If ever there was a moment in 2021 which personified Americana’s desire to embrace all musical genres, it came at the Americana Music Association’s annual music awards in September when its segment to acknowledge recently-departed artists opened with a tribute to Rolling Stones drummer Charlie Watts.
While the Rolling Stones may never fit into the Americana basket – though one or two Jagger/Richards songs have been covered by Americana artists – there is no denying that Watts was the biggest superstar to pass in the last 12 months. And by placing Charlie at the top of the tribute list, the AMA did itself proud.
Once the Buddy Miller house band did a wonderful treatment of the Stones’ 1971 track “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking,” the tribute moved to the more easily-defined Americana artists lost in 2021. And the biggest of these was singer-songwriter Nanci Griffith.
Texas-born Griffith died on August 6 at the age of 68, though - apparently at her request – Nanci’s death was only announced seven days later by her management company.
Griffith was not only a beautiful singer and insightful songwriter, she was also one of the greatest interpreters of other’s music. Her 1993 album Other Voices, Other Rooms won a Grammy and is regarded as perhaps the finest covers collection in the musical genre.
As a songwriter, she was responsible for number of folk/country standards, including “Gulf Coast Highway,” “Love At The Five and Dime,” “Lone Star State of Mind” and “Trouble in the Fields.”
Country star Kathy Mattea had a career-breakthrough with her 1986 album Walk the Way the Wind Blows, largely due to her cover of “Love At The Five and Dime.” She said Nanci changed her life: “I feel I waited my whole life for ‘Love At the Five and Dime’ and when it came, it was almost like a miracle.”
The song is about two young lovers, Rita and Eddie, who meet across the counter of a Woolworth’s store. It chronicles, in five minutes, their life story. And when Eddie joins a local band, comes one of the most-imaginative stanza’s in any folk ballad:
One of the boys in Eddie’s band
Took a shine to Rita’s hand
So Eddie ran off with the bass man’s wife
Oh but he was back by June
Singin’ a different tune
And sporting Miss Rita back by his side
At the AMA awards, it was “Gulf Coast Highway” – a Nanci co-write and one which has also seen multiple covers – which got the star treatment from Joe Henry and Aofie O'Donovan Nanci had always said the song was specifically written for two voices and Henry acknowledged this in the introduction
The next legacy to a lost great again demonstrated the Americana Association’s musical encirclement. Tom T Hall, who died aged in August at 85, was regarded as a writer’s writer or simply the greatest story-teller in country music. And while Hall was always seen as a country singer-songwriter, the AMA was only too happy to acknowledge the enormity of his work, unlike the Country Music Association (CMA) which came under fire for ignoring the deaths of cross-genre stars like John Prine, Jerry Jeff Walker and Billy Joe Shaver at its 2020 awards.
Hall won international recognition when Jeannie C Riley’s version of his delightful cross-over hit “Harper Valley PTA,” sold six million copies worldwide in 1968. But it was another of his portrait songs – “Old Dogs, Children and Watermelon Wine” – which would find a place in
Rolling Stone’s list of the 100 Greatest Country Songs.
“Old Dogs, Children and Watermelon Wine,” from Hall’s 1972 album The Storyteller, must rank as one of the one of the finest character reflections ever penned. It emanated from a conversation he had with an aging black janitor in a hotel lounge while attending the Democratic Party Convention in Miami. The old man opened up his mind:
“Ever had a drink of watermelon wine,” he asked
He told me all about it, though I didn’t answer back
“Ain’t but three things in this world’s that worth a solitary dime
But old dogs and children and watermelon wine”
It rightfully got Americana treatment when John Prine and Mac Wiseman did a memorable cover on their 2007 release Standard Songs for Average People.
Another much-covered Hall number nailed by an Americana artist, was his enchanting love song “That’s How I Got to Memphis.” Buddy Millar did an outstanding version on his 1995 album Your Love And Other Lies and it was Miller who was fittingly on stage to perform it as part of the Hall tribute.
It you tell me that she’s not here
I’ll follow the trail of her tears
That’s how I got to Memphis
That’s how I got to Memphis.
Though their legacy was basically popular music, it was not difficult for the AMA to remember the Everly Brothers following Don Everly’s death in August (Brother Phil died in 2014). After all, many of their hits were written by Nashville songwriting legends, husband and wife Felice and Boudleaux Bryant. And it was no surprise that two of the biggest names in Nashville, Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell, ended the 2021 Americana awards with two wonderful Everly renditions - “Let It Be Me” and the Bryant classic “Bye Bye Love.”
Another cross-genre legend lost in 2021 was Michael Nesmith, but his death, on December 10, came long after the AMA awards. Like the Everly Brothers, Nesmith found fame at a young age in popular rock - as a member of chart-topping the Monkees.
Of the four members who comprised the made-for-television band, Nesmith was always regarded as the musical force within the group, playing a custom-built Gretsch 12-string electric guitar. And during his original five years with the Monkees, it was Nesmith who pushed for, and eventually achieved, complete production and artistic control of the group’s output.
He was a successful songwriter in his own right, penning several of the Monkees’ minor hits and giving another, which was rejected by the group’s producers, to Linda Ronstadt. It was called “Different Drum” and would become Ronstadt’s first hit single, in 1967 when she was then lead singer of the Stone Poneys.
Nesmith quit the Monkees in 1970, though he had three years remaining on his contract. His musical love lay elsewhere – in country rock – and within months he soon teamed up with pedal steel player Orville “Red” Rhodes to form Michael Nesmith and the First National Band. They would soon produce three albums for RCA. Along the way there were minor hits, the biggest being the Nesmith-written “Joanne.”
It was generally accepted that the First National Band was among the country-rock trailblazers in the early 1970’s and there were various incarnations of the National Band over the years as Nesmith mixed a career with music, television/ film production and writing/publishing.
However, the Monkees would always be on his back, for this was a group which would sell 75 million records worldwide. Despite the other three members – Micky Dolenz, Davy Jones and Peter Tork - reuniting for various reunion tours, it was not until 1997 that Nesmith would join them onstage for two sold-out concerts in Wembley Stadium in London. A one-off television special soon followed before Nesmith again went his separate way.
It was only after the death of Jones in early 2012 that Nesmith would reunite with Dolenz and Tonk for a series of American tours and a one-off album Good Times in 2016. Tork died in 2019, but Nesmith and Dolenz did a “farewell tour” this year, trading as The Monkees Present: The Mike and Micky Show. They played their final concert in Los Angeles on November 14, less than a month before Mike died of heart failure at 78.
Another legend lost late in 2021 was banjo icon J.D. Crowe, who died on Christmas Eve, aged 84. Crowe was credited with taking bluegrass away from its traditional roots in 1970’s and in doing so allowing younger innovators like Tony Rice, Ricky Skaggs and Keith Whitley to become the new stars across various Nashville genres.
Crowe made no secret that bluegrass needed to expand its musical horizons from the boundaries imposed by such originals as Bill Monroe and Ralph Stanley. He is famously attributed as inventing the phrase “grassholes” to describe the purists who opposed the electrification of bluegrass instruments and the inclusion of folk/rock elements into the music.
Crowe cut his teeth playing bluegrass in Lexington, Kentucky, in the 1960’s. By the turn of the decade he had changed his band’s name from the Mountain Boys to New South to purposefully set a broader direction. This was no better demonstrated than in the release in 1975 of the self-title album J.D. Crowe and the New South, which not only featured Rice and Skaggs, but dobro legend Jerry Douglas.
The album would be considered a masterpiece, not only because it married Rice’s incredible guitar picking with his vocals skills - aided by high tenor backing from Skaggs - but it introduced to Nashville the work of then largely-unheard Canadian songwriters like Gordon Lightfoot (“Ten Degrees”) and Ian Tyson (“Summer Wages).
Crowe told Rolling Stone in 2020: “Rounder had just gotten started into the recording business, and they approached me to do an instrumental album, which I didn’t want to do and I said, ‘No. If I do an album, I want to do a band album. I’ll do a couple of instrumentals on the band project.’ We had gotten to the point that we knew what each other was thinking by just looking at each other, and that’s a great feeling to have.”
Yet another innovative artist lost in 2021.
Editor Crossroads – Americana Music Appreciation