Reviews > Music

Haggard & cashed out

Music | Commercialized country stations fade into irrelevance as the influence of Americana music continues to grow

Issue: "False witnesses?," Oct. 5, 2002

More and more radio listeners feel like the Dixie Chicks in their hit single "Long Time Gone," lamenting the state of country music. "They sound tired but they don't sound haggard / They got money but they don't have cash."

Merle Haggard, that is. And Johnny Cash. Two legendary performers still making stunning music who cannot get on the radio, so filled are the airwaves with photogenic hat acts and country-fried versions of Britney Spears.

The soundtrack of O Brother, Where Art Thou, with its mix of bluegrass, depression-era folk tunes, and sharp new performers, sold an astonishing 6 million copies. The "Down from the Mountain" tour, featuring O Brother performers and their fellow travelers, sold out venues across the country, making it one of the summer's most successful concerts. And yet, even though mainline country music keeps losing market share, country stations still refuse to play that kind of genuinely country music.

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Nevertheless, the music that does sound Haggard and does have Cash is looming ever larger, establishing its presence in the music industry, which it is even beginning to influence.

They call it "Americana music." The genre embraces legendary performers like Mr. Haggard and Mr. Cash, but also a new generation of from-the-heart musicians, such as the acclaimed singer-songwriter Lucinda Williams. Old-time forms such as bluegrass and mountain music are classified as Americana. So is the more cutting-edge, contemporary "alternative country," featuring young bands, including root-rockers and ex-punkers who, in their search for authenticity, found themselves going country.

What the whole range of Americana has in common is that it is distinctly American music, not a commercialized product of the pop culture, but an expression of the folk culture, grounded in American history and values.

The genre garnered attention with the first Americana Music Awards, which were given in Nashville last month. Mr. Cash received the Spirit of Americana Free Speech Award. Jim Lauderdale, who has penned some of the best country tunes of the last decade, won Artist of the Year, and his duet with the legendary Ralph Stanley, "She's Looking at Me," won song of the year. A lifetime achievement award went to Emmylou Harris, who progressed from flower child to country girl.

Americana music can get pretty wild, especially from the alternative country crowd, but it is completely open to explicit Christianity. This is true not only of bluegrass but for many of the newer performers as well. Nor do these singers, unlike many Contemporary Christian musicians, feel constrained to use hidden meanings or "is this Jesus or her boyfriend" ambiguities. Patty Loveless sings "Rise Up, Lazarus!" Gillian Welch sings about hell ("Tear My Stillhouse Down"), heaven ("Orphan Girl"), and Jesus on the cross ("By the Mark").

Many of the Americana Award winners are outspoken Christians. T Bone Burnett, producer of O Brother and winner of the Executive of the Year award, had been involved in the contemporary Christian music scene, as was Julie Miller, who with her husband Buddy won Album of the Year for Buddy and Julie Miller.

Billy Joe Shaver, winner of a lifetime achievement award for songwriting, wrote the songs Waylon Jennings turned into the Outlaw movement of the 1970s. Mr. Shaver lived a hard life, from his own degradation through substance abuse to the tragic death of his wife and son, but he became a Christian and wrote heart-rending songs of faith in albums like Victory.

Americana's newfound visibility and respect in the music industry is making it actually influential beyond its borders. One of the pioneers of the alternative country "No Depression" movement, Jeff Tweedy, has a movie out, I Am Trying to Break Your Heart, a "rockumentary" about his band, Wilco. Ryan Adams, former frontman of alternative country group Whiskeytown, has become a bonafide rock star. He even appears in a Gap jeans ad-with Willie Nelson.

And if it is true that country radio does not play Haggard and Cash, they certainly play the Dixie Chicks. The trio started as a bluegrass ensemble, dressed in cowgirl outfits and singing on Texas street corners. Then they became one of the biggest-selling groups in popular music, switching to designer gowns and crossing over into the pop marketplace while managing not to sacrifice their country integrity.

Now their latest album, Home, takes them back to their musical home, with skillfully played bluegrass-infused acoustic instruments, traces of the O Brother aesthetic, and that complaint about country radio, which is now played on country radio stations throughout the nation.

In a musical landscape dominated by criminal rappers, suicidally depressing rock, disco nostalgia, and low sales in the recording industry, America may be ready to rediscover Americana.

Gene Edward Veith
Gene Edward Veith

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