Preface: In this post I refer to some music styles and their designed appeal to the troops. This is not a commentary on people in military service or their music preferences. As I’ll say in the post, troops (or members of military services) are not a monolith. They are complex and cannot be grouped or labeled. For a more insightful analysis of military service members, veterans, and their treatment in our society I recommend Sebastian Junger’s book Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging.
Americana music. What is it? The word “roots” seems to come up a lot. Is it something still involving singing and guitars but not Nashville country and not alternative rock? Is it folk music with an edge? I don’t know. I’m not a music blogger (I think that requires a lot of work and energy), but I would like to dive into 3 songs from 3 different artists that have resonated with me.
Josh Ritter. How can you not love this guy? He is so happy at every show he plays. He’s got so much on-stage energy. His songwriting is deep and reflective, sometimes even dark. His band, The Royal City Band, plays as if they’re the successors to Bob Dylan’s backing band, The Band.
His album Sermon on the Rocks has a track entitled Getting Ready to Get Down. It’s almost a folk-rap song. It makes me think of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers’ Mary Jane’s Last Dance (just musically). It’s a song full of energy. I even put it on our family’s morning playlist which plays while all us of eat and get ready for school / work.
The song describes a girl who might be too wise for her own “good.” The song’s opening has her parents and pastor deciding on a path to course correct.
Mama got a look at you and got a little worried,
Papa got a look at you and got a little worried,
Pastor got a look and said, ya’ll had better hurry,
Send her off to a little bible college in MissouriGetting Ready to Get Down, Josh Ritter
But it turns out that Bible college brings her even more wisdom. It’s not the wisdom her parents, pastor, or small town envision, but she returns back to her home content and full of love. And ready to get down!
It’s four long years studyin’ the Bible,
Infidels, Jezebels, Salomes, and Delilahs,
Back off the bus in your own home town,
Say you didn’t like me then probably won’t like me now
But I’m getting ready to get down…
Said your soul needed saving, so they sent you off to Bible schoolJosh Ritter, Getting Ready to Get Down
You learned a little more than they had heard was in the Golden Rule
“Be good to everybody, be a strength to the weak
Be a joy to the joyful, be the laughter in the grief”
And give your love freely to whoever that you please
Don’t let nobody tell you ’bout who you oughta be
And when you get damned in the popular opinion
It’s just another damn of the damns you’re not giving
And I’m getting ready to get down…
There are some other great lyrical surprises in this tune. Paige and I really wanted him to perform this song when we saw him in concert. And he did! This lyric video below is worth your time.
On to Jason Isbell. He is relatively new to me. He used to be a singer and guitarist in the Athens based band, Drive By Truckers. Some of his history is a bit apocryphal but I’ve heard he was forced out of the band for being a drunk. But he found redemption in sobriety and has made some incredible music, even winning a Grammy.
His album, Something More Than Free, has a track called 24 Frames. It dives right into exploring the deep, gut-wrenching dimension of being a human being, living an imperfect life in a messed up world, and how to cope with it all.
This is how you make yourself vanish into nothingJason Isbell, 24 Frames
And this is how you make yourself worthy of the love
that she gave to you back when you didn’t own a beautiful thing
This is how you make yourself call your mother
And this is how you make yourself closer to your brother
And remember him back when he was small enough to help you sing
The chorus pushes even further. It could be the steroids I’m on at the moment, but I become a wreck every time I hear this.
You thought God was an architect, now you know
He’s something like a pipe bomb ready to blow
And everything you built that’s all for show goes up in flames
In twenty-four framesJason Isbell, 24 Frames
24 frames refers to the 24 frames per second standard frame speed for filming motion pictures (source: genius.com).
Here’s the incredible lyric video.
Lastly, for today, is Gillian Welch who, with her guitar buddy David Rawlings, puts on an incredible show. Paige and I saw them in April 2018 (a much different April for us) and the show had 3 encores!
Gillian Welch is as folksy and Americana as it gets. From what I’ve read, she was in a punk rock band very early in her music career. There was some moment, maybe a song heard from another room, that brought her to the realization that the “style” didn’t matter. Punk rock, folk, gospel, Americana– it was all the same thing. It was what you did with it that mattered. Her first record has a song called Orphan Girl. The song introduces us to a lonely girl walking along a road (at least, that’s how I picture it).
I am an orphan on God’s highwayGillian Welch, Orphan Girl
But I’ll share my troubles if you go my way
I have no mother
I am an orphan girl
The song closes with reunion. A homecoming, to a home she’s never known. She is with her family and alone, yet whole.
But when He calls me,Gillian Welch, Orphan Girl
I will be able,
To meet my family
at God’s table,
I’ll meet my mother,
No more orphan girl
Blessed Savior make me willing
And walk beside me until I’m with them
Be my mother,
I am an orphan girl
No lyric video for this one. Just the song here.
Americana music doesn’t contain any of the superficial language of nationalism or tribalism. There are no flags, no saccharine appeals to troops and service. Instead it goes deeper.
There are no flags because as human beings we’re all related under a shared image. There are no troops because troops are not a monolith. Troops are complex human beings with different thoughts, feelings, and stories.
There isn’t any “Don’t Tread on Me” because we’ve all already been tread on.
Americana music is not the layer of topsoil, it’s is the tough, dense compacted subgrade, where the roots grow hard and deep.
2 thoughts on “Americana Music: Josh Ritter, Jason Isbell, and Gillian Welch”
Josh Ritter’s Where the Night Goes is another great song, makes me think of your upcoming guys’ reunion in Saint Augustine:) I’m excited to listen to the other songs you suggest. It’s been awhile since I’ve explored new music. I seem to always be stuck in the car listening the radio loops and inevitably cringing when Ariana Grande’s “I want it, I got it” comes on.
(Check it. I found your homepage.)
Good songs, by great songwriters! (Though I confess, when I first saw this post I was sure the Ritter song you’d pick was gonna be “A New Man.”)
Still remember seeing Gillian Welch in concert with you at the Fox, years ago. I think that was my first real encounter with Welch and Rawlings… but have followed them both ever since. You must’ve introduced me to Ritter’s music not long after that: 2007 or 2008, maybe?
I recommended Andrew Bird’s Break It Yourself / Hands of Glory albums (2012). But you might really enjoy his 2016 album, Are You Serious? It’s a little more straightforward and the songwriting is more personal than some of his earlier stuff: marriage, parenthood, health concerns all figure in. One of the songs, “Puma,” relates the experience of watching his wife battle cancer (and the cancer treatment).
Currently listening to new music from Big Thief…