Monday, February 17, 2014

Hear Americana Singing

Just before Beatles fatigue set in, I happened across a PBS special aimed at trying to describe how the latest trends in music are evolving into a style known as “Americana.”  While not a rigorous study in ethnomusicology, Nashville 2.0/ The Rise of Americana is a fun showcase of some old legends, new stars and rising newcomers. No one is sure what Americana is exactly but they know it has traces, influences and sounds from country, blues, folk, rock, roots, Cajun, gospel, bluegrass, rockabilly, etc. In other words, a lot of bands, as one observer says, “have no misplaced loyalty to one genre.”

Regardless of definitions and categories, the idea of a big music tent, pitched on the banks of the Cumberland River makes for interesting musical comparisons. The old guard is represented by Buddy Miller and Jim Lauderdale, Emmylou Harris, Roseanne Cash and Billy Bragg who are often talking about new kids they like.  For Buddy it means inviting Jason Isbell and Amanda Shires into his home studio for a recording session.

Some of the bands are already known and honored including The Mavericks, The Avett Brothers, Mumford & Sons, and The Civil Wars. Others were new to me. The Honorable South plays what it calls, “electronic soul rock and roll.” Shovels & Rope are a more traditional folk duo. The Lone Bellow has a wonderful three-part harmony. The Milk Carton Kids are described by Billy Bragg as if “somebody crossed the Louvin Brothers with Simon and Garfunkel.” Two groups demonstrate the melting pot of American music with their personnel alone: The Carolina Chocolate Drops and the Alabama Shakes.

The program pays tribute to Emmylou as the “Godmother” of Americana music, starting with Gram Parsons and tracking her evolution up to her newest collaboration with Rodney Crowell,  on Old Yellow Moon. Richard Thompson gets a similar kudo and his live performance of "1952 Vincent Black Lightning" is a highlight.

Like any survey course in college, the show is frustrating because it tries to cover so much in an hour. The performances seem too short and the experts seem a little pontifical with their history lessons that are pretty obvious to those who follow popular music. You want an entire hour with more than a dozen of the groups as they perform at the Ryman Auditorium or the SXSW festival in Austin. But a sampler broadens your horizons.

What’s in a name?  On another music show on PBS stations, The Sun Studio Sessions, I ran across a band from New Albany, Indiana called Houndmouth. They were asked about the name and explained that when they were recording at home, the barking dogs next door caused them problems. The audio engineer kept saying, “I think we’ll have to do another take, we got a little hound mouth on that one.”

Check your local TV listings for these shows or stream them on