Roots Watch: Watching Roots Now, What Are We Looking For?

Barry Mazor | October 8th, 2013

Ald_Kenny_Fan dancer

Audrey Auld, Kenny Vaughan, and a fan dancer. Photo via

You’ve probably seen, hanging in some dive bar or hardware store or rec room, one of those signs that reads “There’s no other place exactly like this place anywhere near this place, so this must be the place.” Well, place matters in roots music—and not just by that process of elimination. Recent events, talks and publications have me wondering, though—in 2013, when the local is constantly challenged by the inter-connected, global whole, how does this now work?  Where are the rooted communities forming music we’ll care about in the future?  Would we know a formidable new genre “with legs” (as Variety calls staying power) if we saw or heard one?  Do people who go for roots music, by temperament, have to wait decades to notice when something lasting’s been born?

During last month’s Americana Festival here in Nashville I found myself engaged in small talk with two California fellows who’ve long thought and done things about these questions, Ry Cooder and Arhoolie Records’ founder Chris Strachwitz. (Ry would present Chris with an AMA Lifetime Achievement award that evening.) Chris was lamenting that, as he sees it, if you visit Louisiana now, you’re unlikely to find “real” new, community bred Louisiana music arising—and, remember, this is the veteran roots activist who did so much to let the world hear and hear about zydeco music, Clifton Chenier and Boozoo Chavis included, Cajun music, including the BeauSoleil-Savoy Dart contingent, and outfits like the Treme Brass Band.  I suggested that you’d no doubt find new Hip Hop-traditional jazz and local R&B fallout if you’re looking for it, around Trombone Shorty, for instance, and he sort of nodded; maybe so, but it’s not what he was looking for himself, or exactly meant. What I meant was simple: if there’s not regular rejuvenation and crosspollination, there is not much future for roots.


New Orleans issues were also the subject of multiple Americana conference panels featuring musicians and chroniclers from the scene there, such as Alison Fensterstock of the Times-Picayune, John Swenson, author of New Atlantis: Musicians Battle for the Survival of New Orleans (the first record review editor I ever reported to, at Crawdaddy magazine, in the ‘70s), and Alynda Lee Segarra (of “Hurray for Riff Raff”), the latter two, transplants from New York active in the new scene there. Whether well-intended transplants can truly become part of a place with long, long traditions was a topic since Katrina, NOLA’s seen a lot of those showing up. The conversation made it clear that the interaction between what and who’d been there before, seemingly organically (people and music of the culture) and these deliberate newcomers with a lot of ideas but not much local experience is adding a level of interplay and friction that can be catalysts for creativity.  A more pressing, related question the participants raised is whether the destruction of communities and scattering of the population that birthed so much of the culture of that city can truly be compensated for without the neighborhood and family interconnections that had been crucial. The big 2013 question is:  will a new community of music makers from diverse backgrounds, living in atomized, separated neighborhoods, connected mainly by cellphones and websites, create new roots music—there or anywhere else?  We’ve all been around this Nets thing long enough to see fleeting musical communities with real interaction come—and go.  But will there ever be distinctive flavors created by virtual tribes?  We just don’t know yet.

If you do want to track scenes that might be nests, you need to watch for the interactions that don’t simply illustrate stereotyped expectations of a place—Nashville, for instance. The night before the AMA awards, I caught a terrific show of this sort at The Stone Fox—one of this town’s better new music and food venues, on the West End, homey, not huge— the release showy for Audrey Auld’s new album, Tonk. I’ve spoken of Audrey’s appealing combination of earthy gall, sensitivity, raucous humor, sheer songwriting talent and country music smarts before, and it’s all there on the new release. The twist: her backing band, on record and on -stage that evening, were The Fabulous Superlatives (Kenny Vaughan, producer of the record, “Apostle” Paul Martin and “Handsome” Harry Stinson), plus Chris Scruggs, no less, on steel. In the cartoon version of Nashville, musicians who play big venues and appear on national TV with Marty Stuart, play the Opry, play everywhere, have little interaction with indie acts out of the neighborhood scenes. This was a reminder that that’s not really how things go.

Mr. Stuart was busy helping induct the Old Crow Medicine Show into the Opry cast, but his band was right there, playing for dozens, not thousands, there for Ms. Auld.  If a terrific bass player and guy like Paul Martin is well known also for his family gospel band (and serious religious commitments that go with it), tonight, in the actual, surprising Nashville music scene, he was providing a key part of the earthy Auld rhythms, including lighter a few lighter ones accompanied also by a pair of well-upholstered, shimmying fan dancers. Not what people expect—but what happens.  Scenes are not dead caricatures and excuses for mindless repetition; they take hold when interesting artists see to it that they live, breathe, and surprise you.

Lastly, a pair of new books delve deeply into aspects of how place impacts music and vice versa.  In the new Sweet Dreams: The World of Patsy Cline, Virginia historian Warren Hofstra has edited an intriguing new look at the place and culture from which country’s prime chanteuse emerged and how, with articles contributed by such country history heavyweights as Bill C, Malone, Kristine McCusker, and Jocelyn Neal—and also George Hamilton IV.  In blues, regionality was long just assumed to be vital to the sounds and styles, then a lot of questions were asked about those easy folkloric assumptions, and with those questions explored, it’s time now for the important new reference volume Blues: A Regional Experience, by blues researchers Bob Eagle and Eric LeBlanc. It includes the particulars on hundreds of American blues artists of note in relation to the places—the “eco-regions,” not those drawn by arbitrary boundaries—they come from, providing the places, family and other ties to those regions, arranged by artists, places, and chronology. Very useful in figuring how to figure things out, which is a good thing to do.

  1. Kelly Kessler
    October 8, 2013 at 10:40 am

    Another thought-provoking post, Barry. An innate sense of place is an uncommon 21st c. characteristic, and the early troubadours who forged the sound current roots music builds on flung themselves all over creation looking for radio outlets, recording sessions and larger audiences. Perhaps music built around place is the variable none of us have control over, but the choice of whether we sing for the home crowd (making music that doggedly resonates with a shared past) or swing for the bleachers (throwing troublesome elements overboard in hopes of crossover appeal) is the telling one. Does it all boil down to intent?

  2. Janice Brooks
    October 8, 2013 at 11:30 am

    I first broadcast Audry’s holiday track “Santa Spend Christmas with Me” in 2009. I happened to be in Austin one night when she played at Threadgills North and found a ride from south of town. (Covering the dinner check was half what the cab fare would have been.) I consider her an American immigrant treasure and look forward to sharing all her new music on Bus of Real Country.

    Cajun music deserves attention and I welcome any submissions.

    As for Arhoolie it’s an award well deserved. I thank my departed friend Danny Roy Young for introducing me to Adolph Hofner via their disk.

  3. skip heller
    October 8, 2013 at 5:30 pm

    The question of roots is so often a matter of when you were born, I think. I’ve long been convinced that anything much more than 20 years before your birth, you’ve gotta go looking, and too often somewhere other than your own backyard. And, of course, often enough new grassroots movements show up IN your own backyard, but you might be too tied to what you know to see what you don’t know to look for. An older musician friend once said to me, “There’s always a new movement on, but the older you get, the further you’re removed from the new generation, no matter how open you want to be. You can’t be part of everything.” And learning to accept that might be part of having a creative life.

  4. Rick
    October 8, 2013 at 7:46 pm

    Gosh, the couple of times I’ve seen Audrey Auld perform she sure didn’t have any fan dancers with her then! (lol) I first became aware of Audrey back in the early 2000’s because of the duets albums she had recorded with Bill Chambers in her native Australia. I always keep an eye on her new music as its bound to be interesting at a minimum. Her song “I’m Doin’ Well” reminds me of Robbie Fulks as both artists have a wicked and twisted sense of humor.

    I hope new “roots music scenes” are happening somewhere around this country as I haven’t noticed anything building in Los Angeles over the last few years. Maybe smart phones and texting have done away with the need for actual face to face interaction at the core of such movements. Hmm…

    Speaking of New Orleans, I sure wish Amanda Shaw would do some shows out in LA sometime!

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