Once upon a time there was pop music. You either liked what you heard or you didn’t, and you didn’t particularly care about anything else. There were other types of music other people listened to, but that wasn’t pop music. There was country and western music which was played by people who dressed funny and whose audience seemed to made up of senior citizens and people with short hair. It was like it was from another world. However as you grew older you discovered something, the rock and roll you listened to had been born out of the strange marriage of country music and blues music.
As you listened to more and more music, the more you realized it was all interrelated. From punk to disco it all could be traced back to the same beginnings. Sure it had split off onto wildly divergent paths, but they all traced their roots back to the same sources; the folk music of the British Isles and African music brought over with slaves. Even with Spain and France having significant impact on certain areas of North America, the African/British influence has remained the dominant force in popular music. You might hear traces of one of the other two, but they are usually laid over the same core everything else is.
As the music industry has sought to target specific markets they’ve begun pop music was divided up into an ever increasing number of sub-genres. Even though I’ve been a music critic for eight years now, I still couldn’t tell you the difference between half of them. Even more confusing is the way so many people seem to apply different names to what is essentially the same music. One of the more confusing ones that’s popped up in recent years has been something called Americana. My initial impression of this genre was it was a catch all category for anything which didn’t fit anywhere else as it seemed to include everything from Woody Guthrie style folk/country music to Credence Clearwater Revival rock and roll. Well according to a new television special, Nashville 2.0: The Rise of Americana, airing on PBS Friday, November 22, 2013 as part of its PBS Arts Fall Festival 2013, I wasn’t too far off.
While I found the focus of the hour long show a little too Nashville-centric when it came to discussing the history of what it called Americana, and overly concentrated on its country roots, it doesn’t stop the points it makes about the music any less valid. As was pointed out by one of the talking heads – it was hard to keep track of who said what with so many voices chipping in over the course of the show – America is still a young country comparatively speaking and is only now beginning to develop its own sound. This sound, coming out of the melting pot of cultures which have met in America, explains why Americana is such a mixed bag of musical types and genres.
The examples of bands considered by the show to qualify for the genre ranged from a Latin tinged country rock outfit from Miami to the new darlings of pop music Mumford and Sons from England. However, most of the bands on the show seemed to be ones with obvious country or Nashville influences. Combined with the show’s crediting of Emmylou Harris, via her association with Graham Parsons, as being one of the primary influences on the current Americana scene, gave the impression that country music is the major factor in the development of this music. Aside from the inclusion of The Carolina Chocolate Drops and Alabama Shakes, they seem to have forgotten any African-American influence there could have been on American music. In fact, Carolina Chocolate Drops lead vocalist Rhiannon Giddens sort of sidled up to the point with her comment about it being nice to play gigs where the Alabama Shakes are sharing the bill, as they add a little bit of colour to the proceedings.
Now none of this is meant to disparage any of the people mentioned in the show. I’ve always loved Emmylou Harris, but I think it’s a bit of a stretch to credit her with being as great an influence as the show suggests. To do a show about this type of music and never once mention four guys from Southern Ontario and their drummer from Arkansas, The Band, is like talking about Opera and not mentioning a guy named Mozart. Parsons and Harris may have tried to bring country music to the pop music crowd in the early 1970s, but The Band remain one of the first outfits who created a melange representing almost every musical culture imported into North America.
While they call the show Nashville 2.0: The Rise of Americana, the real emphasis is on the first part of the title – Nashville. Here the show excelled, showing us how country music and Nashville have diversified so it now represents more of America than just a small segment of the population. It was also interesting to see what young bands like The Avett Brothers and Civil War to name only a few, have done with the country form to create a sound of their own. What was especially nice to see was the care these bands were taking with vocal harmonies, arrangements and the crafting of songs in general. It’s a refreshing change from listening to the image conscience, celebrity seeking, so called musicians the air waves are usually littered with these days.
The show isn’t hurt either be the people chosen to be front and centre as guides for the hour. Roseanne Cash, Buddy Miller, Billy Bragg, and Jim Lauderdale are not only knowledgeable and intelligent, they each have an honest to god love and appreciation for the music which you can’t help but get caught up in. Talking heads in shows like these can be boring or dry, but these four aren’t shy of showing their excitement about an act or letting their emotions slide through. When Cash talks about how country radio stations refused to play her late father’s latter recordings she doesn’t attempt to hide her scorn for them and her pride in her father for being true to himself.
It was Lauderdale, though, who had one of the best moments in the show right at the opening when he introduces the word Americana for the first time. He gives a little sly smile, almost as if tipping the audience a wink, and you can almost see the quotes round the word as he says it. He’s not trying to undermine its significance but he’s letting us know he doesn’t take this business of genres too seriously. When he and Miller get together, either working with a younger band for the satellite radio show they host, talking about the music or performing you sense their deep love for what they do.
Hearing and seeing the music through the eyes and ears of these two and the others, and feeling the love they all feel, is what makes this show special. You can’t help but be caught up their enthusiasm and excitement over the bands. All of them have been around the music industry for a long time, and with the exception of Bragg, most of that time had been spent in Nashville. What has made them all so excited is the genuine change in country music with the resurgence of people being interested in creating music and not just songs.
While I’m not in agreement with all that’s expressed on this show, and I think there were some glaring omissions, Nashville 2.0: The Rise of Americana does a good job of explaining the genre’s seeming lack of boundaries. It also provides viewers a chance to meet some of the new bands who are performing new versions of country music. It may not be a complete picture of Americana music, but it’s some of the better music being played today. It’s real people, making real music and singing about things they believe in. I don’t care what you call it, but that’s generally a recipe for great music.