Category: Music

An Americana Girl

What does Chely Wright’s changing musical style say about the state of country music?

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This week, singer Chely Wright will come out not just once, but twice. The musician who had country-radio hits a few years back, including “Single White Female” and the pro-military “Bumper of My SUV,” reveals to People magazine that she is a lesbian. This announcement coincides with the release of her first album in five years, Lifted Off the Ground. The album is a coming out of a second kind: a quick listen makes clear that she is breaking from country music as defined by mainstream country radio and instead casting her lot in the genre known as Americana.

Americana—also known as alternative-country—is now roughly two decades old, and it remains a delightfully ill-defined sound. No Depression magazine, the leading publication for the genre, long described itself as covering “alternative-country music (whatever that is).” Today, Americana is home to bluegrassers (and sometimes bluesmen) who reach hipster audiences, country singers popular in the 1970s who have been left behind by country radio, and singer-songwriters too idiosyncratic for the cookie-cutter hits churned out by the Nashville factory system. But some artists have sought refuge in Americana primarily because Nashville became politically uncomfortable. The Dixie Chicks are the most notable act in this camp: always a little heavy on the mandolin and Patty Griffin covers that are at home in alt-country, they would have likely remained the queens of country radio were it not for an offhand quip against the Iraq War in 2003 that instantly got them effectively banned from the mainstream country airwaves.

If Americana is a refugee camp for political liberals in Music City, it is ironic that the genre’s political impulse has evolved much the way mainstream country’s did. Continue reading


Ponderosa Stomp Review

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Wanda Jackson and Deke Dickerson at Ponderosa Stomp

Wanda Jackson and Deke Dickerson at Ponderosa Stomp

I felt like a tool asking the cab driver to take me to the House of Blues when he picked me up at the New Orleans airport. Though the town’s music scene is not quite what it was before Katrina scattered the people who were its lifeblood, it still has a livelier homegrown scene than just about any city in the country. So I was ashamed to ask this cabbie to deliver me to an outpost of a chain venue that charges exorbitant prices for shows put on in a mock-up of a run-down Mississippi roadhouse. It felt all the more ironic that I was going to the House of Blues because I was headed for the Ponderosa Stomp, a two day festival started eight years ago to offer a down-home alternative for the Crescent City’s signature festival, Jazz Fest, which has become increasingly commercial and generic.

If Jazz Fest features the predictable and famous—Bon Jovi was one of the headliners of this year’s Jazz Fest—the Ponderosa Stomp is dedicated to unearthing the R&B and rockabilly stars whose music is mostly prized now by obsessive record collectors. Continue reading

In Lomax’s Place

Money and Music in the Field

The Oxford American, November 2008

Even though Della Daniels had always dreamed of a singing career, she didn’t want to sing for the producer from New York. Michael Reilly had come down to Mississippi to record her nephew’s rap group, the Money Hungry Youngstas. Della first saw the skinny white producer when he pulled up to her sister’s double-wide trailer in October of 2004, and he looked like he was hardly out of college. But Michael had brought real equipment, and she thought maybe this could lead somewhere. Della’s nephew, Kevin, had never really believed that a producer would come from New York to a Mississippi town as small as Como, and his group was not ready to record. One of them was still at school, in the middle of football practice.

With help from her sister, Angela Taylor, Della stalled for time. They told Michael about how their grandfather had recorded for the legendary folklorist Alan Lomax in 1959. They got their cousin, Ester Mae Wilbour, to bring over photographs of their grandfather and the CD with his songs on it. Della and Ester, who were ten at the time of Lomax’s visit, remembered him playing guitar atop his red mare, who would keep time with her hooves. As they talked, Della realized that Michael was so fascinated with Lomax’s work that they were at risk of stealing the show. “It was as if he had read the man’s biography and seen himself in it,” she thought. “It’s like he put himself in Lomax’s place.” Continue reading