I’ve written about my trip to China a couple times now, but one thing bears repeating: Shanghai is enormous. And since I was traveling solo, visiting a friend with a full time job, and staying in my own apartment, the crowded streets and sticky heat tended to wear me out. So, I fell into a routine – generally, I was back at the apartment by late afternoon with a few hours to kill before I’d meet up with Elizabeth for dinner. I started referring to my apartment as “going back to America.” Where it was quiet and air conditioned (and everyone spoke English).
It was in those hours each day that I succumbed to the comfort of searching for new music on the internet (as well as watching every John Oliver clip I could find). In other words, YouTube-land. It was in China, or my 200-square-foot-America-within-China, that I found myself falling down an unexpected rabbit hole of country music. But really, I wouldn’t call it country.
I am a huge fan of singer-songwriters, often steering into folk territory, but the country music genre has never been my thing. I’ve had plenty of exposure. I often say I’m from Portland but in reality I grew up near the small town of Estacada – population around 2,000 at the time – 45 minutes southeast of the city. That doesn’t sound that far, but trust me, it’s far enough to feel like the middle of nowhere. I lived in a mobile home on property; my dad drank a lot of beer and worked on cars (including those rusting on blocks that were kept around for “parts”); my mom cooked, baked, and canned vegetables; my brother was a Boy Scout and I was in 4-H. My life basically was country music, but we never listened to it.
Which isn’t to say I don’t have a nostalgic soft spot for Shania Twain, LeAnn Rimes, and the Dixie Chicks. My best friend and I made up dance routines and crooned along to love songs as much as the next 9-year-old girl. But my house was predominantly a rock and roll dwelling and that’s where my loyalty still tends to lie.
In more recent years, I’ve noticed a change in the rock scene: no one really seems to like instruments anymore. Or if they do, the sounds are overwhelmed by a layer of dance-y, computerized synth. I’m not super into it. And in my search for new singer-songwriters, and music with instruments, I found a name for the new music I found myself drawn to: Americana.
My starting point was the undeniably country artist Sturgill Simpson. I knew about Simpson because I’d read an article about his underdog Grammy nomination in 2017. A mystery dark horse singer-songwriter taking the prize for Country? I liked the sound of it, and I liked the fact that he bucked the system, that he was getting back to the roots of country music (not a single mention of tractors, red solo cups, or getting drunk on a plane), and I liked that he was conveniently scruffy and handsome.
In China, I landed on his Tiny Desk Concert and it was on from there. I tracked down as many interviews as I could find. All were very similar, of course, and with one thing in common – Simpson is a bit of an odd character. I found him fascinating. Eventually, I clicked on a Facebook Livestream that he’d done while busking outside of the CMAs in Nashville. He answered questions from viewers and played a few songs (eventually people figured out who he was and a crowd formed). One thing he mentioned on a couple occasions was his hope that “Jason” would win an award that night. Which of course begged the question…Jason who? The rabbit hole continued.
I quickly found out he was talking about Jason Isbell, an Americana singer-songwriter from Muscle Shoals, Alabama. He had a Tiny Desk Concert too (they really are great for discovering new music), and I quickly warmed to both his music and his jokester stage personality. You may recall me writing about driving to Montana for the weekend just to see him play with Josh Ritter. He was a major find in Shanghai.
Isbell and his band, The 400 Unit, are incredibly talented. His wife, Amanda Shires, plays the fiddle in the group, but also has her own solo music career. And while I was also catching up on more mainstream Americana artists that see radio play on alternative stations – Nathaniel Rateliff and the Night Sweats, The Avett Brothers, The Lumineers – Isbell became the soundtrack for my little apartment-America.
Americana is contemporary music that incorporates elements of various American roots music styles, including country, roots-rock, folk, bluegrass, R&B and blues, resulting in a distinctive roots-oriented sound that lives in a world apart from the pure forms of the genres upon which it may draw. While acoustic instruments are often present and vital, Americana also often uses a full electric band.
I’m grateful for this definition because I find my own hard to provide. When describing Isbell to a friend I called it folksy singer/songwriter stuff. And sure, some of it is, but there’s a fair amount of electric guitar shredding in his music, especially when he plays live. The genre also holds an abundance of instruments: mandolin, fiddle, stand-up base, acoustic guitars, accordion, piano, harmonica. Sometimes there’s a hint of twang in the vocals. It feels like music that should be played outside, on a warm evening by a big group of people who love playing music and love each other.
My most recent discovery is Mandolin Orange. A couple from North Carolina who’ve been making music together for a decade. Andrew Marlin writes the songs, sings, and shreds on the mandolin, while Emily Frantz plays acoustic guitar, fiddle, and sings harmonies (and occasionally lead). At times their songs harken back to country music of the past (think Hank Williams, Patsy Cline, The Carter Family), others are simple story-telling folk tunes.
Marlin tells the story of one of my favorite tracks “Echo” in a live set for Front Row Boston: “This is one that we wrote just hanging around some National Parks, and I was thinking about one day the National Parks not being there and how we would probably just build monuments of the National Parks, which wouldn’t exactly be the same, you know?” Being a fan of the National Parks, I was immediately charmed and they are now heavy in my music rotation.
When I really think about it, honing in on my love of Americana in China kind of makes sense. The irony falls away. There were moments where I just very much missed the familiarity of the States. But I think there was also something different at play. Surrounded by what felt like an impenetrable and stifling concrete jungle, I was longing for my own version of “the country.” Space, quiet, forests, rivers, open valleys, endless stars at night. Something I’ve lost a bit of since moving into my own city. This once undefinable genre of music felt like home.