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Digging Deeper for Roots Music

It’s time to look below the surface for rich new sources of Americana



The annual conference of the Nashville-based Americana Music Association has had its share of battles over how to define American roots music and which directions the group should take it. What no one disputes, though, is that the music finds its lasting power in songs that are both tied to tradition and fresh enough to surprise, songs rich enough to be delivered by a variety of performers and groups in affecting ways.

As performers, promoters, publicists, radio programmers, record labels and journalists with a stake in the Americana music scene congregate in Nashville this weekend for the third annual AMA conference, many who attend the nightly artist showcases will be keeping an eye out for sources of just such material. Trouble is, some of the most promising exponents of Americana won’t be on view—that’s because acts of uncommon ability and passion face the all too common practical problems in gaining broad visibility.

The record company and radio honchos who appear on AMA panels regularly advise performers to come up with material that’s distinctive, to get out and play it, to hit the road and build an audience. They also urge artists to find a way to move units and seize every opportunity to be a “partner” in evangelizing Americana music. From doing all that, they say, comes recognition and a sustainable career.

What follows is a report on five uniquely talented acts who seem to have taken as much of that advice as possible, people who make strong, enduring music, yet haven’t attracted the attention they deserve. All five artists fall within the generally recognized parameters of Americana. Each has also written a body of original songs that could be mined not just by mainstream country (where Americana-associated writers like Bruce Robison, Jim Lauderdale, Darrell Scott and the husband-and-wife team of Buddy and Julie Miller have had marked success), but by other Americana or even pop acts in search of strong roots material. In short: Attention should be paid.

One of the most credible fusions of honky-tonk, post-Velvet Underground punk and Southern rock this side of Jason & the Scorchers is the music of Tim Carroll, a longtime denizen of Nashville’s rock and alt-country scenes. Carroll’s lead guitar work alone sets him apart—whether he’s backing his fiancée Elizabeth Cook on the Grand Ole Opry, his buddy Lonesome Bob in a rock club or fronting his own band. Developed and refined over the past 20 years, Carroll’s music features a hard-kicking rhythm as recognizable as the one patented by Waylon Jennings. Carroll has released four CDs under his own name; his latest, Always Tomorrow (Sideburn), is the first, however, that’s actually come out an American label.

Despite receiving scattered airplay on college and Americana radio for years, Carroll’s music has been heard less than his story. The arc of that story looks something like this: Kid brings Indiana punk band to New York, becomes a leader on the neo-honky-tonk scene there and then heads to Nashville, where he starts gigging out several nights a week. Seymour Stein, the man who introduced Madonna and The Ramones to the world, eventually signs him to Sire Records, but amidst the usual music business runaround, never puts out his CD. Carroll in effect bootlegs the album under the title Not for Sale and the disc goes on to become something of a hit via sales on the Internet and at the merch table.

Meanwhile, Carroll’s songs, which run the gamut from honky-tonk and rock to modern country and pop, haven’t gone unnoticed. They’ve been covered by writers as gifted and discerning as Robbie Fulks (“Every Kind of Music but Country”) and John Prine (“If I Could”). The latter song has been picked up across the alt-country spectrum—by Australian sensation Kasey Chambers and inveterate Western swingers Asleep at the Wheel. There are dozens more, such as “Open Flame” and “The Honky-Tonks Called Her Away,” where those came from, all of them built on catchy conceits fleshed out with hook-rich tunes and witty lyrics.

Carroll’s songs also chronicle what it’s like to be a guy with the permanent twang-rock flu, plugging away for the love of it, outside all sense (as if sense were the question). In “A Lotta Rock and Roll,” the opening track on his new album, Carroll admits that his limited success on the world stage “is great exposure—but I can die from that.” Indeed, it’s not like whatever attention he’s received has afforded him, or anyone else in his position, health insurance.

Austin’s Damon Bramblett, whose Lloyd Maines-produced CD for the Antone’s label was a stunning sleeper of 2000, defies preconceptions about what a “Texas singer-songwriter” should sound like and sing about. Bramblett’s first recording since that self-titled disc is a simple, standout contribution to Dressed in Black, the new forthcoming Johnny Cash tribute CD on Dualtone. Bramblett’s knowing turn on “I’m Gonna Sit on the Porch and Pick” proves why the Man in Black is the one established artist to whom he’s most often compared.

Bramblett doesn’t really sound all that much like Cash vocally. (Who does?) Nevertheless, he’s fully digested the way Cash conceives of a song and phrases it. That mind-meld is close enough, in fact, that you’d think Bramblett originals like “Fallin’ Apart” or “Wouldn’t Have It Any Other Way” would be ideal vehicles for Cash himself—powerful changes of pace from the increasingly predictable material he’s been singing of late.

Bramblett’s laconic songs work a distinct, modern alt-country beat—built as much on the small combo jazz heard in noirish ’50s detective movies as on anything overtly twangy. Tom Waits might be one influence here, but the songs stick to the stuff of everyday life, not surrealism, and so the country ties hold. Bramblett’s “Heaven Bound” was covered well by Kelly Willis; he also co-wrote her husband Bruce Robison’s “Just Married.” Robison’s brother Charlie has recorded Bramblett’s material too, but his distinctive originals deserve to be embraced by more than just a gifted family who “gets it.”

If there were still such things as “regional breakout records,” The Sovines, a hardworking, crowd-pleasing bar band from Columbus, Ohio, could claim the Internet-based, alt-country community as their region. Over the past six years, The Sovines have produced four CDs of original honky-tonkin’ rock ’n’ roll with regional labels Kingpin and Oahu. They’ve also appeared across the Midwest and Northeast, often with compatible bands and at venues with which they first became acquainted online. Co-founder Matt Benz is a board member of the ’Net-organized “Twangfest,” an alt-country homecoming held in St. Louis each spring that features top-tier and less established national acts.

Named to salute the big, barreling truck-driving music of the Red Sovine era, the band keep it between the lines via the deeper-than-deep vocals of lead singer Bob Starker (which recall those of Red Simpson and Waylon Jennings), and a succession of unabashed but modern honky-tonk ballads and trucker songs written by lead guitarist Benz. Mark Wyatt, lead vocalist with the cowboy/bluegrass outfit One Riot, One Ranger, recently joined The Sovines as well, lending more harmony to their booming vocals.

This band’s special gift, though, is putting their grasp and mastery of these traditions into a tight, high-energy post-punk context—really doing it, unlike so many bar bands that try and never achieve a working blend. With the on-the-dime rhythms of bassist Ed Mann, rock ’n’ roll rave-ups written by Starker and the reckless intensity of their live shows, The Sovines’ recent live CD was reasonably titled Comin’ in Loaded. Their new album, Stupifyin’ Jones (available only on the Internet), evinces a pop sensibility without sacrificing edge or originality.

The Sovines’ records have been heard across the country on college radio and, in the case of their song “Some Blame Truckers,” on Dr. Demento’s syndicated novelty program. Many who’ve been swept up by the group’s shows regularly express wonderment that The Sovines aren’t recording stars in their own right; it’s that kind of band and following. In any case, the group have a sound that deserves a wider hearing, as well as a body of explosive, smart songs other bands could well be looking at.

Amy Allison, the witty, genre-jumping daughter of witty, genre-jumping Mose Allison, has been singing in New York’s indie and alt-country trenches for over a decade; her latest album Sad Girl, on Diesel Only Records, has received considerable critical acclaim. As a performer, Allison is hardly unknown. This is the woman whose earlier disc, The Maudlin Years, was listed by Elvis Costello as one of his all-time favorites. Also increasing Allison’s visibility, at least among rock fans, was her ’90s side project Parlor James, the Appalachian/Celtic-leaning rock band she led with former Lone Justice guitarist Ryan Hedgecock.

While she’s developed something of a cult following as a singer, Allison has also amassed a catalog of songs that not only work as a contemporary woman’s take on right-from-life situations, but work equally well as hard country or pop vocal material. Tunes like “Listless and Lonesome,” “Sad State of Affairs” and “Shadow of a Man” are ripe for Nashville exploitation. Cosmopolitan country singer Laura Cantrell saw the point when she included Allison’s “The Whiskey Makes You Sweeter” on her first album (also released by Diesel Only).

Beyond that, the soundtrack to the Drew Barrymore movie Home Fries has used Allison’s songs without explicit “country” intentions, and Allison has worked as an urban club chanteuse as often as she’s closed up the honky-tonks. The girl group-meets-Twin Peaks cast of her next project, which is being produced in Scotland with The Pearlfishers’ David Scott, finds Allison working in an adventurous context that should further demonstrate the pop, even rock, potential of her music.

The fuss over the “O Brother breakthrough” has resulted mainly in compilation tributes to traditional country music and the presence of the occasional fiddle or banjo on records by established country stars. But what would an act sound like who took the loose-limbed rambunctiousness of the old-timey Soggy Mountain Boys to heart, and then goosed it for the modern world—goosed it so well that audiences couldn’t help but dance to it? Very probably, they’d sound like The Hackensaw Boys, an eight-man, neo-hoedown band from Charlottesville, Va., who have been crisscrossing the country for three years and have released two worthy self-produced CDs.

With roots in indie rock and country, the young Hackensaws rightly resist being mislabeled a bluegrass act, even if they do display strong vocal harmonies, more instrumental capability than they like to let on and a dedication to hard-driving roots music in an acoustic mode. Their aptly titled new CD, Keep It Simple, reveals that there are four adept writers in the band; together, they’ve produced everything from narrative ballads and love songs to fast-picked and -fiddled toe-tappers like “Dance Around” and “Oh My Ruby Pearl.” These might sound like ancient numbers built for barn dancing, but they’re brand-new—and with lyrics that can turn downright topical, whether satirizing the current country music scene in “Nashville” or saluting anti-globalization protests in “Seattle.”

There’s a combination of credibility and infectious simplicity in the music of The Hackensaw Boys, qualities that are often sought but rarely attained by bands with similar ambitions. Best of all, amid all the groups who come to old-time music from rock backgrounds only to present it as a joke, the Hackensaws aren’t kidding around at all. They’re serious about drawing new fans to their kind of music and have been known to pull in crowds in new towns by playing in the middle of Main Street and handing out fliers.

Effective—and perhaps quaint—as that’s been, they’ve also been getting well-deserved attention this summer while entertaining large crowds as a between-act attraction on the “Unlimited Sunshine Tour” featuring Cake, the Flaming Lips and Modest Mouse. The Hackensaws’ combination of deeply rooted sounds played with a fresh appeal to new audiences is what Americana is all about.

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