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What Is This Americana Thing Anyway?

Nailing down the ten songs that brought me into “this Americana thing” was more of a challenge than I 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.

– Hearing the ‘American Beauty’ album while riding around with my Old Man as a kid is my earliest recollection of hearing music and thinking “Wow . . . that’s different!”
1. Grateful Dead – Friend of the Devil

– The Band was another mainstay of the in-car rotation when I was still a wee one.
2. The Band – The Weight

– All of my exposure to classic country music came from riding around with my Grandfathers. Willie, Waylon, Merle, and Johnny came at me on weekday mornings while riding to school and on the weekends when we’d head out looking for some mischief to get into.
3. Johnny Cash – Folsom Prison Blues

– When I was in middle school, one of my Aunts moved to Louisiana. The Red Stick Ramblers, C. J. Chenier, and Buckwheat Zydeco showed up in my life . . . better lucky than good, as they say.
4. Buckwheat Zydeco – Hey Joe

– Around that same time, my parents went to see Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers in concert. The Del Fuegos and Chris Whitley were the opening acts on that tour. Instead of T-shirts, they brought us home the ‘Living With the Law’ CD.
5. Chris Whitley – Living With The Law

– Yeah, I know, the Pogues seem like a stretch, even with my broad definition of Americana. They were another favorite of my Dad’s . . . and eventually became a favorite of us all. But, only after Mom thought we were old enough to handle some of Shane’s grittier musings.
6. The Pogues – Dirty Old Town

– We definitely had a ‘Stones vs. Beatles’ divide in our house . . . with Mom and my sister on one side and Dad and I on the other. It was more of a friendly rivalry between the Pogues and the Waterboys.
7. The Waterboys – Fisherman’s Blues

– Warren occupied a special place in our house. I still remember calling my sister when I got the news of his passing. I’m pretty sure we were both tearing up by the time we hung up the phone. His last few albums have the sound and feel that we all tend to associate with Americana music, but this one from his early years captures the punk-meets-country vibe as well as anything else out there.
8. Warren Zevon – Play It All Night Long

– 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. His Dad was (and is) an absolute master on anything with strings. The evenings spent in that garage introduced me to a lot of music and even inspired me to get serious about the six-string for the first time. But the best thing, by far, that came out of those sessions was an introduction to John Prine.
9. John Prine – Paradise

– I had always been a fan of Steve Earle’s music. When an unauthorized biography on him came out in 2002, I gobbled it up. Steve Earle turned me on to Townes . . .
10. Townes Van Zandt – To Live is to Fly

Well . . . there they are. I went through school as the chubby kid with odd tastes; these songs propped me up until the growth spurt could get there. I emerged mostly unscathed and armed with a strong sense of what I did and didn’t like to hear. By the time I ran into the Drive-by Truckers, the Old 97’s, Wilco, Son Volt, Lucero and all of the rest: I had already worked up an appetite for what they were serving up. The best part is that I’m still hungry for more and there’s no end in sight . . . today, I think I’ll have some Sarah Shook and the Disarmers with a bit of Joshua T. Pearson for dessert.

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