What Is This Americana Thing Anyway…?

More of our popular feature “What Is This…?” now folks. This time US based writer Steven Rafferty spills the beans on his big man’s old console or even his system’s console big man or even his old man’s console system (big). Whatever, we are fairly sure that pedestals are involved and he was a one time bassist. To find out why read on…

Nailing down the ten songs that brought me into “this Americana thing” was more of a challenge than I had anticipated. Very early on I realized that the reason I was fretting about getting the ten songs “right” is that the music means so much to me. It wasn’t long after that when I remembered that the music means just as much to each of you. As if I needed the added pressure.

I was blessed to grow up in a household that put music on a pedestal. It wasn’t uncommon for there to be four different albums playing under our roof at the same time, or for the Old Man’s big console system to share our tastes with the rest of the block. By the time I started to venture out into the world on my own, there were two things about how I listened to and appreciated music that helped me filter all of the music that I would discover on my own. There was an innate distrust of ‘popularity’ as a reason for listening to a band: that had been engraved onto my subconscious by my family. And, there was an almost unyielding curiosity. I wanted to hear everything I hadn’t already heard . . . at least once.

So, how does this help with the matters at hand? How does any of this answer the question, what is Americana? Or, for that matter, how does this explain my particular love for it?

For starters, I should confess that I am in the cast-a-wide-net camp when it comes to describing what Americana is or isn’t. To me, it is a term that relates more to an attitude than a sound. It has to do with how artists regard the history and tradition of popular and folk music. It has to do with how they approach their craft and how they regard their audiences. If I had to pick a single term to identify that attitude it would be “respect”. When artists respect the tradition, the material, themselves and their audiences . . . you get Americana music. When they worry about inventing something new, or major label deals, or the number of downloads a song gets . . . you get . . . something else.

The ten songs that I put on my list reflect that broad definition. What they all have in common is that they jumped out at me as I started thinking about the music that I listened to with my family and friends while I was growing up. These ones are tougher than the rest: they’re the ones that wouldn’t be stuffed back into the Pandora’s box that I opened. They’re like the “listening lessons” that I immediately remembered having taken as soon as my thoughts turned that way. They’re the keys that opened up the doors to all of the great stuff we follow here. They’re the training wheels for my Americana ears.

The Grateful Dead: “Friend of the Devil”
Hearing “American Beauty” while riding around with my old man is my earlest recollection of listening to music and thinking “Wow – that’s different”

The Band: “The Weight”
Another mainstay of the ‘in-car rotation’.

Johnny Cash: “Folsom Prison Blues”
All of my exposure to classic country came from riding around with my grandfathers. It all came at me on weekday mornings going to school. On the weekends we haead out looking ofr some mischeif to get into…

Buckwheat Zydeco: “Hey Joe”
When in middle school one of my aunts moved to Louisiana. And then Buckwheat Zydeco moved into my life. Better lucky than good as they say…

Chris Whitely: “Living With The Law”
At about the same time of my aunt’s move my parents went to see Tom Petty. They brought home his cd…

The Pogues: “Dirty Old Town”
I know, the Pogues seem like a stretch, even with my broad definition of Americana. They were another favourite of my Dad’s . . . and eventually became a favourite of us all.

The Waterboys: “Fisherman’s Blues”
We definitely had a Stones v Beatles rivalry in our house – mum and my sister on one side and dad and I on the other. It was definitely a friendlier rivalry between The Waterboys and The Pogues.

Warren Zevon: “Play It All Night Long”
Warren held a special place in our house. This one from his early years captures the punk-meets-country vibe as anything else.

John Prine: “Paradise”
I played bass guitar in bands while I was in high school. Not long after I went away to college I started going to ‘pickin’ sessions that were held in the garage of one of my older friends from high school.  The evenings spent in that garage introduced me to a lot of music. But the best thing by far that came out of those sessions was an introduction to John Prine.

Townes Van Zandt: “To Live Is To Fly”
I’ve always been a fan of Steve Earle and Steve turned me onto Townes…so…

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