All roads lead to Nashville: Americana one year later
It’s coming up to a year since I pitched Portrait of Lincoln With the Wart, a radio documentary on the evolution of Americana as a musical term and, ultimately, a musical ethos. The idea came after my sister took me to a Lucinda Williams concert in Toronto. Lucinda announced from the stage: ” They call my music Americana. I’m just glad to call it something. For so long it’s been too rock for Nashville. Too country for LA. So here’s to Americana!”
I too, like Lucinda and many of her colleagues, never knew what to ‘label’ this music to which I resonated. Being Canadian I wouldn’t have readily called it Americana. Maybe ‘singer-songwriter’ or ‘alt-country’ or ‘roots-based’ or ‘blues-based’. But no matter how many hyphens or genres I stuffed into a phrase, it just didnt capture the feel. It was time to make Americana a term for all North Americans. But in order to do that I would have to convince my producers that this was a music that transcended cultural confines. Its parameters had more to do with craft than country.
Still, I had one very high and well-established hurdle to jump. We have this important cultural protection requirement in public radio called CANCON- Canadian Content. In order to convince my producers that a story on Americana is not a story exclusively about a Made In the USA product, I would have to remind them of the contributions of artists like: Hank Snow, Ian and Sylvia, The Rankins, Fred Eaglesmith, Cowboy Junkies, Blue Rodeo, Neil Young, Ray Bonneville, The Band, and Colin Linden, to name a few.
It behooved me to prove how Americana was not circling the wagons against influences from Canada- or even Brazil, Japan or Kenya, for that matter. It was, simply, embracing certain elements of musical creation and performance that were not getting support through radio airplay, the recording industry or most art/entertainment news outlets. The initial component of Americana music was its roots in the American south. The configuration of voices, instruments, stories, hymns and hollers took root and blossomed in the warmest of North American geographies. It the hothouse of the south it manifested as a music of power, beauty and persistence. That’s a fact, Jack, that cannot be denied. But Americana’s other components were nondenominational and universal.
It was my job to name those elements. And that meant listening to a lot of music. And talking to a lot of people- especially musicians originally from the South, who grew up surrounded by a rich tradition of dedication to craftmenship, storytelling, and a culture that respected its musical heritage. (In many ways the South reminds me of my ancestral Quebec- with its own rich -and government-supported- musical heritage, where more people per capita play an instrument or grew up in a household where live music had the power to banish the tv to silence.)
I also read a lot of books . The most helpful among my towering stack of southern history, music journalism, biography and road diaries include Greil Marcus’ “Invisible Republic”, Amanda Petrusich’s “It Still Moves”, Michael Streissguth’s “Always been There” ( a chronicle of the making of Rosanne Cash’s The List. I’d also throw in her essay on keeping the physical reality of life in our sights when when writing songs. It’s called “In the Ear of the Beholder”), Nicholas Dawidoff’s “In the Country of Country”, Monte Dutton’s “True to The Roots”, Gayle Wald’s “Shout Sister Shout: the untold story of Sister Rosetta Tharpe”, Elijah Wald’s “Escaping the Delta”, and definitely hugh Barker and Yuval Taylor’s “Faking it: The Quest For Authenticity In Popular Music” and, for a clear understanding of the influence of the North on Americana: “Whispering Pine: the Northern Roots of American Music” by Jason Schneider.
I include my list of research material to prove a point: authenticity is an inescapable element of Americana. And in order to assure my listeners I honour the ‘real deal’, that I know what I’m talking about, I have to reveal my own method: I read voraciously. I collect hours ( in this case 746 minutes) of tape, preferably in the feld and off the floor. I draw on years of my own music-making in Quebec, and on my studies in southern authors for my first degree in Literature of the American south. I re-read journals from my time spent on the road with my beau James Armstrong, and my year living in Memphis, studying art and spending my nights at King’s Palace and The Epicenter.
Above all, I try to be physically immersed in the subject I am studying. Because Keeping it Real, I belive, also means Showing Up and Being Present. I prefer to drive rather than fly and if I can’t drive I take the train. I believe in the power of place- especially when it plays a large part in the origins of an art form. I believe climate and landscape has as much to with our personalities and temperaments as our DNA. It influences everything from our rhythm to our perspective. based in Canada’s largest city, with it’s bass driven club scene I needed to leave the urban drive that was feeding not only rap and pop, but contemproray country music. I needed to ride the melody of countrysides, because from everything I’d gleaned thus far, Americana was to the road what hip-hop was to the street.
I needed to acclimatize to the South, descending slowly, dipping into accents and expressions. And I needed to ‘stay awhile’. I always try to get there early and stay longer than many of my colleagues on junkets who often show up for the free lunch, swag, tunes and wine-tasting. I don’t leave until I get what I need (which comes usually after the microphone goes in the bag and I have to pull it out again). And, whenever I can, I return to hand-deliver my baby, my finished article or doc.
The wrong exit
And still, you can’t manufacture authenticity. You can’t ‘try’ to be real. When you ‘slum it’, or ‘force it’ or try to reproduce it or lie about your life to fit your image or if you have an ‘image’ that isn’t in line with who you really are, you lose the ‘feel’ of the music. Once you establish ‘a brand’ the ‘reasonable facsimile thereof’ becomes more appealing than the original. The urge becomes to stay true to the brand instead of the real thing.
The struggle to not slip into a pseudo-self has been around for centuries, since the French naturalists moved to the seedy side of town to find something shocking to write about. Ever since then, the naive belief among some artists- and most media- that a healthy psyche might somehow blunt one’s creative edge. In ‘Faking It’ we see how Kurt Cobain felt a responsibility to his fans to live a life on the edge with fatal consequences. I see it happening all the time with young musicians who drink and drug and sex because that’s what’s expected of them. And then their habits catch up with them and they can’t quit.
Developing one’s talents in order to best tell one’s truth- whether that truth be a fondness for gardening, cars, booze or white picket fences- is essential to Americana. When it came to elaborating on that particular element of Americana I handed the stage to Ruthie Foster and her song “Truth!”. Because one man’s truth can be another woman’s poison. (Jed Hilly, president of the Americana Association puts it simpler: “Too much hair gel and you’re out!”)
The noble profession
A love of language and lyrics and a gift and talent for writing evocatively is another Americana essential. Few Americana artists hire other people to write for them. Rosanne Cash teaches whole classes around finding your own voice and her last album is her first album that isn’t full of her own songs. For her, songwriting has always been a ‘revered, honourable profession’, her first love. And real songs about real people mean a greater range of topics than ‘ men and women getting together or breaking up’. There’s a whole urgent world out there of stories that involve family, aging, dying, travel, nature etc.
Jim Lauderdale sat with me for hours, sitting in the midst of a giant mosaic-ed dragon in a park where he likes to practice tai chi. Among other things he talked about about songwriting with people like Harlan Howard and Robert Hunter. They wrote from life; the material for their songs comes from the quotidian. And no life is unworthy of a song. Later, in October, Lauderdale hosted the Americana awards ceremony at the Americana Festival. In his role as “Mr. Americana” he somehow manages to ‘portray’ all the elements of Americana: personal language, musical craftsmanship, and a deep respect for a musical inheritance absorbed from his mentors like Ralph Stanley and George Jones, in all it’s ‘ancient earthiness’. (Despite all his festival responsibilities, I saw Jim at dozens of talks and readings, absorbing as much information and music as he could. Still learning, still growing, still getting new ideas. )
Colin Linden put it best when he said, and I’m paraphrasing: we take this music and for a while we learn it through imitation. And then, we find our own voice and words. But that takes a lifetime- to move from being an imitator to an emissary. Colin, like Rosanne and Jim gave generously of his time, even when I got lost on my way to our interview and cost him nearly an hour of studio time! Every artist I spoke with spoke with passion about their work. One spoke with a near religious zeal: Mike Farris was not afraid to let me know that this music basically saved his life. But don’t take my word for it: listen to how he rocks Sister Rosetta Tharpe’s songs. The first time I saw him perform “Can’t No Grave Hold My Body Down” I almost fell off my chair, the closest to a Damascus revelation I’ve ever had in a bar. Farris doesn’t just sing, he preaches, unabashedly, in the very best tradition of the profession. Which brings me to the title of my doc.
Warts and all
Driving home from Nashville, via Knoxville, where I went to see Jim Lauderdale host “Tennesse Shines”, a live radio show featuring, among others Sarah Siskind, whose song “Say It Louder” moved me to tears, I was playing with my radio dial. I was told that particular pocket of the airwaves was a good place to find an Americana program. It was Sunday. A storm was headed my way. Preachers were on every station. One preacher in particular was talking about Abraham Lincoln sitting for his portrait. The painter, refering to the wart on Lincoln’s cheek asked: how shall I paint you sir? ( Some portraitists turned him to show his ‘best side’. Others simply omitted the wart. ) Lincoln replied: Paint me as I am. Maybe that’s Americana: it’s the portrait of Lincoln with the wart.
My trip to the Americana festival in October was a lesson in the values of Americana in action- or not. The artists I had interviewed previously were swamped with fans. Rosanne Cash had just come out with her autobiography “Composed” and was signing copies for people who were either speechless from being starstruck or were wanting to reminisce about the last time they met at a festival. Remember, you made a comment about my hat?” they’d say. And like a pro she’d remembered the hat, and pose for another picture. I just reviewed “Composed” for The Globe and Mail and this was the first time I’d ever asked anyone to sign my copy of their book. I was self-conscious about my admiration of her. I didn’t want to be identified with the fans- which is a point about my own ego, worth pondering. And yet, it was the artists I revered most, Rosanne Cash, Jim Lauderdale, Ruthie Foster, Mike Farris and Colin Linden who respected me as colleague in this entertainment industry. True to the values of Americana, they treated me in a ‘down home fashion’.
But, despite an ethos that demands one-leg-at-a-time authenticity, Americana artists, like any other entertainers, get smothered, adored, deified and solicited like gods and godesses. It takes a deep commitment to ‘keep it real’ off stage when hit with sycophants and instant friendship from all sides. Celebrity culture exists alongside Americana, and fans want their heroes to be larger-than-life, not actual size. We can’t keep the music real if we don’t allow the artists to be real people. In a recent interview I did with the nephew of a famous diva in Lebanon I was told: “she doesn’t know what goes on in the world. Nobody tells her like it is. They just want to be her best friend so they flatter her all the time.”
The reverse is also true. Somewhere along an artist’s career trajectory an opportunity arises where you forget you are only human. My experience of this didn’t happen with a musician but with another music journalist. I was at a book signing and, again, caught up in a swell of fans, I quickly gave him a copy of my work and told him I’d been thinking about something he’d said regarding his next book and I could email him some of the quotes I’d dug up about the topic he was exploring. His response was a curt: ” Oh, what, so now we’re friends?” Never mind, I thought. I can be snubbed by bigger fish than you.
Actual size, not larger than life
I walked over to the bar and sat next to a woman all in black. We started talking about everything from sitting at the bar and people-watching, to the festival and Nashville, to fame as the kiss of death, to how most of the people she knew in the music business are dead. And then she introduced herself as Exene Cervenka. I apologized for not recognizing her and told I used to listen to her in my art school days when I was writing monologues. I asked her if I could tape our conversation. She said sure and we talked another hour. When it came time to pay for my coffee I realized my wallet was gone. I was embarrassed. She went to the ATM and took out forty bucks ‘until you find your wallet’ and then she headed for her gig. I drove back to my motel listening to her cd ‘Somewhere Gone’. It’s simple guitar and fiddle , great lyrics, sweet, sweet harmonies reminded me that Americana is everybody’s territory, if we’re up to being open and honest, stripped down, willing to learn something new, own up to our ‘honest mistakes’, be civil, buy a stranger a coffee.
“Portait of Lincoln With the Wart” can be heard on the CBC website. (When you get to the website, if you don’t the piece, click on ‘listen again’ at the top of the ‘inside the music’ page and scroll down to find it.) (You’ll also get a chance to hear “She Moves between Worlds”, remembering Lhasa de Sela. But that’s another story.)