Americana? Don’t Fence (mender) Me In

By BOB WIRE

I have to credit Rigel Banqueshot for introducing me to alt-country. I probably would have stumbled across the genre on my own, but like your first acid trip, it’s good to have an experienced guide.

It was 1995, Rigel and I (with Garth Whitson and Greg Mueller) had just started a band called Bob Wire and the Fencemenders, and he was introducing late night radio listeners to a wealth of new music on KUFM. On his show “Muse’s Jukebox,” he played a steady stream of obscure songs by unknown bands like Blood Oranges, Uncle Tupelo, Whiskeytown and the Bottle Rockets. “They call it Alt-Country,” he told his listeners. The one common thread that ran through all this music was honesty. Even the songs that were ironic had a certain integrity.

Then, as now, mainstream radio was mired in the Big Hat country movement, a foul pervasion of calculated Top 40 posers trying to pass off pop songs as country. Alt-country coalesced as a backlash to the insipid offerings of Nashvegas. Even though there was no official “movement,” it became a recognized genre that represented authentic country and country-flavored rock. It provided a wide base of exposure for bands and artists that otherwise couldn’t get the time of day from the hacks on Music Row.

Bands like the Derailers and the Suicide Kings served up authentic boot stompers with authority, while Texas troubadours like Wayne Hancock, Jimmie Dale Gilmore and Dale Watson wrote songs that sounded like modern classics, and sang them in unaffected voices. They knew the difference between real country and the phony-accent, Big Hat fluff. And so did a lot of us music fans.

As the genre gained a head of steam, the net widened to include more folk-tinged acts like the Jayhawks and Gillian Welch. Power chord rockers like the Old 97s and Slobberbone were also welcomed into alt-country’s ever-expanding tent. The Midwest was a particularly fertile source of a lot of the music, largely on the strength of Chicago’s Bloodshot Records. The home label of Robbie Fulks, the Bottle Rockets, the Waco Brothers and dozens of other vital alt-country acts, Bloodshot still waves the biggest flag for authentic American roots music. They are the progenitors of insurgent country. Wilco, the Yayhoos, Ryan Adams, Son Volt…they all started at  Bloodshot Records.

RanchHands

Missoula’s own Idle Ranch Hands, local purveyors of authentic hard country. In this case, you can judge a book by its cover. From left: Gibson Harwell, Sam Nasset, Duke Kirschenmann, TimMartin.

As more talented artists are rejected by the plastic hit machine of Nashville, they find their place in this alternative genre that had now been given the catch-all moniker of Americana.

This is a problem. It’s like taking the Foo Fighters, The Go-Gos, the Eagles, Green Day and Metallica and identifying them simply as Rock. Everybody knows the Eagles are Jagoff-Rock.

The term Americana has always been used to describe uniquely American kitsch and style that’s more than fifty years old. Or it may have encompassed cultural rituals like Fourth-of-July parades or county fairs. But, like the word “Country,” it’s been claimed by the music police and installed at the head of a flow chart that contains everything from gentle, diaphanous folk ballads to borderline metal played with a 2/4 beat.

It could be argued that all Country is Americana. Country music is as American as an apple pie with a Chevy logo branded into it and baked up in a Sears & Roebuck oven stoked with the wood of a Douglas Fir grown in Texas. Country’s roots in Appalachian hillbilly songs and the dusty honky tonk shuffles of the post-war West have created a simple, honest, powerful style of music that has often described simply as three chords and the truth, for those who are into the whole brevity thing.

Bloodshot

Per the Bloodshot website: “By not bothering with stylistic straitjackets, we haven’t made it too easy for anyone to get a solid grasp on what we do or what to call it—sometimes we don’t even know, but that’s what makes running this asylum so muchfun.”

But ever since Garth Brooks exploded onto the scene twenty years ago with his monster hat and spot-on vocal mimicry, the Country genre has been overrun by ersatz good ol’ boys and pilates-toned women with supermodel looks, most of whom couldn’t write a decent grocery list, let alone a country song. Backed by an army of formula-driven producers and shrewd marketing teams, modern country acts have supplanted their country forebears. These kleptoparasites spew their soft-rock, Jimmy Buffett-lite, mudflaps ‘n beer brand of disposable anthems to a listening public that is largely ignorant enough to happily digest this pap they’re being spoon-fed.

Meanwhile, the superior music of artists like Jason Isbell and Sturgill Simpson is marginalized in the commercial radio world. Unfortunately new acts still need radio support to gain any traction in the music business. There are exceptions, of course, but they are rare.

So now Americana has become the buzzword for all kinds of music that sounds countryish but is too smart or too good for Nashville. The vague boundaries of the genre can include insurgent country, classic country, folk-rock, rockabilly, soul-inflected acoustic Sappho-core, and any number of hyphenated subgenres that don’t fit tightly in any of the pigeonholes that music programmers and retailers love so much. Thanks to the catch-all tag of Americana, you can listen to an online service like Spotify, and the shambling, country-stained guitar roar of Drag the River will be there, cheek to jowl, next to the boneless whine of Deer Tick.

“Americana” has become alt-country’s “Adult Contemporary.”

I think the pendulum of alt-country swung back too far, then the string broke and the bob shattered into a hundred little pieces that will never fit together. Ask anyone you know whose CD player or iPod has been stuffed for the last ten years with music from Bloodshot, Yep Roc, Rounder, or any other roots music label, what they think of Insurgent Country. Then Alt-Country. Real Country. Hard Country. Flatlander Country. The Bakersfield Sound. Throwback Country. Country Swing. Hardwood Floor Country. You’ll get as many different answers as there are subgenres.

To take an entire spectrum of American music that’s played with sincerity, passion, imagination and intelligence and ignore all the differences by offering it up under the banner of “Americana” does a terrible injustice to all the bands and artists who work so hard to get out from under the term “Country Music,” which has become a pejorative phrase to the people who love the real thing.

“Americana” is a misnomer that has run its course, and wound up at a dead end. But until truth and integrity find their way back to Country music, I’ll just have to separate the wheat from the chaff myself. Thank god for tour guides like Rigel.

   Check out all of Bob Wire’s posts in his blogarchive.

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Have an off-white Christmas with Bob Wire.Think of it as Gonzo meets Hee Haw: Missoula honky tonker Bob Wire holds forth on a unique life filled with music, parenthood, drinking, sports, working, marriage, drinking, and just navigating the twisted wreckage of American culture. Plus occasional grooming tips. Like the best humor, it’s not for everyone. Sometimes silly, sometimes surreal, sometimes savage, Bob Wire demands that you possess a good sense of humor and an openmind.

Bob Wire has written more than 500 humor columns for a regional website over the last five years, and his writing has appeared in the Missoulian, the Missoula Independent, Montana Magazine, and his own Bob Wire Has a Point Blog. He is a prolific songwriter, and has recorded three CDs of original material with his Montana band, the Magnificent Bastards. His previous band, the Fencemenders, was a popular fixture at area clubs. They were voted Best Local Band twice by the Missoula Independent readers poll. Bob was voted the Trail 103.3/Missoulian Entertainer of the Year in 2007.

You can hear his music on his website, or download it at iTunes, Amazon, and other online music providers. Follow @Bob_Wire on Twitter.

 

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