Book Review: Ralph Brookfield “On the Trail of Americana Music”

Supernova Books, 2021

A laudable stab at the difficult task of grasping the many-headed beast that is Americana Music.

Author Ralph Brookfield trained as a molecular physicist worked as a copy editor, software engineer, freelance writer, ran a software business, and was a director of technology in the digital television industry. Since 2012 he has pursued his muse as a tutor, writer, and amateur musician. He is a founder member of the Hanwell ukulele group in West London. Something which, depending on your view of that instrument, may or not make you thankful.

His book is described as being, ‘Based on numerous interviews with leading musicians and music industry professionals … explores the illusive genre and movement that is Americana…. its historical roots in country folk and other rebel music.

Anyone who can identify that trail accurately and reach a conclusion deserves a mention and it is something that occupies the entire AUK brain’s trust on a regular basis. You may notice it in the various apologia, regularly offered in album reviews, as to how genre-specific particular offerings may be. Brookfield’s interest in Americana,

Stems from many years of sessions with other grass-roots musicians in local bars and other venues in London’ He believes that, ‘Americana music remains closer than many contemporary musical cultures to the mature human emotions of relationship and family, by virtue of its individuality and honesty’. 

Honesty is a word I see cropping up on a regular basis in terms of this music – be it the presence or lack of it. There is no known or reliable honesty meter but maybe it is best just to go with it for the present – the propositions about mature human relations and family are more easily digested. 

The opening chapter offers a potted history and a snapshot of part of a bigger industry set apart to some degree by its diversity and less obvious commerciality. Interviewee Jed Hilly, executive director of the Americana Music Association (AMA) which came into being in 1999, offers the following interesting thoughts about the differences between traditional country and the newer manifestations,

‘Ansel Adams was not engaged to take photographs for real estate brochures … country songwriters are hired by labels to write hits. An Americana artist writes a song to tell a story’. 

Hilly’s interview is certainly one of the more interesting from a seemingly thoughtful man who is also in the know. To point out the diversity of the genre he lists some of the artists featured in the 2010 AMA AmericanaFest; Candi Staton, Dr. John, Booker T, and Buddy Guy, its probably true to say they are not many peoples obvious choices. His interview charts the growth of the AMA as a reaction to the reduction in radio station ownership wherein, as he sees it, ten companies now control the airwaves. Allied to this was the phenomenon of well-known artists being dropped by major labels – the likes of Joe Ely, Emmylou Harris, and Dwight Yoakam. It seems there was a gap to be filled and a case to be made.

Brookfield suggests that, ‘Roots Music in the context of Americana is music that existed before the advent of commercial recording’. He points to a key moment in 1969 when Merle Haggard’s, ‘Okie from Muskogee’, was released amid the ongoing conservatism of mainstream country and the subsequent political polarisation of Republican conservatism and Democratic liberalism. None of this is perhaps new but it is an interesting read and the role of Tex Ritter, described as a failed politician, comes into focus. There is little doubt about where Brookfield’s political sympathies lie and Americana could be seen as an almost inevitable response to the declared political bent of the mainstream (amplified and focussed by the cold war) which was of no interest to a whole new generation of fans and artists. Americana could thus be seen as, ‘country music for Democrats’.   

Brookfield examines the roots of the song, ‘The Streets of Laredo’, which he traces back to a traditional song, ‘The Unfortunate Rake’, first heard of in late 17th century Dublin. It seems that the one lifts phrases and lines wholesale from the other. American music has many roots and among them are clearly those from Europe. He considers the careers and contributions of Marty Robbins, Link Wray and Chuck Berry as artists who bring Native American / First Nation sensibilities to bear. He further considers the influence of Hip Hop and the development of streaming (and its various effects both positive and negative) and Internet Radio. Not quite all of human life therein, but certainly a wide range of thoughts and views regarding where from, where, and where to? In many ways, this is the most engaging part of the book and Hilly’s observations as a key player are interesting.

The second considers different strands in American Americana. No surprise then that the Carter family feature along with the first recordings which the author dates to 1927. The history advances through the advent of radio masts that could cover huge areas, the depression, cinema, singing cowboys, the Grand Old Opry, the Bakersfield and Nashville sounds, Dylan, ‘Outlaws’, the rise of Austin as a force all the way through to ‘Cosmic American Music’. Artistically a course is traced through the likes of Gram Parsons, Lucinda Williams, Gillian Welch, the impact of, ‘O Brother Where Art Thou’, and modernists like Sturgill Simpson. John Prine reminds us that Americana is the ‘only genre with more artists than fans’! Well, it made me smile. Good as this section is there is a tendency to forsake a linear narrative and move backward and forward in a slightly confusing fashion.

The third chapter covers the Americana scene today including such as Chris Stapleton, Brandi Carlile, Calexico, and Billy Strings. The importance of Bob Boilen and his Tiny Desk Concerts is stressed and there is an interview with Aaron Vance a musician described as being of African American heritage. Although this chapter is not as well focussed as the openers Brookfield does offer this thoughtful final summary,

The development of the Americana music family in the US over the last three decades reflects all the most positive aspects of the evolution of US culture in the same period: towards gender and racial equality, liberal capitalism, and a sensitive analysis of social issues including substance abuse, domestic abuse and mental health. Despite the retrograde cultural pressures on the US of the last five years, the spirit guiding Americana music has survived, even unto the pandemic’.

The next five chapters cover the Americana scene in Australia, Britain, Ireland, Canada, along with European and, ‘other offshoots’. The extent of the Americana scene in each country is rather reflected in the content and potential reader interest apparent in each chapter. There are some that are brief and at times seem to be little more than a list of names. The geographical and population difficulties in Australia are made clear. Bob Harris gets a strong mention as the influence he surely is in the UK and Brookfield takes the story back to Shirley Collins, Alan Lomax, Peggy Seeger and Ewan McColl.

Who gets a shout and who doesn’t is always contentious but the inclusion of Elvis Costello, although pretty well argued, in the chapter on Ireland at the expense of say the Pogues, Horslips (incorrectly spelled as Horselips at one stage), or even Christy Moore is a little puzzling. Interest seems to be focussed on Costello’s infatuation with Pogues bassist Cait O’Riordan rather than the band itself which is mentioned elsewhere only as an adjunct to a piece on Kirsty McColl. There’s considerable mention of Costello’s father Ross McManus which seems unnecessary. Bearing those caveats in mind the Irish chapter is one of the most interesting including the story of the Mulloy brothers who were new to me and apparently rivaled the Clancy brothers in their impact. You may also enjoy the account of Jason Isbell calling out Morrison’s ridiculous comments about Covid.

In the chapter on Canada there is no mention of the tried and trusted – Cohen, Lightfoot, Mitchell, Lang, Sexsmith, or even Neil Young – although we do get the McGarrigle sisters and Buffy Sainte-Marie both of which are of a similar era. In the British section Robert Plant and Mumford and Son are given prominence but no real mention, for instance, of what came out of the whole Fairport Convention / Pentangle axis. For all that Plant has done post Led Zeppelin you might wonder whether he would fit if it were not for the involvement of Alison Krauss – is he not essentially now a world music practitioner?

Whatever the rights and wrongs of inclusion it does seem at times a little random and perhaps it was sometimes a case of who was available to speak to rather than who should be spoken to – and on that basis, I wonder whether Israel really merits a mention?

The closing chapter considers the role of women and Brookfield offers one of his helpful and insightful summaries

From grassroots to major labels, women have played a key role in the development of Americana music since Sara and Maybelle Carter first stepped up to the microphone in 1927. Women like the Carters, Dolly Parton, Emmylou Harris, Rosanne Cash, and Lucinda Williams continue to offer strong role models to today’s female members of the industry, blazing a trail that sings of women’s lives, loves, trials and tribulations, with love, but devoid of sugar coating’.

Back to Jed Hilly, such a key figure, who Brookfield tells us,

Was proud to announce that all of 2019’s AMA award nominees for Best Artist were female’. 

If for no other reason, this book is worth it’s salt on the basis that finally it has recognised (and producer Lewis Merenstein provides the telling quote) one of the unrecognised truths regarding, ‘Astral Weeks’, namely the marvelous playing of bassist Richard Davis,

‘Richard was the soul of the album, Richard was the heart and beat of it, which I knew he would be’.

Finally, the truth is out.

In a way that little anecdote sums up the book inasmuch as it is a volume of varied parts and something of a curate’s egg. The chapters on the history and strands of Americana in America make good reading as do the chapters on Ireland, and the role of women. Perhaps not surprisingly the interest in the other chapters diminishes in proportion to the nature and size of the Americana ‘scene’ found in each country. I did admire his reasoned thoughts on Keith Urban (seemingly someone subject to a degree of derision) and where he sits in the musical cosmos. There are a good number of black and white photographs in the book although some are not of the highest quality. One real bonus is a huge list of what are called endnotes – what might also be called references (including a couple regarding AUK) whereby you can find all manner of information and interviews.  Many are to be found on the internet – there are 331 in total so that could give plenty of reading.  

Brookfield finishes the book with some brief words on the future, which he sees might take us eventually to the land of Cosmic American Music as described by Gram Parsons. Presently he identifies a retro movement as exemplified by Pokey le Farge. He also recognises Kasey Chambers’s work with native Australians, Psychedelic influences, and the work of Gangstagrass and the Alabama 3.

Americana remains a very rich stew!

About Gordon Sharpe 117 Articles
Retired music fan longing to get back to the Lakes and hoping to visit Scotland before much longer - somehow South Cheshire just doesn't cut it. Still seeking the grail in terms of a convincing description of what Americana really is but really enjoying the search. And still wondering when Kenny Rogers will get his just deserts
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Martin Johnson

Regular readers of Americana UK may have noticed we have increased the number of books that we are reviewing. As part of this trend, we will soon be publishing an interview with Ralph Brookfield where he talks about his motivation and research for “On The Trail Of Americana Music”.

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