Jed Hilly, head of the Americana Music Association in Nashville, had a homework assignment for me. He was trying to explain what it was about Americana -- an eclectic gumbo of indie American roots music from bluegrass to folk, blues, rock and country -- that puts it in a class all its own. The genre, which just last year became an official Grammy category and garnered its own definition in the Merriam-Webster dictionary, covers all music that reaches back into that golden triangle of influences between Memphis, Nashville and New Orleans. Artists can be from anywhere, and any generation, as long as they pay homage in some way to these authentically American musical traditions. But more than the music itself, explained Jed, Americana is a feeling.
"Just do me a favor and check out Levon Helm's Midnight Ramble," he said. "Once you experience it, you'll know what I mean."
At first I was reluctant. I'm not one who seeks out live music events. I've reached the age where it seems like way too much effort to go to a concert or night club to listen to a favorite artist when you can see them on YouTube. Besides, I live with a professional bass player, so I get treated to live shows every day in my living room. But Jed was right. There was something about being in Levon Helm's barn/studio/home in the woods of the Catskills that was different -- an intimacy to his performance that's all too rare these days. Based on the traveling medicine shows of Levon's youth in Turkey Scratch, Ark., you feel like you've arrived at some local village hoedown, from the bonfire in the parking lot to the community table piled high with home-baked pies, cookies and macaroni salad. Everyone comes out to mingle, including the musicians (tuba jazz virtuoso Howard Johnson, who plays in the band's horn section, helped himself to a big slice of my peach praline pie).
There's a sense of community in the way each member of his band puts the song first and supports each other on stage. Everyone gets the chance to show off their diverse chops yet no one overtakes. And you never know who is going to stop by and join them, whether it's Norah Jones, Phil Lesh, Elvis Costello, or Emmylou Harris. This night it was Donald Fagen from Steely Dan. But the real star of the show is Levon Helm. This music legend's been stricken with throat cancer, and he's so rail thin you wonder how he finds the strength and stamina to beat those drums, but the former leader singer of The Band still plays with a superhuman energy, banging out classics like "The Weight," "Up on Cripple Creek," even "All on a Mardi Gras Day," at least two dozen other songs over the course of two hours. And he's kept this up week after week for years, to a full house of fans.
The Ramble was much more than just a live concert. By the end of their big finish chorus, "Take a load off Annie/Take a load for free... " there wasn't a dry eye in that barn. Levon's band raises the wood rafters as they help him belt out that chorus despite his sometimes rasping vocals. It reminds you of everything that's best in American culture, and when you leave the Ramble you take away a little piece of Levon Helm's love and passion for this country's great musical heritage.
It's a kind of pure musicianship that exists all over the country, but you won't necessarily come across it on MTV. I had another little taste at a recent Christmas party hosted by Cynthia Sayer, one of the nation's top jazz banjo players, and a member of Woody Allen's band. A random assortment of guests, including some horn players, long-time Steely Dan guitarist Jon Herington and my partner, Nelson Montana, launched into an impromptu Dixieland jam session. No one was watching and they weren't getting paid. They just played for the love of the music. Earlier this year, I was also introduced to the "alternative" Nashville scene on a Geiger press tour where, at a private concert they'd organized at the Franklin Theater, Americana artist and former Mavericks front man Raul Malo gave us goose bumps with his rendition of, "When I'm Calling You."
This level of performance can be found on any given night in that music capital, as well as in hundreds of homes, clubs and small auditoriums in towns across the U.S. But it's all too easy to forget that Americana exists in an era of auto-tuned and mindlessly packaged pop. As I was watching a recent music industry awards show (I forget which one) it struck me that very little of what I heard was memorable. A handful of pretty looking young boys and girls like Justin Bieber and Taylor Swift swept the awards, but I'd be hard pressed to recall a single bar of their most popular songs. It's not that they're untalented. But it's depressing to think there isn't much to compete with such mediocre music in the mainstream marketplace. The Justin Biebers of this world are as polished and hardworking as any cash cow and I don't begrudge their success, but these aren't songs that will last through the decades, and record label executives could care less. Tweens are downloading their tracks this week, and for the bean counters in the music industry that's all that matters.
Americana was formed to counter the soulless mediocrity that dominates commercial music today. The non-profit is made up of a group of artists who advocate for true musicianship, fighting the mainstream and nurturing young talent that might otherwise struggle to be heard. Major proponents of the movement have included Johnny and June Cash, Emmylou Harris, Jack White, Gregg Allman and Robert Plant, who ditched an opportunity to make millions on a reunion tour with Led Zeppelin to form his sublime Band of Joy with Nashville icons Buddy Miller and Patty Griffin.
When asked to describe what Americana is, Jed likes to quote Robert Plant, Americana's honorary British member: "This beautiful world has lived in the shadows of every town I've been to. It's an extraordinary community and I want to be part of it."
Americana is slowly emerging from the shadows. Last year, Americana's Grammy debut featured Bob Dylan, who was backed up by younger Americana artists Mumford and Sons and the Avett Brothers. Dylan was older than these artists by about 40 years, but they blended together seamlessly. It was one of the Grammy's finer moments, and record sales for those three acts blew up more than any other in the week that followed. Other Americana artists, including Wilco, Steve Earle, and Hayes Carll, are just a few that are starting to see significantly more airplay and commercial success.
In a recent conversation, Jed told me he is convinced the listening public is ready to go back to its American music roots and visit this underground world. Through originality, talent, and sheer grit, this type of artist is finally making his way back into the national consciousness.
"With so many other channels for getting the music out there, the playing field is being leveled and Americana artists are uniquely positioned to succeed. They know the first rule of the business is to get their chops down, get in a van and drive to 30 states in eight months."
And if Raul Malo turns up at a club near me, I might even venture out to see him.
Samantha Marshall is a freelance journalist, editor and author of several music-industry related books and articles. For more information, go to www.SamanthaMarshallGhostwriter.com.