What Is This Americana Thing Anyway…

Here’s another voyage into the psyche of our writers and contributors in which we interrogate the (often) unfathomable reasons why we are all such junkies for this Americana stuff. This week self-confessed needle dropper Andrew Frolish documents his journey from the unfashionable to the deeply unfashionable (or fashionable to the uber fashionable depending on who you talk to). As a needle dropper we’re not sure if he’s a junkie, a vinyl junkie or just a rubbish seamstress (but we could probably find out).

My taste in music has always been a little different and I’ve always been comfortable with that. When I first started buying records, it was second-hand vinyl from Sheffield’s finest stores: Record Collector and Hitsville. Hitsville – long gone now – was one of my favourite places to be on a Saturday afternoon in town…that distinctive smell: old plastic mixed with old paper. I might have been looking for Black Sabbath, Rainbow, Led Zeppelin, Alice Cooper or Magnum. But I was most excited if I found something by Elf (Ronnie James Dio’s first band) or Steppenwolf. I think the passion for Steppenwolf came from watching my brother’s VHS copy of Easy Rider and loving the idea of that journey across the States, that freedom: “…looking for adventure and whatever comes our way.” Of all those bands from my youth, I think it’s Steppenwolf that transports me most clearly back to my bedroom in the 1980s, dropping the needle and immersing myself in hard rock from across the Atlantic.

Long-term obsessions with Bruce Springsteen and Johnny Cash followed. A friend’s older brother had Springsteen on tape and I immediately fell for the sincerity in the song-writing and detail in the narratives. The lyrics for each song were like little stories to get lost in and I’ve been drawn to strong, poetic lyrics ever since. Johnny Cash covered a couple of Springsteen songs from the Nebraska album and that’s how I fell for him. After that, the series of records he released on the American label was deeply affecting and I listened to them over and over again: timeless, emotional, profound music. Cash led me into country music and after a while I realised that country had taken over from rock and heavy metal.

I never listened to the radio, so I never had any idea what other people were actually listening to. I had to find my own way through music. With the dawn of dial-up internet, I could spend hours finding new music (or rather, music that was new to me). I would read forums on fan websites to find out what other people were listening to or follow endless trails of: “People who bought this also bought…” It helped that I was an insomniac. I had a terrible habit of gambling good money on albums just because I liked the name or the album cover. Believe me, this is a good method – I’ve rarely bought a dud! That was how I found ‘Gold’ by Ryan Adams. His 2004 album, ‘Love is Hell’ is quite possibly my most worn-out CD; it was music to get lost in: my new Johnny Cash. A few years back, I had a subscription to Mojo magazine and fell in love with music from so many singer-songwriters and bands: Beachwood Sparks, Danny Schmidt, Carrie Elkin, Gregory Alan Isakov, Bill Callahan, The War on Drugs, Dawes… a brilliant period of discovery that has since been matched by the Americana UK Daily Digest. Becoming part of the AUK community has been an absolute revelation… I’ve loved reviewing new albums, exploring artists old and new. The opportunity to meet and interview great, thoughtful musicians has been very special. My first interview was with Jarrod Dickenson, one of my favourite singers, who was so gracious and amenable – I’ll always be grateful to him. Since then, I’ve interviewed J.S. Ondara and J.P. Ruggieri, who have both released excellent albums this year. Watching Ondara’s soundcheck while waiting to talk – like a gig performed just for me – was a memory to treasure.

It’s almost impossible to chart a journey into Americana in just ten tracks…and it may not all be Americana… but it’s how I got here, so here goes:

Steppenwolf: “Snowblind Friend”
This is a tale of desperation told with John Kay’s distinctive gruff vocal melody. The song instantly takes me right back in time – in fact I got out the vinyl for a nostalgic play while writing this piece and I still love that Steppenwolf sound.

Townes Van Zandt: “Flyin’ Shoes”
Timeless music with a beautiful vocal and lyrics. This was an early discovery when first exploring the country music.

John Prine: “Sam Stone”
It was easy to fall for the gorgeous vocal, intense lyrics and powerful imagery in any of Prine’s standout songs. There’s an honesty in the storytelling that is rarely matched.

Ryan Adams and The Cardinals: “Meadow Lake Street”
So much has been said about Ryan Adams. I’m sure he has been the gateway to Americana or alt-country for so many Americana UK readers. This is a song that builds and builds, forceful and passionate, with beautifully nostalgic and poetic lyrics. Classic Ryan Adams.

Gregory Alan Isakov: “That Moon Song”
Atmospheric strings complement the lovely, understated vocal – everyone should fall in love with Isakov’s beautiful songs. This is one to lie back and absorb.

Josh Ritter: “Right Moves”
Bright and upbeat, this is a song to lose yourself in and dance to with wonderful lyrics. Ritter’s song writing craft is outstanding.

Danny Schmidt and Carrie Elkin: “Company of Friends”
Beautiful song, beautiful sentiments. I loved Schmidt’s original but this arrangement, with Elkin’s striking vocal, is a song I never tire of listening to.

Jason Isbell: “Cover Me Up”
The incredibly emotional vocal and gorgeous melody hooked me on Isbell.

Roseanne Cash (and Johnny Cash}: “September When It Comes”
Powerful lyrics and imagery in a deeply personal song, complete with Johnny’s vocal, make for a classic Rosanne Cash number. She has such a characterful voice and a fantastic back catalogue to choose from.

Jarrod Dickenson: “Take It From Me”
Taken from ‘Ready the Horses’ album – a modern classic from start to finish. Dickenson is a great storyteller with a warm voice and is superb live.  He was the subject of my first interview for AUK.

1 thought on “What Is This Americana Thing Anyway…”

  1. Can’t argue with that list I’ve been on the same journey with similar role call of artists – my list would have to include Dave Alvin, Rodney Crowell and The Bastard Sons of Johnny Cash

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