Thursday, November 17, 2016

Nashville 2.0: The Rise of Americana (PBS, 2013)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2016 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

After the Soundbreaking episode KPBS showed a program called Nashville 2.0: The Rise of Americana, a three-year-old documentary that’s an annoying and frustrating program that could have been considerably better. The thesis behind it, as expressed by directors Carol Stein and Susan Wittenberg, is that mainstream country music has become dull and predictable but the salvation of the Nashville scene lies in a genre loosely defined as “roots music” or “Americana,” a sort of fusion that reaches back into the histories of country, folk and blues and filters old music through a new sensibility to create something fresh and original while still rooted in the past. If it sounds like you’ve heard that before, you have; it’s essentially what the folk-music revivalists of the 1960’s were doing. Ironically, the show opened with a clip of Mumford and Sons performing a snippet of their big hit “I Will Wait,” indicating that you don’t have to be American to play Americana and paralleling what Mumford and Sons did with American folk music (much of it based on British roots via the original colonists and subsequent immigrants who settled in places like Appalachia and brought their folk-music traditions with them, often taking old British folk melodies and writing new lyrics to them about their lives in the United States) with what the 1960’s British Invasion bands did to U.S. rhythm-and-blues and rock ’n’ roll: reminding us of a musical heritage we’d either never heard before or forgotten about. (One of the ironies of the British Invasion is that groups like the Rolling Stones — who started as exclusively a cover band playing American blues and named themselves after a song by Muddy Waters — introduced many white Americans to the heritage of African-American blues, since racism had prevented white Americans from accessing this music directly from its creators.) The show presented at least 33 teeny-weeny bits of songs, some of them from people I’d heard of (Emmylou Harris — even though for years I resented her because I thought she was having the career Ronee Blakely, the incandescent star of Robert Altman’s Nashville, should have had — with her current duet partner Rodney Crowell, The Avett Brothers, The Carolina Chocolate Drops — featuring the amazing Rhiannon Giddens, one of those people who should be a superstar — The Milk Carton Kids, Jason Isbell, Rosanne Cash, Billy Bragg, Richard Thompson and Alabama Shakes, whose Austin City Limits appearance was shown right after a previous KPBS showing of the documentary Sister Rosetta Tharpe: The Godmother of Rock ’n’ Roll and whose lead singer, a heavy-set African-American woman named Brittany Howard, seemed to be carrying forward the Tharpe tradition and would be good casting if anyone wants to do a Tharpe biopic) and quite a few of them from people I haven’t.

The person on this show I’d most like to hear more of is Elizabeth Cook, who’s seen in parts of two songs including “My Heroin Addict Sister” (even though so many country songs have been written about people drinking themselves to death this seems like just an update of the genre with a newer killer substance!) and “Mama’s Prayers.” I’d also like to hear more of a duet called Skins and Rope (at least that’s what I think they’re called, trying to decipher the chicken-scratched notes I took from this program) on a song called “Gasoline” (alas the iTunes store has so many songs called “Gasoline” I can’t find this one, and for “Skins and Rope” all they seem to list are video games) and John Fullbright, whose song has the marvelous title “Satan and Saint Paul.” I also liked “From a Window Seat” by the band Dawes, and the two old-time duets by Jim Lauderdale and Buddy Miller. The big problem with this show, though, is it tried to cram too many artists and too much jabber about the roots/Americana genre (also, just for the record, it seems strange to produce a show about Americana in 2013 and not mention Neko Case, who may not have become a superstar but has built a respectable career, including getting her CD’s reviewed in Time magazine) — instead of giving us brief clips of 33 songs, why didn’t Stein and Wittenberg pick 12 artists and give us a complete performance of one song by each, and keep the interstital interviews to the bare minimum? If you’re going to introduce us to a new (or recently revived) source of music, at least respect the musicians enough to let us hear an entire song!