What Is This Americana Thing Anyway…?

The next instalment of our regular feature sees serial funster Rick Bayles tells us what floats his boat and aims to make lots of new friends with his views on Neil Young:

It seems that Jim Reeves may have to answer for in encouraging a few fledgling Americana stirrings in our current crop of writers. My dad was quite a music fan, with an eclectic taste that ranged from the jazz of Art Tatum through to the strident tones of Shirley Bassey via the country crooning of Gentleman Jim. While I never took to Jim’s style of country it obviously laid some seeds that would germinate later in life. I was never much into pop music – I preferred the Stones to the Beatles and the likes of The Small Faces to the Beach Boys; I was always looking for something a little bit different, something with a bit more of an edge in the music I listened to.

I started singing in folk clubs in my teens and spent a lot of time listening to the likes of Bert Jansch, John Martyn, Richard Thompson and Sandy Denny. Also Dylan – obviously – which led to the likes of The Band and The Byrds. Then the flood gates open and it’s The Flying Burrito Brothers, Gram, Emmylou, CS&N (but never Y – great writer and guitarist but I still can’t listen to that voice!), Linda Ronstadt, Souther-Hillman-Furay and The Eagles. Then I started to mix in a little Lynyrd Skynyrd, Tony Joe White and later the likes of The Georgia Satellites and the Kentucky Head Hunters. I was increasingly drawn to the sounds of the southern States.

Not long out of college I worked in tour and production management for a couple of bands, worked on a few festivals and managed to get myself hired to work on the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival one year. I got to live in the French Quarter in New Orleans for six months and that really opened my ears, and my mind, to a lot of new music, listening to bands like The Radiators and the Neville Brothers but also starting to hear Cajun and Zydeco music. Hearing that country music didn’t have to be all about the big Nashville stars – learning about the Bakersville scene and discovering the influence of Buck Owens and Merle Haggard on modern country. Then finding out about the wide range of music coming out of Texas – great blues and blues/rock but also TexMex and Conjunto, the punk country rock of Joe Ely and the laconic folk/rock of James McMurtry…

My head and heart could just explode trying to take it all in, but they didn’t explode because we all have the ability to absorb and digest these great sounds and start to make some sense out of the connections between them. Inevitably, when you put it all together, you find that you’re addicted to that strange genre that we call Americana.

I listen to a lot of different music and have quite eclectic taste but I’m always drawn back to that mix of blues, folk, rock and country. I love the sound of real instruments working together and voices singing great harmonies or growling out a deep blues. I like songs to be dark and just a bit miserable and there’s so much of that in Americana – lots of bemoaning loss and worrying about where the next pay cheque comes from and maybe being just a bit more than worried about the noises coming from the swamp…. all human misery is there!

Just a couple of years ago I discovered Americana UK – how could I have missed it for so long?! Suddenly there’s this whole community of people just as hooked on this strange mish-mash of sounds as I am – and through writing for the site I’ve got to hear even more great music from both new and established artists and it constantly broadens and challenges my perception of what Americana is. I’ve come to realise it’s not just the music, even though that’s the biggest part of it. There is a sense of community – of a group of people who are looking for authenticity and originality and great storytelling along with a bit of attitude and….who knows what else. But if you’re looking for that “je ne sais quoi” odds are you’ll find it in whatever this thing is we call Americana!

Buck Owens: “Streets of Bakersfield” Buck Owens was one of the greats. He helped define the Bakersfield sound – a little rougher, less polished than it’s Nashville cousin and often all the better for it.

The Band: “Up On Cripple Creek” The Band completely blew me away when I first heard them. This is a group that helped define the very concept of Americana – a heady mix of blues, folk, country and rock played by a band that sounded so loose but were one of the tightest units ever; consummate musicians every one of them.

Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris: “Love Hurts” Gram Parsons was a huge talent and probably deserves more credit than anyone for combining country and rock but Emmylou Harris helped him to hone his sound and brought an extra dimension to his music. 

Tony Joe White: “They Caught The Devil And Put Him In Jail In Eduro Arkansas” Tony Joe White is a true original. No one defines that southern sound more than the Swamp Fox himself – a great writer and outstanding musician I could listen to for hours and frequently have done!

Beausoleil: “Parlez-Nous a Boire” I love Cajun and Zydecho music and its influence on Americana. Beausoleil have been around since the mid 1970s and are still going strong. Michael Doucet, the band’s founder and fiddle player is a great champion of the music – and his cousin, Zachary Richard is well worth checking out too.

Joe Ely: “The Road Goes On Forever” Joe Ely pretty much exemplifies Texan music for me. He combines all the elements we expect in Americana music but then throws a little tex/mex spice in there as well and delivers with a lot of attitude.

Steve Earle: “Guitar Town” From the first time I heard this track I knew I was going to be a big Steve Earle fan. I have pretty much every record he’s made and I’ve seen him live more than any other Americana act. He never disappoints and he just seems to get better with every passing year.

James McMurty: “Painting By Numbers” Another Texan but McMurtry draws on folkier, singer/songwriter roots to deliver some of the most coruscating songs you’ll ever hear. Dark, bitter and very twisted.

The Civil Wars: “Barton Hollow” This is a superb slice of Southern Gothic Americana – great story telling. Even if you’re not sure exactly what the story’s about you know it’s seriously bad.

Hannah Aldridge: “Burning Down Birmingham” I only found Hannah because I reviewed her album for Americana-UK. Her music contains everything I love about Americana. She writes great songs and delivers them perfectly.

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