Americana: A Few Opinions

Like the difference between a redneck and a hillbilly, scissoring Americana out of the pages of country pop, folk-rock, and alternative music is an ethereal thing. It’s been on my mind the past 12 hours, since I went to see an “Americana” band last night, and except for Steve Earle’s Copperhead Road it was an evening of country-pop and, I kid you not, 70s and 80s metal.

Hint: if the band is singing about pouring sugar on a deaf leopard or whatever that was, it ain’t Americana.

I’m not here to set the record straight. This is just the opinion of an aging hillbilly who writes and performs Americana.

Oh, that’s it. Joel is feeling misunderstood. Again.

I’ll come in through the back door with examples first, explanations later.

Some artists I consider Americana through and through:

(Their name links to their website, and I’ve included a link to their stuff at Amazon. Yes, it’s an affiliate link. If you use it I might make some money. Americana doesn’t care. Neither do hillbillies.)

And some who spend a lot of time there, but whose main body of work might tend toward straight country or rock:

  • Johnny Cash
  • Bob Dylan
  • Loretta Lynn
  • Woody Guthrie
  • Neil Young
  • The Band
  • Willie Nelson
  • Bonnie Raitt
  • Alison Krauss
  • Emmylou Harris

Here’s my attempt to identify the musical elements that make me think “Americana”:

  • It must twang. If there is no twang, it might be rock, it might be country, might even be bluegrass, but it ain’t Americana. Twang it must. Twang it will. No twang, no Americana. Have I made myself clear?
  • If there is not a dobro or other slide guitar, you, at the very least, expect one, knowing it is lurking around the next bridge. Fiddle is optional.
  • The singer’s voice is more notable for its expressiveness and power than silken smooth beauty. (Emmylou Harris gets a pass here, because she’s Emmylou Harris fer cryin’ out loud.)
  • The lyrics are thin slices of truth from the sandwich of life, subtle commentary on the wider world through the lens of a moment in time as told by a weary wanderer. It may put you in mind of cowboys and sunsets. Might could, anyway.
  • Acoustic, electric, fast, slow, drums: all immaterial. Both Neko Case’s Mood to Burn Bridges, a whip-fast rocker with drums and electricity, and Patty Griffin’s Long Ride Home, a melancholy acoustic number (and, lyrically, perhaps the best song ever written about regret) both qualify, unequivocally.
  • Vocal harmonies show up. A lot.
  • You won’t hear distortion on the guitar. Maybe it’s there, I don’t know, but it ain’t no grinding crunch.
  • It has nothing to do with politics. The word America (or is it American?) is, in this case, geographical, historical.
  • Sorry. Stumbled upon a video of case/lang/viers performing their album live and went into a trance. I sorta like the way Neko tosses that red mane. Where was I? Huh. That’s all I got.

Middle Cyclone and the Mockingbird

npredictability seems to be Neko Case’s goal. Middle Cyclone is a cohesive package, no worries there, but until the last song rolls by, you cannot know what’s coming next, sometimes even in the same song.Mockingbird to the Morning is the song that gets stuck in my head; especially the moment in the second verse where she leaps to a note a full octave higher than you expected, then again coming out of the instrumental break.

Unpredictability seems to be Neko Case‘s goal. Middle Cyclone is a cohesive package, no worries there, but until the last song rolls by, you cannot know what’s coming next, sometimes even in the same song.

Mockingbird to the Morning is the song that gets stuck in my head; especially the moment in the second verse where she leaps to a note a full octave higher than you expected, then again coming out of the instrumental break.

Yet another song about loss, or found, or confusion. Seems to be a mood I’m in.