Since music rooted in a sense of place contributes a distinct flavor to Americana, we asked writers based in Nashville, Washington D.C., and Austin to weigh in on their regional scenes. Turns out they’ve been lucky enough to observe the rise of acts like Caitlin Rose and Gary Clark Jr. up close.
Brian T. Atkinson
Roots music minds no restrictions in Austin.
The next generation of the city’s musicians stepped up this past year by significantly pushing limits. Milk Drive turned bluegrass and jazz into a matchless innovative hybrid. Peerless duo Brennan Leigh and Noel McKay infused operatic beauty into traditional country. As Scott Biram continued bending field hollers and punk with his singular vision, Dustin Welch corralled as many disparate elements into his thrilling Gothic folk. Of course, then there’s Gary Clark Jr. The young bluesman simply reconfigured local blues. Independence and reverence scarcely meet as seamlessly.
Meanwhile, Amy Cook and former Austinite (and current Houston resident) Matt Harlan’s sharp and sophisticated originals deftly restored nobility to the criminally overused phrase “songwriter’s songwriter.” Incidentally, Cook delivered 2012’s brightest album with Summer Skin, a collection so stylistically diverse, nearly every roots (and pop) category is represented.
“Rigid stylistic boundaries are breaking down left and right as the decade progresses,” says longtime Austin journalist John T. Davis, author of Austin City Limits: 25 Years of American Music. “These days, specifically in Austin, ‘roots’ music in Texas can be personified by performers as diverse as the Flatlanders, Ruthie Foster and the Gourds, while music by the likes of eclectic Texas expatriates like Norah Jones, Ryan Bingham and Lucinda Williams is all informed by identifiably traditional forms.
“Rather than diluting the ‘brand,’” Davis continues, “this cross-pollination is making for rich new bodies of work.”
Indeed, Davis hit the nail on the head: Limitless vision breeds rich new music. Visit and you’ll see. Today’s Central Texas roots scene feels distinctly like Seattle’s grunge movement in the 1990s, a gang bristling with ambition and arch and delivering stunning results.
(Atkinson writes for CMT Edge, the Austin American-Statesman, American Songwriter, Texas Music, Lone Star Music and other magazines. He’s the author of I’ll Be Here in the Morning: The Songwriting Legacy of Townes Van Zandt.)
Marissa R. Moss
In Nashville, I am loving the resurgence of country-folk songwriters, in the style of the Texas troubadours like Guy Clark and Townes Van Zandt — and am really appreciating the ever-growing influence of John Prine on young artists like Andrew Combs, new Nashvillian Robert Ellis, Rayland Baxter and Caitlin Rose.
It’s seems simplistic to say, but there’s a real love of songs for the song’s sake. The level of attention given to songwriting and craft is something that seems increasingly popular, rather than the goal of attaining a particular sound or aesthetic. The care paid to lyricism on so many young local artists’ records is extremely encouraging. It’s songwriting that isn’t about having a hit but to create poetry.
As rock and garage music both continue to grow in Nashville, so does roots music — and bands that merge all of the three genres. But there is an increasing thirst for more “pure” forms of Americana music, too, and “real” country. Old Crow Medicine show did an excellent job making a record that returned to their Appalachian roots, and it was great to hear Jamey Johnson and friends pay tribute to Hank Cochran on Living for a Song.
(Moss writes for American Songwriter, Filter, Nylon, Nashville Scene and LockelandSpringsteen.com.)
The D.C. area has always had a vibrant roots music scene, with many great country, bluegrass, folk and blues acts based locally and even more passing through on tour. I have started to see better turnouts even at the more upscale venues, including an increasing number of attendees who are college age and younger, at local shows. While this could be due to any number of factors — Americana’s growing popularity, economic changes, not enough homework — it’s good to see that despite the hand-wringing about decreasing album sales, people are still willing to support live and local music.
(Thanki writes for Engine 145, M Music & Musicians and Bluegrass Unlimited.)