ROCKY MOUNTAIN AMERICANA

(Published in MEANDERINGS for the Butte Weekly January 18, 2017)

 Photo by Kelley Mattingly

Photo by Kelley Mattingly

When people see me carrying a guitar around they often ask, “What kind of music do you play?” While the question is straight-forward enough, my answer is not. I say, “Rocky Mountain Americana.” This is generally followed by the kind of pregnant pause that begs further explanation.

Americana, broadly defined, refers to anything associated with American culture and history. The first things that come to my mind are: old coke bottles, weather vanes in the shape of roosters, a tattered and faded American flag, and front porches, to name a few. When we’re talking about music, Americana is something a bit different.

Americana has another distinctive quality. It is soulful, heartfelt, and driven by lyrical storytelling. There are no songs about pickup truck tailgate keggers, Daisy Dukes, nor tanktops and country badonkadonks. It is not tractor rap.

Aaron Parrett, a professor in Great Falls with deep Butte roots, recently authored a book titled Montana Americana Music: Boot Stomping in the Big Sky. Parrett is a talented musician in his own right. “If I had to nutshell it,” he informed me, “I would say that Americana is roots music originating in America that derives from the country, rather than the city, in sensibility at least, if not actuality.” He went on to explain to me that Americana is considered a radio format, like easy listening or hard rock, and not necessarily a genre of music.

The Americana Music Association (AMA) defines Americana as “contemporary music that incorporates elements of various American roots music styles, including country, roots-rock, folk, bluegrass, R&B and blues, resulting in a distinctive roots-oriented sound that lives in a world apart from the pure forms of the genres upon which it may draw.”

It is roots music born in the places generally disconnected or isolated from mainstream music production--Music Row in Nashville, for example. Again, according to Parrett, “Whatever Americana is, it connects to the rural part of the country more than the city. Hence, Montana is an excellent place to look for it.” I agree.

Americana has another distinctive quality. It is soulful, heartfelt, and driven by lyrical storytelling. There are no songs about pickup truck tailgate keggers, Daisy Dukes, nor tanktops and country badonkadonks. It is not tractor rap. Think of Kris Kristofferson, Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash. As my late friend Ben Bullington wrote in his song Country Music I’m Talkin’ to You, “Sunday Morning Comin’ Down, wouldn’t be on your radio now. It’s more about havin’ rum drinks by the pool. You treat us like we’re all a bunch of fools. Country Music, I’m talkin’ to you.” Americana radio distinguishes itself from country music radio by selecting and emphasizing music that is timeless in sound and story.

 Poster from a local Americana event in 2015. 

Poster from a local Americana event in 2015. 

If you’re looking for new music, but stuff that is rooted in the music you already love, you should explore this format on Spotify, Pandora, or internet radio. I’ve also noticed that Paul Panisko at KBOW is an Americana fan and slips Jason Isbell, Chris Stapleton, Brandi Carlile, Holly Williams, and Sturgill Simpson in between classic country in his radio programming each morning. KBMF 102.5 sprinkles Americana music throughout as well, especially the Audio Therapy show on Saturdays from noon-2pm with Lindsey Gordon and Ana Shaw.

Rocky Mountain Americana, then, is obviously the heartfelt and story-driven roots music that we write and perform in these parts. And we have some of the best festivals in the country to highlight it. Red Ants Pants in White Sulphur Springs, Montana and the Braun Brothers Reunion Festival in Challis, Idaho are two worth checking out if you’ve a notion.

As I write this, I am preparing a setlist for an opening performance for one of the oft-regarded fathers of Americana music: Robert Earl Keen. The show is sold out at the Ellen Theatre in Bozeman. With luck, someday folks might add my name to the long list of Americana artists. And maybe songs like Big Hole River, Opportunity Blues, and St. Patrick’s Day at the M&M might someday be part of the Americana song book. I guess we’d call these songs Butte Americana.