What Is This Americana Thing Anyway…?

Our occasional feature on the whys and wherefores of Americana is back – this time featuring prolific writer and former metal fiend turned Gram Parson aficionado Mark Underwood. He once upon a time used to write for Music Week don’t you know (we didn’t).

I’ve been fanatical about music pretty much my entire life. The first single I ever bought was ‘Hip Hip Hooray’ by the Troggs in 1968. An interest in Reg Presley was soon replaced by one in Elvis, although the very first albums I purchased with my own pocket money were ‘24 Carat Purple‘ by Deep Purple and ‘Don’t Shoot Me I’m Only the Piano Player‘ by Elton John – both of which I’d be happy to listen to today.

Neither of my parents played musical instruments although they were consumers of music, especially my Dad. Music was always a feature at home growing up. My father had fairly eclectic tastes: Roger Miller, Don Williams, Irish rebel music, Alf Garnett singing songs of World War 1 – while Frank Sinatra and Tony Bennett were regular visitors to the turntable at our house – usually on a Sunday afternoon when drink had been taken. Between times, I found occasional 7″ singles hanging around at home such as ‘The Universal Soldier’ by Donovan which made an impact. Although my mother wasn’t as much of a music fan as my Dad, one of my earliest and fondest memories is when I was about 4 years old, dancing around the house with her to ‘These Boots Were Made For Walking’ by Nancy Sinatra.

My Dad was a journalist and broadcaster and at one point in my early teens he managed to get me the opportunity to review singles for a publication called ‘Music Week’. But sadly, I had neither the gumption nor the discipline to stick with it. Much of the rest of my teens was consumed by a huge interest in rock and metal – I lived through the era of the New Wave of British Heavy Metal and what would be termed classic rock nowadays. At school we all used to follow any recommendations by Geoff Barton of the weekly ‘Sounds’ music paper, which used to do the rounds of friends in the sixth form common room. There’s still barely a heavy rock or metal act that I didn’t see during the 1970s and 1980s and I’d still rank some of these shows – particularly AC/DC with Bon Scott on the Highway to Hell tour at Hammersmith Odeon in 1979, Van Halen at the Rainbow in Finsbury Park in 1978, Rory Gallagher at the Reading festival in 1980 and the legendary Slade appearance at Reading in 1982 – as some of the greatest performances I’ve even seen. Other friends were also into new wave and punk so a love of heavy rock music didn’t preclude an interest in bands like the Jam, the Pistols and the Clash. I was fortunate enough to go to both the Anti-Nazi League rallies in 1978. I was 15 at the time of the first one which featured The Clash, Tom Robinson Band, X-Ray Spex, and Steel Pulse. Sadly, the need for a similar movement feels even greater nowadays. We’ve come full circle once again.

In the same way that ‘Sounds’ and the bands it featured had a big impact on me so too was ‘Uncut’ magazine hugely influential particularly with its accompanying CDs such as ‘Sounds of the New West’ and its regular features on alt-country acts.

My interest in alt-country music inevitably resulted in an infatuation with Gram Parsons which ‘Uncut’ also had a lot to do with. As with so many other people, Neil Young proved something of a “gateway drug” where Americana and roots-based music more generally was concerned. After I graduated from Hull University in 1985 I went to live in the US for about a year and was fortunate enough to see a number of acts at Red Rocks amphitheatre in the Colorado desert, including Don Henley and UB40. The standout performance, though, was Neil Young and the International Harvesters on his ‘Old Ways’ tour. A truly memorable experience.

In terms of music interests nowadays I run to anything other than what might be termed pop and mainstream country but I’ve always been fanatical about great lyrics and storytelling in music. My choices below largely reflect those acts who proved influential in getting me into the Americana scene.

The Byrds: “One Hundred Years from Now”
Gram Parsons was only with The Byrds for one album…but what an album

Neil Young: “Cowgirl In The Sand”
With so many Neil Young songs out there it’s hard to single one out but this one is a true classic

The Band: “It Makes No Difference”
Hard to think of a song I love more than this. Brilliant vocal from Rick Danko

The Flying Burrito Brothers: “Hot Burrito Number 1”
The album Gilded Palace of sin is still one of the most important albums in the americana canon

Guy Clark: “LA Freeway”
This song perfectly captures the restless spirit of anyone wishing to escape to pastures new

Gene Clark: “From A Silver Phial”
This song and the album it’s from sank without a trace on its original release but has gained much more appreciation in recent years. Haunting and beautiful. With special thanks to Indigo Mariana of the Gene-Clark.com website for all her hard efforts to get Gene inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame

Gram Parsons: “$1000 Wedding”
There was a time when I listened to little other than Gram Parsons and this is one of his best

Whiskeytown: “Dancing with The Women at The Bar”
Poignant and elegiac – perfect late night listening

Son Volt: “Windfall”
Brilliantly captures what is so good about Jay Farrar. Yearning melody, soulful vocal and wistful lyricism

Ryan Adams: “Come Pick Me Up”
Regardless of where he’s at now ‘Heartbreaker’ is still a faultless album

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