The future of American music

Rock ’n’ roll has been around the block now; we are closing in on 50 years of rock history. American folk and blues are much older—about three times that. So today, when you hear a voice full of music that does not feel attached to time or to any discernable decade, you start a long-honored tradition, the time-out-of-mind game: “When is this guy from? Who is he?”

Such is the ballad of Jackie Greene, a barely-21-year-old who recently moved to Sacramento from Placerville, but he might just as easily have moved here from the Mississippi Delta or, even better, Hibbing, Minnesota.

In two nights last weekend at Marilyn’s, at 12th and K streets, I saw Greene play acoustic and electric guitar, harmonica and piano, and with each instrument he is completely utterly comfortable, like his worn jeans or a ruffled porkpie hat. He tosses off runs that would make Buddy Guy’s head turn, and his acoustic guitar work with plaintive harmonica accompaniment are as accomplished and emotional as American musical icons who are two and three times older than he. These analogies are a simple way of saying something profound: This guy is massively talented.

Greene’s voice is big and casually seductive in the way that Bob Dylan’s and Tom Waits’ and Gregg Allman’s are. His tone and inflections seem naturally born, from an old soul inhabiting a skinny young body. When he needed to wail and growl in songs like “The Lord Mistreats Me” or “Georgia,” the words poured out like smooth whiskey; when he offered intimacies like “Blue Sky” or “Falling Back,” they almost seemed too private for the hushed audience.

But the crown of creation that rests on this talented young man’s head is his exceptional songwriting. He already has established a rich, personal literate mythology—recognizable if you read Faulkner, Steinbeck or McMurtry, if you have traveled south of the Mason-Dixon line or have in any way been drawn to great American folk and country blues in your search for drama in humanity. What is stunning is the compactness of his writing at such a young age. Like Raymond Carver or Lead Belly, Greene has taken the time to fashion perfectly formed teardrops of songs. The only complaint I had of the weekend performances were that they ended.

In all my many years of walking into clubs and hearing a completely unknown artist (and this includes artists like Stevie Ray Vaughan and Marcia Ball, years before they recorded their debut albums), Jackie Greene ranks right up at the top.