Author Says 'Americana' Is Grown-Up Rock & Roll
Music journalist and critic John Milward argues that the definition of "Americana" is so broad that it has become meaningless.
In his new book "Americanaland" from the University of Illinois Press, Milward traces the roots of Americana from the Carter Family and Hank Williams in the 1920s and 30s to Jason Isbell and Brandi Carlisle today, and makes connections between those artists and everyone in between.
He spoke with WGLT’s Jon Norton about the book and his concept of the term Americana.
WGLT: You argue that the Americana Music Association’s definition of Americana is so broad that its almost meaningless. Your definition is a bit more concise.
MILWARD: Americana does include blues, soul, gospel, folk, and bluegrass. Today's Americana is just a grown-up version of rock and roll. Most of the songs have adult themes. The players can be young, but it's not a transitory sort of pop music. It's a brand of pop music that is part of our country culture, part of our rock culture. It's more about quality music than catching the whiff of the moment
Why did you want to dive into where the roots of Americana are?
MILWARD: American music developed sequentially. On one side, you had race records, on another side you had hillbilly records back in the 30s. And then it merged into rhythm and blues, country & western and finally the pop charts in the 50s were taken over by rock and roll. But you look at Elvis, his first Sun Records single was an Arthur “Big Boy” Cruddup blues. That's all right on one side and blue moon of Kentucky, Bill Monroe on the other side. I also argue that things like that, and Buddy Holly and Jerry Lee Lewis in the 50s, a lot of their songs were big hits on both the R&B stations and the pop stations in the country stations.
In a sense, those guys were the ultimate Americana artists because they touched all sorts of genres.
Many fiction writers say they don’t know how their book or story will end until they’ve written it. Did this book take on a different form when it was done than you maybe originally conceived?
MILWARD: It is actually not (laughs) because I kind of knew where we were. And once I had the beginning, what was a challenge and a pleasure was trying to draw connections between a wide variety of artists. For instance, in the first chapter talking about Jimmy Rogers, I quote Steve Earle by saying, “This guy practically invented my job, one guy with a guitar and a song.” And Bob Dylan would similarly talk about what an inspiration Buddy Holly was for him.
I think that's one of the genius parts of this book is those connections you make. Another one was Al Green and was it the wife of Hank Williams?
MILWARD: Miss Audrey! That was his first wife. She was just a fixture, I guess, around Nashville. And I found that in his biography that Miss Audrey … they were drinking champagne. She was playing him country songs. And as you recall, he did some … he did a beautiful Hank Williams … he did “For the Good Time,”. “How Can You Mend a Broken Heart” … all sorts of beautiful country songs interpreted with a Memphis soul background. And it fit perfectly.
When I talked with some of the old blues guys a while back, the Black blues guys from the south, they would tell me they would listen to white country music coming out of Nashville or Memphis. And they loved the old yodelers like Jimmie Rogers and some of those guys.
MILWARD: Even someone like Robert Johnson. He certainly had his own sound, but when you’re out busking on the streets, you’ve got to keep it rolling. And he’ll throw in a more contemporary song or a hit by Jimmie Rodgers. It was Jimmie Rodgers, basically a white blues guy.
Can you share another story or two where there's a lot of overlap in this music that a lot of people might not realize?
MILWARD: I love Buddy and Julie Miller. Years ago, I saw them play at “The Bottom Line” in New York. It turns out the Buddy Miller band in New York City in 1980 was the country band of the moment here. And they didn't record or anything, but they played at the new Lone Star Cafe backing country artists who had come in, as well as doing their own gigs at other clubs. Part of the Buddy Miller Band was Julie they had come up from Austin, Texas, and Larry Campbell, who went on later to seven years playing with Bob Dylan and then with Levon Helm at the end of his life. At certain point, Julie found the Lord and left the band and went off to some Christian organization. And Buddy was left in New York with a ledger full of gigs upcoming. So, he said, “Oh, who is that woman in Austin? Oh, that's right. Shawn Colvin.” So, he brought Shawn Colvin up to New York to sing in the band.
Some months later, Buddy left to go back to find Julie again. And Larry Campbell left the band. Shawn was scratching around for a guitar player and had met a guy named John Leventhal, who is also part of that scene, so he joined the band. He eventually produced Shawn Colvin’s first record and later married Rosanne Cash and produces her records and writes with her. Finally, I think he produced the latest by Sarah Jarosz. So, there's just this intermingling of all these people. And Shawn mentioned at one point she was playing Town Hall in New York, after an album produced by Leventhal and she invited Larry Campbell … and Buddy was in her touring band … Campbell and John Leventhal came to sit in And she just said it was such a pleasure that they'd managed to go all these years still doing what they love, and that none of them are huge stars, but they're intensely talented and enjoy what they do and make great music.
So, these connections just…. particularly the Buddy one, just flourish and go all over the place.
“Americanaland” is available through University of Illinois Press.