THAT WHICH WE CALL A ROSE
by Norman Warwick
Ellen Johnson and her posse of reporters at Paste magazine, (check it out on search engine) have been rounding up some of the usual suspects of creating Americana music and made them stand in an identification parade. I wasn´t able to name too many of them when she played me an example of the music they make, although I was immediately able to label them guilty of excellence so Sherriff Johnson could pin a deputy´s gold star on their shirts.
First in line were The Avett Brothers. The brothers have been known to Paste and the gang for some while apparently and are soon to release their third album in their Gleam series, called, amazingly enough, The Third Gleam. In fact they have already released the first single, and an accompanying video, from the forthcoming album and it is called Victory.
These guys are called Seth and Scott, I was told, and then I was played their stripped-down, folky song, all harmonies and gentle guitar. Guilty of excellence, definitely, said Ellen Johnson. Agreed.
Some folks are always just itching for a fight aren´t they, but I was nevertheless somewhat surprised to see Natalie, Martie and Emily in the line-up. Ever since I heard they´d changed their gang name from The Dixie Chicks to The Chicks because of racial sensitivity to the word Dixie, I kind of assumed they´d mended their rough and rowdy ways and given them as a present to Bob Dylan. It seems, though, that on their last album the three girls said, very firmly, Goodbye Earl, or take a kicking for cheating on your wife wife, who happens to be a mutual friend of ours. They´re even angrier on their new album, Gaslighter, and one song, Sleep At Night, tells how a husband now cheating on one of the girls themselves even brought his honky tonker to a Chicks gig. It’s a sad story, but makes for great music. Guilty as charged. Sherriff Ellen Johnson presented three more gold stars.
I didn´t recognise by either name or appearance the next lady to step out of line. I was told she is Courtney Marie Andrews, and just like the Chicks, there are times on her new album, Old Flowers, that according to Ellen Johnson, ´she stares heartbreak in its ugly face.´ On Must Be Someone Else´s Fault, the buoyant single, Andrews scrambles to avoid the pain of an old relationship and desperately seeks any contributing factors, beyond her control, that might have contributed to the relationship´s breakdown. By her own admission, she´s ´gone crazy´, but really, says Sherriff Johnson with surprising sympathy, she sounds ´just like a woman running away from heartbreak.´ We decided the girl should be given a gold star and allowed to keep her nickname of Americana.
I couldn´t believe it when I saw a ghost walk out into the line up, and was even more amazed that the ghost was that of the late John Prine. I have been collecting his albums for nearly four decades and have always considered them to be Americana in style and attitude, so I was pleased to see that even in death he is keeping good company. We posted an obituary for John on these pages of Sidetracks & Detours when he died from complications of Covid19-
Only a couple of weeks ago we reported on how this song had been played at a democratic convention attended by Joe Biden recently in the States.
Earlier this year, after beloved folk legend John Prine had passed away after contracting COVID-19, a live-stream tribute was held for him, with appearances from many famous celebrities, and his estate shared this final song, I Remember Everything. One of Sherriff Johnson´s posse, Danielle Chelosky, informed us that the nostalgic ballad was produced by Dave Cobb and co-written by Prine and his long-time collaborator Pat McLaughlin.
´Its lyrics are as beautiful as any John Prine song,´ she said and then quoted one of its short verses:
´I remember everything. Things I can’t forget.
The way you turned and smiled on me on the night that we first met.´
We cried into our tissues, watching Prine perform I Remember Everything and unanimously agreed he has always deserved to be part of the Americana Preservation Posse. A Posthumous badge was pinned on over his heart.
The next to step forward to take the oath was another unknown to me called Lori McKenna. She co-wrote When You´re My Age with Liz Rose and Hillary Lindsey, her partners in a trio called The Love Junkies. She has followed that up by writing Two Birds in the same collaboration, a clever song about the collapse of a love triangle.
The first mentioned song is a striking piano-driven ballad built around McKenna’s hopes for her kids’ (and, someday, her grandkids’) future. It’s the kind of song that could come off as treacly in less capable hands, but McKenna imbues it with the generous tenderness of a seasoned parent: ´They’ll outgrow their shoes. They’ll outgrow their beds. They’ll outgrow that house and you can’t stop it,´ she sings, her voice nearly cracking with emotion. So, too, was the voice of another posse member, Ben Salmon,when he nominated her for gang-membership.
You will know from our recent comprehensive Sidetracks & Detours post suggesting that Margo Price Knows Her Worth just how highly we rate this artist in our office. Twinkle Twinkle is a blaring rocker, where country singer Margo Price offers a vivid account of paying dues on her long, circuitous route to stardom. ´Playin’ dives, tryin’ to stay alive, Twinkle, twinkle little star,´ she sings over rowdy guitars. In that sense, Price has definitely upended expectations, by gutting her way through the disappointment, self-doubt and financial peril of a musician hoping for a break. She’s earned hers, to be sure, but her new album, That’s How Rumours Get Started, suggests that she’s still getting her bearings after such a tumultuous ride. Margo was nominated by one Ellen Russell´s existing posse, Eric R Danton, so British dj Bob Harris who has championed her for so long will be delighted to see her now officially Pasted as one of the Americans.
I have similarly championed the work of Mary Chapin Carpenter for such unofficial recognition, ever since first hearing her debut album Home Town Girl, with its vivid pictures os small town America.
Veteran folk singer/songwriter Mary Chapin Carpenter strapped on her cowboy boots for a new album called The Dirt And The Stars, (out Aug. 7),which was released in August and so far the singles released from it have been promising.
They include American Stooge, a classic Americana rocker about a jaded all-American guy who can’t quite find the right avenues for his cynicism. Or, as Carpenter puts it, ‘American Stooge’ is a song dedicated to those experts in sycophancy who roam the halls of Congress and government, attaching themselves to any powerful interest that suits their need to be relevant and feeds their appetite for power.´ Sherriff Ellen Johnson was ready to in a star on Mary Chapin Carpenter to identify her as an all-Americana-girl, and I fully endorse that appointment, not least because I think her Stones In The Road album is one of the finest Americana records ever made, (even so, please don´t ask me what is Americana?).
However, I have been following MCC´s career long enough to know that whilst American is her first love she will record an fully orchestrated of cinema tunes or some such whenever the whim takes. As an artist that is, surely, her right.
The next artist to be brought forward to be considered for an a Americana Star was another I had never heard of and as I hung my head in shame, I listened to Ruston Kelly´s credentials being read out.
I learned that Radio Cloud is the Nashville singer/songwriter’s third single from his forthcoming, Shape & Destroy, released in the USA at the end of August. It’s a cathartic country-folk ballad, following the release of the very Elliott Smith-influenced Rubber and Brave. Nominator Danielle Chelosky described Ruston´s album as ´sure to be an enchanting, emotional masterpiece.´
Steven Paul “Elliott” Smith (August 6, 1969 – October 21, 2003) was an American singer, songwriter, and multi-instrumentalist. Smith was born in Omaha, Nebraska, raised primarily in Texas, and lived much of his life in Portland, Oregon, where he first gained popularity. Smith’s primary instrument was the guitar, though he also played piano, clarinet, bass guitar, drums, and harmonica.
Smith had a distinctive vocal style, characterized by his ´whispery, spider-web-thin delivery,´ and often used multi-tracking to create vocal atmospherics and tones.
Although I had been, until this point, unaware of Ruston Kelly, the Elliot Smith reference alone was enough to earn my vote.
To have remained for so long unaware of Choctaw-American roots singer/songwriter Samantha Crain, seemed somehow to have been impossible, once I had heard tracks from her lovely, recently released new album called A Small Death. Explaining to me why Crain was being chosen as a fine representative of Americana music she referred to one particular track, the lo-fi Holding To The Edge of Night, which finds night-owl Crain questioning ´What’s that silence inside me that expands into the dark?´
´Morning people´ might not relate to this lovely tune, in which Crain describes herself as coming to life as ´the moon floats above her, (and) unfastens all the fear.´ Sherriff Ellen Johnson welcomed her to the gang, therefore, by jokingly reminding us that the album is actually a lot more ´hopeful´ than it might sound.
The penultimate nominee was Taylor Swift, a name surely few people can be unaware of these days. Nevertheless, I reckon its been quite a while since Taylor Swift could reasonably appear on a list about Americana music or any roots-based songs. I might, in fact certainly would, have overlooked her surprise-released album, Folklore, were it not for the cajoling of Sherriff Ellen Johnson.
The sherriff made a case for Taylor´s inclusion into this new gang of purveyors of Americana by telling me, ´she (Taylor) sinks comfortably back into acoustic music like falling into bed after a long, hard day (while still cranking out beautiful pop songs, too).´ Invisible String is the pluckiest of them all, though, as Swift creates a lush landscape with Iron & Wine-esque acoustic guitar while Aaron Dessner offers bustling instrumentation underneath. Thematically, Invisible String is about two people’s parallel timelines weaving in and out of each other.
It also finds Swift in a satisfied state, making peace with past relationships: ´Cold was the steel of my axe to grind for the boys who broke my heart,´ she sings. ´Now I send their babies presents.´ Such generosity and magnaminity deserves a star !
The War and Treaty, I was told, are the powerhouse married soul duo made up of Michael Trotter Jr. and Tanya Blount-Trotter who released their new album Hearts Town oin September. Lead single ´Five More Minutes´ is a hopeful and uplifting ballad about savouring every moment with a loved one. Through Michael’s eyes, it’s actually about the life-saving powers of love (sung to a groovy, piano-based beat):
´After years of falling in and out of financial and mental depression, I had finally had enough,´ Michael said recently. ´I was ready to take my own life. But in my darkest moment, where I was ready right then and there to end it all, my wife Tanya asked one last thing of me:
‘Just give me five more minutes. Stay with me. Just five more minutes to love you.’ And something in her eyes, something in her hands convinced me to give her that five more minutes.´
Sherriff Ellen Johnson pinned his shiny American Badge on his chest, and there wasn´t a dry eye in the house.
photo 4 So, thanks to my daily newsletter from Paste, we now have eleven tracks playing their idea of contemporary Americana, to which I can add nine older selections of my own to create an interesting compare and contrast playlist, (see below). The Sidetracks & Detours selections are marked *
TWENTY ROOTS ACROSS AMERICANA
The Avett Brothers: Victory
Paul Simon: An American Tune*
The Chicks: Sleep At Night
John Stewart: Eyes Of Sweet Virginia*
Courtney Marie Andrews: It Must Be Someone Else’s Fault
Guy Clark: LA Freeway*
John Prine: (mutual selection) I Remember Everything
Nanci Griffith: Love At The Five And Dime*
Lori McKenna: When You’re My Age
The Flatlanders: Dallas From A Dc Nine At Night*
Margo Price: Twinkle Twinkle
Katy Moffatt: This Heart Stops*
Mary Chapin Carpenter: American Stooge
Bill Morrissey: Handsome Molly*
Ruston Kelly: Radio Cloud
Jerry Jeff Walker: Mr. Bojangles*
Samantha Crain: Holding to the Edge of Night
The Band: The Weight*
Taylor Swift: Invisible String
The War and Treaty: Five More Minutes