An engaging view on Americana, as seen from Continental Europe.
This is a very enjoyable book. It’s also a very timely reminder that Americana, as a genre, is now appreciated around the world and that it is no longer the preserve of America or of the English-speaking nations! There seems to have been, among some, a tacit assumption that countries like the UK, Ireland, and Australia have a natural affinity with Americana, because of the shared language, and that makes them some sort of legitimate partners in the music, marking them out from the rest of the world in some way. That’s really not the case. The relatively recent rise of Nordic Americana music and, now, writing like this excellent book from German writer, Wimmer, shows that the music has much wider appeal but also that other nations have valuable observations and contributions to make to the genre.
What’s particularly enjoyable about this book is that it has a very distinct, continental European voice. Reading it, you can tell that English is not Wimmer’s native language, not because there is any fault in the use of the language, the author’s command of English is clearly excellent, but he writes with a style and a turn of phrase that is nicely different, and brings a fresh and enjoyable style of writing to observations on Americana music.
“A Haven For Songs” is a series of essays that Wimmer has written over, what seems to be, quite a long period of time. It’s not entirely clear if these have been published elsewhere and gathered together for this volume or if they are just the author’s personal musings and recollections, though indications are that they’re a bit of a mix of both. Martin Wimmer himself, born in Bavaria in the late 1960s, is an author of music books, usually in the German language, as well as a lyricist and music critic, and Americana is, clearly, his passion. His most recent German-language book is “Hankfurt” and it seems likely that some of the content here is translated, or re-interpreted, from that book.
Wimmer’s writing style can be quite poetic and he often unleashes a torrent of stream of consciousness that simply carries you along with it. It’s fun and it’s great to get this different take on Americana music and the artists that create it. Would an American or a Brit, writing about Townes Van Zandt, reference cover albums by Norwegian (Paul Flaata, “Come Tomorrow: Songs of Townes Van Zandt”) and Israeli (David Broza, “Night Dawn: The Unpublished Poetry of Townes Van Zandt”) artists? They might, but it seems unlikely. Wimmer’s book has a style and a range entirely of its own and is all the better for it.
We get chapters on Townes Van Zandt, Blaze Foley, the Kerrville Folk Festival, Bob Dylan’s Nobel Prize for Literature, we get thoughts on Cajun music and on the Paisley Underground, we even get Wimmer’s musings on Covid with a distinctive Americana approach! This is the chapter titled ‘From Room 19: Won’t you lend your lungs to me’, where Wimmer talks about the importance of art when it comes to commenting on death, and how his own lockdown was helped by the music he clearly loves – “Only one good thing came out of Corona: Sequestered Songwriters. If anything ever saved my life besides crosswalks and allergy tablets, it was this Facebook series. With no live concerts, no festivals, no travel, these were my finest hours of music during those bleak months. I moved into the living rooms of Trey Hensley, Jamie Lin Wilson, Nick Verzosa, Courtney Patton, or Zak Wilkerson and for a few hours I was living with them, their guitars, pianos, stories, their smiles, their flaws, and their moments of genius. I was part of a community again, a conspiratorial circle of friends, a robinsonade, the survivors of a nuclear disaster coming out of the cellars after 28 years and seeing the sun again for the first time. That was Monday night, Sequestered Songwriters.” It’s something that many of us can relate to over the last couple of years and it’s good to see it written down in this way.
The chapter titled ‘Four German Americana Giants’ further serves to remind us how widely this genre of music has spread and it sends you scurrying online to check out the likes of Markus Rill & The Troublemakers and lap steel player, Robert Hasleder, only to discover that the German Americana scene is a very good one indeed!
Above all, what this book is about is learning to take off the blinkers and look at a wider world. Martin Wimmer is to be applauded for a book that really makes you think again about what Americana music is and why it’s more than just the roots music of America. He rightly shows that what draws most of us to this music is a feeling of freedom and the celebration of wide-open spaces and the quality of the songwriting and musicianship that we associate with the music, and that’s not the preserve of one country or culture. This book gives you a whole new list of Americana artists to check out and, in doing so, helps open your ears to some very interesting variations on the theme.
Read this book, because we all need to have our horizons expanded.
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