Roots Watch: Pop Artists Driving Close to Country

Barry Mazor | March 13th, 2013

I’ve been traveling through the intersection of Roots and Pop for, well, a long time now, but the artists who speed right through the yellow and red lights have never stopped grabbing my attention.  Are they doing that on purpose? By accident? Unaware there’s an intersection–even if it’s a backed-up, jammed up intersection? Or maybe they just don’t give a damn.  There are a lot of possibilities and combinations; it’s one of the fun parts.  One thing I’ve never formed any lasting, general opinion about is whether pop artists who’ve arrived in that broader, somewhat less defined place coming from roots music backgrounds always reveal it somehow—in the approach, the occasional instrumentation choices, the lyrics, if there are those, maybe. To go back a ways, anybody could tell that, say, Sam Cooke had been in gospel before he went pop. And I think there were less obvious ways that artists like Elvis, Roy Orbison and Johnny Burnette (“You walked out of my dreams and into my…car”), same period, showed their rockabilly backgrounds in the more lavish pop they turned to later.

It’s a debatable point how inevitable that is, or whether we may read roots influence into the pop material because we know the history (and feel free); I just know that when someone works pop or rock by driving through the intersection, or at least, having spent a lot of time in the neighborhood first, I’ve found that I tend to get interested.  And that there are some new releases along those lines:

Shannon WhitworthHigh Tide

Not a household name, so far, but she ought to be, in households with good ears. She’s from North Carolina and had played banjo and been in a bluegrass outfit called The Biscuit Burners, and has recorded soulful versions of Jimmie Davis and Sam Cooke hits, but she’s been in a Americana singer-songwriter territory for several years now, and several albums; this new one is special.  There’s a simplicity but specificity to the lyric choices that do seem to reflect where she’s come from; the appealing, often seductive sounds fit somewhere in the sonic space Norah Jones and Chris Isaak have gotten famous for, and why not Shannon, who’s clearly got the gifts, and also the sense to vary the rhythms from track to track. The lyric images, incidentally, suggest she likes taking off in cars.

Amy SpeaceHow to Sleep in a Stormy Boat

I first heard Amy back north in Hoboken over a decade ago, before I, and later she, relocated to Nashville; she was a decidedly original and skilled writer and singer then, and she still is, and—in an unusual but not unheard of twist– her music and singing has always reflected her early professional theatrical training and some Broadway polish, except that she’s been pulled towards American roots music and makes the most of that. She’s sometimes labeled “folk” but doesn’t sound like what’s often implied by that; not for nothing polished cross-genre song interpreters such as Judy Collins and Memphis vocal treasure Sid Selvidge have worked with her and her songs—or that such very musical young vocalists (and writers) as John Fullbright and Ben Sollee join her on this oncoming release (It’s due out April 16).  The instrumentation is acoustic xxx; the songs, are built on often, but not exclusively, gentle yet steadily fresh metaphors and ideas and hooky tones. This one’s a good introduction if you’ve not caught up with her before, and another strong one even if you have. Some of the material, in fact, could be adapted as country; I could imagine “Feather & Wishbones” in early (or later) Rosanne Cash hands.

Holly Williams — The Highway

I can imagine a world in which Holly is asked about what she does, just once, without reference to her dad, the grandfather she never knew, her brother, et cetera, but she’s rarely had that luxury—an inescapability, ever since the day of Hank Senior, that’s a less-discussed family tradition.  (Admission: I first interviewed her myself, early on, for a long defunct “NASCAR Dad” magazine that preferred to obscure what she actually does, but in having some copy to run with a photo of Hank Jr’s “hot daughter.” I also interviewed her for the Wall Street Journal—about the Hank, Sr. song project album in which she took part.)  Each of her releases has shown artistic growth, a sensibility that’s her own and owes very little to being a Williams per se, plus—and this is rather cool—she is still able to turns towards country, seemingly fearlessly at this point, when the occasional musical mood strikes. On this, the third full album of her own, the sophistication she’s shown from the start (marked by songs mainly written on piano, not guitar, I believe), is tempered by a newfound clean simplicity in the song, and references to railroads, drinking, cotton fields, and certain sorts if crying, and even one story song written from a man’s standpoint (“Waiting on June.) that pulls her closer to Americana and even country rock than previously.  And it’s all dang good.

Steve ForbertAlive on Arrival/Jackrabbit Slim (twofer reissue)

A pure product of Meridian, Mississippi who’s played me tapes of his young dueting with Jimmie Rodgers’ sister-in-law Elsie McWilliams, who’s been big in New York and lives here in Nashville, Forbert probably needs no introduction to you now, but if he does, here are the first 1978 and 1979 albums that took him quickly to national pop attention, and which have been much imitated, particularly vocally, by any number if singers ever since—the ones with “What Kind of Guy” and  Romeo’s Tune” and “Goin’ Down to Laurel’ and “It Isn’t Gonna Be That Way,” which became FM radio staples. They were never exactly country; Forbert was always more perceptive, inventive, rock and pop singer-songwriter, a bit New Wave, very catchy–but if you can’t hear where the guy’s coming from, you’re not listening. He’s been living in the intersection for years. And there are bonus tracks.


  1. Rick
    March 13, 2013 at 5:41 pm

    Interesting stuff, Barry. I’m not so sure that’s an intersection I particularly wish to visit…(lol)

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