Tag Archives: Americana
Next year marks my 10th anniversary with what has become a full blown love affair with twang music. It started as a crush, I swear. I’m currently working on a long form piece about the albums that came out in 2002 that sent me down the wayward path towards three chords and the truth, but in the meantime, here is something I first published as a response to the Kasey Chambers album ‘Barricades and Brickwalls’ when I was editing Sydney University’s student paper Honi Soit. I later re-worked it into this format (as in, I edited out the album review and wrote strictly memoir) for the lovely gals at Frankie magazine.
Obviously I’ve come a long way since the article was first published, in terms of what I’m listening to and loving and other things as well. Writing this from the United States (where I am hastily typing in a pink cashmere sweater and my underwear) it should be noted that the music that I love would only really be described as Americana here (check it, it’s in the dictionary) though in Australia we still have so far to come in terms of creating a definitive definition and so I have kept the ‘country’ in. Happy reading.
COUNTRY MUSIC CONFESSIONAL:
Flannel shirts, failed romance, heartache, heartbreak and sad, sad songs. I might live to regret putting this in print, but I have a confession to make… I like country music.
I know it isn’t fashionable. Country is just about the daggiest style of music an otherwise self-respecting young woman could have chosen to embrace. It’s tragic – like being a 24 year-old collector of Tupperware or VIP customer at Copperart. It’s the soundtrack of choice for dingy American diners and dimly lit highway truck stops. It doesn’t have the brazen rebelliousness of punk, or the art school precociousness of indie rock or the forthright sexuality of pop. The genre is defined by the nasal twang of the singer and slow walking swagger of the band. It’s country music – it’s about loneliness, loss, and line dancing. And I like it.
My music tastes have not always been this way. I have not always been a fan. I used to be one of those cynical cool kids who thought that country music, littered with hideously sequined Tammy Wynette clones and silver bearded Kenny Rogers types, was not for me. Sure I liked the bedazzlar, stone-wash denim and spiral perms as much as any child of the eighties, but I was never going to listen to Dolly Parton. No amount of Billy Ray Cyrus mulletude could make me trade ballet for boot scooting. For me, country music was always considered tacky and trashy. Even my parents – whose tastes included a passion for Australiana decor and home-made Jenny Kee knitwear – had the good sense to be fans of other musical genres.
As a kid, I spent most my childhood living in small rural areas, so most people make the assumption that it must have been the seventeen years I spent in towns without traffic lights that secured a love for country music. This is not the case. In my formative years I was a full-fledged pop fan with the Kylie Minogue cassingles and the ra-ra skirt to prove it. Growing up, the only hints of the country enthusiast within was a fairly well rehearsed cover version of the Alannah Myles song “Black Velvet” and a one time yodeling gig in my primary school eisteddfod where, armed with a hot head of freshly crimped hair and some seriously disturbing white patent leather cowboy boots, my attention seeking soul got the better of my good taste. Now, these are the embarrassing details of decidedly naff childhood, but they could belong to any performative ten-year old growing up in the early nineties.
No, this love for country music is something relatively new – something that didn’t hit me until my early twenties, when I started listening to the moderately successful new generation of artists now widely referred to under the sub-genre of “alternative country”. In the alt-country world performers like Ryan Adams, Jeff Tweedy and Lucinda Williams wooed their audiences with harrowing harmonicas and harmonies and tales of eternal heartbreak. They labelled themselves “country” but were a dark contrast to the more popular country stars like Shania Twain or Keith Urban. Archetypal alt-country bands like Wilco and Whiskeytown represented a seedier side to country – less spray tanned, less gaudy, more Neil Young than Nashville factory line.
And so I became a fan. And the more I listened to alt-country, the more I grew to accept other types of country. And the more I came to accept country music as a whole genre, the more I realised I had crossed a neon lit, barn dancing, gin swilling point of no return, signified by a proposed road trip to the Tamworth music festival and the needless ownership of three pairs of cowboy boots.
Perhaps it is because I now live in the city and the music is a nostalgic reminder of home – a place of open landscapes and dusty paddocks and tumbleweeds. Perhaps it is because I am steadfastly heading towards my mid-twenties and my taste has been blurred by the onset of premature wrinkles and a career crisis. Perhaps. I know on some level I could try to justify my love, try to defend the genre from accusations of hillbilliness, try to make it worthy, trendy, ironically cool. But I know in my heart, I cannot and do not want to. It’s country music – it’s music that by very definition is quintessentially uncool. And even though I am often embarrassed to admit it – I have to write it down… I like it.
Last week I had a great surprise. No, I didn’t win Lotto or wake up with the sudden ability to tap-dance. Fingers crossed those surprises are still to come. But I was asked to guest program an alt-country special for triple j’s Roots N All program. Going to air every Thursday night from 10pm, Roots N All is a three-hour specialist program that is broadcast nationally. It was a huge honour to be asked to host the show and putting it all together was a blast, so big love to the wonderful folk at triple j who made it happen and also to all the listeners who tuned in on the night.
If you missed the show, you can stream it here up until this Thursday July 28.
Additionally, you can also check out the playlist on triple j’s website.
Some highlights from the show included brand new music from Wilco, Dawes, Vetiver, Those Darlins and Tiny Ruins. I also played some old favourites like Ryan Adams and Silver Jews, country covers legends The Pigs reworking Beyonce and two songs with ‘Motherfucker’ in the title. Good times.
The Joe Pug story goes a little like this: clever kid with a way with words goes off to college to learn how to be a playwright. Makes it through a few years of study. Learns a thing or two about plot, structure, character. Learns how to be damn fine storyteller. Also learns that he doesn’t really care for college. He is unhappy. He wants out. He wants to pick up the guitar with serious intent.
And so the clever kid does what feels right. He drops out. Drives to Chicago. Crafts objects out of wood during the day. Crafts songs by night. And the rest, as they say…
Australian fans who caught Pug’s captivating shows here late last year do not need to be persuaded of the performer’s gift. With a cheeky grin and a good dose of Yankee charm he wooed his audience well. But the young troubadour showed more than just stagecraft. He delivered stories that were tender, pensive and moving. Deceptively simple images became plot points, three-minute soliloquys carefully reached crescendo. Slowly, surely the tragedy upon which all great Americana songwriting is built began to unfold.
When I spoke to him long-distance a few weeks back ahead of his current Australian tour, it seemed perhaps unsurprising then to find that the singer, who is currently writing songs for his sophomore album, had just begun reading perhaps the greatest tragedy of them all, Hamlet.
“I’ve never read it before,” he laughs down the phone.
“It was definitely compulsory reading, I just didn’t do it.”
I don’t blame him. I majored in English and spent as much time studying as I did actively avoided a whole bunch of required reading.
“The fact of the matter is I wasn’t ready to read Hamlet then. That’s one of the bogus things about school, you have to read books at certain times. Books and records, it’s very important that they come to you at the right time, otherwise they are totally meaningless.”
It’s a good point, well made. Readiness, as distinct from preparedness or willingness. Does he feel ready to record the follow-up to Messenger?
“I’ve been writing it for the last three months. Just putting a lot into the writing of the songs. Going in and cutting the record to me is the easiest part. This is the hard part right now, in the trenches, slogging out each song.”
Taking a break from the battlefield of crafting songs, Joe Pug has found his way back to Australia once more for a March tour. But even though we might be feeling ready for new tunes, I’m told those new songs will remain in the vault for a little while yet.
“Every time I play a new song someone will post it on youtube or something and then it’s not a new song anymore. I’m going to keep this album pretty close to my chest.”
And so the new stories stay safe guarded for now. But the old tunes remain: solid and aching and true. Well worth the price of admission. Well worth a few hours of your time. Well worth being ready for.
Joe Pug’s tour details are here. Thank me for it later.
Marrickville’s dim lit industrial fringe is even more dim this evening. It’s just gone past eighty-thirty and Earth Hour has plunged Sydney into darkness. With few streetlights on and the few homes scattered in the concrete clad factory streets lit by candles, the sky is a cloudy grey against an unseasonably warm March evening. The darkness, the grey slab buildings, the abandoned quiet, it’s not exactly the right atmosphere for an old-timey, bluegrass ho-down. But that’s okay. If I close my eyes I’m somewhere in the American south, in a button down blouse, outside a rundown bar and about to see Old Crow Medicine Show.
For the uninitiated, how best to describe OCMS? They make the kind of music you imagine old-school banjo slinging dudes from a different time and place playing at barn dances and porch sing-a-longs. It’s a raw, authentic, down home sound. Fiddle, blues harp, flat-picked guitar, banjo, mandolin and harmonies so sweet and sad and uplifting it is easy to forget you’re in an industrial wasteland in Sydney’s inner-west.
More than ten years since the band were discovered busking on the streets of North Carolina, the group are back in Australia for the second time in just under year, having finally started to build a dedicated fan base Down Under. And dedicated they are. The audience is diverse, young and old, fresh faced and haggard, all keen to catch some Old Crow magic. Check-shirted alt-country city boys blend with genuine country folk who’ve travelled up from regional Victoria just to see the show. There are girls in cowboy boots, men in dungarees and women old enough to be my mother screaming like teenagers as band leader Ketch Secor swaggers onto the stage and greets us in his butter-wouldn’t-melt southern drawl.
For just over two hours (with an interval midway from which they all return looking suitably wired) the Old Crow boys take us to the heart of the American south and we hoot and holler accordingly. The band have been to charm school and work their way through an eclectic set list of party tunes and heartbreakers with ease. ‘Down Home Girl’, ‘I Hear Them All’ and ‘Caroline’ stir the crowd into polite sing-a-longs before ‘Cocaine’ and ‘Wagon Wheel’ sway us into a rousing chorus ready for more. When the show comes to its inevitable close, the crowd stumbles out into the Marrickville night and heads where all nights of this kind inevitably end, Newtown’s Town Hall Hotel. Every single one of us wishes we were drinking whiskey out back of the Factory with the band. But in the absence of the band, we fondle our beers and reminisce and already start to talk about when we’ll get to see them again.
After months on the road as part of the alt-country wet dream that is Dave Rawlings Machine, the boys from Old Crow Medicine Show are giving up what could be the world’s sweetest old-time/bluegrass tour bus for a stint on the road on their lonesome in Australia.
It’s sad news for Dave Rawlings and Gillian Welch, who will no doubt miss the fine contribution the Old Crow gang have made to the band over the past twelve months. But it’s great news for Australian fans of OCMS. What’s that you say? A second tour here in just under a year?
I spoke to the band’s frontman Ketch Secor this week about his newfound role in the ‘machine’, old school vs new school country and that ol’ man who so many call their biggest influence, Bobby Dylan.
The Old Crow Medicine collaboration with Dave Rawlings and Gillian Welch for Dave Rawlings Machine is one of the finest things to happen to Americana for quite some time and it’s a damn shame we won’t be seeing them live here soon as well. In the meantime though, there are quite a few good videos of the band playing songs from the Machine debut A Friend of A Friend online inlcuding this version of the Ryan Adams/ Dave Rawlings co-write ‘To Be Young Is To Be Sad, Is To Be High’.
Australian tour dates for OCMS can be found here.