In this series of posts, I have been exploring the intersection of country and Americana music. But Americana is a label that covers more ground. At the outer edges of Americana are some artists whose music shares only the most tenuous connection with country music. The combination of instruments may be the same, but the results are quite different.
Kevin Higgins: The Levee Boys
Kevin Higgins has a band which includes drums, bass, acoustic and electric guitars, and piano. Three guest musicians add pedal steel, organ or accordion, and fiddle or mandolin to some songs. Higgins sings in a weathered baritone that sometimes sounds like a Texas version of Mark Knopfler. All of the elements of country music are in place. But the piano is used in a way you never hear in country. The piano parts are single or two note runs, and the effect is like the tolling of a bell. And Higgins’ songs develop slowly. Country music is the last refuge of the three minute pop song, but Higgins often needs five minutes or more to let his songs cast their spell.
And they do cast a spell. You can feel the wind blowing the dust across the flatlands. This is especially powerful on the lead track of Find Your Shine. Out in the Fields is about a tornado strike, and Higgins lets you feel the wind gathering. Elsewhere, the wind is more gentle, but it blows through all of these songs.
I mentioned that Higgins writes long songs. He needs the extra length, because he is storyteller, and a very fine one. The track I have chosen is the story that struck me most powerfully. The Levee Boys are a group of childhood friends who grow up quickly one summer. Into their midst comes a new boy who they discover is being beaten by his father. They must decide whether to protect him, and why. It is an experience that changes them forever. The tale is told through adult eyes by one of the Levee Boys looking back, and still digesting the experience. There is no moral, and the resolution is uncertain. Higgins leaves the listener to think about this, and fill in some of the blanks. It’s powerful stuff. Again, I have mentioned that country music as practiced nowadays is comfort music, so it has no room for this kind of storytelling. I’m glad that Kevin Higgins does.
Ian Tamblyn: Afghanistan
I hear some faint echoes of country in the music of Ian Tamblyn. I hear more blues, notably the blues harp in Fool’s Revelation, but also more subtly elsewhere. But mostly, I hear winter. In Wonder has the sound of shining icicles, while other songs have a brisk winter wind in them. Tamblyn’s acoustic guitar playing is where most of the country echoes show up, but his band adds a powerful kick from the drums, augmented by the bass lines. Other instruments will sometimes set up a drone. And a trumpet adds haunting color on a couple of songs. Overall, the full band, when used, often sounds like a percussion ensemble, only with a melody and harmony. This music reminds me of all kinds of things, but I’ve never heard anything quite like it.
Sometimes, Tamblyn’s lyrics are opaque. And the song becomes a mood piece. But he can also but quite direct and openly emotional in his lyrics. Tamblyn’s vocals work either way. His singing can express an impressive range of emotions. Afghanistan is the song the moved me most deeply here. The song is dedicated to the memory of a soldier who died in Afghanistan, and the song sounds like Tamblyn knew him personally. If he didn’t, both the songwriting and the performance are that much more impressive. I’m sure Tamblyn would want to mention that the soldier was Cpl. Anthony Joseph Boneca, of Thunder Bay, Ontario. (That’s right, Tamblyn is a Canadian.)
I want to mention one more thing before I move on to my last selection. I can imagine that some of my readers are musicians, and maybe even producers. I want you to know that someone is going to have a hit with Raven and Ray Charles. The song has a great beat and a great hook. Remember, you heard it here first.
Jake Armerding: Porto,Portugal
Porto, Portugal is not country. Maybe it isn’t even Americana. But I couldn’t resist posting it, and much of Jake Armerding’s album Her does qualify. Certainly, Armerding’s credentials are solid. I found him through his work with Red Molly. And many of the songs here show a deep appreciation of the ground that folk and country share. But Porto Portugal is a good choice, because it makes clear where Armerding diverges from this territory. The harmonies are taken from Portugese music; Armerding is not afraid to put into his more countryish numbers the occasional odd harmony. And Porto Portugal is a break-up song, but it is a subtle and nuanced look at the subject. Armerding is a subtle writer, and a very effective one.
Armerding sings in a high tenor, and he carries the emotions of his songs without ever oversinging. His band fills in well, never overpowering him. If I have to continue my climate metaphors, Armerding’s songs are a summer breeze in a place with lots of growing things. Even the sad songs have a warmth to them, an intimacy that never feels forced. Jake Armerding lets you in.
There is a term, a songwriter’s songwriter. These are musicians who are most admired by other musicians. Often their hits are covers of their songs by other artists. I could see this happening to Armerding. The songs are strong, but the subtlety of the performances keep them from a mass audience. They also preserve the individuality of the artists. So I hope that songs like Song of Solomon and $2 Kite become hits, so Armerding can continue doing what he does. And I hope Armerding never sacrifices the subtlety of his performances to make this happen. And I’m fairly sure that, if that happens, I will always prefer Armerding’s original versions to the covers. Of course, if Armerding can keep producing albums like this, and have hits as well, that would be best of all.