Thursday, July 05, 2007

True to the Roots: Americana Music Revealed

I doubt that very many of you are country music fans, but I'm willing to bet that you all listen to FM radio at some point during your week, even if it's only on your car radios while you're stuck in traffic. If you listen to only one or two types of music, I'm also willing to bet that you soon grow tired of hearing the same 30-35 songs that are considered "playlist worthy" by the corporate types who decide what you should be listening to and buying. You find that you only get any real variety by switching to "oldies" stations or to an entirely different type of music. That happens to all of us because a handful of corporations, including Clear Channel and Infinity Broadcasting, now own the majority of the biggest FM stations in this country and they have a common playlist, by genre, for all of their stations. A listener can no longer even pick up his telephone to request a song that's not already on the playlist because local stations aren't allowed to play anything not already sanctioned by corporate headquarters.

That's bad for listeners, but it's even worse for singers and musicians who don't conform to the cookie-cutter music that the corporate types prefer to broadcast. There are thousands of singers and bands out there who scrape for a living because they refuse to conform to the mediocrity demanded by today's FM radio and because they refuse to give up their dreams. Monte Dutton's True to the Roots tells the story of a few of those dreamers who are living their dreams while making what has come to be known as Americana music.

Dutton is a writer whose main beat, the NASCAR circuit, takes him to that part of the country that thrives on the kind of music that radio largely continues to ignore. True to the Roots is the result of the numerous interviews with Americana performers that Dutton completed between late 2003 and early 2005, interviews with an articulate group of singers who all seem to be very aware that the likelihood of them becoming big recording stars is very small. They realize that they don't fit into the corporate boxes that would make that kind of success likely and they are fine with that because they believe that smoothing out their rough edges in order to fit into those boxes would be the same thing as "selling out." And that's something they refuse to do.

It's no coincidence that most of the singers interviewed by Dutton live and work in Texas. Texas is a hotbed of live music and much of it is country or Americana, by label. Live music, by uniquely wonderful singers and bands, is within a short drive of Texas music lovers pretty much seven days a week. Particularly lucky are music fans who live in or around Houston, Dallas, and especially Austin.

Since I'm one of the lucky fans who live in Houston, most of the artists interviewed by Dutton for his book were already familiar to me. But even if you've never heard of most of the people in True to the Roots, I think that you'll be intrigued with what they have to say. You might even find that they open up a whole world of music to you that you never knew existed, a world that will change forever the way that you listen to music. I can't imagine anyone reading this book and not becoming curious enough to find the music of people like Billy Joe Shaver, Robert Earl Keen, Jack Ingram, Cross Canadian Ragweed, Jerry Jeff Walker, Slaid Cleaves, Tom Russell, Django Walker (Jerry Jeff's son) or James McMurtry (son of author Larry McMurtry).

Along the way, Dutton also spoke with lesser-knowns who eke out a living playing in Holiday Inns or as house-bands in small clubs throughout the Southwest. They keep their dreams alive despite having to work the day jobs that make their music possible, and what they have to say is every bit as insightful as what someone like Brad Paisley, the biggest star interviewed by Dutton, has to say about the state of the music business today.

But my favorite chapter of the book is the one about James White who as a young man freshly released from the military decided to open up his own honky tonk in his old Austin neighborhood. That was 43 years ago and The Broken Spoke is still one of my favorite honky tonks in the whole state. White has seen many of country music legends come through his front doors, from Ernest Tubb to Bob Wills, but he is just as excited about providing a venue for today's musicians as he was when the legends worked his place. He realizes that he is helping keep alive the kind of root music that Nashville so shamefully neglects and discourages today. He is proud of The Broken Spoke and he should be. I'm proud of him and all those singers and pickers who make my life so much more fun than it would be without them.

Rated at: 3.0


  1. I heard today that Dwight Yoakam has finally sold his catalog. It makes me cringe to think about who'll now be having hits with songs radio wouldn't touch when Dwight sang 'em.

  2. This is music that I love dearly. Thanks, Sam.

  3. I hadn't heard that about Dwight, SFP. I have mixed emotions when I hear news like that because, even though I know that Dwight deserves to be rewarded for all the great songs that he's written, I get a little nervous wondering in whose hands they will end up. Dwight is one-of-a-kind, a singer that I love to see "in concert" when he works his way to my part of the country.

  4. You might find this book to be pretty interesting, bybee. Those of us who are fed up with FM radio "elevator music" need to spread the word about the good stuff. :-)

  5. I do consider myself a country music fan. Though, I also consider myself a reggae fan, a blues fan, etc, etc. I pretty much like most genres of music. You'll be happy to know that I'm a much larger fan of the old stuff. Looking at your bluegrass pictures last week, I realized that I probably know next to squat about it. I know I own a few tracks, but I wouldn't recognize them if I sat next to them on the bus.

  6. John, I've come to believe that the best musicians in the world work in bluegrass bands. Mandolin pickers simply amaze me. I've seen most of the best ones now, some up close and personal, and I still walk away in awe from every show.

    Like you, I'm a fan of other kinds of music, too. I listen to blues, Cajun, oldies rock & roll, etc. all the time. But my heart is really in country and bluegrass, I admit.

    Driving up to KY for the bluegrass concert in the middle of the night, I was kept awake by Janis Joplin's loudest music, in fact. It would have been scary to hear me singing along with her at three in the morning...but I survived the drive. :-)

  7. ''. Dwight is one-of-a-kind, a singer that I love to see "in concert"

    Sam, I also love Dwight's music.He is one of the few of todays country artists I would pay to see live.
    Didn't you post on another site that when you saw him live it was just about the best concert you had ever attended?

  8. You have a good memory, Nick. I've seen him one more time since that post and he was every bit as exciting as the first time around. The man has a kind of understated charisma (if there is such a thing) that's hard to describe.