The guitar player was from Paris, the banjo player from Czechoslovakia. The leaders were a mandolin player from Austria and his wife, a bass player from Bratislava who was singing sweet, expressive country music like Dottie West back from the dead. Their patter with the audience was in heavily accented English, but when they sang, everything-the accent, the phrasing, and even the twang-was dead on.
The group, called Nugget, was performing at the Oklahoma International Bluegrass Festival in Guthrie, Okla. With some 15,000 people in attendance, it's one of the biggest festivals of its kind.
Another international group, the Hillbilly Boogiemen-from the Netherlands-donned overalls and slicked-back hair and performed lively covers of Hank Williams, Lefty Frizzell, and George Jones. Their frontman, Arnold Lasseur, told WORLD that this kind of music is very popular in Europe, especially among young people. "They are attracted by its energy, its honesty," he said. "Everyone is into roots music-you know, Americana."
For those sick of pop, disgusted by rock, and frustrated by country for sounding ever more like the first two, another musical genre is earning its own section in CD stores and has coalesced into a radio format: Americana.
This kind of music keeps its roots in the traditions of American folk culture. It steadfastly resists the commercialism of American pop culture, in which market considerations overrule artistic integrity and favor what is new and trendy over the tried and the true.
Americana music includes traditional forms, such as Bluegrass and Western Swing; "roots" music, emulating the early precursors of rock 'n' roll; classic country icons, such as Merle Haggard and Loretta Lynn; and the sometimes wildly experimental "alternative country," which is either too conservative or too radical to gain a hearing on country radio.
The main periodical of Americana music, No Depression, with a due sense of irony for "noncommercial" music, lists a Top 40 chart that can serve as a rough guide to the range of this format. Recent charts includes country stalwarts who are too old for hat-act music videos, but who are making some of the best music of their careers, such as Doc Watson, Del McCoury, and Johnny Cash. Also included are some sometimes successful country artists, who are nevertheless edgy enough and traditional enough to be accepted as Americana: Alison Krauss, Lyle Lovett, Dwight Yoakam.
Some rock 'n' roll stars are also allowed in, for their rootsy styles and sense of authenticity: Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, Tom Petty. Critically acclaimed maverick songwriters such as Steve Earle and Lucinda Williams make the cut, as do the alternative country musicians, who sometimes sound more alternative than country: The Waco Brothers, Wilco, Son Volt.
The editors of No Depression describe their pilgrimage from rock 'n' roll, their search for honesty and authenticity that took them through the stripped-down angst of punk and alternative rock, until they discovered the real-world pathos of the country music tradition. Although mainstream country has been adopting the slickness and packaging of pop music, something about the old performers and the old styles, what Bill Monroe called "the ancient tones," strikes deep into the human condition.
In the 1990s, a whole slew of punk bands went country. A group calling itself Uncle Tupelo released an album in 1990 called No Depression, from an old Carter Family song written during the economic collapse of the 1930s. In heaven, sang the Carters, there would be no Depression. In Uncle Tupelo's version, the depression was not so much the economic as the psychological kind. Alternative country-often called "No Depression" music-was a way out of the nihilistic philosophy and the emotional black hole that rock 'n' roll had fallen into.
Not that this particular genre is above reproach: Alternative country, in trying to be real, can be rude and crude, in both language and subject matter. Some of the No Depression crowd show their college-boy roots by exaggerating the country music conventions and turning them into something ironic-the familiar postmodern treatment that keeps the songs from being real at all (though they remain humorous and pleasant to listen to).
But the form has room for Christianity too, and that of a distinctly down-to-earth and unwatered-down kind. "Of the 170 albums I've played on," said Bluegrass great Ralph Stanley to Wall Street Journal columnist Dave Shiflett, "about 40 percent are gospel." Songs with explicitly Christian themes are nearly always intermixed with the secular songs, in the same sets and the same albums, so that there is a true interrelationship between the sacred and the secular.
This is true for younger stars as well, such as Alison Krauss. "I'm trying to remember a [bluegrass] band that doesn't play gospel," she said. "I just can't think of any."
The veterans who survived, with great difficulty, the honky-tonk life-such as Johnny Cash-now often have strong Christian testimonies, which are reflected in their music. That's also true of a number of the newer Americana artists, such as Buddy and Julie Miller.
The music of Gillian Welch hearkens back to the Carter Family sound, and the songs she writes emulate their hard-edged mountain piety. In her album Revival, she has an orphan girl sing about eventually meeting her family in heaven, "at God's table." In the meantime, she asks her "Blessed Savior" to "Be my mother, my father, my sister, my brother." In "Tear My Stillhouse Down," she has a dying moonshiner warning the listener to "tell all your children/That hell ain't no dream." In "By the Mark," she sings about Jesus dying on the cross to pay for her sins, and that when she crosses over after death, she will know her Savior "by the mark where the nails have been."
The group 16 Horsepower has a sound more alternative than country. Our reviewer Arsenio Orteza has compared the group not to the novelist of shocking grace Flannery O'Connor, but to what is even more offbeat, a Flannery O'Connor character. But 16 Horsepower will sing about witnessing to a lost friend, with lyrics like, "Your eyes are as empty as my Savior's tomb."
At the Oklahoma festival, groups young and old kept up the tradition of including an "inspirational number" in their sets. The alternative country group the Red Dirt Rangers, though hard-driving in their regular show, gave some special performances at the children's tent, teaching the little kids folk songs and entertaining them with silly animal songs that had a point. ("Ya'll notice how when dogs play with each other, they don't care what color the other dogs are?")
The site of the festival, Guthrie, dates back to the landrush days and used to be the capital of the state. Back in the 1950s and '60s, the community wanted to seem modern, so the downtown stores invested in vinyl siding and sheet metal to cover up its embarrassingly old buildings. But in the '80s, they tore off the facades and began restoring the old structures to their frontier glory. Today, downtown Guthrie consists of tall red brick buildings, topped with cupolas and festooned with ornaments and bric-a-brac, still expressing the flamboyant, rugged attitude of the old west.
People, disillusioned with modernism, are finding that postmodernism, with its superficiality and its airy relativism, offers them precisely nothing. It is no wonder that they have turned Guthrie into a tourist attraction, that retro styles are the vogue, that the past is in again. Those burnt-out by the claim that nothing is true are hungering and thirsting for something that seems real. Artifacts that have grown out of a worldview far richer and deeper than that of today's slick materialism have a new appeal. This is an opening not just for Americana but for historic Christianity.