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Americana May Be Country, But Country Is Rarely Americana

The Civil Wars / Photo: Tec Petaja

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.

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.

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