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Column from web archive February 23, 2009

Various Artists

Americana, by any other name...

For anybody who still tries to maintain that musical genre styles are set in stone and have their own set of compatible, identifiable players – kind of like Mount Rushmore, but allegedly more natural – things must seem to be getting kind of loose out there. Robert Plant, Joan Baez, Glen Campbell and Charlie Louvin, despite their very different career starting places, are all being presented as Americana acts. Darius Rucker and Jewel are country. Taylor Swift and Alison Krauss are topping the pop album charts.

As Eisenhower once remarked, though, in some important ways things are more the same now than they’ve ever been before. When Ralph Peer and others were establishing commercial roots music formats in the 1920s, the process was already first and foremost about identifying a continuing if inevitably evolving audience segment, then going on to make and market new music which was enticing to that audience.

The specific audiences eventually got used to the ways in which performers within their genres – a Bessie Smith, a Roy Acuff, a Bill Monroe, a Mahalia Jackson, a Woody Guthrie – approached them, and handled the music. So it’s really not surprising that would-be genre jumpers and expanders, back in the day or today, faced new self-presentation issues when reaching out to places where audience expectations are different. Americana in particular has virtually always been about performers moseying into the corral from somewhere else – and there is evidence, much of it on CD and video now, of how those issues were dealt with.

The Americana term seems first to have been used to set off a sort of music – as opposed to old weathervanes, Coca-Cola signs, or any pop culture product from America – by Capitol Records in the late 1940s and early ’50s. Western balladeer Tex Ritter, pop-country chanteuse Kay Starr (a Patsy Cline predecessor), and even some jazz acts had records issued as part of Capitol’s “Americana” series. The intersection of pop and roots music was what they had in mind – and when it comes down to it, so has Americana ever since.

Efforts to generate catchy new pop-country ballads in a folk-like ballad style began in those same country boom years – the new yet old-like mining songs of Merle Travis being a milestone. But to see what he had to do in terms of presentation to sell the sheer Americana of “Dark As A Dungeon” to identified fans of pop folk, check out the Vestapol DVD Merle Travis: Rare Performances 1946-1981.

The California hipster (from that same Capitol Records) who appears on a 1951 soundie version of “Sweet Temptation” shows up just a few months later decked out as a coal-stained miner to perform “Dungeon” – and, in a perfect indication of things to come, feels it necessary to tell this song’s audience about miners’ lives and to spell out the point of the song. It’s blatantly “serious,” downright educational even – the very opposite of the bopping in “Sweet Temptation”.

The audience for this new “old” music video, Travis and his soundie producers saw presciently, was going to be observing the stuff of someone else’s life and taking it in as a powerful literary metaphor, perhaps, but not likely as a shared working experience. The basic stance of the commercial folk revival, and, eventually, of much Americana, was already in place. Pop ballad hits that followed – Lefty Frizzell’s recording of the then-new “Long Black Veil”, Ernie Ford with Travis’ “Sixteen Tons”, Johnny Horton’s “Battle Of New Orleans” (written by the new “old” ballad writer and professor Jimmy Driftwood) – were eventually pulled together in the notably-titled CD collection Columbia Country Classics, Volume Three: Americana.

This 1950s-to-early-’60s pop and country interest in such quasi-historic pop balladry reflected, also, the brewing commercial folk boom. Today, Pete Seeger is understood by many as the furthest sort of performer imaginable from a “pop singer.” When he was topping the pop charts with the Weavers in 1951, they were not in blue jeans at Carnegie Hall, but donning formal evening clothes to sing at New York’s swank Rainbow Room, and singing Lead Belly and Woody Guthrie songs to slick, Broadway-influenced arrangements. You can hear these gussied-up hits on The Weavers: The Best Of The Decca Years. Many of those orchestrations, incidentally, were worked up by Gordon Jenkins – the originator of the new “folk blues” that Johnny Cash only slightly reworked to create “Folsom Prison Blues”.

On the recently released Hank Williams: The Unreleased Recordings, Hank complains to his radio-show audience that the Weavers’ hit version of “On Top of Old Smoky” is virtually unrecognizable – and then he sings it straight and simple. Hank’s rendition was commercial country music meant for early-morning listeners in the rural south – not the college crowd the weavers were after. This is not really a question of song-presentation “authenticity”; it’s about who wanted what, when, and where they got it.

The folk boom was a powerful attraction for some country performers when rock ‘n’ roll brought country sales down. We can see examples of the result of that fence-crossing in the Shout! Factory DVD set The Best Of Hootenanny, in which Johnny Cash, Flatt & Scruggs, Maybelle Carter and daughters, and Eddy Arnold are among the acts on hand – playing, quite literally, before college campus crowds.

A Johnny Cash clip from The Best Of Hootenanny

The repertories are suddenly emphasizing ballads with that historical aspect: Arnold, for example, performs “Poor Howard” not in those later dinner jackets he donned when he took his music uptown (like the Weavers before him!), but in shirt sleeves. Flatt & Scruggs, whose own syndicated country-market TV shows would set up numbers with comedy bits and banter (a la vaudeville), have the music framed with Hootenanny host Jack Linkletter setting context and teaching lessons right over the number. (“Now Earl is going to create a harmonic sound by fingering the strings ever so slightly.”)

Johnny Cash, for his part, is pushing “Frankie’s Man Johnny” to the college kids (as he also does in the outrageous folk boom exploitation movie Hootenanny Hoot). He’d been emphasizing a sort of folk music stance since switching to Columbia Records from Sun. And on the Bear Family DVD Johnny Cash At Town Hall Party, you can see him not long before this move to cross over to the college crowd, in November 1958, in a slick country suit (not black, by the way), nervously introducing the same newly written ballad, along with “Don’t Take Your Guns To Town”, to the country audience. “We’re kind of curious to know just what you might think about a song like this,” he says, worried, to the dancers on hand.

Johnny Cash in 1958, At Town Hall Party

Most of the same country acts that appeared on Hootenanny were soon appearing at the Newport Folk Festival. You wouldn’t know from the presentation style there that Bill Monroe was an ongoing star on the Grand Ole Opry – but then, you wouldn’t be informed that the new “folk discovery,” Doc Watson, had been working only months before in bars playing electric guitar (even on rocked-up Jimmie Rodgers numbers), and that he loved Elvis. He’d been prepped with songs from the Harry Smith Anthology to take to this new audience. (In my forthcoming book Meeting Jimmie Rodgers, by the way, Doc discusses his frustration at being dissuaded from singing Rodgers songs at Newport; they were considered out of keeping with the “historic folk artifact presenter” image being worked up for him.)

When Pete Seeger overcame political blacklisting enough to get at least an “educational TV” series, Rainbow Quest, in the mid-’60s, he did have acts such as the Stanley Brothers and Johnny Cash and June Carter on as guests. He seemed flummoxed by Carter and Ralph Stanley’s presentation of their act in its full vaudeville style, complete with dance numbers and jokes, as he’s presenting bluegrass as ancient and “folk music with overdrive.” He tries to disguise the nature of the Stanleys’ act by referring to the Cumberland Mountain Boys as some friends of theirs, who seemingly just happened to drop in for the occasion. (No professional band, they!) Cash, who sang a range of country, folk and new singer-songwriter material at Newport, shows up in a folk singer leather vest – and also quite visibly strung out – on Seeger’s show, as Pete proceeds to describe how Maybelle and Sara Carter were daughter and mother, and June attempts to clear things up for him. (Both of these Rainbow Quest episodes are available on Shanachie DVDs.)

This process of presentation-maneuvering and audience-repositioning has fairly obvious analogies still, as country performers show up in Americana, pop performers in country, Americana acts on the pop charts. Just take the artists mentioned at the beginning of this column, listen to the arrangements, and watch the live and video presentation styles. You won’t be able to miss the fact that, whatever the show is labeled, somebody’s trying to leave you with a revised impression…and to sell more than a few records.

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