Are you one of those millions of music lovers who frequently hear the phrase Americana, and aren’t entirely sure what the genre description entails? Perhaps you’ve been confused by seeing an artist you enjoy labeled as Americana, and then finding another in a dramatically different style similarly noted?
Lee David Zimmerman, whom we are proud to count among our regular Bluegrass Today correspondents, has written a book that sets out to put some flesh on those bones, and offer some explanations by way of profiles and interviews with several dozen artists who define the category.
Americana has become a highly desirable term in music marketing, in its widest application indicating a style that is not targeted at the huge pop music market. Some have described it as “music for adults,” or as an offshoot of alt-country. The word has even gone international, despite its root in the name of the two continents that make up the Americas. We received a press pitch last week from a singer/songwriter who characterized himself as an “Irish Americana artist.”
In Americana Music – Voices, Visionaries & Pioneers of an Honest Sound, Zimmerman sees the sound as being based on three main sources: southeastern bluegrass, Delta blues, and traditional country music. Or as he puts it, “It’s a sound that reflects its traditions, it’s dichotomy, the sound of people sharing their hopes, their dreams, their values.” In other words, it’s folk music… music from the people.
Lee has written about music for many years, and worked within the industry for ABC and Capitol Records. For this book, he has researched and interviewed artists from the various wings of the Americana scene, including bluegrassers like Ralph Stanley, Steep Canyon Rangers, Sam Bush, Béla Fleck, Yonder Mountain String Band, and Punch Brothers. Also included are acts on the far fringe of grass, like Greensky Bluegrass and The Avett Brothers, who have found large audiences for their blend of bluegrass traditions with other aspects of contemporary music.
He traces those roots into the country rock scene in the 1970s, where Poco, Crosby, Stills, and Nash, and The Eagles staked their flags. And the ’80s when Dwight Yoakam took a new sound to country, and songwriters like Guy Clark and Kinky Friedman became prominent among more adventurous listeners. In section three the book looks at today’s artists who have followed this path, with portraits of a wide array of sounds, from Chris Isaak and Amanda Shire,s to Reverend Peyton and Derek Trucks. The book closes with a series of artists who perform in this sort of style outside the United States.
Throughout, the book is accented by photographs taken by Alisa B. Cherry, whose work has also appeared here, and who is married to Zimmerman.
Lee says it wasn’t a simple thing deciding who should be included in the book.
“Americana music is such a large umbrella — but the paint of my book was to include the voices of those who really furthered the transition from what we referred to as country rock or roots rock or country crossover — bands like Poco, the Flying Burrito Brothers and the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. So first and foremost I wanted to include those folks — and then of course the people that they had a direct influence on, and others who clearly paid reverence to the roots and then took that music, and remained it in their own singular style. One person who comes immediately to mind is Dwight Yoakam and how he took the Bakersfield sound and made it relevant and exciting for these punk rock kids he played to early on. AND of course, you have to have starting point so I began the book with an overview about the bluegrass music that originated in Appalachia and the blues of Mississippi and the deep south — you have to begin the journey at an appropriate launching site. And that’s why Ralph Stanley was in there too — of course, having the opportunity to get access to these folks was certainly part of the criteria — if they were available and played a role in that trajectory, then had the opportunity to have their voice as part of the narrative.”
If you are attracted to this style, and want to learn more about the artists who encompass it, Americana Music will provide an excellent introduction. You may not find every one of them to your liking, but you are bound to discover a couple of new favorites.
Americana Music – Voices, Visionaries & Pioneers of an Honest Sound is published by the Texas A&M University Press. It is currently available in cloth/hardcover for $28.00. It runs to 332 pages, and is also offered in ebook format from Amazon.