BEYOND THE VALLEY OF AMERICANA: Tribute Albums Roundup
BY STEVEN ROSEN
In a Mojo article, Sylvie Simmons noted that “Americana artists seem abnormally drawn to tribute albums.” She didn’t go on to explain why, but here’s a possibility:
Americana is a synthetic term for a jumble of “authentic” musical styles (if you buy the notion that any kind of recorded music can be more authentic than another) that by the early 1990s were hurting in the commercial marketplace they once dominated.
One reason is that the artists were getting too old for the youth-oriented radio formats that dominated record sales. Another was that younger music lovers favored new styles – grunge, rap, Garth Brooks-style arena-friendly country, Whitney Houston-style operatic pop – that sounded either too harsh or too slick to those who wanted new music to still show the roots of the rock ‘n’ roll they liked. Those roots included rockabilly, blues, soul, workingman’s (and woman’s) country, folk troubadours, and especially the post-Dylan singer-songwriters.
“Americana” became the catchy branding term favored by everyone – musicians and fans – who wanted such roots music to stay in the ballgame. It’s been a remarkable success story – there are more younger earnest singer-songwriters now than ever, while the older musicians are able to extend their career relevancy well into their fifties, sixties and beyond. Some have even established their careers in their fifties and sixties. Even this very magazine hopped on the bandwagon blurted (!) the term from the cover of our latest issue, #14, to announce our multi-band feature covering the diverse likes of Jason Isbell, Amanda Shires, Gov’t Mule, Barrence Whitfield, Kenny Roby and Sarah Lee Guthrie & Johnny Irion.
And part of that success has come from attaching the “Americana” term, via tribute albums, to lot of artists/musical styles you wouldn’t think belong. It’s made Americana such a big umbrella there’s seemingly room for everyone. And let’s face it; it’s also an opportunity for Americana’s many journeymen (and women) to get some exposure.
***Room for almost everyone. Let Us In: Americana – the Music of Paul McCartney…For Linda is a good example of going one artist too far with the gimmick. It’s a bad idea for a good cause – all proceeds benefit www.thewomenandcancerfund.org.
Americana implies some kind of realism – some kind of core toughness, soulfulness or lack of pretension – to the material. And as a solo artist, McCartney best described his catalogue as “silly love songs.” One might also call his post-Beatles rockers as “catchy musical confections,” which have their place in the pantheon of pop but probably not alongside the Band, Townes Van Zandt, Lucinda Williams or other Americana role models.
It doesn’t do much for McCartney or Rodney Crowell for Crowell to prowl around the airy “Every Night” as if it has shadowy depth. And if Ed Snodderly was hoping this album would be a good way to introduce his down-home country voice (and producer Phil Madeira’s fine slide guitar) to a new audience, he maybe shouldn’t have chosen “Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey.”
Will Hoge is a fine singer/songwriter, one whose songs have the gruff, rough-edged truthfulness to make you stop and listen. But here he tackles “Band on the Run” – definitely not an Americana candidate with such doggerel-style lyrics as “the jailor man and Sailor Sam, were searching everyone for the band on the run.”
One exception to the miscalculations is Ketch Secor’s (of Old Crow Medicine Show) inspired reinvention of “Give Ireland Back to the Irish,” which in the hands of McCartney’s Wings came off as cute and bouncy with some clumsy guitar work. Secor, with his committed and expressive singing and fine banjo and fiddle work, turns it into the folk-protest song it was meant to be, although he does have to struggle with one verse’s lack of musicality. And Jim Hoke’s pennywhistle on the track is a pleasure to hear.
One suspects that many Americana artists approached for this project just couldn’t find a way to interpret the strained songwriting of McCartney hits like “Comin’ Up,” “Live and Let Live,” “Say Say Say” or “Hi, Hi, Hi” and just said “no, no, no.” So the album lacks those solo hits and has eight Beatles tracks. The Beatles’ superior songwriting has long proved itself adaptable to many arrangement styles, so this does work better than solo McCartney songs. But does the world need more straightforward, heartfelt versions of “Yesterday” (Matrica Berg) or “Let It Be” (a female ensemble, including the McCrary Sisters and Allison Moorer)?
Bruce Cockburn’s tart plaintive voice, always balancing sorrow and regret with shades of anger, does add darkness to “Fool on the Hill.” And Ollabelle’s gospel arrangement of “Get Back” is fresh. But overall, this tribute album just makes the case that McCartney is not an Americana artist.
Reviver Music; www.revivermusic.com
On the other hand, while not without faults, You Don’t Know Me: Rediscovering Eddy Arnold is a perfect example of how Americana – especially its cowpunk subdivision – can really help an out-of-favor country artist get his groove back.
Arnold, who died in 2008 at age 89, was one of the crooners who ushered in the age of smooth Nashville countrypolitan with an enviable streak of hits in the 1950s and 1960s, including “Make the World Go Away,” “What’s He Doing in My World,” and “Turn the World Around.” (He was a “worldly” presence in country music.)
That’s not the Nashville style most revered these days – Americana favors something with more bite while commercial country favors banal tailgate-party-friendly arena-rock wannabes. But Arnold’s songs, some of which he helped write, were first-rate – all they need is a little more twang or scruffiness to be relevant today.
And he gets that treatment, mostly to good results, on You Don’t Know Me’s 19 songs, some recorded at the RCA Historic Studio B that Arnold often called home. The project is the result of an odd-couple partnership between Arnold’s grandson, musician Shannon Pollard, and former Dead Boy punkster Cheetah Chrome, now a Nashville resident. (Also involved as co-producer with Chrome is music professor Don Cusic; go here to read the recent BLURT interview with Chrome, by the way.)
It starts with a triumph, Alejandro Escovedo’s bitter yet swaggering “It’s a Sin,” and continues on with Bobby Bare Jr.’s tough take on “Make the World Go Away,” Mary Gauthier’s intimately drawling and slightly contemptuous version of “You Don’t Know Me” (with Ralph Carney’s teasing clarinet), and Jason Ringenberg’s rousing, shouting, piano-pounding “Texarkana Baby.” The latter could fit on a Jerry Lee Lewis tribute.
Chrome, his singing voice more a groan than a croon, gives himself one of the album’s finest songs, “What Is Life Without Love.” It is given a swinging Dixieland-band horn arrangement from Carney that slowly pushes and challenges Chrome’s voice and guitar to greater heights. It’s as impressive as anything he’s done as a solo artist.
His pal, New York Doll Sylvain Sylvain, is positively jaunty with his quasi-vaudevillian take on the good-natured “That Do Make It Nice.” It features a nice whistling part, too.
There are more fine cuts – including Lambchop’s Kurt Wagner’s droll, recitative interpretation of “Jim, I Wore a Tie Today,” Frank Black’s sobering “Don’t Rob Another Man’s Castle,” and Mandy Barnett’s sensuously becalming, ghost-of-Patsy-Cline version of “How’s the World Treating You.”
There are also a couple strange choices. Peter Noone, maybe hoping for a future Americana Does Herman’s Hermits tribute album if he helps out on this, does a competent but undistinguished “Something Old, Something New, Something Borrowed, Something Blue.” And while Chrome and Jason & the Scorchers’ Warner E. Hodges create sparks with their guitar work on Bebe Buell’s “I’ll Hold You in My Heart,” singing is really hard for her and it shows.
Still, if there’s ever a Tribute Album Olympics, where each city enters the best such record to be produced by its music community, this would be a worthy entry from Nashville.
This feature began by referring to “Americana” as a synthetic term, which is true in the contemporary meaning of the term. But historically, some music is organically Americana because it just is. It’s part of our nation’s DNA. Songs from the Civil War era qualify, certainly – painfully so. But do they still have enough life, enough juice, to appeal to lovers of today’s Americana music?
Randall Poster, whose outstanding work as co-producer/music supervisor for the soundtrack to Todd Haynes’ I’m Not There resulted in the best Dylan-covers album ever, attempts a try on the two-disc, 32-song Divided & United: The Songs of the Civil War. He has O Brother Where Art Thou ambitions, and there are O Brother soundtrack participants here, including its creator, T Bone Burnett, himself.
Poster has rounded up all sorts of country, bluegrass and folk artists for his project, from the legendary traditionalists (Loretta Lynn, Dolly Parton, Ralph Stanley, the late Cowboy Jack Clement) to rock-influenced alt-country and alt-folk figures (Shovels & Rope, Pokey Lafarge, Karen Elson).
Poster also has good connections with the conceptualist roots-music cognoscenti – Steve Earle, Burnett, Joe Henry also contribute. And he got the virtuoso banjoist Bryan Sutton to assemble appropriate historic songs and take the lead in performing several (“Hell’s Broke Loose in Georgia,” “Battle Cry of Freedom”).
This is meant to both remember the Civil War’s 150th anniversary and also be infused with today’s concerns. So there are songs about both Union and Confederate soldiers, as well as songs about the emancipation of slaves, the hardships faced by civilians and the political nuances of the war years.
You can actually learn a lot from the songs – “Just Before the Battle, Mother/Farewell, Mother,” which features Steve Earle and Dirk Powell sounding like hard-bitten Shane MacGowan, references as “traitors” the Northern Copperheads who were anti-war.
In the wake of 12 Years a Slave and the horrors of slavery it depicts, I’m not sure this inclusive approach has the impact it might have had even just a few months ago. It’s hard to feel equal empathy for everyone involved, to see both sides as weary victims of war’s cruelty, when you know what the Confederates were fighting for.
However, you can put such thoughts aside when a master vocalist like Jamey Johnson – his deep, pining voice not just grave but seeming to speak from the grave – turns the Southern Appalachian folk song “Rebel Soldier” into a melancholy and chilling lament. There’s no finer country singer right now, no one so in touch with the lonesomeness that’s part of being human. He makes you feel his subject’s tragedy.
One wants all the songs here to hit as hard and shake us up like those two. But there are times – Chris Hillman on “Hard Times,” Ricky Skaggs on “Two Soldiers,” Sam Amidon on “Wildwood Flower,” Vince Gill singing “Dear Old Flag,” Chris Thile and Michael Daves on the bluegrassy “Richmond Is a Hard Road to Travel” – when Divided & United veers toward being a pretty-sounding period piece. And at those points, it starts to lull.
Maybe their voices are just too nice for this project. It’s the shopworn but emotion-soaked voices that deliver many of the project’s peak moments. Loretta Lynn’s “Take Your Gun and Go, John,” an 1862 song about a woman encouraging her husband to join the Union Army, has added resonance from the fact she is from Kentucky, a state wracked by divisiveness during the war. “Tenting on the Old Campground,” an 1864 folk song for enlisted Union soldiers that is both impassioned and anti-war, is acoustic but benefits from John Doe’s knowledge of rock ‘n’ roll vocal dynamics. At its best, it ignites spirits like Phil Ochs at a political rally.
Taj Mahal’s “Down by the Riverside” shows the old bluesman still has a lot of life left in his weathered voice. Ralph Stanley’s “The Vacant Chair,” written in 1861 as a memorial to a Massachusetts soldier, is uniting in the spirit of “Will the Circle Be Unbroken.” Joe Henry’s “Aura Lee,” an 1861 minstrel song, has a relaxed pastoral gentleness that would do John Hartford proud.
And T Bone Burnett’s dramatic, almost avant-garde arrangement of “The Battle on Antietam” – about two brothers on opposite sides of the battle – opens with a gorgeous clarinet solo and uses rumbling piano and thunderbolt percussion to wrap his vocal in ominousness. It’s outstanding.
By being so ambitious and large a project, Divided & United has its misses as well as its hits. It lacks consistency, but it works well often enough to make this a reasonably satisfying exercise in both 19th and 21st Century Americana.
For beautiful execution of a beautiful idea for a tribute/concept album, try The Beautiful Old: Turn-of-the-Century Songs. These mostly pre-phonograph-record-era songs, which range in period from 1823 (“Home Sweet Home”) to 1918 (“Beautiful Ohio” and “Till We Meet Again”), are definitely Americana. (They also were popular in Britain.)
Yet they aren’t thought of as “Americana” in the contemporary sense – they’re considered more a part of the Tin Pan Alley/music parlor/sheet-music tradition than the folk/blues one. They are pop – popular music of their time. (If there’s any artist of recent times who has championed them, it was Tiny Tim.) So Beautiful Old transforms our perceptions of them.
This project, the best of its type since O Brother Where Art Thou, is a partnership between executive producer Paul Marsteller and music producer Gabriel Rhodes, the son of Austin singer-songwriter Kimmie Rhodes and her husband Joe Gracey. The attractive packaging, in addition to lyrics, includes reproductions of artful original sheet-music covers.
Beautiful Old is dedicated to Gracey, who died of cancer in 2011. And among the artists participating are Kimmie Rhodes (three songs, including a poignant, dreamy version of the 1910 “A Perfect Day” with her son on guitar, melodica, pump organ and glass armonica – an antique instrument that is played with hands) and her daughter Jolie Goodnight (two contributions, including a spare mountain-ballad take on 1907’s “Silver Dagger” with rave-up violin work by Richard Bowden).
It’s amazing how direct these ballads are – and shocking when we see just how open these original composers were about expressing adult feelings of grief and remorse. It might make you a little embarrassed to live in the 21st Century when pop music means overproduced pandering and smugness.
For instance, 1854’s “The Dying Californian,” which A.L. Lee set to music from a letter about a man who died at sea en route to the California gold rush, unfolds like a slow-motion wake, sad but comforting. Carrie Elkin sings lead with Kimmie Rhodes providing soft, close harmonies and Bowden’s violin is exceptional. And Jimmy LaFave’s rugged-as-wagon-ruts voice is perfect for the poetic “Long Time Ago,” an 1839 song that equates lost love – and death – with nature and the landscape.
But there’s another, sprightlier side to Beautiful Old – one that uncovers and acknowledges the entertainment value of this period’s music. Such songs either reflected or commented upon the leisure-time activities of a pre-mass-culture era. And Beautiful Old has found just the right wizened artists – especially British artists – to cover such songs. It’s also found a Most Valuable Player to support them all – Garth Hudson. His old-fashioned parlor piano provides rustic grandeur to Ohio native Kim Richey’s lovely cover of 1918’s “Beautiful Ohio.”
Richard Thompson, who has toured with his 1,000 Years of Popular Song revue, is the pleasurable principal singer of the 1895 “The Band Played On,” which tells of Matt Casey waltzing with “noise and vigor” with the strawberry blond he met at Saturday night balls. Christine Collister’s backing vocals and Hudson’s accordion, among other contributors, provide for a politely rollicking arrangement.
Graham Parker’s craggy voice, with its scary, malevolent edge, is appropriate for the 1867 “The Flying Trapeze,” which spins a bizarrely funny tale of how a daredevil gymnast stole away the singer’s girlfriend and made her “assume a masculine name” to tour with him. Hudson’s accordion and piano contribute to the lively accompaniment.
And in a genius choice, Dave Davies – he of the beery, cheery “Death of a Clown” – reclaims the theatrical/musical side of the Kinks with the dashing yet sensitive “After the Ball” from 1892. His woozy, propped-up voice is full of memories of British village greens past, and he’s helped immensely by accordionist Hudson, tinkling pianist Michael Thompson, and Gabriel Rhodes on tenor banjo and ukulele, among others. One hopes his brother is listening – this could inspire Ray.
One also hopes Ian Whitcomb – the British rocker who so early on championed historic popular song – is listening with a smile. This is a project he would love – as will many people who get a chance to hear it.