Americanaland: Where Country & Western Met Rock ‘n Roll 

University of Illinois Press

Don’t let the subtitle of this important book possibly turn you away. Yes, potent blends of electrified country and rock provided cornerstones for the “Americana” genre, a comparatively recent musical edifice. (The Americana Music Association wasn’t founded until 1999, and a matching Grammy Awards category had to wait another decade.) 

But in this new book, veteran music journalist John Milward additionally celebrates the indispensable flavorings provided by bluegrass, old-timey, country blues and other predominantly acoustic stylings to what’s also termed “American Roots Music.” 

Milward has channeled the fascinating Americana story into 320 flowing and informative pages. Not content to simply recapitulate names, dates and deeds, he frequently provides valuable context and perspectives to the saga. For example, he relates how, at the onset of the 21st century, “the Americana genre was coalescing as the music business was falling apart,” beset by slumping CD sales while “digital file sharing was both crushing profits and anticipating a future that would see physical products replaced by internet streams.” Professional musicians, he notes, “increasingly made their money from live performances, and Americana emerged as a natural refuge for rock bands, singer-songwriters, and roots musicians.” 

The triumphs of the Americana category—such as the phenomena of the O Brother, Where Art Thou? movie and soundtrack released in 2000—are here to enjoy as well. 

Readers can feast upon Americanaland from start to finish, like a multi-course banquet. Or they can go ala carte, choosing which musicians and topics interest them most. The book’s footnotes and index entice like the hearty menu of a country diner. Significant space is devoted to Bill Monroe, Ralph Stanley, Lester Flatt, Earl Scruggs and other first-generation bluegrass giants. And you’ll find the young pickers-turned-rock stars like Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead and Chris Hillman of the Byrds who returned to bluegrass and country, bringing with them multitudes of new fans for roots music. 

But whether you go soup-to-nuts with Americanaland or simply graze into it, make sure to first digest Milward’s appetizing Introduction and then his Chapter One, a meal-in-itself that dishes out the Carter Family, Jimmy Rodgers, Ralph Peer, John & Alan Lomax, Muddy Waters, Lead Belly, Bill Monroe, Bob Wills, Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, and many more. Fittingly, he tops off this section with Harry Smith, the extraordinary connoisseur of early rural music recordings whose landmark six-LP set The Anthology of American Folk Music (first released on Folkways in 1952) not only stirred up the Folk Revival of the 1960s but was arguably the first major Americana collection.

Other greats—from Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash to Willie Nelson, and from Joan Baez and Emmylou Harris to Dolly Parton—appear during Americana’s developmental history. And in a nice touch, Margie Greve’s drawings of major performers lovingly capture their likenesses and their spirits, too.

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Comments

  1. Excellent review of Americanaland. You captured its spirit and what the reader should experience, which was my experience when reading it.

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