“What Is This Americana Thing Anyway…?” – Martin Johnson

Here we are again folks with another eagerly anticipated contribution to our semi-regular “What Is This…?” feature. This time around Martin Johnson reveals his (what we can only surmise are) hippy roots in the North East of England and the shocking fact that he is not, in fact, an ex-England rugby captain:

While growing up in the North East I had no real sense of the history or influences on the music I was enjoying as the only information came from album sleeves or the weekly music press. The first real light bulb moment I experienced was seeing Ry Cooder perform Woody Guthrie’s ‘Vigilante Man’ on the Old Grey Whistle Test. As I dived into his ’Into The Purple Valley’ album I felt I was entering a lost world. I was aware of the name Cale from Eric Clapton’s cover of his ‘After Midnight’ and his ’Naturally’ album contained another new world of music for me and this time they were all self-composed songs rather than covers. Though the name of the Grateful Dead was well known, their visit to the UK in 1972 as part of their first European Tour raised their profile considerably. I picked up on their ‘Working Man’s Dead’ and ‘American Beauty’ albums, and while I marvelled at the song writing of Jerry Garcia and Robert Hunter, I was also intrigued at the depth of the influence of bluegrass and Bakersfield country on the music.

Moving to London as a student was great as Pub Rock was at its height and Brinsley Schwarz provided many a good night’s entertainment. While they were effectively a British knock-off version of The Band, particularly in their early days, it was clear from the start just how good a songwriter Nick Lowe was. The Flying Burrito Brothers and their double album compilation ‘Close Up The Honky Tonks’ sparked a life long appreciation of Gram Parsons and led to Emmylou Harris. It also demonstrated what an underrated musician and song writer Chris Hillman is. Leon Russell was very big in the seventies and fit the emerging roots music scene well. His ‘Hank Wilson’s Back’ album was a set of straight country songs backed by Nashville studio cats and it was the first time I actually listened to these songs without any prejudice.

While in London I was a frequent visitor to Honest Jon’s and Rock-On record shops. Honest Jon’s was particularly influential due to Phil who managed the roots music section. It was through his stock that I first picked up on bluegrass via the New Grass Revival and their cover of a Leon Russell song. Next was Peter Rowan who is not only a great bluegrass musician having been a Bluegrass Boy with Bill Monroe but also a great songwriter. This led to a whole journey exploring bluegrass – both its roots and newgrass variant. Finally, there was Guy Clark’s first album‘Old No.1’  which was a revelation in terms of its song writing and what could be achieved under the broad category of country music.

Since these formative listening experiences, I have continued to explore what is now called Americana from both a future development and historical context and it has proven to be an unbelievably enjoyable journey.

Ry Cooder: “Vigilante Man”
Probably one of the coolest music videos ever. Anything by Ry is worth a listen.

The Grateful Dead: “Ripple”
The Garcia/Hunter song writing partnership is one of the greatest in the second half of the 20th century and this is possibly their greatest song.

JJ Cale: “Call Me The Breeze”
Pure Tulsa Shuffle and it even has a drum machine in the backing track.

Brinsley Schwarz: “Country Girl”
The first great Nick Lowe song – we just didn’t realise how great he would become.

The Flying Burrito Brothers: “Wheels”
Is this rock or country music? It doesn’t matter as this influenced both.

Leon Russell: “The Window Up Above”
At the time Leon Russell was the biggest grossing rock act in the world and he cut a straight country album in Nashville with the cream of Nashville players and people listened anew at country.

New Grass Revival: “Prince of Peace”
Just young kids influenced by the rock music of the time but with deep southern roots in bluegrass covering a Leon Russell song. It was the start of something new.

Pete Rowan: “The Free Mexican Airforce”
A great song showing its bluegrass and tex mex influences about smuggling dope from Mexico to USA. Not sure Bill Monroe would have approved.

Terry Allen: “Amarillo Highway”
His most high profile song from a true artist in the widest sense, he is not only a musician but also a visual artist.

Guy Clark: “LA Freeway”
A superb song about the challenges of being a struggling artist. Guy’s writing transcended genres.

About Paul Villers 187 Articles
I am a professional curmudgeon. I don't care and neither should you. Buy me gin and we can possibly be friends.
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