Sounds like Americana
A new musical genre is forming in Sacramento. It is a move back in time to when songwriting came from the heart and the community.
The room is poorly lit. The sound of applause fades back into the low murmur of conversation. Tables are decorated with beer steins and plastic water glasses. A woman is laughing. On the other side of the room, a handful of nervous performers tune and retune their guitars, look over binders of lyrics or simply pace. Just outside the front door, two chain smokers puff like factory smokestacks in the warm evening air. They, too, are anxious, awaiting their impending turns at the microphone.
Apart from the very human desire to succeed in front of one’s peers, the nervousness is essentially unfounded, at least in this setting. Here everyone is applauded, from born-again Christians warbling songs about redemption through Jesus to middle-aged desk workers covering Lynyrd Skynyrd songs in imagined stadium-rock glory. In each case, the audience members applaud and, for the most part, listen intently. Of course they do: Essentially everyone here is waiting for a turn at the mic, and the air is electric with anticipation.
For the most part, the performances are mediocre. This is, after all, an open-mic; by definition, it presents a forum for anyone to mount the stage. But every once in a while, there are surprises—like when the red-bearded young man approaches the mic. He chooses to stand rather than sit on the barstool. Perhaps the audience already considers this a bold move. The host introduces him, but then again, most of the people here already know who he is. In this context, he’s something of a hero, an open-mic performer who now has played at most of the singer-songwriter-friendly venues in town.
When James Finch Jr. begins to sing, the audience chatter drops to complete silence. His voice is deep and resonant, and the story he tells is familiar, not only because it’s one they have heard him sing before, but also because the story itself has a certain resonance, a sense of loss to which each member of the audience can relate. “On long nights when my voice don’t ring out / Lord, those dreams of falling and waking with a shout,” he sings, his voice a strange combination of vulnerability and force. “When I mourn to myself the death of that little boy / the way I moan, the way I turn in my sleep / On early mornings when I walk the foggy city alone / I’m a man with filthy habits, a man who collects bones / But on some Christmas day I was my mother’s darling / On some Christmas day I even made somebody proud.” The guitar is picked gently, and despite the deep voice and flaming red beard and hair, there is a sad, gentle quality present, an introspection that is underscored by the subject matter, a mourning story about the loss of his maternal grandfather. It is as if the performer is crashing, so slowly, into the sunset, and he is taking the audience with him.
Finch is just one artist in a new crop of Sacramento-area singer-songwriters. It is a group characterized predominantly by a sense of roots-oriented songwriting and acoustic instrumentation, a form of music that, for lack of better terminology, we will dub “Americana.”
They are mostly (but not always) solo performers who have made a conscious decision to turn their backs on corporate pop radio, the glitz of rock fashion and the game of the music business. The quest for a major-label record deal is not a huge concern here, nor are endless touring, product promotion, contracts and music law. Instead of electric guitars and crashing drums, in Americana we find acoustic guitars, banjos and mandolins. Instead of performances in bars, we find them in coffeehouses. Instead of volume, we find lyrical substance. Finch’s name comes to mind, as do the names Holly Holt, Sherman Baker, Richard March, Jackie Greene, Scott McChane and a congregation of others.
It is music that, 30 years ago, might have been called “folk” and would have found an easy place next to a young Bob Dylan and in the Cambridge and Greenwich Village folk scenes. Today, though, the term “folk music” itself is problematic, a blurry catchall that at times seems utterly indefinable as a musical genre (in the same way that “rock” has become indefinable). Who, after all, are the “folk,” and what exactly does the term “folk music” really mean? Indeed, when Dylan himself plugged in his electric guitar at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965, the concept of folk music was forever changed, and, with it, journalists scrambled to create new definitions: folk rock, country rock, roots rock and, later, the movement known alternatively as alt-country or No Depression.
Either way, these young performers come to the Sacramento stage with a long history of music behind them, music that is informed by American musical traditions. Blues, bluegrass, country and early rock ’n’ roll all are present as the musical roots from which Sacramento’s Americana singer-songwriters grow. This fact is particularly noteworthy in California, a state that has served as the final stage at the edge of the continent and that, as such, has become the reservoir for all rivers—musical or otherwise—flowing westward. Woody Guthrie rode the freight trains to California during the Dust Bowl era, and trust-fund kid and alt-country pioneer Gram Parsons overdosed down south in the Joshua Tree desert. Country music once was called “country and western,” and California is just about as far west as one can go without plunging into the Pacific.
In the late 1980s through the 1990s, Sacramento’s live-music scene was steeped in these same American roots. In a current musical environment where it is sometimes difficult to remember what music sounded like before the sweeping influence of Radiohead and “alternative rock,” bands like Davis-based dark-roots act Thin White Rope and Chico-based country-fueled roots rockers the Mother Hips were rising from obscurity. Their approach to roots music was often different, at times glaringly so, but the overall effect was similar: songs returning to rock’s roots, be they country, early rock ’n’ roll, blues or some combination of them all. Both bands appeared as part of the rising “No Depression” genre, a blending of rock and country music spearheaded on the national stage by bands such as Uncle Tupelo and Whiskeytown. (The phrase “No Depression” was taken from a Carter Family song and later was used as the title of an Uncle Tupelo album and as the title of a music magazine.)
But the mid 1990s saw the dissolution of Thin White Rope and, for many, marked the end of an era. The Mother Hips lasted a bit longer, weathering large-scale tours and a stint on a major label before finally dissolving last year. Forever Goldrush, perhaps the last of the old guard of Sacramento roots rockers, has completely revamped both its membership and its sound. Even the Amazing Sweethearts, mainstays of the local music scene, ended their long-running mastery of the roots-rock sound with the departure of their leader, Grub Dog, for Austin, Texas, last month.
The crumbling of the Sacramento roots-rock scene has done nothing to dampen the city’s interest in roots-based music, but both the performers and the audience have channeled this interest into a new form. Grub Dog is a fine indicator of this change in form because, in many ways, he rode the fence between roots rock and acoustic Americana with aplomb. His band, the Amazing Sweethearts, essentially defined what it meant to be roots rock on the local stage, performing blistering sets of straight-ahead roots-tinged rock at ear-splitting volumes, one part Rolling Stones and one part the Rembrandts.
Even while he was leader of the Amazing Sweethearts, though, Grub Dog wore another hat—that of a singer-songwriter. From time to time, he could be found at venues such as the True Love Coffeehouse, playing a set much quieter than his standard amps-at-11 rock show. The acoustic set would revolve around songs of his upbringing in rural Central California and would be peppered with Steve Earle and Tom Waits covers. The difference between the explosive rock set and the acoustic set was difficult to ignore. “When I do my acoustic set, it tends to be a lot more about the songs rather than the overall wallop,” Grub said on the phone from his new apartment in Austin. “When you do an acoustic set, you’re trying to get across the songs themselves—the words, the stories. Your job is to bring everybody into a certain space. The great performing songwriters really do this for you. They tell you stories. I’m trying to bring people into the emotional space of the songs rather than trying to kick them over the head with volume.”
The split between sheer volume and intimate emotion underscored in Grub’s comments is indicative of a particular situation important to the local scene, one that provides the bridge between roots rock and the newer Americana songwriters. For many years, local musicians have complained about the type, size and style of local venues. For the most part, the venues that cater to loud rock bands in this town are few in number. However, there are plenty of venues—both smaller bars and coffeehouses—that cater to quieter acoustic and singer-songwriter acts. What this ultimately means is that if a performer wishes to play more than every six weeks or so, he or she eventually will need to put together an acoustic set. Bandleaders like Forever Goldrush’s Damon Wyckoff and Jackpot’s Rusty Miller have used this situation to their advantage by creating solo sets that have allowed them to perform different songs in front of more intimate audiences.
Venues such as the Fox & Goose, the Blue Lamp and Marilyn’s have made a point of opening their venues to Americana-style performers. Indeed, many of the hard-alcohol and beer bars in town that present live music tend to be on the smaller side, meaning that Americana acts effectively are able to present themselves well even on traditionally rock-oriented stages and that there are stages ready and able to accept solo performers.
The Fox & Goose, in particular, has been instrumental in providing an Americana-friendly open-mic, particularly under the stewardship of Billy Harper Jr., an Americana artist in his own right and host of the Fox & Goose open-mic for more than three years. Harper’s technique was to warm the audience up with a short set of his own country-rock inspired acoustic music. This, in turn, introduced a friendly ambience for the Americana acts to follow. “That might have set the tone,” Harper said. “Other performers, like James Finch and Sherman Baker, would have a comfort level with the audience, then, because the audience would enjoy the style.”
The period that Harper ran the open-mic at the Fox & Goose—essentially from mid-1998 until December of last year—is important: These years essentially cover the ascension of Americana singer-songwriters in Sacramento. Certainly, many of the performers had performed in town before that time, but the past few years have brought these performers together into a more concrete and noticeable movement, and many of them—including Holt, Finch, Baker and Greene—got their start, in one form or another, at the Fox & Goose.
“The very first song I wrote I played at the Fox & Goose,” said Holt, one of comparatively few female Americana singers on the scene. “The cool thing is that the room went silent. Everyone was listening.”
It’s no wonder that the audience listened. Holt’s folk- and country-influenced songs about working-class life and the struggle to make the right decisions in a difficult world have made her a favorite in the scene. Of particular note is her full-throated vocal style—a style so devoid of ironic detachment that it practically demands the listener’s attention. “She put up with his drinkin’ ’cause he was decent in bed,” Holt sings, her strawberry-blond hair nearly matching the wood of her acoustic guitar. “She worked 12-hour shifts ’til she liked to been dead / Course he couldn’t keep a job, but he was keepin’ her down / At the house on 33rd Street / On the wrong side of town.”
Holt’s performances these days are full sets at regular venues such as Marilyn’s, where booker Danny Elze has opened his stage numerous times to Americana acts. The True Love Coffeehouse, Luna’s Café and the Blue Lamp (where the owner performs his own blues-soaked Americana set several times a week under the name Kentucky Slim) also have proven to be friendly to the Americana scene. Many venues in town also hold “featured” slots at their open-mics, which present a chance for an open-mic regular to perform a 20- to 30-minute set. These allow a sort of junior version of what a “real” slot at the venue might be like. This is one way an Americana musician might find his or her way onto an otherwise inaccessible stage, like that of Old Ironsides (where Grub Dog hosted an open-mic that supported Americana performers like Richard March through featured-performer slots).
The venues provide a stage for the music, but they do little to explain the music itself. This brings up the central mystery of Americana: Why is a group of mostly 20-something musicians obsessed with what essentially is their parents’ music? This is the most important demarcation between the roots-rock movement of the late 1980s and 1990s and the current Americana movement—a difference in the level of backwardness.
The previous generation’s roots rockers looked backward to the early 1970s for inspiration, particularly to the works of Parsons and the Rolling Stones. The new generation of Americana musicians tends to look a decade or more back for their influences, to the folk ballads of early Dylan and to the lonely yodeling ballads of Hank Williams.
One example of this influence can be found in Sherman Baker. He performs accompanied by acoustic guitar, his voice quiet and his eyes searching. Baker appears nervous and tentative in front of an audience, though in the performance itself, this nervousness translates into a sense of fragility that can be heartbreaking at times. In this way, Baker’s music brings to mind Townes Van Zandt, the Texas singer-songwriter whose fragility ended with his alcohol-induced death in 1997. Indeed, Baker covers Van Zandt’s music in his sets (as well as songs by Williams and Dylan), and, apart from the fact that Baker isn’t a drinker, the two share striking stylistic similarities.
The musicians of the 1960s, it seems, have reappeared. “It’s this generation’s focal point,” said Marty DeAnda, co-owner (with Dennis Newhall) of local record company Dig Music. DeAnda has been instrumental in breaking Sacramento’s Americana scene onto the national stage in the form of local singer-songwriter Jackie Greene, whom he manages and who is signed to Dig. “The current reflection is back to the 1960s folk scene. I can hear the performers of that time in these young kids,” DeAnda said. Then he laughed. “Hey, sometimes I think Sherman Baker is Townes Van Zandt.”
If Baker is Van Zandt, then Greene surely is Dylan. At age 22, Greene has found himself (with the driving force of DeAnda behind him), poised on the edge of the national stage and with an upcoming date at the Newport Folk Festival. Greene follows directly in the footsteps of the young Bob Dylan, who made his own debut at Newport when he was 23.
“Personally, for me, it was my parents’ music,” Greene said. “I went to it through blues music. I liked Led Zeppelin and the Stones in high school. I read the liner notes, did my homework and found the original artists. I kept going back and back instead of forward.” Certainly, one can hear those influences in his music, the combination of early 1960s songwriting and 1950s-era electric blues mixing to create a sound that holds audiences enthralled.
Greene’s search backward through history is indicative of many local musicians who started with one set of influences and then proceeded to move backward, perhaps beginning with Wilco, Lucinda Williams and Ryan Adams (whom local songwriter Scott McChane rightfully calls the poster boy of Americana music) and moving backward to the Rolling Stones and Dylan and sometimes to even older forms. In some cases, artists find their roots in the folk music of the early 1960s, but in other cases, it goes further back to Hank Williams and, in some cases, to the first folk-music recordings of the 1920s and 1930s.
Noah Nelson, lead singer and guitarist of Las Pesadillas, one of the area’s most interesting and progressive rock bands, also is a solo singer-songwriter and traces his own songwriting influences to various points on the map—citing Hawaiian slide-guitar music, Irish folk ballads and Eastern European styles. His solo performances tend to display a discernable Dylan influence, particularly in terms of his often surreal lyrics (Nelson calls it writing from “a Dr. Seuss angle”), but Nelson’s set closer for the past few years has been a cover of Harry McClintock’s “Big Rock Candy Mountain,” a song originally written in the early 1900s.
The influence of America’s musical past, though, is only part of the equation. After all, going backward must take into account whatever is present—it’s an escape from what is here and now. So, why is the present so difficult for some local musicians to face?
If we are to look at the present through the eyes of an Americana artist, there is no more articulate candidate than McChane. A songwriter who lives in Midtown Sacramento, McChane spent three years as leader of the Mac Swanky Trio, enduring various tours and television appearances along the way. The breakup of that band left him a solo artist by default. As a result, McChane has become something of a home-recording junkie. He self-records and self-releases four-song EPs and sells them at shows and at local venues such as the True Love Coffeehouse. This is the kind of do-it-yourself (DIY) ethic that punk rockers have been famous for in the past. Now, it seems that DIY is the aesthetic credo of Americana.
Like many local Americana artists, McChane is outspoken about what he believes music should be (as well as about the term “Americana,” which he finds problematic). “There is just so much over-produced crap out there being shoved down the consumer’s throat,” he said. “Maybe acoustic music is just genuine. Our lives are so busy now. We are working more hours. We are being inundated with media, commercials, graphics, flavor-of-the-minute songs. Maybe the simplicity and implied honesty of acoustic music has become more appealing to the masses.”
McChane, like many Americana artists, feels that corporate radio has turned its back on something essential. One can hear it in McChane’s music in particular: a sense of longing and a sense of sadness, a search, perhaps, for something more fulfilling than the music of the present has to offer. “Disappear,” McChane sings on his new CD, Slow Moving Pictures, his voice practically a whisper that floats slowly through a blurry haze of acoustic instruments. “I might disappear / Walk down to the highway and disappear. / It’s funny how the rain / Can remind you of where you came from / But I can’t ever go back / There again.” McChane’s elegy is for the past itself, the loss inherent in moving and the ultimate inability, perhaps, to fade into that background. It is a theme too complex for corporate radio, and yet it works with older forms of music—like McChane’s quiet acoustic music. It’s a vehicle for direct address of the spirit.
Holly Holt has commented on this same effect. “We are all in such a hurry,” Holt said, “and we are completely disconnected from our community. No news there, but I think that maybe we, as songwriters, are looking for a musical place where we can connect with people, make them slow down for a minute, maybe even talk to each other.” Indeed, the idea of talking to each other, that sense of being face to face, is precisely what Americana has to offer as a musical vehicle.
Direct address is important because it makes another claim for the appeal of Americana music: the presence of an intelligent audience. This is significant because, unlike the average live rock show, the lyrics at an Americana set are immediately intelligible and therefore hold a certain primacy. Of course, intelligent, thinking audiences are not limited to the Americana scene, but within the context of singer-songwriters, the lyric reigns supreme. Americana is a genre based on the idea of storytelling, a tradition borrowed from earlier folk and old-time music that was recorded in the 1920s and 1930s but traces its roots hundreds of years into the past. The lyrical content is often one of the most readily definable aspects of Americana as a genre. Often, writers include some words out of the traditional folk-word bag, images that are essentially rural in nature and that are, for lack of better terminology, down-home. In the songs of Americana we find trucks, crows, corn, whiskey, hounds, hard travelin’, and a host of other American iconographic images.
In fact, this is one of the most glaring criticisms one could level at the Americana scene: an over-reliance on these stock images and a sort of affected rural grammar. Greene’s use of trains and highway images in his songs, his insistence on “wanderin’” and “travelin’” and his “I’m a-gonna lose my mind” grammar are examples of this trend, but there are countless others from virtually all the local Americana songwriters. Holt has even written a song about the number of trains that appear in Sacramento’s Americana songs. “Young boys rule this town,” she sings. “Sprouting up from the ground / And the sandboxes / They’re playing guitars and harmonicas / When they’re up on the stage / They all sing about rivers and trains.”
Greene himself has noted this trend. “Perhaps we do simply emulate the songs of the past,” he said. “As far as a purpose, I don’t know that any of these images have a specific purpose other than that they seem to evoke a certain emotion. Trains, planes, buses, etc., are always doing two things: bringing people away or bringing them back. That right there is pretty sad—or happy, depending on how you look at it.”
Either way, it is clear that the images and techniques used by people like Greene are catching audiences’ attention, not only in Sacramento but across the United States. What is perhaps the most interesting thing about these audiences is the mixture of old and young, of 50-year-old classic-rock junkies and 20-something young people mingling to the sounds of acoustic guitars and melodic, heartfelt vocals. The age blending is one thing that is unique to this particular genre, setting it apart from virtually all other kinds of music in Sacramento.
Recent events held by local bluegrass-influenced trio the Freight Train Riders of America help to underscore this effect. The band hosts and performs at a series of showcases at the 24th Street Theatre, showcases that offer a chance for various acoustic and Americana acts to present short sets in a theater setting. In past shows, the effect has been to gather the disparate audience for Americana music in one place to witness six or more acts in an evening dedicated to the idea of acoustic music. The series has featured a veritable who’s who of local Americana acts including Finch, Elena Powell, McChane, Forever Goldrush’s Wyckoff and many, many others (including an array of bluegrass-inspired acts such as the Green Brothers Band and the Fryed Brothers Band).
The audiences at these “Holler Inside” shows represent just how diverse acoustic-music fans really are—particularly in terms of age. Children run up and down the aisles. Teenagers tap their feet. Middle-aged men and women applaud enthusiastically between songs, and people old enough to be the parents of the middle-aged nod their heads in appreciation. The crowd is, in essence, a community formed strictly for the love of music and one that essentially is blind to age.
Greene also has noticed this effect. “For the older people,” he said, “the music reminds them of something, and for the younger people, it seems completely new.” Greene’s audiences are particularly diverse, with the older crowd singing along to a cover of Elmore James’ “The Sky is Crying,” while the younger audience members are hearing the song perhaps for the first time. The mixture of old and new may be one of the most miraculous facets of Americana in Sacramento, representing a way to bridge the generation gap through music.
If so, the musicians of Sacramento’s Americana scene are accomplishing some things that politicians and social reformers have been unable to do: create a real sense of community. Last week, these musicians gathered together in order to take part in a photograph for this story. Under a blazing midday sun, established artists like Powell, Baker and Finch mingled for a time with new and up-and-coming musicians and open-mic regulars like Just Kate and James Cundiff. DeAnda wandered among the players, shaking hands and writing down contact information for future bookings. Jeffry Prince, producer of the St. Simon Three’s new CD and both producer and drummer for Holt, hid in a strip of shade against the back wall while newcomer John “Banjolizia” gently plucked his five strings on the pavement below. Kally, lead singer of local rock act the Dirty Martinis and also a solo singer-songwriter, chatted with former open-mic host Harper while Julie Meyers of acoustic duo SquishTheBadMan dangled her feet over the edge of a concrete ramp.
Of course, there’s only so much 100-degree-plus heat that one can bear, and after a time, many of the artists dove back into their cars and disappeared. But a few remained, retreating to the cool of the Fox & Goose, to a cold bottle of beer and to their own community of friends.
These people are not only contributors to the music scene in Sacramento, but also are a self-made community of their own. In the end, perhaps, this is the most important fact of all: Musicians with similar visions have found each other and have discovered, against all indications from corporate pop radio, that there is, in fact, an audience for their music. It is a victory, perhaps, but if so, it is one tempered with sadness, mystery and loss.
As Greene sings in “Travelin’ Song,” “I got a little money and I got a little time, / I got myself a pickup truck that I can call mine. / I got myself a guitar and I got myself some friends, / Some folks say I’m lucky, but I think that all depends.”