In the 1975 movie, The Last Waltz, chronicling what was supposed to be the final concert of The Band, drummer Levon Helm talks about a musical melting pot that emerged in the nation’s heartland in the middle of the 20th century. Helm suggests that blues music migrated north from the Mississippi delta and commingled with bluegrass, gospel, and Dixieland music, infecting torchbearers such as Carl Perkins, Elvis Presley, Bo Diddley, and many others who carried the new blend into the ears of America and the world.
“And what would you call it?” asked filmmaker and interviewer Martin Scorsese.
Without as much as a second thought, Helm answered immediately: “Rock and Roll.”
This early, pure form of rock has been carried forward by many artists, including The Band (masters of the art form in their pre-Last Waltz days and still a pretty good rock band after several members reunited in the early ‘90s). But the label of Rock and Roll has been somewhat watered down by the evolution of a variety of different forms of the genre: Hard Rock, Acid Rock, Alternative Rock, Butt Rock, etc.
Eager to describe new musical releases to potential listeners, promoters and critics have penned many titles to refer to music that has, through the years, remained true to the original elements included in Rock and Roll. In the early ‘80s it was known as Cow Punk, and this new blend of old sounds has more recently been referred to as Alternative Country, Grange, and Americana.
Regardless of the label, what’s most important is that a growing number of artists continue to release fantastic music that has remained true to the roots of Rock and Roll. And with their recent releases, Ryan Adams of the band Whiskeytown and Lucinda Williams have both established themselves as members of the genre’s Royal Family.
Whiskeytown’s Pneumonia was actually recorded in 1999, but wallowed in music industry limbo for nearly two years before being released recently by Lost Highway Records, the same outfit that has released Williams’s Essence.
Pneumonia contains all of the elements of the Alternative Country form of Rock. The standard guitar, bass, and drum arrangements are complemented nicely by a tasteful smattering of fiddle, mandolin, pedal and lap steel guitars and dobro.
Adams and cohorts don’t throw these instruments together in some contrived, “look at how country we are” sort of way. Instead, the arrangements sound true to the compositions as penned by Adams and bandmates Caitlin Cary and Mike Daly.
For those familiar with the band’s earlier releases, Pneumonia will definitely be seen as a progression, but is not likely to be viewed as a departure. Two albums ago, on Faithless Street, Adams’s musical evolution and raucous sense of humor were captured in this line from “Low-Fi Tennessee Mountain Angel”: “You say you want to play country/but you’re in a punk rock band.”
That album featured the most twang of any Whiskeytown release, but also displayed Adams’ penchant for penning clever lyrics and melodious Rock hooks that stick in your head and roll off your tongue. The band’s subsequent release, Stranger’s Almanac, was more polished and featured even catchier tunes.
In the interim, Adams released his first solo album, Heartbreaker, which helped establish him as not only a mature songwriter, but a prolific one. In fact, Pneumonia was originally intended to be a double album, but was scaled back to 14 songs (plus one bonus track).
Somewhere along the line, Adams has really learned to sing, and his newfound voice is featured midway through the album on the show tune-like “Mirror, Mirror,” and “Paper Moon” (which, as a friend pointed out upon first listen, sounds much more like Sting than what you’d expect from Whiskeytown).
Pneumonia’s strength shines through in the later tracks. “Crazy About You” contains the album’s most resonant hook as Adams sings: “Well I want to be happy/and I only want you/If you think that I’m crazy/I’m just crazy about you/crazy about you…”
He follows that up with the reflective “Easy Hearts,” which features the singer laying his emotions on the line as he cries: “I’ve had a very hard life/I’ve had a very hard life/for such an easy heart.”
Like Pneumonia, Lucinda Williams’s Essence is by far her most subdued and meditative work to date. Essence is a nicely textured work that features the singer’s distinctive voice as its most prominent and valued instrument.
From the opening lines of “Lonely Girls,” Williams’s voice flutters and flits about. Her classic country twang has evolved into a sophisticated, yet still raw, vibrato. The scaled-back musical backdrop often allows the listener to tune into her very breath.
As a songwriter, Williams really blossomed on her previous release, 1998’s Car Wheels on a Gravel Road. That release displayed her ability to transform deeply-held emotions into a variety of musical forms, from kick-ass rock (with, of course, a twang) to more traditional-sounding country compositions.
On Essence, Williams has furthered her ability to translate the strumming of her heartstrings into music for the ears. Unlike on Car Wheels, the emotion on display on Essence is slow and steady. The mood touches on somber, but Essence also helps dispel the notion that reflection necessarily evokes melancholy. Just because Essence doesn’t begin to rock the way fans of Williams have become accustomed to does not mean that this is an album to slit your wrists by.
In fact, Essence, like Pneumonia, is something of a celebration. These members of the Royal Family of Real American Music may have made fairly mellow albums, but they are, thankfully, releases that continue to honor the proud roots of Rock and Roll.