I Won't Call It Country: My Americana Kick


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