Modern Americana music has its roots in the wide variety of musical styles from the cultures that make up the population of the United States. While it originally came from the Scottish and Irish music of the people who settled in Appalachia, over time other styles have been incorporated into the umbrella descriptor Americana music. For many, the definition of Americana music is fluid and often depends on the tradition from which the listener approaches it. For me, Americana music has been defined as Scots-Irish mountain music translated to modern times by singer/songwriters, but my perspective has expanded the more I listen to it.
One source of information and inspiration is the Putumayo Presents Americana collection. The twelve tracks run the gamut of Americana music, from modern singer/songwriter folk to bluegrass to blues to roots rock and swing. The track list reads a bit like a who's who of Americana music, with a few lesser known folks mixed in for a little variety and exposure. Old Crow Medicine Show and Alison Brown are to be expected on a compilation such as this, but it was a nice surprise to see Texan singer/songwriter Terri Hendrix on it as well.
In listening to Putumayo Presents Americana, I found myself surprised and delighted by some of the songs and performers. The complex layers of the production on RobinElla's song "Down the Mountain" grabbed my attention from the start, making it an excellent choice for the lead track. Her quivering-yet-pure vocals add another dimension to the song, easily making it one of the "hit repeat several times before going on" tracks.
Prior to this recording, I had not heard of Chip Taylor and Carrie Rodriguez (go ahead, smack me around if I am displaying too much ignorance), but after hearing the warmth in their unlikely vocal pairing, I hope to hear more from them soon. Taylor has a gravelly older-man voice, and Rodriguez has a sweet younger-woman voice, yet somehow the combination of the two works perfectly in the Texas dancehall style song, "Sweet Tequila Blues."
"Wagon Wheel" is one of Americana music's more enjoyable sing-along songs, particularly with the layered harmonies, and Old Crow Medicine Show does fine job with this recording. Alison Brown supplies the only instrumental in the collection, "Deep Gap," and rather than playing the banjo as one might expect, she trades acoustic guitar licks with David Grier. Finally, Texan singer/songwriter Ruthie Foster concludes the compilation with a song written by Terri Hendrix, who appears on the album playing a song written by Jeff Barbra and Sarah Pirkle called "Prayer for My Friends." Foster adds an element of gospel to "Hole In My Pocket," leaving the listener with a sense of being blessed and baptized to go out and spread the good news about Americana music.
Interestingly enough, the New Grove Dictionary of Music does not include an article about Americana music, and as far as I can tell, does not use the term at all. Perhaps it is another sign of the fluid and difficult to define nature of the term. In listening to the Putumayo compilation, it is easy to hear that one common aspect that Americana music has is that the focus is equally on music and lyrics, but the lyrics must tell a story about human nature in some fashion. These are not lyrically abstract art pieces — first and foremost, Americana music is music by and for the people. Critics and musicologists sometimes miss that point in their analysis.