Where americana came from, where it is and where it is possibly going.
One of the big questions that is frequently asked around AUK Towers is what is Americana? While the question generates plenty of debate, there is never an easy and clear answer that satisfies everyone. Ralph Brookfield had been similarly troubled, so much so, that he has written a book about his journey to look at what americana is in 2021, and his investigation is not limited to the history of American roots music and the centres of Nashville and Austin, but also takes in Europe, the UK, Australia and even Israel. Americana UK’s Martin Johnson caught up with Ralph Brookfield to explore some of his ideas and the discoveries he made that are included in his book ‘On The Trail Of Americana Music’. The genesis of the book was an interesting exercise itself and Brookfield discusses this and the overall influence it had on the structure and flow of the book, and how much Brookfield and the book owe to his publisher, documentary maker Cheryl Robson. Brookfield also shares his views on the current state and future of americana, with particular reference to Mississippi-born and Ireland-based singer-songwriter John Murry. Americana UK reviewed ‘On The Trail Of Americana Music’ and this interview provided a rare opportunity for an author to give direct feedback on an Americana UK review.
How are you, and how did the book launch go?
I’m great, apart from recovering from the book launch, haha. It was more a party for friends and supporters and therefore all the feedback was very positive. I get into a conversation with one gentleman about the definition of this term “roots”, which we hear a lot about, and he was a dub enthusiast and he was talking about the use of that word in Jamaican music, and it obviously meant something slightly different to him. We had some great feedback, and everybody had a fantastic time. I’ve also just seen the review on the Americana UK site and Gordon Sharpe who reviewed certainly read the book. He has also found the key weakness of the book, which is the totally arbitrary nature of who is featured and who isn’t, at least to some extent. It is right that in a pandemic it is often difficult to access people, and you talk to who you can talk to. What I will say is that I tried to pick a selection of people who maybe were both personal to me, and also maybe not in the front rank of celebrity when it comes to that world of music. I tried not to focus too much on the big names, but obviously, you have to include a bit of that, but just try and pick a little selection of people whose music I particularly like. It is all totally subjective as the reviewer right points out, haha. It was a nice review and I enjoyed reading it.
You have had an interesting career which includes being a molecular physicist, software engineer and you also had a technical role in television. Why has music remained a constant in your life?
The way I opened my little talk at the book launch was to say I actually can’t remember a time when I wasn’t totally in love with music. I was in love with music before I could speak, I’m sure. I have always been fascinated and blown away by good music, of any description, and it has followed me all through my life. I love playing music, and music is something that definitely one should be directly involved with, hands-on, rather than just consuming it. I am quite passionate about that. I have certainly done lots of different things in my working life, and I had never written a book about music before, so that was just one more thing I am proud to have done.
What made you want to investigate what americana is?
The story of the book is that my publisher, Cheryl Robson, who is primarily a filmmaker by trade and also a very old friend, and i after a very long period of absence met up in Australia in 2017 for the first time in many years. At the time, she was collecting a huge amount of material for a documentary she was making on americana music, because in 2017 americana was in the public eye, maybe more than it is now, due to the hipster fashion movement. With a documentary filmmaker’s eye, she had made a very successful film about Eel Pie Island just prior to this, and so she had this video archive of interviews, and she wanted to commission a book that would go specifically with that documentary. It was meant to be a nice simple project, and then for one reason and another, her film programme got delayed, and once we went into lockdown we agreed we would make the book into something a bit different from its original concept. We added some historical stuff and made it more of a personal walk through the whole landscape of americana, and hopeful that is how it actually turned out to be. I totally accept it is very personal, haha.
Do you have a particular readership in mind, or was it simply the sort of book you wanted to write?
Yes and no. I would definitely like to see the book sell modestly in The States because if you go to a gig in the USA, you are far more likely to encounter people who are openly passionate about their music, and they just enjoy assimilating anything they can about whatever music it is they love. I am very much hoping that people of that nature would enjoy reading this book. I’m hopeful it will achieve at least a few sales in the USA because I think there is a bigger audience for it there than in other countries. Cheryl, the publisher, is very much an international person herself being originally from Australia, and one of the threads she was very keen on including in the book was looking at how strong the americana gene is in Australian music, how dominant that gene is, and how it leads to quite a few Australian musicians seeking out places like Nashville and Austin to further their careers. Equally, many Australian musicians will go to those places on sabbatical, so to speak, and then come back to Australia and it then enriches the music that they are producing in their home country. She had spent some time interviewing the family of Bill Chambers, who was in the Dead Ringer Band a country band from way back when, and they included Bill’s children Casey and Nash, and Casey is a very successful singer and Nash is also a successful producer in Nashville. There is a strong thread in the book about whether artists need to go to Nashville if you are passionate about this American roots music, do you need to be working there and how important is the Nashville industry to musicians working in other Anglophile countries like Australia and the UK, and so on.
Emily Barker is certainly on a roll in the UK at the moment, isn’t she?
We befriended Emily’s manager, Howard, and their partnership has had tremendous success as a business partnership. I didn’t get to interview Emily myself, and I think the whole Wallander thing brought her to public attention when the theme was picked.
I interviewed her twice, and it was very clear, she sees herself as both Australian and British.
True. All the stuff I have read, all the interviews we got from Howard, were about the UK and very little about Australia.
I’m also interested in your views on the music scene in Ireland which your book covers. Did you interview John Murry?
I did, I got probably three hours of material from John because he can talk for Ireland, he can talk for the US, he can talk for any country he cares to represent, haha. I was expecting people to challenge me on John Murry, and sask why is he in an americana book because he very much ploughs his own furrow. I still think he tips his hat to the roots music of America, and he told me some amazing stories about Othar Turner, the Mississippi Hill Country fife and drum musician. John is very firmly attached to his roots, though I think he is pretty much settled in Kilkenny. A couple of Irish friends came to the book launch, who also know John, and John is in a pretty tough situation because his girlfriend works for Medecins Sans Frontiere and in July she was in Helmand and due to come out for leave, and I’ve pinged John a few times to see how things are going, and he hasn’t been replying of late so I have a feeling things may not be going too well for her because of the situation in Afghanistan. I hope she has managed to get out and everything is OK. When I first spoke to him, I’d read a lot about him and I heard people like Mick Cronin speak about him, and Andy Nolan from the Biblecode Sundays, and they all said there is something unusual about John and you really must talk to him. The first thing I said to him was, “You seem to be a fascinating man.”, and he said, “I kind of wish I wasn’t so fascinating.”, haha, and when I probed him a bit, he talked about Tim Mooney and his time in San Francisco, and I think all the Irish friends of mine who love music always come back to that song ‘Little Colored Balloons’ about being a heroin addict in San Francisco, and connected with his time working with Tim Mooney. Is that americana? Well, I think it is, haha, and that is an example of me sounding off with my own opinion, haha.
Did you have any preconceived ideas before you started the book, and did your views change as you worked through the material?
Absolutely. One of the things I really hadn’t been aware of before I started writing, was how really unfair the streaming revenue system is for musicians. I’d been slightly aware of it, and I’d read a lot of stuff in the press and I’d heard stories from musicians about receiving royalty checks for 0.01 pence for 10,000 streams, or something like that. It was something just bubbling away at the back of my mind, and what happened towards writing the book was that there was a UK Parliamentary Standing Committee on streaming revenue, and they took evidence from people like Nile Rodgers and others, and I waded through quite a lot of this evidence. I wasn’t aware of the way the Spotify algorithm worked in any detail. I’d assumed that if you subscribe to a premium streaming service then the artists that you selected to stream would directly benefit from you streaming their work. For most platforms that turns out not to be true, and it seems the one positive thing that may have come out of the pandemic is that it has caused musicians to reflect on what needs to change in that industry to make it fairer to both the musicians and the labels that own and distribute the work of musicians who are not in that top-flight division like Beyonce and Kanye West. I wouldn’t call it popularity I would call it streaming volume, because the other thing I discovered was that the majority of those streams if you are in that premier league, are not chosen by anyone they are algorithmically played for background music basically. The book has given me a new perspective now on streaming, and while I don’t have any influence myself over the whole process, I will certainly follow developments with interest. I’d like to do something about it, but I don’t know what can be done.
I think the industry is going to have to solve the problem itself because if things don’t change, the streaming companies will eventually have less and less product as new artists will not come through and those that do won’t be able to afford to write and record new music. It is a great publicity tool and makes getting music out very easy, but it does alter an artist’s business model.
It is totally like playing for exposure only when you play live, and the amount of exposure is questionable because, again the way the algorithms work, if you are already generating a large volume of streams you are much more likely to be selected for an automatic playlist than if your numbers and streams are low. How does anyone achieve that kind of volume, well there is a good deal of hiding transactions going on between major labels and streaming services, and there is very little transparency to the musicians as to what a stream is worth to their label and the streaming operator. That is something that really needs to change. As you say, the industry has to find a financial motivation to make it worth musician’s while to do it, and how all that will come about is difficult to predict, but hopefully, it will come.
We touched on the fact it is difficult to define americana in a very precise way, in terms of your book and your own views, do you think there are any general characteristics that you think apply to americana artists, as opposed to a hard definition of the genre?
You can look at it in terms of generalities as to what’s there and not there. What’s there is an acknowledgement musically of music that existed in America immediately prior to the availability of recording technology, so all that music that existed in people’s backyards and in people’s parlours in the days when music was totally a participant activity. That is what I took as my definition of roots music, so if an artist is acknowledging an influence, and that influence is detectable in their music, then that is a good enough definition for me. What they do with that, and where they go is this whole business of The Trail. I was looking at musicians from Israel, musicians from Germany, from Italy and also in The States, what the musicians that come from the indie world have done with americana. There seems to be quite a movement in taking it in the direction of not so much a revival but taking its influences from psychedelic rock. A lot of the stuff I am really enjoying listening to now draws from people like my youthful heroes like Gram Parsons and The Byrds, and so on, and brings it into the 21St Century. John is a kind of an example of that because he is bringing glam rock into the mix. Some of the tracks on his new album ‘The Stars Are God’s Bullet Holes’, the way he presents them visually on video is just glam rock, and it is still americana. I can’t imagine John being embarrassed about anything, haha. He seems to have had so many terrible things happen to him, and so much experience for such a relatively young person, and by comparison to me I have had the most sheltered life you could possibly imagine. When you get to know people like that, they seem to be leading a kind of existence where they are kind of floating above the world that I live in, and looking down from a much bigger perspective on everything. I think that is a great inspiration as an artist, but it can be a curse as well because there is always that tightrope you are walking if you inhabit that world, triumph and disaster.
You mentioned other countries, and there is a lot of commonality with the anglophile countries with English and Irish ballads and folk tunes, but once you start moving to the more European countries, and also places like Israel, this commonality reduces. How did you think the non-anglophile countries deal with americana?
I think each of the countries that I looked at that were right on the fringes so to speak, had a very different connection. The Israel one specifically was linked to the period in the ‘70s when the UK and early American rock was incredibly popular, and it was kind of like building a cultural niche for young people to get involved with that kind of music. It is difficult when you are talking about European countries like Germany and Italy because if you look at how popular music developed in the mid 20th Century in Germany in the early ‘60s, it was in advance of what was going on even in Liverpool, haha. If you think of the famous bands that went to Hamburg, and it wasn’t just the Beatles. All these different countries have their own historical pathways into a strong cultural following for American music or music you can trace to American roots. The other thing I was going to say about absences was that most americana music that I would call American style music, has a marked absence of computer-generated kind of stuff with loops and everything. In other American musical traditions, that are still connected to American roots like rap music, it is very strong. I think most people would say that rap music is not americana, and when you are talking about americana you are talking about people in checked shirts playing banjos, you get bands like Gangstagrass with DJ Rench who is a respected rap musician and producer, and he is using banjos and guys in checked shirts on his records. You can’t generalise about any of this stuff, haha.
Do you think being classed as an americana artist is ultimately career-limiting for an artist?
I think that americana as it was defined a few years ago when Cheryl started on her documentary and there was much more of a kind of tribal feel in the air about americana. I think it has kind of diluted now, in the same way as a lot of other tribal-type traditions are being diluted because of the enormous stack of information that everyone can access. One of the things we did was to look at the audiences at South By South West, in Austin. If you look at the bill of fayre at South By South West you have artists who are known as prime americana artists, alongside artists from a lot of other American music traditions. You have some great rap music for example, and you find that the audiences will crossover quite happily from one gig to another. You will see the same faces in the rap audience as you will see in the americana audience. The lines do seem to be blurring all the time. To answer the question, I would say that this process of not so much dilution but mixing and coss-fertilisation, should make it less of a constraint. It is a tool to use to identify inspirational threads for new music, it makes a good sound-bite to say, “I’m exploring my americana tradition here in this album.”, which is great for journalists and for people just to get a handle on something, but I don’t see it necessarily as a constraint.
This is your first book, are you planning anymore?
I am working on something called ‘Rock’s Diamond Year’ at the moment, which is about the meeting between Mick Jagger and Keith Richards with Brian Jones and Charlie Watts, in March 1962 at the Ealing Club, just around the corner from me. This is a slightly different project, it is going to be a contributed book so we are going to have articles and chapters by people who have special knowledge of different venues that were key in that period in West London. My job is to try and pull it all together, haha, so I’m doing an overview and editorial, and hopefully, it is a smaller project. The other reason I am hoping it is a smaller project and doesn’t go the way this book went in terms of going more and more in-depth, is that it actually needs to be out in March of next year to coincide with the anniversary, haha. You are right, this is the first book that has just had my name on the cover, I have contributed a lot to other books and I’ve also edited other books, but they have all been about science, so far.
I can’t remember, but did The Dustbowl Sinners feature in the book, haha?
They have become friends of mine. One of the things I do is a little bit of promoting, and I book them for quite a few local events, and I love their music and they have some great original songs. Of course, there is always a temptation with really rootsy music in the UK to ham it up somewhat. That is not the impression you get when you see them live, they are a really entertaining band, and they are by no means in the Hayseed Dixie category, but they do take their music with a good sense of humour. They are a visually and musically absolutely fantastic band, and I hope they are going to be able to increase their success because they deserve it.
What are the top 3 tracks, albums or artists on your current playlist?
If you asked me a week ago or in a week’s time it will be different. I was listening this morning to a track by my friend Lisa Mormon who was a music promoter in The States for many years, and she reminded me of Edie Brickell, Paul Simon’s wife. Before that, I was listening to Johnny Winter’s version of ‘Highway 61 Revisited, so I’m going a bit retro this week. Yesterday I also refreshed my memory about a guy I wrote about in the book, called Nero Kane.
I interviewed Nero Kane by email for AUK nearly a year ago.
The first track I heard of his I thought this guy sounds like he should be a Benedictine chorister singing in the Sistine Chapel, he has this beautiful Roman voice, and I call it Roman plainchant. But he sings gothic americana, and I love listening to him. It will change next week, haha. What is more relevant to me is what I am playing at the moment, because when I’m trying to keep myself generally in practice with an instrument, or just keep playing music, I have phases of playing different tunes. The one I’ve been playing most recently that people will know is ‘Hickory Wind’ by Gram Parsons. I think his recording on ‘Grievous Angel’ with Emmylou Harris is just brilliant, and I just play it over and over again. I wouldn’t say I’m obsessed with Gram Parsons, but he does seem to be playing a large part in my musical consciousness at the moment, and when I was writing the book as well.
His spirit is certainly in a lot of other artist’s music. Is there anything you want to say to your UK potential readers?
Buy the book, haha. I will go back to what I said earlier, and just say that I hope the book gets enough of the right kind of publicity so that people like me, who just like music, will enjoy reading it because I think there are bits in there that come from my enthusiasm, and hopefully, that will rub off on a good few people of like minds. I also want to ensure that Cheryl Robson’s contribution to the book is recognised because she got me on this path in the first place, I would also like to mention Al Stewart who is a photographer who took many of the photos that are in the book. He is one of those grassroots guys like me, who is constantly at festivals and gigs when they are on, and since July he has probably been to thirty events or something, which is a lot when you think about it. He just takes such amazing photographs, he took some great ones of me at the book launch and there are nice ones of his in the book. One of my favourites is of Kaia Katar the Canadian banjo player who has this amazing background. Her mother is a type of Canadian Cecil Sharpe or a modern-day Cecil Sharpe, and her father is a refugee from Grenada following the Regan invasion there. She is a banjo virtuoso who writes some amazing things as well. I wanted Al’s photograph of her he took at the Slaughtered Lamb on the cover of the book, but that wasn’t really my decision as I’m not the one who has to sell the books, haha.
Ralph Brookfield’s ‘On The Trail Of Americana’ is out now on Supernova Books