The other day I saw a tweet from the American Songwriter site a story title that caught my eye, like many of the tweets from excellent @AmerSongwriter. Writer Austin L. Ray story on Robert Plant and his new musical venture Band of Joy “The Unlikely King Of Americana.” It’s an excellent take on how a once rock-god followed his muse from the amped-up Blues side of the tracks to where the American genre flourishes wild.
Though it is a great story of a learned musical journeyman I take exception to the title of the piece. Please allow be to indulge the petty grievance of a genre blogger.
My first quibble is with the method of Americana regal ascendancy. Plant was not born into a legacy of Americana lineage, like say Rosanne Cash or Justin Townes Earle, that would align him in a place in whatever a genre monarchy we might imagine. So his crown must be earned. Putting aside the concept of a violent coup I will focus on the work to goal.
Granted Plant has released two excellent Americana albums, Raising Sand and the current Band of Joy, and Led Zeppelin sometimes infused their sound with an Americana spice (Black Country Woman and Bron-Y-Aur Stomp are great examples of this) his body of original Americana material is scant. Aside from the few Zeppelin pieces, Raising Sand and Band of Joy are comprised primarily of covers. Though excellently interpreted; these covers do not mount an argument toward an Americana crown
If we weigh personal legacy and quality, original material a list to regal ascendancy would be long – Johnny Cash, Steve Earle, Marty Stuart, John Mellencamp, Gram Parsons, Townes Van Zandt etc. And why not a queen? Emmylou and Lucinda come to mind. And it’s not a Nativism issue. I believe Plant’s fellow English countrymen Elvis Costello and Richard Thompson have more of a right to any imagined throne.
Like America itself the Americana genre is a work in progress. And like America many of the settlers in this new land are from another land – rock, country, folk, hip-hop – and the borders are porous and the genre is stronger for it. Not all of these emigres are going to be in simpatico. Guy Clark fans may have very little in common with Hank Williams III fans, but the bloodline that ties them are there for those who take the time to look.
Jed Hilly, executive director of the Americana Music Association, when asked about Plant’s possible crowning is quoted as saying “Without question.” I have no argument with Hilly’s opinion on this. Hilly heads up a trade group who’s primary objective is to raise awareness. Plant, along with his well-chosen guides, Allison Krauss, T Bone Burnett and Buddy Miller and others as well as the excellent songwriters chosen to be included on his albums, has led to the addition of a an Americana GRAMMY (which I am fortunate to be covering this year) and brought significant awareness to the genre.
But as a blogger for the cause I take exception to this coronation, or in fact any coronation. Like America we serve under no crown but for the exceptional beauty of the music itself. But I do nominate Gram Parsons as it’s patron saint.