If you’re a fan of Americana music and don’t know much about its history, read this new book Americanaland by John Milward. The book gives the history and context to a beautifully deep and rich genre of music. In fact, the book spends a considerable amount of time discussing the various important people who contributed to the long and winding road of Americana history. It’s a solid book with many names and song titles along the way, so take some time with a cup of your favorite warm drink, pull up the songs that catch your eye, and learn from Milward’s thoughtful cultural history of this genre that so many love.
The book follows a roughly chronological storyline, starting (where else) in the Appalachian Mountains with the Carter Family, Ralph Peer, and Jimmie Rodgers. The story unfolds rapidly, moving into Alan Lomax’s “race records” and quickly developing the fusion between what we might now call “folk” or “roots county” with R&B music. Before the reader reaches page 20 the question arises – so what IS Americana? The answer is complicated.
As the chapters unfold, Milward discusses the subgenres that make up Americana from country to blues to rock n’ roll and beyond. There are influences from all over the United States from the Atlantic to the Pacific and everything in between. Woody Guthrie, Elvis Presley, Ray Charles, Willie Nelson, the Beatles, Merle Haggard, Bob Dylan… on and on… until well into the 21st century with the modern practitioners of the genre like Steve Earle, Ryan Adams, and Jason Isbell.
The strength of the book is that it includes many different anecdotes of various artists. The points of connection are the most poignant and powerful. Of course all music fans know that Ray Charles sang some country music, but how many knew that the Beatles covered Carl Perkins’ old school rock? Or that Merle Haggard was influenced by the Beatles. Or the friendship that bonded Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash in the height of their fame. The book is full of these examples of the greatest artists of the 20th century intermixing their crafts, learning from one another, and corroborating. Lennon here, Cash there, Kristofferson in another story. It’s remarkable. But again it leaves the reader asking if all of these different styles are Americana, what IS Americana?
The book does lean on Merriam Webster for a definition of the genre on page 5, “a genre of music having roots in early folk and country music.” This is milquetoast at best. There’s no musicological substance to this definition. Rather, it feels dismissive. Perhaps, at the end of it all, Americana is whatever you want it to be. It’s up to the ear of the beholder, so to speak. If the Grateful Dead performing bluegrass is Americana (p. 147), what isn’t Americana? The best example given of music that tries to be but is not Americana was the Eagles in the early 70s topping the commercial charts with “hits” that utilized easy going melodies and tight harmonies that had been heard in the roots of Americana but somehow evade the blessing of the “Americana” genre title.
So there’s a glaring question that the book did not address but is at the heart of what makes the genre; it’s all about success and acceptance. If an artist is successful in the rock charts, they are rock. If an artist is successful in the country charts, they are country. If an artist is subversive (politically p. 229) or ideologically (Woody Guthrie’s entire career, chapter 1) then they will not fit into the mainstream charts and Americana will welcome them with open arms.
The answer to the book’s most glaring question of defining the genre comes down to the explanation alluded to in the book’s subtitle: Where Country and Western Met Rock n’ Roll. This book gives the artist-by-artist explanation of that decades-long transformation. There’s no clear moment where Americana came to be, not even when Dylan plugged in his guitar at Newport. There’s no ground-breaking moment at the old Ryman Auditorium. There’s no singular act who defines what it means to play the music. In some regards, Americana is merely a marketing ploy. In other ways, Americana is a catch-all term for many different musical elements that change, like the practitioners, over time.
It would not be fair to list off artists that were not included in the book (although there are some), so instead let’s compliment the sheer breadth of the genre that is covered in this volume. The songs mentioned are classics and there are many significant artists as well. The book is careful to give enough detail to applaud these musical greats but shies away from hagiography by explaining the drugs, alcohol, and abusive tendencies of far too many of these would-be “heroes.”
The reader is left with a book that is an intriguing read. It reminds the reader of songs that have been hidden away, sometimes, for many years. It’s definitely worth pulling up a streaming app to play songs along the way. Remember that lonesome cry of Mother Maybelle, the sad longing of Hank Williams, the soulful sincerity of Ray Charles, the loveable croon of Willie Nelson, the raucous energy of Jason Isbell… hear it all. Connect with it. This is the music of American artists, tested through a long and violent century, delivered for the 21st century with more alternative chart-topping music that carries on the legacy of these path-breaking and genre-blending artists.