Apr 12 2012

Last week I wrote a blog post (here) with some preliminary thoughts about the nature of "Americana." I use quotes around that word because I mean the nature of "Americana" as a term -or at least that's how I intend to start the conversation -because it's a term that gets bandied about like a mofo and I wonder if it's lost some meaning in the process. It might be interesting to unpack it a bit.

Pinning down the definition of music genres is something I think about a lot (Seriously. I know, I'm a nerd. But I once wrote a 1,200-word piece on the true definition of "emo" and got all sorts of hate mail about it, so obviously I'm not the only nerd who cares.), and my interest was re-piqued by Frank Fairfield's recent stint at Al's Den.

It's hard to talk about Frank Fairfield without describing his music -indeed, his entire aesthetic-in overused terms like "sepia-toned" but that speaks to the struggle of using words to describe music, and to the related  struggle of what it is to define "Americana."

Fairfield is a true throwback. Many bands and musicians these days who operate in specifically American idioms cite Bill Monroe (the father of bluegrass) and his brilliant banjo sidekick Earl Scruggs as primary influences. Monroe and Scruggs started hitting the scene in the 1930s. Here they are performing "Breakdown":

Although it's kind of old-time-y, the song doesn't sound unfamiliar.

Fairfield's influences predate those two fellas; he works with music from a time when music was not a singular thing attached to a specific individual or band, but rather as it existed as a part of the common American consciousness. Songs with no credited composer, no history, and no particular signature. Zeitgeist songs. I picture all these songs swirling above the Plains in a big cloud, from which anyone can pluck one whenever they want. I suppose this could be called folk music. Is that a subset of Americana? Or is Americana a subset of folk music?

Either way, Fairfield plucks those songs from our Jungian musical collective unconscious and channels them through his tweed-clad body (it should be noted, by the way, that he doesn't care too much to pin any of this down, but rather chooses to say things like "It's just music."). What comes out is something we (Americans) haven't heard in a very long time -20-minute-long fiddle freak outs that ring foreignly in our ears;, scraping banjo rhythms that don't quite fit into the patterns we're used to; time-keeping footstomps in which the beat seems off. This is the folk music behind the folk music, and it can be disorienting and even discomfort-making to hear. It is, ironically, downright foreign for a while. Once you listen, it starts to reach deep inside you and tap at the collective Americanism and all of a sudden it's transfixing, but here's no shame in admitting you don't quite get it at first. At first it feels archaic and archival, like people dressed as pilgrims churning butter at some historical re-enactment Olde Towne. There's no better example than this video shot by our own McMenamins photographer Liz Devine:

Most performers today follow the lineage of folk-to-bluegrass; Fairfield just stops at folk. What makes most of the bands that follow the lineage of folk-to-bluegrass -which is to say, "Americana" bands-different from Fairfield is that while they clearly are influenced by early American musical idioms, they don't usually channel the songs from the cloud so much as deconstruct them and then reconstitute them, mixed in with a lot of modern sensibilities. The old influences can be plainly heard in the form of harmonies, melodies, phrasing and instrumentation, but those influences serve a much younger master -the latter decades of the 20th and early decades of the 21st centuries. How could they not? Fairfield's ability to block out large chunks of the modern world are anomalous -the rest of us absorb the beats, rhythms, cadences, riffs, licks, fills and aesthetic of modern music almost as soon as we leave the womb. Of course that stuff is going to dominate our music, even if we don't notice it.

I'm thinking specifically here of Water Tower (who finish off their Al's Den residency this weekend -Friday and Saturday, April 13 & 14). A fine band, definitely built on the twin pillars of Monroe and Scruggs, and definitely an example of what is now called "Americana." Check out one their song "Meet Me Where the Crow Don't Fly" below -it's interesting to compare them to Fairfield.

Even though it's produced with traditional instruments, this song sounds pretty modern. Compare the singular banjo lines to those of Fairfield, along with the guitar strumming pattern, which belongs more to latter-20th century country. And of course, Water Tower fellows intend for this sound -it's not like they dumbly stumbled into it --but I can't imagine Frank Fairfield or Bill Monroe performing it, and yet all three of these acts are considered "Americana.

None of the above is meant to lead toward any particular conclusion. It's more meant as food for thought. Or, maybe not: Maybe it's just better to just sit back, close your eyes, and enjoy the music. But, being a giant music geek, I can't do that. So fellow music geeks, if you have any thoughts, I'd love to hear them.

About the author: Jonanna Widner, McMenamins Music Marketing Assistant, is a former music editor for the Santa Fe Reporter and the Dallas Observer.
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