Our popular feature in which the your humble writers spill the beans on their influences, musical roots and record buying habits is back. This week Deputy Editor and man who is averse to foppish hair and synthesisers Jonathan Aird tells us what he does like instead:
“How the hell did I end up here?” is a question I often ask myself, on a wide variety of topics. But let’s confine it for now to Americana, or alt-country,
or roots-rock or….and this isn’t going to be easy at all. Well, fill a pipe, pull up a chair and let’s see if we can’t work our way through this. Although the idea of charting a musical path through the precursors to Americana to identify the ten key influences is a perfect Kobayashi Maru – ten songs is not enough – and so in time-honoured tradition the only way to address it is to, at some point, cheat.
It’s tough when the soundtrack of your teenage years doesn’t reflect where you’re at at all. A little late to really be involved in Punk – so New
Romantics and synth-pop coupled with anodyne soul and the remnant of disco were pretty much what was on offer and there wasn’t enough that really connected within that. Which meant that there was nothing to do, initially, but to look backwards. The Beatles, The Kinks, Simon & Garfunkel – well, this is great, as it’s possible to cherry-pick and leave out all the dross that clutters up a given decade, even the hallowed sixties. There’s a foundation here. And then Dylan. And The Band. And Neil. And Creedence Clearwater Revival. And Springsteen. The Grateful Dead of course. And The Byrds, always The Byrds. And that in particular was a rich source for future listening as The Byrds spawned (in part) Crosby Stills & Nash (and all solo and other permutations thereof), Mannassas, McGuinn’s solo work. And Gene Clark. Couple this in with viewings of seminal films from the golden age of rock movies: ‘Woodstock‘, ‘The Last Waltz‘ (a lifelong admiration for Dr John stems from a single viewing), and ‘Don’t Look Back‘.
Something else was going on though. A fledgeling interest in folk, that was to burn for a brief time with a shameful purity worthy of Ewan MacColl before quickly maturing into a more reasonable and richly rewarding definition of what constitutes that musical genre (cue a new series – what is this folk thing anyway?). There were some mainstream collections out there – thank you Castle Records for your poor quality pressings of back catalogue compilations at a super-budget price, how else would I have found Bert Jansch, John Renbourn, Chris Grooms and so many more? But it wasn’t enough – however flicking through the second-hand folk in the long-gone music department in the basement of Collet’s International Bookshop soon showed what was out there. That Chris Grooms guy, for example, had a whole album of Celtic tinged folk guitar – odd thing for a Texan perhaps, but that’s music for you. I would choose a track from the album, but I can only find a transfer of the whole album on YouTube and I guess that would be cheating. Search for Chris Grooms ‘Sweet Gypsy‘, if you don’t know it then I’d urge you to check it out. And the thing is that these overlapping interests make perfect sense – take the Byrds. McGuinn, Clark and Crosby all had a folk background but they also grooved on the new sound of the Beatles. Chris Hillman had a Bluegrass background prior to taking up the bass for The Byrds. If today you’re building your band on the shoulders of The Byrds then you’ve got Flatt & Scruggs a bit further down in the tower of song.
For me Americana is quite a wide genre which somehow manages to include all of the above as well as more recent artists such as The Decemberists, The National, Anna Tivel, Tift Merritt, Steve Earle, Giant Sand, Tom Petty, Gram Parsons, and so many more. It’s an ever-evolving sound that has at its heart something more than just flash and dance routines. That Alt-Country label is something of an albatross around the neck as it suggests that Americana is just some offshoot of Country music – like Outlaw country or the Nashville sound. That’s tough for me, because in a general way I’d still argue that I don’t like Country. I can admire Dolly Parton, for example, for what she has achieved but I have no intention of ever listening to ‘Jolene‘ if I can help it. Sometimes it is easier to define Americana by what it is not – it isn’t big hat country – the songs aren’t about a combination of pickups, dogs, beer, guns and girls. It isn’t saccharine. It isn’t for line dancing.
There have been many great lists already in this series of influential songs, a couple of my fellow writers had such good lists I almost just took their name off and re-entered their choices under my own name. So, picking through all those caveats from above, what are ten key songs that were early influences in a musical direction and that now shout Americana to me?
Steve Forbert: ‘Goin’ Down to Laurel’ Surprisingly coming out of the CBGB scene, Steve Forbert captured that singer-songwriter feel, and unapologetically slipped a country element onto his albums. The kick-start soundtrack to every disappointing teenaged party. There was also the “rebel” attraction – ‘cos on all those early albums Steve Forbert would sing the word “fuck” just once. How daring! How Punk!
John Stewart: ‘Odin’ So folk was a thing and an early favourite was the album Andy Irvine / Paul Brady: back when Capital Radio was just for Londoners there was a DJ who had the Friday midnight through the early hours of Saturday slot and at about 2AM he’d regularly play either a track from Andy Irvine / Paul Brady (usually ‘Arthur McBride‘) or a track by John Stewart. Back when music was hard to find and pretty expensive it was worth waiting up to foolish o’clock just to hear either of these, but sticking to Americana lets consider John Stewart – what a musical hero. At the heart of the American folk boom, and an early Americana artist with albums like ‘California Bloodlines‘ but I first came across him in his Nineteen-Seventies being ignored phase with albums like ‘Bombs Away Dream Babies‘, ‘Dream Babies Go Hollywood‘ and ‘Blondes‘. With a rare talent for picking album covers almost guaranteed to turn the potential listener away John Stewart had teamed up with Buckingham & Nicks to help out on his albums. The big hit was ‘Gold‘ – which legend has it was the outcome of Stevie Nicks suggesting “This is nice John, but why don’t we record a hit? It’s fun.” Sure is! Here’s one from ‘Dream Babies Go Hollywood‘.
Flatt & Scruggs: ‘Earls Breakdown’ A particular American form of folk is Bluegrass, and the most important constituent by far is the king of all instruments, the banjo. And when you’re talking Bluegrass banjo then you are talking Earl Scruggs. The beautiful sound of ringing banjo played to perfection. They call it Scruggs style for a reason. Earl was also pretty inspirational for really trying to bridge the gap between one generation and the next, bringing credibility to the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s ‘Will the Circle be Unbroken.’ He’s just nothing short of a musical hero, so here’s Earl’s Breakdown.
The Byrds: ‘Eight Miles High’ Folk of course would go on to influence American music through folk/old-timey and country – ‘Streets of Laredo‘ is just ‘The Young Man Cut Down In His Prime‘ with the locations and employments changed. And it influences goes further – there’s a snatch of that song in Dylan’s ‘Where Teardrops Fall‘. Take folk and rock and Dylan and what do you get? The Byrds of course – and particularly McGuinn’s 12-string jangle, Gene Clark’s singing and songwriting, and Crosby – but again the consistent magic is in the original line-up, good as later albums could be. Here’s the time where a mention of ‘Sweetheart of the Rodeo‘ might be expected, but what I really loved initially was the album ‘Fifth Dimension‘. It oozed cool, it sounded great it showed the way to the future.
Bruce Springsteen: ‘State Trooper’ And one more early touchstone – the album that set the template for a new direction in country and rock-influenced singer-songwriters. I was a big fan of his first four albums, however Bruce Springsteen’s stark masterpiece is ‘Nebraska‘. There’s a dark edge that others have gone on to use, there’s despair and there’s the regret of lives lived unfulfilled – and if that’s not Americana then I don’t know what is. Another album that gets revisited on pretty heavy rotation.
Creedence Clearwater Revival: ‘Heard It Through the Grapevine’ Creedence Clearwater Revival were the masters of the jukebox single rock song, bringing together traditional rock and roll, psychedelic elements and plenty of Southern influence. And I loved all that – but songs like ‘Effigy‘ and ‘Ramble-Tamble‘ showed off an experimental approach and the raw ability to maintain a song way beyond five minutes. There’s a direct line to be drawn from Creedence Clearwater Revival’s version of ‘Heard it Through the Grapevine‘ to glorious Americana bands such as The Duke & The King. The best thing about it though? It goes on forever. Perfectly, blissfully, and never-ending.
Dr John & The Band: ‘Such a Night’ As mentioned above, seeing ‘The Last Waltz‘ had a big impact – more than just a rockumentary, this concert movie of The Band’s farewell gig captured an awe-inspiring breadth of artistic endeavour. And featured artists who got only one or two song sets that were enough to inspire a declaration of “Yes! That is it!” Dr John, backed by The Band was one such. ‘Gris-Gris‘ is a superb album, but there’s an infectious joy to this rendition of ‘Such a Night‘.
Neil Young: ‘Like an Inca’ There’s much to dislike about ‘Trans‘ – even when one knows just why Neil Young was moved to record the electronic songs that make up the majority of the album that just leaves it as a mostly terrible album made for an understandable reason. However the opening and especially the closing songs go some way to redeem it. ‘Like an Inca‘ is the perfect encapsulation in music of any number of early to mid-seventies Marvel comics scripted and drawn by Jack Kirby which were thrillingly in thrall to the Erich Von Däniken view of the nations of Central and Southern America as originally ruled by Alien Space Gods: “said the Condor to the praying mantis, we’re going to lose this place just like we lost Atlantis.”
The Long Ryders: ‘Ivory Tower’ Finally things came good again music-wise in the 1980s with the emergence of the Paisley Underground bands. At last some cool guitar bands that could rival their progenitors – The Dream Syndicate, Green on Red, and catching the Long Ryders live was just a phenomenal influence on future listening.
Bob Dylan: ‘Like a Rolling Stone’ Well, and now there’s time for just one more itsy-bitsy tune. No room for Joni or Tom’s Petty, Waits and Russell. No Van Morisson either. And of course nothing from more recent years – no Pharis and Jason Romero, no Quiet American, no Handsome Family or Josh Ritter amongst dozens of others. As someone once said “Ten songs is not enough“. But it would be insane not to feature Dylan. How about the reaction to the most important heckle in the history of rock music? It’s Bob Dylan, and it’s (most of) The Band – “play Fucking loud“.