Originally developed as an alternative radio format to mainstream country music in the USA, what we call Americana has now become a genre in its own right, encompassing popular US ‘roots’ music from country to folk to blues, and from lone singer-songwriters playing Martin acoustic guitars to rocking boogie bands plugged into the mains. Lyrically, Americana is big on notions of authenticity, history and myth, and on those wide open spaces where tumbleweed rolls across the desert and there’s always darkness at the edge of town.
Appropriately, the term also has a history of its own, and before it was applied to music it was used to describe the ephemera of American popular culture: anything from Civil War antiques to Depression-era graphics and those iconic fin-tailed Cadillacs of the mid-century consumer boom. Prior to its appropriation by radio and the music industry, the most famous usage of Americana was the writer H.L.Mencken’s column of that name for the magazine American Mercury in the 1920s and 30s: the satirically-inclined Mencken combed back numbers of regional US newspapers to find examples of dumb provincialism that smart-set urban sophisticates could chuckle at. These days, although The Simpsons still likes to laugh at trailer-park trash, backwoods provincialism isn’t funny any more; hell, it’s almost cool. To understand why, you have to look closely at what happened to the authenticity of US music in the late Fifties and early Sixties, when country and western – as it used to be called – left its hillbilly, mountain-music folk-origins far behind in favour of aspirational, rhinestone-clad kings and queens, and the venerable Grand Ole Opry radio (and later TV) show became a byword for cultural and political conservatism.
When pop groups like The Byrds and The Flying Burrito Brothers – who, after following Bob Dylan and the early Sixties folk boom – started to investigate the pre-rhinestone era of country and bluegrass, and Dylan himself got seriously rustic, recording with rockabilly turned country star Johnny Cash on ‘Nashville Skyline’, you could argue that the foundations of what was to become Americana were established. Dylan’s backing band, The Band, supplied the perfect creation-myth for the new form in their own early albums, replete with Civil War references, rootsy accordion melodies and big pioneer-style beards (note: beards are important in Americana). When mainstream country music added Eighties anodyne hat-acts to those rhinestone cowboys and cowgirls, and in the process became – along with rap, curiously enough – the world’s dominant musical form, the centre could no longer hold. A new outlaw-alternative was needed (following the appropriation of the original outlaw-country of Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings by Nashville), badly. Cue Americana.
Roseanne Cash exemplifies the historical conditions that led to this change. As the eldest daughter of the late mega-star Johnny Cash – who himself morphed from Sun Records rebel to C&W irregular, and eventually to American Recordings all-round legend – with a stepmom (June Carter Cash) who was part of the great Carter Family dynasty, she’s 100% American Classic herself. Her latest album, which she’s performing at St George’s with her husband John Leventhal, is also as self-consciously mythic as you can get: ‘The River & The Thread‘ travels from the Civil war to the Great Depression to the present-day Southlands, looking at how the past structures the present. To see it played live is going to be awesome.
Carolina Chocolate Drops demonstrate that Americana can be black music, too. This wasn’t always apparent, although the great post-modern bluesman Taj Mahal – who I once saw at the Colston Hall in a bizarre double-bill with a Trinidadian Steel band playing popular classics, compered by Vivian Stanshall – has been exploring the obscure highways and byways of post-slavery African-American culture since the Sixties. After meeting at the first Black Banjo Gathering in North Carolina in 2005 (the ethnic origins of the banjo are a hot topic: the very symbol of black-face minstrel music is, it seems, derived from Africa) CCD formed expressly to reclaim their regional repertoire of black American folk music from the stigmas of slavery and minstrelsy, in the process making it new again. Now, after changes in personnel have kept the group sounding fresh (until recently they featured a beat-boxer!), they have become one of the most in-demand acts anywhere. And for those who haven’t seen them before, take note: Carolina Chocolate Drops are absolutely great, and perfect for St George’s. Check them here at (see how things have changed?) the Grand Ole Opry.
Roger McGuinn, who gets our autumn String Theory season off to a rousing start in late September, is in many ways Americana’s eminence grise. After the Byrds made the pop charts chime with jangly versions of Bob Dylan and Pete Seeger, with the 1968 album ‘Sweetheart of the Rodeo’ and the influence of Gram Parsons they started to look to bluegrass and country music for inspiration. Later, McGuinn, who began his professional career as a 5-string banjo player (those ringing Rickenbacker-arpeggios are adapted from the banjo-picking techniques he learned at Chicago’s Old Town School of Folk Music as a teenager), returned to folk music, and he now curates The Folk Den website, as well as performing solo. I booked him for St George’s once before, and it was amazing: he opened with ‘Feel a Whole Lot Better’, did all the hits and even played my special favourite ‘Chestnut Mare’, a beautiful relative-obscurity. If he does ‘Ballad of Easy Rider‘ this time I’ll be in heaven.
The growing success of Hot Club of Cowtown, who play St George’s at the end of October, testifies to many things: the emergence of Austin, Texas as the most fruitful acoustic-music scene in the US; the common ground between country, jazz and rock and roll, and between the regional country style of Western Swing (their particular specialism), and the fiddle and guitar improvisations associated with the Hot Club de France. Once again, they are a great live band, with a rich acoustic sound that’s just made for St George’s. Do I get to say “Yee-haw” now?
Phil Johnson, Senior Programme Producer
Hot Club of Cowtown are live at St George’s on Friday 31 October!
Click here for more information and to buy tickets…