Manuel’s performances weighty and perfect.

Arguably the album’s most recognizable track, “The Weight”, features a lyric well-suited to a blues song as the narrator struggles with an unusual hardship––or, rather, a series of hardships. Friends ask him for a series of favors that lessen the load for them but increase his duties immeasurably. (Taking a load off one person only to have it placed back on him.) Although Robertson has said that the Nazareth mentioned in the lyrics is the one in Pennsylvania, it hardly hurts the song’s mystique that one can’t help but think of the biblical city; the narrator, let’s not forget, also mentions seeing the Devil walking the local streets, and it’s the weight of the many that is suffered by one.

You could almost believe, listening to the group’s 1969 self-titled sophomore release, that The Band had not heard the music of its contemporaries––the most sugary elements of Motown did not exist, Jefferson Airplane and Janis Joplin, The Beatles, Rolling Stones, and Cream, were not apparent touchstones. (In fact, both Eric Clapton and George Harrison pledged allegiance to The Band, with not much evidence that the admiration was, at least at the time, returned.) In many ways, the music on The Band could have originated in some front parlor jam in rural America at the turn of the century.

The Civil War referenced in the lyrics was not the one dividing North and South Vietnam––a war that seemingly every songwriter of the generation wrote about––but instead the one that had divided the Northern and Southern United States a century earlier (“The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down”). There was even a track about a farmer fretting a good harvest [“King Harvest (Has Surely Come)”] beside a paean to easy living (“Up on Cripple Creek”). “Cripple Creek” features a Clavinet played through a wah-wah pedal, but its presence is unobtrusive, to the point that, unless you know precisely what to listen for, you might not know it’s there. Moreover, it never breaks the illusion that what you’re hearing is in fact from a different time.

What could have been more American than to have a bona fide American Indian (Robertson, also half Jewish) in the group? What other band would have been in touch enough with the crevices of North American history to write about the expulsion by the British of early Canadians from Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and Prince Edward Island, beginning in 1755, as many fled to Louisiana via “Acadian Driftwood”, which appeared on the underrated 1975 release Northern Lights–Southern Cross.

It is, like many Band songs, a ballad, the story of a people who achieve heroic stature through their tale of hardship and their triumph over it. (Perhaps it’s better to say their ability to adapt to hardship and persevere.) It is, also like many Band songs, a folk tune no matter its instrumentation. If we are to understand folk music as that which represents the idioms of a particular nation or people––what we might also call indigenous music––then the music of The Band fits perfectly in this category.

An arguably less formal but more widespread definition holds that folk music should be able to be played sans amplification and in more or less an impromptu fashion, requiring that the player or players have an immediate familiarity with the musical form and the lyrical conventions. In this way blues––with its eight bar country blues and 12-bar city blues and its rigid lyrical form (including the quatrain)––is a kind of folk music and the music of The Band, which incorporates elements of the blues, is electrified folk. Because The Band’s music melds at least two genres and is focused on idioms within American––rather than European––music, it’s Americana. But it’s not country, nor is it strictly blues.

Country Music Can Be a Form of Americana

For a song to fall under the Americana umbrella, we might argue, it must include the standard elements of folk––the ballad, the familiar lyrical and musical form, the simplicity of instrumentation, even to the point that the music might be performed on homemade instruments such as a washtub bass or a cigar box guitar. But there might also be unexpected permutations––the introduction of unexpected instrumentation into what might be a standard rock song, or the marrying of bluegrass with soul. Those are two permutations which are not beyond the realm of possibility in music we would call Americana.

Americana encompasses the many disparate reaches of American life––the former Confederate solider and the freed slave, the Women’s Christian Temperance Union member and the micro brewery manager, the stag film archivist and the anti-pornography crusader.

A musical act that has done just that and which may actually be the logical successor to The Band is Los Lobos. Like The Band, the group has roots that stretch outside the confines of the United States. Formed in 1973 in Los Angeles, Los Lobos brings together elements of soul, traditional Mexican music, funk, psychedelic sounds, Tex-Mex music, and fuses them in consistently new and exciting ways.

As with The Band, Los Lobos’s lyrical content is one of the elements that defines the group as part of the Americana movement. The California outfit’s sensational 1984 album How Will the Wolf Survive? features the ballad “A Matter of Time”, which chronicles the struggles of a migrant worker but 1987’s By the Light of the Moon is an extended portrait of those forgotten by the American dream.

Opening with “One Time One Night”, a ballad that chronicles a diverse group of Americans, including four young boys who go on to become a teacher, a preacher, a cop, and, the narrator tells us, a saint (after he’s been killed in a car accident), a woman who has married the wrong man, and another who has disappeared, By the Light picks up where The Band’s sophomore release left off. All these people have fallen short of fulfilling their dreams but their lives are no less significant than the lives of those who become glorified on television and in the mythic American success story.

Musically, the track is Tex-Mex, a marriage of traditional folk music from below the border mixed in with countrified guitar licks and the profound melancholy that can be found in both music of both genres. But the instruments buoy the story along in such a way that you almost forget the profound sadness within; time marches forward, relentless and unforgiving, and we are moved forward with it.

Three other songs speak to the death of the immigrant dream––“Is This All There Is?”, with its portrait of a woman’s hands gnarled by 15 years behind a sewing machine that has left her nothing but suffering; “The Hardest Time”, which catalogues the loneliness of life in the Promised Land; and “River of Fools”, the ballad of souls who must leave their homes for a different––and, maybe, better––life although their faces are streaked with tears and their faith the only sense of comfort. It is, in many ways, the unmaking of The Mayflower myth. These are people who are not necessarily going to find freedom but who are perhaps trading one set of uncertainties for another.

There, as in many of the songs on the album, religious imagery is displayed outwardly, and perhaps nowhere more openly than in “Tears of God”, the album closer which owes as much to Southern soul as it does gospel. Religious imagery and music from the church are also part of the Americana idiom and Los Lobos has been consistent in its inclusion of these ideals in its lyrics, but always in a fashion that is illustrative rather than didactic. If these characters are nearer to their God, has it done them any good?

Los Lobos isn’t above humor––By the Light of the Moon has its lighter moments, including the lover’s plea “Set Me Free (Rosa Lee)”, the blues-based “My Baby’s Gone”, and “Shakin’ Shakin’ Shakes”, a track that predicts the group’s later forays into music for children with its playful nature and whimsical rhythms. Los Lobos would revisit similar themes on 1990’s The Neighborhood (The Band’s Levon Helm would even lend vocals to the tearjerker “Little John of God”) and even later and more experimental albums such as Kiko (1992) and Colossal Head (1996) would remain true to the Los Lobos’s musical soul and vision––and prime examples of the many faces Americana can wear.

Country music is also a form of Americana. It’s the spawn of a multitude of genres, including songs from the West, folk, traditional ethnic ballads, bluegrass, pop, and even, in its current form, rock. Why seek to distinguish it from the genre we call Americana? Perhaps because it’s more static in its identity, and it most easily identifies itself as country. One the hallmarks––unintentional or not––of bands from the so-called alt or insurgent country movement is that most of them beg not to be categorized at all and some, such as Wilco, move beyond the threshold of anything recognizable as rooted in country within a short amount of time.

Although Wilco’s debut album, A.M. (1995), is almost indistinguishable from anything by the group’s predecessor, Uncle Tupelo. Bu by the Chicago-based outfit’s third album, Summerteeth (1999), you’d be harder pressed to find traces of Hank Snow and Lefty Frizzell in the songs than you would be to find evidence of ELO, The Beach Boys, and even Can. While country artists flirt with musical experimentation, they no more lose themselves in a new identity than they abandon a reverence for guns, guts, and glory. Like punk rock and heavy metal, country music has a formula and violating that formula is a kind of betrayal, a heresy for which one may not be forgiven. In Americana, such betrayals and unexpected turns are often welcomed.

Curiously, some of Americana’s brightest stars are more in tune with country music of old than they are with many of the acts with which they share shelf space or festival stages. Justin Townes Earle, an immensely talented Americana artist, would have easily been a grand and shining star in the Nashville of the ’60s but today he’s firmly embraced––as is his contemporary William Elliott Whitmore––by people who might be reluctant to call themselves fans of contemporary country.

There’s a reason, after all, that Loretta Lynn’s 2004 release Van Lear Rose sounded more like Nashville 2004 than Nashville 1964, and it has little do with Jack White having produced the album. It’s more that, by the time the country pop took hold in the ’70s, it never really let go and it became the dominant sound of country from “Rhinestone Cowboy” up to the present day. Little wonder, then, that Johnny Cash became as revered by a younger audience in his final days––he had more in common with their tastes and ideals than he did Nashville’s. (Those final recordings were emboldened with the word American for more than one reason.)

Some might make the case that Robert Plant’s 2007 collaboration with Alison Krauss, Raising Sand, and his solo successor Band of Joy (2010) are prime examples of Americana despite the latter having a smidge of overproduction here and a pinch of bombast there. Neither have set the template for new Americana recordings––in fact, many of the genre’s releases from 2011 would almost suggest that either album never happened, or at the very least either or both albums were singular enough not to bear repeating. In fact, when Krauss and Plant teamed up circa 2009/10 to work on a second album, word is that they couldn’t make lightning strike once again.

Barton Hollow, the 2011 release from The Civil Wars, probably has more in common with the music of Plant and Krauss than it does that of Greg Brown, Jeffrey Foucault, and a host of other artists who should have but have not tapped a wider audience outside the enclave of folk. Some might argue that The Civil Wars doesn’t have much in common with Rodney Atkins or Dierks Bentley or many of the other acts we see as country today. The music isn’t narrow enough. Although, were more acts on Music Row to consider sounding more like The Civil Wars and less like Jason Aldean, there’s at least one country lover in America who might be satisfied.