Conversation: John Milward Draws A Road Map For Americanaland
For a musical movement that’s grown and evolved for almost 25 years, Americana has been the subject of only a scant few books, but that’s changing. Published in the second half of 2021, Jonn Milward’s Americanaland: Where Country & Western Met Rock 'n' Roll appears to be the first holistic look at the threads of folk and roots music that inspired and informed the birth of Americana. And while it comes from the University of Illinois Press, the book will prove a brisk and entertaining read for regular music fans seeking to understand the canon. For younger readers, it could be the same kind of roadmap to this sprawling terrain that Country Music USA by Bill Malone was for many of us as we figured out who was who and what tracks and albums we needed to know more about.
Milward is a five decade veteran pop music journalist who’s held staff jobs at USA Today and the Chicago Daily News. He came to this project on the heels of his book Crossroads: How The Blues Shaped Rock ‘n’ Roll (and Rock Saved The Blues), where he goes much deeper into the influence of Black music on popular music than he does in Americanaland. That leaves readers on their own to fill in those blanks, which might be the book’s weakest point, given the foundational influence of myriad Black singers and songwriters on country music. But what Americanaland does nicely that nobody’s done before is draw bright lines of influence through the decades, from say Jimmie Rodgers to Ernest Tubb to Merle Haggard to the Grateful Dead to Jim Lauderdale. With ample anecdotes to flesh out the players as eccentric humans, Americanaland connects the dots and makes the dots interesting in their own right.
In the conversation presented here in audio format and a heavily edited print excerpt, Milward talks about key aspects of his view of what Americana has been and is becoming.
Why this book and why now? What sparked it for you?
I found myself gravitating more towards the roots of a lot of the music that I was covering on a contemporary basis. So about 10 years ago, I started working on my book Crossroads. And that kind of mirrored what I ended up doing in Americanaland, starting in the late 20s and going through the decades with the major players and how they influence each other.
So rather than a definitive history of why there came to be an Americana Music Association, for example, it’s more of a rumination on American music through an Americana lens?
That's precisely right. As a critic working at newspapers and magazines, you're always covering the contemporary this or that. And you recognize that genres bleed into each other all the time. And I've always found that on one hand, the artists who are identified with Americana from Emmylou Harris to Steve Earle to the Jayhawks to Wilco, I was drawn to those in the 90s, and that's just at the time when the term Americana was coined. So I didn't take the marketing of Americana very seriously, because I think it's a marketing tool. I'm more interested in the music.
I’ve always seen Americana as a counter-insurgency battling for the soul of country music with the commercial mainstream country radio format. Do you see it that way?
Well, I think it's a proper perception. And what you make me think of was somebody who worked seriously in mainstream country music and that's producer Tony Brown. He ended up getting a gig as Elvis Presley's piano player because of his gospel background. But Brown really wanted to be involved in production more than being on the road. So he was hired at MCA. And they were big with George Strait and Reba McEntire. But his three signings in 1985 were Steve Earle, Nanci Griffith and Lyle Lovett. Now, those aren't your typical country acts. He recognized early that there is a distinct thing between country and acts like that. He mentioned that if artists can have commercial success on their terms, when the commercial success is over, they can still succeed on their terms. To this day, (they) can play all kinds of places and make good money performing their music to an audience that really appreciates their work, as opposed to playing empty houses to fans who have moved on to whomever the latest artist de jour is in country music.
Bob Dylan may be the MVP of this book, with more pages than anyone else. What are the key points that put Dylan at the heart of Americanaland?
He just covers the waterfront, because in the 50s, before we knew of Bob Dylan, he loved Little Richard and Elvis Presley and Chuck Berry. Then he went to college and traded in his Stratocaster for an acoustic guitar and started playing folk music, from Odetta to Woody Guthrie and the Carter family. Then he was the electric folk rock god. Then he kind of retreated to an Americana kind of esthetic, playing old folk music and country tunes with the musicians who would become The Band. The Basement Tapes are really a primer of Americana as he saw it back then.
Among the 30 or so artists who are pictured in the book as illustrations by Margie Greve is Jerry Garcia. For a time early on, the Grateful Dead weren’t especially beloved in the Americana core community, but that changed a lot over time. What’s your Jerry Garcia story?
(The Dead) were obviously on the fringe of counterculture art. But at a certain point, I think they were hanging around with Crosby, Stills and Nash, and Garcia said, you know, it would be really nice to be able to sing. They focused on basic harmony singing and created Workingman’s Dead and American Beauty. Equally significant, I think, is that Garcia liked to play acoustically. He played with David Grisman. Roots music for him was a way to get off the bus, as it were, of the big business that the touring Grateful Dead had become. So I think in a way, he just found solace and peace playing music that didn't demand, you know, the huge sound systems and whatnot. And I think that certainly influenced a bunch of kids who didn't know from bluegrass to take it off on their own.
You describe attending AmericanaFest in 2017 for the first time. What did you take away from that that indicates the music has momentum?
Well, as you well know, the whole music world has changed dramatically with the lack of people selling CDs and hard products. And Americana has always been a refuge for players who don't quite get the mainstream attention, but who earn their living gigging. And, in that sense, at Americanafest the real business is 300 bands at a half dozen places around town. It's like South by Southwest. And I think that's why Americana has been valuable for people. It sometimes bothers me that it includes too many niches, so as to become almost meaningless. But on the other hand, it is a place that values live performance and making records obviously. It's all a package that has a certain amount of history and integrity to it.