THE READING ROOM: Listening to the Voices of Americana Music
No one can define the phrase “Americana music,” but everybody — well, many writers and critics — has an opinion about its meaning. Like Jim Lauderdale, who shouts “Now, that’s Americana” after every performance at the Americana Music Association’s annual Awards Show, many people will tell you they know Americana music when they hear it.
The Americana Music Association offers its own definition, of course, illustrating both the breadth and ambiguity of the phrase: “Americana is contemporary music that incorporates elements of various American roots music styles, including country, roots-rock, folk, bluegrass, R&B, and blues, resulting in a distinctive roots-oriented sound that lives in a world apart from the pure forms of the genres upon which it may draw. While acoustic instruments are often present and vital, Americana also often uses a full electric band.” This definition is mostly a tale full of sound and fury, signifying nothing; it’s so broad and accommodating that almost any song or album or musician can feel the warm cover of this blanket. By now, though, writers and critics glibly bat about the phrase “Americana music” as though the phrase describes clearly a type or genre of music with which their readers are familiar.
At least two books have been published that offer their own takes on Americana music, and I have written about them in a previous column: Michael Scott Cain’s The Americana Revolution: From Country and Blues Roots to the Avett Brothers, Mumford & Sons, and Beyond (Rowman & Littlefield) and Timothy Gray’s It’s Just the Normal Noises: Marcus, Guralnick, No Depression, and the Mystery of Americana Music (Iowa). Each does its best to characterize Americana music, but the best they can do is simply to trace what is, in their minds, the evolution and lineage of Americana music.
Now, music journalist Lee Zimmerman enters the fray with his ambling, and rambling, collection of previously published columns and interviews — revised for this book — Americana Music: Voices, Visionaries & Pioneers of an Honest Sound (Texas A&M). His thesis emerges in the book’s subtitle — “an honest sound” — but he never defines exactly what he means by this phrase. Even he admits that he’s “always found it difficult to come up with a precise definition [of Americana], something that people can get a handle on.” So, rather than try to define Americana music, Zimmerman attempts “to define that trajectory [of Americana music] by first taking a look at Americana’s origins, and then through interviews with those who were responsible for taking it forward, providing essential context while exploring new directions that led toward the present and future.” In four sections of interviews with a wide range of musicians — “Back to the Beginning,” “Byrds, Burritos, and Changing Times,” “The Transition is Complete: Americana Today,” and “Americana Abroad” — Zimmerman explores diffusely the threads that weave the blanket called Americana music.
In the first section, Zimmerman ranges over the “routes and roots” of Americana and the “instrumental essentials,” especially fiddles and banjos, of the music. He declaims, “if one is inclined to start at the roots of Americana music, the fertile soil of Mississippi is the ideal point of origination. … It all began with the blues.” To be sure, the blues is one of the tributaries that flow into the rushing Americana river — Zimmerman’s following chapter focuses on the evolution of bluegrass — but, as North Mississippi Allstars front man Luther Dickinson points out in his conversation with Zimmerman: “The Mississippi sound is all about soul … it’s about the roots of American music. It’s about gospel music, about people in the fields, people singing to themselves and sharing it with others. It’s about community. It inspired Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash. It’s all about the American dream and about the different cultures. Even though they were separated by segregation, the music brought people together and it became a beautiful thing. It created rock and roll, and R&B and soul music, and it turned gospel music into a sexy, secular phenomenon.”
It’s tempting to close the book just after reading Dickinson’s words; they passionately capture the wide-ranging beauty and grittiness that characterizes American music, in all its forms, couched in a comment about the music of Mississippi. To mimic Jim Lauderdale, “Now, that’s Americana!”
In the book’s second section, Zimmerman swims from the shores of the Southern California tributary of the Americana river — conversations with Chris Hillman, Richie Furay, Poco, and Don Felder, among others — to the Austin shores for conversations with Guy Clark, Delbert McClinton, and more.
In the third section he explores Americana today in conversations with artists including John Oates, Steve Forbert, Jay Farrar, The Avett Brothers, Amanda Shires, and Ruthie Foster. As he points out, “the late eighties and early nineties ushered in another major milestone in Americana’s ongoing transition, a singular development that would lay the template for what was soon to follow …the No Depression movement, birthed by the band Uncle Tupelo and named for their influential debut album. The term would later be adapted by the magazine of the same name which championed the cause.” He moves from these early days of that movement to those who, like Shires and others, “picked up the baton.” Americana today is a “diverse amalgam of sounds and styles that makes a precise definition of Americana sometimes still seem elusive, but it’s that reverence for the roots that creates a common bond.”
A final section focuses on Americana abroad. Zimmerman also includes an appendix that contains a list of “essential albums that trace the transition” from Hank Williams’ Hank Williams Sings (1951) to Wilco’s A.M. (1995).
Americana Music: Voices, Visionaries & Pioneers of an Honest Sound is a fan’s notes. Zimmerman loves his music — and he admits as much in the introduction — so he brings passion and a depth and breadth of knowledge about music history to these conversations with artists. The book lacks a connecting thread, though, so that the conversations don’t appear to be connected to one another. In and of themselves, each of these mostly short interviews provides insight into the artist and his or her music, but together they don’t weave seamlessly into a whole; since there’s not a clear narrative thread, you can pick up the book to read about whatever artist or music interests you.
There are key figures missing in the collection, as well, perhaps because Zimmerman didn’t have access to them. Where is Emmylou Harris, for example? Margo Price? Alice Gerrard? Loretta Lynn? Linda Ronstadt? Joni Mitchell? Tracy Nelson? Rhiannon Giddens? There are fewer than ten women in the collection; given the significant and powerful profile of women in Americana music, no book on Americana is complete without profiles of their work. In addition, where is Muscle Shoals and Stax in the book? Americana music can be traced even more clearly to the Shoals or Memphis than it can be to California or Upstate New York. Of course, raising questions comes with any conversations about Americana music, and Zimmerman’s book provokes them, and it also introduces us, or reminds us about, music we haven’t heard before or in a long time.