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Americana Music

By Lee Zimmerman

Texas A & M Press, 286 pages, $28

Reviewed by Jeffrey B. Remz, March 2019

Find it on Amazon
The number of books about Americana music has been few and far in between. A few readers came from the vaults of No Depression magazine and website, which were characterized more as books about alt.-country. So, for that alone author Lee Zimmerman deserves credit for his extensive look mainly at the artists that are part of Americana.

But that also would be selling Zimmerman and his book short. Zimmerman is a most compassionate supporter of Americana, and that comes through loud and clear throughout. Zimmerman covers the artists either through question-and-answer segments or regular feature pieces.

He also knows his artists well and deserves credit for at times pushing them to answer questions more fully.

Zimmerman does his best to explain the background of Americana, no easy task given that the movement or genre has never escaped the question: what is Americana music? Of course, as Zimmerman ably explains, it's lots of genres, including the blues, Celtic and, of course, country.

Early on, Americana seemed to be more of a marketing term than a genre, but as the music industry has changed, so has the definition to where one could argue that similar to what the late Supreme Court Judge William O. Douglas said about pornography ("I know it when I see it") - "I know it when I hear it."

Most of the book focuses on the artists themselves, who have played significant roles in Americana.

Zimmerman spends a chunk of time - correctly - in laying out the groundwork for the music that presaged the Eagles, who were not considered a country band by any stretch during its '70s heyday: Chris Hillman, Richie Furay and Poco. Furay, in particular, airs his gripes.

It obviously helps when an artist has lots to say. Unfortunately, that could not be said of Guy Clark, who fortunately was a far superior songwriter than he was an interview subject.

The Dwight Yoakam chapter may be the highlight of the book with the singer reminding us that what he was doing three decades ago was far far outside the box of what was considered country at the time. Yoakam, of course, still is.

The ever-affable Raul Malo, lead singer, of The Mavericks, does not fail here either in being expansive about the growth and issues that his band faced.

There are any number of other worthwhile reads - Dave Rawlings steps into the limelight, and The Mekons with Sally Timms and Jon Langford sharing their viewpoints, for example, on life in an intermittent band and the Avett Brothers, one of the key bands of the movement.

Zimmerman also goes way beyond the best known artists to give space to unknowns (for most of us anyway) in the form of foreign artists (although one suspects The Sadies are better known that Zimmerman seems to think). A chapter on Texas blues artist Ruthie Foster was enlightening for her coming into her own both musically and in not being afraid to express her being a lesbian.

The book would have been better served by editing of the Q&As. Many contain questions about future touring by the artist or band. Those end up not being questions for the ages because the answer already was known due to the amount of time that passed from interview to publication date.

While Zimmerman made it clear in his introduction that this book does not include every important artist in the field, in an ideal world, it would have been nice to have segments on key artists like Steve Earle, Emmylou Harris and Marty Stuart, for example.

What Zimmerman has left us with is a collection of stories and points of view about the somewhat amorphous field. We gain further insight into what made many of the key artists tick from a musical standpoint.

Zimmerman has done his job in putting the spotlight on Americana music in this engaging and informative collection.

Editor's note: Lee Zimmerman is a writer for Country Standard Time.