Why Did Jack White, T Bone Include the Americans in Their ‘American Epic’?
Ryan Bingham told me last year, “There’s a group of guys out here that call themselves The Americans. Some of the best song writing I’ve heard in years.”
It’s strong praise indeed, but Bingham (with whom the group has toured at least twice), is not alone in endorsing the Americans. They’ve worked with Lucinda Williams, Nick Cave, and Courtney Love. And after taking part in the PBS documentary American Epic (produced by T Bone Burnett, Jack White, and Robert Redford), Burnett is quoted as saying, “The Americans are part of this group, these genius 21st century musicians, that are reinventing American heritage music for this century. And it sounds even better this century.”
Describing themselves as “original rock and roll with deep roots in traditional American music,” the Americans started out as a jug band. Over the years, however, they have shape-shifted into roots based rock and roll with a taste of rockabilly. Now and then, they transform back into devotees of deep American roots when they’re so inclined.
“We always have a banjo, mandolin, and fiddles with us on tour,” frontman Patrick Ferris tells me. “Everyone in the band can play the banjo. And we still get a chance to do it every now and then, as we did in American Epic. … Those influences are sometimes overt, like when we put a banjo or a pump organ in a song, or the way Zac, Jake, and I fingerpick on electric guitar and bass.
“There’s more to it than just the style of playing, or choice of instrument,” he adds. “We’re more influenced by the emotional quality of old records — those moments in old songs that we all love deeply — than by the aesthetics or the instrumentation.”
Indeed, you don’t need to listen too meticulously to hear how the essence of the traditional music from those old records holds sway on the contemporary sound that the band is creating. “Zac and I spend a lot of our free time learning old fiddle tunes, whose melodies can work their way into our own when we’re writing,” Ferris explains. “We drive everyone crazy with it, especially on tour. We have two songs – ‘Bronze Star’ and ‘Foreign Land’ – whose melodies Zac actually wrote on the violin, in the style of old fiddle tunes. Those took a lot of work to even figure out where I was supposed to sing. Writing our new song ‘The Right Stuff,’ we wanted the choruses to chug along like an accordion on an old Cajun record.”
“The Right Stuff” is the first single from the Americans’ forthcoming album, I’ll Be Yours. It will be their second album after 2013’s Home Recordings, and their self-titled EP debut from 2010. Ferris notes, “It’s the first proper studio album we’ve released. We recorded the EP and Home Recordings ourselves, the first in a barn to quarter-inch tape, and the second with three microphones in Tim’s basement in L.A. This was the first chance we had to really get things sounding the way we wanted.
“The sounds we like are elusive,” he adds, “and we’re always trying new things to get there, whether it’s rewiring guitar amps or recording in unusual rooms. We love the organic sound you hear on some records – [it’s] not necessarily achieved organically, but [it gives] the impression of a loud band all playing in a room together. The new album is a step closer to whatever it was we had in mind back when we first started the band.”
That love for those elusive, organic sounds all started with old records, and the group’s passion for music grew from there.
“We’d been friends a long time, discovering old-time and early rock and roll records together,” says Ferris. Early on, the group hit the road with their friend Cody, who Ferris says “hit a small suitcase with a soup spoon” because he didn’t have a drum kit. With Cody, they toured all over the country, playing small town bars and rural honky-tonks. “We’d worked up hours of material from obscure rockabilly [and] early rock and roll records. We mixed them in with the few original songs we had.”
Ferris plays guitar and is the main man behind the microphone. Like each member of the band, he has an interesting pedigree to bring to his music. His father showed him his first guitar chords. “Once I got interested in the old records, I learned the harmonica, banjo, autoharp, and later the fiddle. I never had any lessons,” he says. The first album he ever bought was West Coast hip-hop artist Warren G’s Regulate; his interest in more traditional music developed later on — he picked up the guitar when he was a teenager and that led him to folk and blues music.
Zac Sokolow (guitar, banjo, fiddle, and mandolin) also learned from his father, who is a musician. Sokolow has been playing music with him as long as he can remember. Nestling in YouTube is a video of the senior Sokolow and a young Zac, performing together (“Let Me Fall”) in around 2000.
“When I was about 11 years old,” he explains, “I started getting more serious about playing the banjo and guitar, and pretty much stopped caring about doing anything else.” He played bluegrass as a kid and went to Cajun and Zydeco dances with his mother, then joined high school rock bands, leading him directly to where he is today.
Drummer Tim Carr is also a multi-instrumentalist who supplements the band with piano, pump organ, and guitar and banjo when they lapse into traditional country and folk songs. The musically curious Carr says he “began studying jazz and performing in various ensembles at school. This led to my interest in older jazz and traditional folk music. I continued my music education at California Institute of the Arts, studying jazz and West African drumming. This is where I met Jake and he introduced me to the rest of the band.”
Jake Faulkner is the band’s upright bass player, as well as guitarist, mandolinist, jug player, “and can fake it on a banjo.” He studied at California Institute of the Arts, and his first band was called the Black Jack Gypsies. “I ran around with long hair, no shirt, a sarong, and Doc Martins yelling about restraining orders, the pullout method not working, and other unfunny notions that delighted me when I was 15.”
Nowadays, Faulkner tends to spend more time writing poetry and publishing it on his own publishing company, Saint Parade Publishing.
Songwriting is a group effort for the Americans. “We write a lot of music together,” Ferris explains, “and I tend to write the words. Jake and I each wrote lyrics to one [song apiece] for the new album. I’d say we tend to focus on getting the most we can out of something we really like, letting that dictate the song, rather than settling on a form. Sometimes I’ll bring in something I’ve worked out on my own. Other times we arrange everything together and build songs around abstract pieces of music we’ve been working on.”
Nowadays, when the group is not performing in their own right, touring involves supporting artists like Ryan Bingham, who initially asked the band to join him on tour after hearing them perform at a party. Seems it was a tour with a steep learning curve for the young band. “The first time we stayed out all night with Ryan’s band,” Ferris says, “we watched in dismay as his tour bus pulled away in the morning, realizing [his band] could sleep the whole way to Alabama, and we still had to make the drive.
“To be fair though, the lessons from that tour weren’t all so hard,” he adds. “We played for big crowds for the first time, and that changed our perspective across the board. We were impressed with the way his band’s rhythm section filled up a room. You learn a lot watching the same band play night after night.”
However, Ryan Bingham isn’t the band’s only fan, and their involvement in the documentary American Epic added a bevy of names to their list of admirers.
The film quite literally reconstructs the story of the first music recordings in 1920s USA: a groundswell in which record companies travelled throughout the country, capturing the evolving musical cultures that founded so much of what we listen to today.
To make this possible, the documentary re-assembled the recording apparatus that was used at the time. With microphones, amplifiers, and other equipment from the era, the filmmaers recorded current artists straight onto wax, including Willie Nelson, Los Lobos, Blind Boy Paxton, Steve Martin & Edie Brickell, and many more. “Jack White and T Bone [Burnett] produced the sessions,” Ferris says. “We were there every day, backing up musicians and contributing to arrangements.
“The filmmakers reconstructed from original parts the 1920s Western Electric amplifier and Scully lathe, which revolutionized the recording industry at that time. No one had used the equipment since the 1930s, and our job was to make the first recording on it since then, preparing ourselves for the film. Later Elton John, Jack White, Nas, Merle Haggard, Willie Nelson, Beck, and Alabama Shakes would try their hands at it, but we got to go first.
“Once the sessions were underway,” he continues, “we functioned as the house band, backing up various artists and suggesting songs for them to the filmmakers. We did a song with the country singer Ashley Monroe [a descendent of the Carter Family and Bill Monroe], and the Detroit soul singer Bettye LaVette. Zac played with Ana Gabriel, and Jake must be the only human to ever play the jug behind Nas, for his version of a Memphis Jug Band song that we recommended.”
Though they were seamlessly able to shapeshift into the earliest era of American recordings, the Americans’ new album, I’ll Be Yours, is rooted firmly in 2016. On it, they’re a modern-day rock and roll band, writing contemporary music of their own time, incorporating the kernel of their traditional roots, enhancing their rock and roll credentials with the emotional quality of music that was made generations earlier.