Thursday, March 4, 2021

An Americana Primer

The Beatles, despite their fascination with Elvis and Buddy Holly, and, despite compositions like "Bungalow Bill," were, quintessentially British, yes? "Penny Lane" is England in a nutshell. The same slant is equally apparent with Blondie, Talking Heads and The Ramones in a New York state of mindset, and the Laurel Canyon scene was as California as The Beach Boys. It's a rock geography lesson. But what truly represents Americana? The genre has taken on a pretty broad sweep of the brush, but for true Americana in rock, one has to feel the grit in his teeth, and, in a synesthetic way, the music is overalls and an old dog.

The sound goes back to Woody Guthrie of course, or to Robert Johnson, and to late 50s folk. There's a country-blues sensibility and an expectation of plucked strings. In the rock era, the genre doesn't come alive until Dylan or The Byrds and The Buffalo Springfield; until The Grateful Dead and the Flying Burrito Bros. It's a genre that's undergone, by its nature, little in the way of change, that is oddly similar whether recorded in 1973 or 2020.

Here's a primer, an Americana playlist for the novice: Iron and Wine's "The Trapeze Swinger" sweeps one into the landscape as it builds like a folk bolero; pretty, organic and dreamy, a monkey and a man and a marching band, the little plunk on the piano, is that an autoharp I hear? Sun Kil Moon's "Clarissa" is the perfect example of the story song in its realistic simplicity. Mark Kozelek just turned 49. People at that age have certain preoccupations (if I recall) like a certain uneasiness about their careers, hurting backs, prostate glands, fear their parents may die soon, and having encountered death a bit more often than they'd like to permeates the stark imagery and  barren emotionality that emanate from the lyrics and from the music. For Eddie Vedder's Into the Wild soundtrack, the Pearl Jam frontman said, "I'd just sit in the chair, and they'd hand me a fretless bass, and they'd hand me a mandolin, and they'd take a second to do the rough mix, and then I'd write the vocal, and it was just quick ... It was like I kinda went into some weird space for a week or two, and then I woke up out of this daze, and it was done." It sounds that way; call it effortless or even lazy, works either way. "Hard Sun is the standout, but the brief vignettes "Long Nights" and "Tuolumne" fit right in. Dustin Tubbet’s "The Breach" doesn’t really qualify in that he's a migrant Australian with sand and dingo blood coursing through his veins, but migrant is Americana. I’d throw a little Beirut into the mix,  and Shovels and Rope, some Norfolk Southern and The Tallest Man on Earth; still, the new school's got nothing on the old.

Kickin' up dirt is what Neil Young does best and for me, "Through My Sails" kills it, like the backdrop to a Double RL ad. Maybe it doesn’t fit, but I'd throw in Fleetwood Mac's "Landslide" and Dylan's "Don’t Think Twice" and Ry Cooder. It's music to put on quiet, snuggle up with the dog and the Indian blanket and read The Red Pony.

Today, the scene is slowly regenerating, the vibe amidst the eucalyptus trees hasn't really changed much over the years, and for only the slightly near-sighted it's almost as if the young girls were coming again to the canyon; it's '67 all over again.. The music in the Canyon quieted in the Eighties, but since Jonathan Wilson, Americana folkie to a T, began hosting his jam sessions a few years ago, an expanding group of artists have been reviving not just the old-school Canyon sounds but also that scene's spirit of collaboration. "It's not a coincidence that all these people have gravitated to this place," says Barry Goldberg, who played with Crazy Horse back in the day, and who still lives in the Canyon. "First time I went to Jonathan Wilson's house and walked through the beaded curtain, I almost had a flashback," he says. "I started crying because of how proud I was of these kids for carrying it on with reverence and not just bullshit or jive.

"You never know who'll show up—it might be members of Oasis, Pearl Jam or Wilco. And I've brought friends, like Gary Mallaber (Steve Miller Band, Van Morrison) and Elliot Easton (The Cars), who both jumped at the chance."