All this means that, first off, I like Willis Alan Ramsey, but his 1972 debut album — the one with "Muskrat Candlelight," lovingly covered by Captain & Tennille — isn't really all that it's cracked up to be, and neither are many of the Americana touchstones from the era that continue to be, er, "celebrated" today. For songwriting, give me George Clinton, August Darnell and Randy Newman. And sure, Guy Clark, Robbie Robertson and Ray Wylie Hubbard. It's just that, first off, Americana-style songwriting seems such a small part of the American experience (that is, it doesn't swing, and its harmonic language is as limited as its rhythms), and second, performers such as Guy Clark, Townes Van Zandt — and many of the current crop of Americana artists — do not make very interesting records. I like music and sonics as much as I like songs, and Americana is sorely lacking in the first two categories.
Anyway, I missed Amy LaVere and Elizabeth Cook on Friday, because I've seen both of perform many times. They're fascinating personalities, and I mention them as exceptions to the statement I just made about sonics — LaVere's last record took chances with production and songwriting, as did Cook's Welder. I find Tom T. Hall's whimsy a bit icky, so I didn't worry about catching recent Hall collaborators Peter Cooper and Eric Brace at The Rutledge. (Yeah, I think some of Hall's stuff, such as "Turn It on, Turn It on, Turn It On" and "I Can't Dance," is ace.) And Tommy Womack and Will Kimbrough are interesting Nashville musicians whose records seem a bit half-realized — are they sensitive songwriters? Power poppers? What? Not bad, but far from compelling.
I said the heck with three chords and the truth, and went to catch a couple of fine guitarists at the Sirius X/M studio, which overlooks The Ryman. Attired in shaggy cut-off jeans and spouting loose-testicle jokes and other bits of inspirational verse, emcee Mojo Nixon brought on the Mississippi guitarist and singer Luther Dickinson, whose career I've been following since my Memphis days in the '90s. What Dickinson does with blues — the basic Fred McDowell-isms, you might say — is a matter of touch, drive, dynamics. He plays up on the beat without stepping on it, as Memphis musicians tend to, and he varies his sound, from slide fantasias to hard-assed comping.
Following Dickinson was Kenny Vaughan, who brought his organ trio to the stage. Vaughan is a far more '60s-style player than Dickinson — I hear hints of Buck Owens' guitarist, Don Rich, along with Hendrix. Vaughan's self-penned hokum-blues tunes and linear solos made for a graceful, unhurried performance.
On the way into the Sirius studios, I met Luther briefly, and was glad to tell him how much I admired his late father, Jim Dickinson. (No Americana devotee should be without Jim's great 1972 full-length release Dixie Fried.) With his brother Cody on drums, The North Mississippi All-Stars put on a fine show at the Cannery Friday night. What Luther had done solo earlier was translated into great, stomping blues — Slim Harpo gets pumped up and goes for the jugular. The trio's use of space was exemplary, Luther's solos really went somewhere, and Cody varied his rhythms like a master. Their musical excursions were amazing, but their songs — that word again — don't do them justice. They seem like compromises, and sure, I know the jam-band audience is pretty uncritical when it comes to songwriting, and that's where the All-Stars have been slotted. Their songs had only a fraction of the bite and originality of their musical approach.
Saturday I went to Grimey's Americanarama IV to catch Hymn for Her, a funny two-person band whose music is an oddball mixture of power chording, cigar-box guitar and street-corner stomp. It sounded great on a beautiful, breezy fall day that was perfect for hordes of hungry vinyl junkies — I saw the drummer Jon Radford, who had played with Vaughan on Friday, haul away a mighty stack of albums that included one of Galt MacDermot's funkier workouts. I enjoyed Paul Burch, who is a warm singer with a fine feel for old-time rock 'n' roll.
I came out of there with only one piece of vinyl, but I did stick around to hear Nikki Lane, who is an up-and-coming Nashville singer. Lane looks great on stage and sings well enough, but I feel the same way about her I did the last time I caught her act: She seems tentative, and the hick-torch-twang of her songs doesn't do much for me. Actually, she's a bit on the boring side as a singer, and her songs traffic in well-worn tropes. She'll probably make it big on the basis of her looks and those well-worn turns of musical and verbal phrase — as I always say, there should be more ugly people in pop music, but I'm in the minority on that.
Running out of steam, I missed James McMurtry, who is as close to a major artist as you'll find in Americana — his songs use the same old musical materials, but he writes very well about, well, the American experience, with a feel for the grimy reality of our crumbling country. And I am sad to have missed Farewell Milwaukee, Orbo and the Longshots, Keb' Mo, and Bobby Keys and the Suffering Bastards.
I did catch Patrick Sweany, who came to Nashville from Ohio to be a songwriter, fancy that. A very enthusiastic performer with a whacked-out guitar style that ought not to have worked but did, Sweany does a variation on soul music, with Archie Bell-style chords and lots of sweat. His voice was more than a little ragged, and he doesn't seem to be a proficient enough singer to carry his slower numbers. Sweany had fun, and so did the audience. The songs were soul pastiches, but Sweany sang them with a conviction that transcended any reservations I might have had about that particular brand of songwriting.