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Thursday, Jun 20, 2024

Americana: a Brit’s eye view

Innes played ‘Americana’ music on her radio show this year.
Innes played ‘Americana’ music on her radio show this year.

If you’ve tuned into the college’s radio station (WRMC), on a Monday at 3 p.m. this semester, you’ll have caught me chatting away about my favorite country, Americana and classic American rock music during “The Americana Hour.” You’ll have heard about the history of California country, the alternative politics and sound of Americana music, the new artists coming out of Nashville, Tenn. that we should be celebrating, and almost certainly, my love for Bruce Springsteen. The only thing that’s unusual for this kind of show is that you’ll have heard it all in a British accent.  

Over the last few years, my passion for American music has grown to the point of near-constant headphone-wearing. At home in the United Kingdom, my record collection consists of almost entirely American artists, and sometimes it feels like I’m the only person under the age of 60 looking for the Glen Campbell records at second-hand record shops.  

I don’t really know where this passion came from, or who was the first artist to spark my love for the sound of country and Americana. But it’s never even just been the music — it’s the classic cars, the cowboy hats, the dusty deserts, the Steinbeck novels and the black-coffee-in-a-diner Americana that I’ve always felt a strange pull towards. It may be a romanticization, but nonetheless, it’s a good story.  

If you’re not very involved in the country world, you might not know that the number of subgenres is bigger than ever before. Whether you think it’s good or bad, country-pop has solidified its place in the genre and on the radio. Country-rock artists use pedal steel guitars like no one else can. Red Dirt country grew out of rural Texas and Oklahoma and has an undeniable sense of honest independence about it. Americana, in the musical sense, is a genre that allows for a combination of American musical traditions including country, blues, folk and rock — it brings together the traditional with the modern and is often used by politically outspoken artists to connect American music with American morals. 

Ultimately, whether it’s a cleanly produced country-pop chart-topper you hear on the radio or a poetic alt-country ballad from an artist who seems to have emerged out of nowhere, they all have some kind of story to tell. Country songwriting has a long history with roots in the folk songs of England and Ireland. Fundamentally, it’s a type of storytelling, and stories are inherently universal. 

However, there’s still a stigma around country music due to its associated politics and its “worth” as an artistic genre. The immediate reaction to revealing myself as a country music fan, at least at home in the UK, is one of definite surprise and confusion, with a little judgment added in, too. Why would you listen to country? Isn’t it all trucks, beers and girls in denim? Some of it certainly is. Bro-country isn’t really my thing, but that’s okay — I’m pretty sure I’m not its target audience. But stunning lyrics, classic instrumentation and incomparable songwriting are. With artists like Zach Bryan, Wyatt Flores and Charles Wesley Godwin finding huge success with the honest music they create, there seems to be a revival of musical storytelling going on. 

Even before arriving in Middlebury for my semester abroad, I knew that I wanted to join the radio station. I thought that I’d find people here who listened to the same music as me — surely the Americans listen to Americana? To some extent, I did. I’ve made friends here who are equally delighted to spend too much time debating whether Eagles or The Byrds were the better original country-rock group. Hearing someone playing James Taylor on the air reminds me of being the youngest person in the audience at a JT concert in Manchester, U.K. a couple of years ago. This spring, I took a class on the Cultural Work of Country Music, discussing everything from Buck Owens’ influence on the creation of the Bakersfield Country sound to how Tyler Childers’ songwriting connects him to his Appalachian roots. I’ve shared my interests, too, inspiring fellow exchange students from France to listen to Kacey Musgraves and Sierra Ferrell.  

For the same reason my favorite novel is S.E. Hinton’s “The Outsiders,” my favorite music has a distinct Americanness. It tells the stories of personal relationships: the massive moments, the mundane every day and the way that tomorrow will always bring another sunrise. It depicts everyday life in America, the good and the bad. The “three chords and the truth” tradition of country music has allowed artists to share those truths for decades. Through my weekly slot on WRMC, I’ve tried to tell these stories. I’ve played 90s country hits just because they’re fun, new artists whose voices I think should be projected and classic artists who have provided soundtracks to millions of lives. 

So, why country? Why Americana? No, I didn’t grow up in Nashville, Texas or Laurel Canyon, Los Angeles, but I did grow up reading and listening to stories. I can’t explain why hearing a live recording of John Denver’s “Take Me Home, Country Roads” on a vinyl I bought at a local record shop for less than five pounds makes me feel at home in West Virginia, but it does. I can’t explain why the words of Paul Simon, Carole King, Jackson Browne and Gram Parsons provide me with a comfort that no other music can, but they do. I can’t explain why Charley Pride’s “Roll On Mississippi” fills me with nostalgia for a place I’ve never even been close to, but it sure does. I can only suggest that storytelling has a home in Americana, and I’ve found a home in storytelling. 

So, thank you Middlebury and WRMC for giving this British girl the chance to have her “Americana Hour.” If you’ve listened over the last semester, I hope you enjoyed the stories.