Roots Watch: Janiva Magness’ Americana Blues
If you’re fundamentally or primarily a fan of country music, or Americana, or bluegrass, as many reading these words will be, you might well not be familiar with the name “Janiva Magness.” (For one thing, her first name’s pronounced JAN-i-vah, more like “Canada” than “Geneva.”) This, separate genre worlds being what they are, despite the fact that she’s been a leading light on a different scene within the broad American roots music spectrum for decades now—the blues scene. She’s been singing the blues and soul and fronting bands for over 30 years now, since she was a teenager, toured the world, and won the top awards the field hands out—Contemporary Blues Female Artist Blues Music Award (formerly the W.C. Handy Awards) multiple times, and in 2009, the “B.B. King Entertainer of the Year” top prize—as rare an honor for women in blues as in country. (I was on hand in Memphis when that one was presented to her, by B.B. King and Bonnie Raitt.)
First things first: Magness is a remarkable, dynamic, controlled singer (which is a skill, a talent), with a potentially devastating voice (which is a gift), the sort that begins with a rich, throaty deep end and is flexible enough to be smooth or gritty, explosive or gentle. If you know and love what, say, Mavis Staples can do, you’re in the neighborhood here; Ms. Staples is an on-the-record fan herself. Janiva Magness, for those who’ll be wondering, this being blues we’re talking about, is white. She also has a personal story of epic novel proportions; beginning in Detroit, it includes being at 16 an orphaned street kid after both of her parents committed suicide, at 17 a mother who had to give up her infant to adoption, being tossed around in a dozen foster homes, and turning to blues singing by 18 after being stunned by an Otis Rush performance. She rose above all of this to rise to the top in that genre and also an important advocate for foster children.
That story’s often been told by now but, again, it’s not necessarily a surprise if you haven’t heard it—or her. Here’s the news: In mid-March she’s got a new CD coming out on the venerable Alligator Records label, Stronger For It, that walks her right into the middle of the Americana home field. Go back to the turn of the millennium, and her records featured turns on songs of Bessie Smith, Memphis Minnie (or, in an early sign of things to come, Delbert McClinton). More recently, as blues and traditional soul/R&B have been more and more presented as a working continuum, her soul balladry side has been more up front. But the line-up of songwriters on this new one tells the tale; she’s not only got strong takes on songs by Shelby Lynne, Tom Waits and Buddy & Julie Miller, from the more noticeably soul-aware end of Americana, but also from Matthew Sweet and Ray Wylie Hubbard and Grace Potter.
In the earliest days of the formulating of the Americana radio format, and of the Americana Music Association, too, there were some pretty heated public debates about how you could have anything called “Americana” that didn’t include blues and R&B and some workable ways. Nevertheless, “just beyond the edge of country” prevailed as the central idea in those fledgling days of the format. At last Fall’s AMA conference, my friend Ted Drozowski, journalist and front man for The Scissormen, a guy who’s long passed easily over the blues-Americana borderline with all of his papers in order, led a panel that revisited the question “Is Blues Americana?” Clearly, there was still ample room for misunderstanding between the two arenas on display, the blues world people not too clear in some cases that there was an Americana format, venues that catered to it, and so forth, and Americana people not that aware of existing situations in the world of blues. Many, after all these years, were still taking the question as philosophical, or historical—not as an immediate and strategic. Issue something could be done about. Among those in attendance though, I noticed at the time, were some folks from Alligator Records, including their radio promo guy, Tim Kolleth. I see now where they were scoping out the lay of the land. Janiva had turned towards a repertoire that pointed in this direction.
With Americana relatively mature and self-assured today, with plenty of reason, it works a lot like other longer-established fields—which is to say, if you want in, you have to have some sense what the fans (and live venues and radio programmers) regularly respond to. There had already been the successes along those lines. Arguably, the great Solomon Burke shouldn’t have needed an introduction anywhere—but he got a successful intro to Americana audiences with his Buddy Miller produced Nashville CD, featuring songs more in the Americana/country line, and with back up singers like Welch & Rawlings and Emmylou Harris. The Americana audience wasn’t notably interested or likely to have heard of smart soul veteran Betty LaVette before she found sudden interest in the songs of Lucinda Williams, Rosanne Cash and Aimee Mann on CDs on the indie rock oriented Anti- label, then went on to record with the Drive-By Truckers. That was definitely noticed, too.
I say this, for whatever it’s worth, Americana fans, Americana radio programmers: you should pick up on Janiva Magness and Stronger For It should make that easy. It’s a stunner.
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