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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.

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.

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