I’ve been thinking a lot about Americana music lately, mostly because my band The Fence Sitters (aka The Fence Cutters) were firmly wedged in that category. Fair enough – we had banjos and mandolins and harmony vocals and told stories in our songs. It never really rankled me, although to us we were just making songs and having fun playing them and using what instruments we had.
Americana music sprang into life with the mighty Uncle Tupelo. They are so much of the fabric of this music that their first album, No Depression, lends its name to the primary written document of the genre (No Depression Magazine, and later website) as well as a nickname for the movement. The eventual breakup of Uncle Tupelo led to the formation of two strong musical acts that last till this day in Son Volt and Wilco.
As much fun as it will be to discuss all that great music and Nels Cline and Whiskeytown and the Old 97s and Bloodshot Records, for this post I’m going to look at some of the tectonic forces that led to the inevitable Uncle.
The Louvin Brothers and Other Family Bands
The family was a much more formidable music unit in the early part of the 20th century than it is now, Haim and the Haden Triplets notwithstanding. Growing up together and practicing your harmonies (and schtick) certainly paid off handsomely for many acts. [One of my favorite stories is about how Earl Scruggs and his brother, Horace, would start playing a tune together then walk in opposite directions around the house to see if they were still at the same tempo when they met up on the other side. That has to be better than Minecraft.]
Eerie sibling and partner communications aside, the songs from the Louvins and other family bands are undeniable templates for the whole range of Americana.
Charlie and Ira Louvin were regulars on the grand old opry in the 50s and early 60s and brought together strands of southeastern culture. They featured tight harmonies and a mixture of secular and gospel numbers and melodic mandolin leads from Ira. The Byrds covered “The Christian Life” on their blockbuster Sweetheart of the Rodeo, cementing their crossover appeal.
Ira was known for his drinking, and the duo eventually broke up because of his erratic behavior. He was obsessed with the fire and brimstone of hell and had a hard time consolidating that threat with his pursuit of earthly pleasures. So as much as we may enjoy the kitschiness of the Satan is Real album cover (and it is spectacular), please understand that in part at least, Satan is Real is Real.
I love “Knoxville Girl,” and “I Don’t Believe You’ve Met My Baby,” and most everything I have ever heard from them, but I present “When I Stop Dreaming” as what you should check out.
The Delmore Brothers predated the Louvins by a bit, but also have tight harmonies and fantastic leads on the tenor guitar. They had an array of great material, “Brown’s Ferry Blues,” “Gonna Lay Down My Old Guitar” and “Blues Stay Away From Me” have been covered by lots of acts. Check out the 1946 proto-rock and roll of “Freight Train Boogie”:
The Carter Family are the first family of Nashville for a reason. Check out this amazing video of Sweet Fern.
Springtime is coming, sweet lonesome bird
Your echo in the woodland I hear
Down in the meadow so lonesome, you’re singing
While the moonlight is shining so clear
These words and sentiments would be welcome on many releases in 2017.
Gram Parsons and other Cosmic Cowboys
Country and Rock and Roll got fairly well separated since the time of “Freight Train Boogie,” but the late 60s and early 70s saw a rejoining of the streams, notably with the 1968 release of The Byrds’ Sweetheart of the Rodeo. Prominent in the Byrds’ new direction was the addition of singer/guitarist Gram Parsons.
Gram’s first record was Safe at Home with International Submarine Band which was a group of musicians Gram met while studying theology at Harvard (including Earl “Poole” Ball who is a fixture of the Austin music scene). Great Gram originals joined a few country songs (“Millers Cave!”) and caught the attention of Chris Hillman, who gave Gram an introduction to The Byrds. Gram then teamed up with Hillman to form the Flying Burrito Brothers who put out a couple of records – The Gilded Palace of Sin and Burrito Deluxe – filled with amazing psychedelic country rock and soul. [Later on, the Burrito Brothers morphed into The Country Gazette, a personal favorite of mine.] After those two albums Gram “went solo” and put out two fantastic records featuring the amazing Emmylou Harris, GP, and Grievous Angel. All of these albums are classics, and it’s hard to fathom that he had so much quality output and also had time to be a party animal, famously hanging out with the Rolling Stones during the recording of Let it Bleed, and dead from alcoholism at the age of 26. Check out Blue Eyes from the ISB:
Many other bands were notable for their fusion of country/roots and rock:
- New Riders of the Purple Sage came out of the bay area and, early on at least, featured Jerry Garcia on pedal steel guitar.
- Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen featured the incredible Bill Kirchen on guitar and added a bit of western swing into the mix.
- The Eagles. You’ve probably heard some songs by them.
The Band were not Country Rock in the same way as most of these others, but also fused those same generational elements, and are perhaps the most Americana of any band ever. In case you’ve forgotten how much so, here is the band with Emmylou Harris doing Evangeline. Wow. Just wow.
The Replacements and the 80s Proto-Americana
When I think of reckless abandon while playing music you love, I think of the Replacements. They were a party band that would often play requests whether they knew the songs or not. It’s hard to imagine Slobberbone or the Old 97s or even Uncle Tupelo without The Mats. [Here are some photos by the great Pat Blashill of a show I saw at Liberty Lunch in 1985.]
Minutemen were my favorite band in high school, and continue to be top 3 at any given time. Their DIY jam-econo methods are an inspiration to almost every band just starting out, and though their sound remained very consistent, they ranged wildly through styles. Still Feel Gone, Uncle Tupelo’s second album has a song named D. Boon after Minutemen’s guitar player.
This isn’t written for any one man it’s about me
This isn’t written for anyone alive just the songs that he sang
Check out Corona:
Here in Austin, the 80s contained the “New Sincerity” bands like the True Believers and Zeitgeist/The Reivers who were all clearly proto-Americana. True Believers singer Alejandro Escovedo had previously been in the band Rank and File, the founders of “cowpunk.”
So there you have three big pillars that led to the emergence of Americana, particularly the more booze-fueled rock-and-roll side of the genre. My band the Fence Cutters has two albums that might appeal to you if this is your jam, Extended Play, and Horses and Asses.