What kind of music is Americana really?
Wikipedia describes the genre thus: an amalgam of American music formed by the confluence of the shared and varied traditions that make up the musical ethos of the United States. That’s all things to all people then, depending on whether you interpret the definition as leaning toward one root genre or another, be it country, rock, blues, gospel or whatnot.
I always interpreted the genre through a root note of indie, with a tinge of rock. There seemed a classic era for the genre, back sometime in the early 2000s, when Wilco, The Walkmen and My Morning Jacket embodied my own interpretation perfectly, and were subsequently followed by a new generation including Band of Horses, Fleet Foxes, Bon Iver and so on. It was all very male however. But look what’s happened since. In recent times, as with the darker side of R&B, it’s female artists that have occupied the space with a compelling, fresh take on things.
Americana itself seems to have been through some quiet times, perhaps suffering from the general guitar music malaise. But very recently, as with rock, I smell a quietly confident comeback. Take the past weeks alone. There has been a treasure trove of new Americana releases, including Sharon Van Etten, Cass McCombs, Deerhunter, and Cat Power. All have released albums that grow with listens, and to me that was always part of the power of Americana. I remember when I first played Wilco’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot (a bona fide Americana classic) - I just didn’t get it. But then when it clicked it really clicked, and I could not stop playing it, end to end. A similar thing happened with Sparklehorse and It’s A Wonderful Life, and then again many years later, with My Morning Jacket and The Waterfall. These Americana albums go down in legend in my record collection.
But the classics are for another time. It’s this new crop of Americana, now led by a new generation of female musicians, that’s celebrated here and there is true wonder to be heard. Jessica Pratt, Jennie Lewis, Soccer Mommy, Lissie and I’m With Her, joined here by established but thriving wonders like The Delines (again, a recent record), Neko Case and Laura Veirs, and the ethereal beauty of Alela Diane.
But you know, it’s not all women. The Mountain Goats just dropped a brand new song, and of course, long awaited new material by Vampire Weekend, at last! But wait. John Vanderslice is back too. What’s that? You’ve never heard of John Vanderslice? All your previous losses hitherto corrected, courtesy Song Sommelier. It’s what we are here for. Jon Vanderslice was first introduced to me by the late, great broadcaster and journalist Robert Sandall, and I’ll Wait For You is class cut Vanderslice, all existential angst and world-weary road-trip spirituality, Americana but gothic style I guess.
So, to be genuine authenticated Americana, do you have to actually be an American? No, you do not. The genre is an open book, you just have to embrace and buy into it fully. Elton & Bernie sort of proved that. And so did The Stones. So we top & tail this playlist with none other than Surrey, England’s Lucy Rose. Lucy’s new record No Words Left (I doubt that btw) is out in March ‘19, and on this form, I can’t say I’ve looked forward to an album much more. Both songs featured here strike me as truly attention grabbing music. For other non-native Americana excellence see First Aid Kit, The Staves. Again the women have it.
Perhaps of all genres, Americana is the one that will see full length albums preserved for some time yet. The telling of epic stories requires a vessel like the album, and for truly great Americana albums by female legends look to Tori Amos Scarlet’s Walk, or Emmylou Harris Red Dirt Girl. Long may the tradition continue. For now this collection will conjure up the images necessary that you’ll be reaching for Cheever and Bourbon.
Playback notes: It’s been scheduled, so go start to finish and go with the story.