Journalist and music critic John Milward argues that the definition of “Americana” is so broad that it no longer makes sense.
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 1930s to Jason Isbell and Brandi Carlisle today, and establishes links between these artists and everyone in between. .
He spoke to Jon Norton of the WGLT about the book and his concept of the term Americana.
WGLT: You say that the definition of the Americana Music Association is so broad that it almost makes no sense. Your definition is a little more concise.
MILWARD: Americana includes blues, soul, gospel, folk, and bluegrass. Today’s Americana is just an adult version of rock and roll. Most of the songs have adult themes. Musicians may be young, but it’s not fleeting pop music. It’s a brand of pop music that’s part of our country culture, our rock culture. It’s more about quality music than capturing the scent of the moment
Why did you want to delve into the roots of Americana?
MILWARD: American music developed sequentially. On the one hand you had racing records, on the other hand you had hillbilly records in the 1930s. And then it merged with rhythm and blues, country & western and finally the pop charts of the years. 50 were taken over by rock and roll. But if you look at Elvis, his first single on Sun Records was an Arthur “Big Boy” Cruddup blues. Everything’s fine on one side and the Kentucky blue moon, Bill Monroe on the other. I also argue that things like that, and Buddy Holly and Jerry Lee Lewis in the 1950s, a lot of their songs were big hits on both R&B and pop stations on country stations.
In a way, these guys were the quintessential American artists because they dabbled in all kinds of genres.
Many writers of fiction say they don’t know how their book or story will end until they write it. Did this book take a different form when it was written than you may not have originally designed?
MILWARD: It’s actually not (laughs) because I kind of knew where we were. And once I got the start, what was a challenge and a pleasure was trying to bond between a wide variety of artists. For example, in the first chapter about Jimmy Rogers, I quote Steve Earle saying, âThis guy practically made up my job, a guy with a guitar and a song. And Bob Dylan would speak in the same way about the inspiration Buddy Holly was for him.
I think one of the great parts of this book is these connections that you make. Another was Al Green and was it Hank Williams’ wife?
MILWARD: Miss Audrey! It was his first wife. She was just a staple, I guess, around Nashville. And I found in her biography that Miss Audreyâ¦ they were drinking champagne. She played him country songs. And as you remember, he didâ¦ he did a wonderful Hank Williamsâ¦ he did âFor the Good Timeâ. âHow Can You Mend a Broken Heartââ¦ all kinds of beautiful country songs performed with a soulful Memphis background. And it fits perfectly.
When I spoke with some of the old blues guys awhile ago, the southern black blues guys, they were telling me they would listen to some white country music from Nashville or Memphis. And they liked old yodellers like Jimmie Rogers and some of those guys.
MILWARD: Even someone like Robert Johnson. It certainly had its own sound, but when you are on the street you have to keep driving. And he’ll launch a more contemporary song or a Jimmie Rodgers hit. It was Jimmie Rodgers, basically a white blues guy.
Can you share another story or two where there is 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 “The Bottom Line” in New York City. It turns out that the Buddy Miller group in New York in 1980 was the country group of the moment here. And they didn’t record or anything, but they played at the new Lone Star Cafe supporting country artists who had come, as well as doing their own shows at other clubs. Part of the Buddy Miller Band was Julie, they were from Austin, Texas, and Larry Campbell, who then played for seven years with Bob Dylan, then with Levon Helm at the end of his life. At some point, Julie found the Lord and left the group and went to a Christian organization. And Buddy stayed in New York with a full roster of upcoming gigs. So he said, “Oh, who’s that woman in Austin?” Oh that’s right. Shawn Colvin. So he brought Shawn Colvin to New York to sing in the band.
A few months later, Buddy left to find Julie. And Larry Campbell left the group. Shawn was looking for a guitarist and had met a guy named John Leventhal, who is also a part of this scene, so he joined the band. He eventually produced Shawn Colvin’s debut record and later married Rosanne Cash and produced her records and wrote with her. Finally, I think he produced Sarah Jarosz’s latest addition. So there’s just this mix of all these people. And Shawn mentioned at one point that she was playing at Town Hall in New York, after an album produced by Leventhal and she invited Larry Campbellâ¦ and Buddy was in his tour groupâ¦ Campbell and John Leventhal came to sit down. and she just said it was such a pleasure that they managed to spend all these years doing what they love, and none of them are big stars, but they are extremely talented and love what they do and make great music.
So these connections justâ¦. especially Buddy’s, flourish and go everywhere.
“Americanaland” is available through University of Illinois Press.