The Traveling Ones,
Meet Me There
(independent, 2017)

Greg Wickham,
If I Left This World
(Thirty Days, 2016)

I've never understood the concept of "Americana" as a musical genre. A marketing genre, yes. Basically, from what I've seen and heard, it amounts to little more than a repackaging of the popular music of the mid- to latter 1960s, specifically the era's guitar-rock bands and acoustic singer-songwriters. The "roots" it affects to celebrate don't sink much deeper than that, and only a minority, perhaps a small one, understands the idea in any profounder sense, in other words as the original popular music: folk songs, ballads, hymns, blues. Mostly, music branded as "Americana" bores or irritates me because there is (in my jaded hearing anyway) rarely depth, only surface.

The Traveling Ones fall into the Americana category. I know that because it says so in the accompanying promotional material. A more focused characterization might be folk-pop, or maybe soft rock, which is to say the four-member band, based in Austin, Texas, deals in agreeably melodic numbers played primarily on acoustic instruments. Lead singer Emily Villareal has a charmingly understated approach to the material, devoted mostly, no surprise, to romance and relationship. There are some nice harmonies.

One's musical preferences are, of course, what they are, and I confess that mine are not attuned to what the Traveling Ones are offering. For one thing, there are no edges here. (Reader alert: "on the other hands" follow.) Not that there have to be edges. It's just that after all the listening I've done, I want to hear have my attention scratched, not smoothed. But then, that's just me; I have lived for a long time with the knowledge that my tastes in these matters are far from mainstream. Yet if your own tastes run to capably executed, tuneful '60s-style post-folk pop -- think a more somber, less chirrupy Mamas & Papas -- Meet Me There may be a rendezvous you'll want to show up for.

Kansas City-based Greg Wickham, co-founder of the late roots-rock outfit Hadacol (named after a patent medicine and prominent sponsor of early country acts), returns to recording after a decade and a half. His vision of Americana takes the would-be genre back to where it began (and where it is, with infrequent exception, no longer), as alternative country. Wickham's self-penned songs and general approach generate thoughts of the direction radio-driven country could have gone if it hadn't taken the exit to Nowheresville about a quarter century ago. In other words, this is rocked-up honkytonk, with occasional faint touches of Steve Earle and John Prine.

If I Left This World reassures me that this approach hasn't entirely, er, left this world. While it isn't exactly rockabilly, it captures the affinity, grasped by early rock 'n' roll pioneers, between hillbilly and bop (not in the jazz sense) that gave rise to a lot of records that will never cease to thrill. If not wildly ambitious as a lyricist, Wickham is able to write adult lyrics along with the simpler exhortations and enthusiasms. Still, he is manifestly more at ease with the uptempo stuff. The slowed-down title tune, which he says was intended to be in the vein of classic country, and "Elsie's Lullaby" feel a little forced, a tad awkward. The latter, moreover, would not exist, at least in this form, if not for Dylan's "Forever Young," itself among the Bob's lesser efforts.

Maybe the best song here is "Almost to Springfield," for its growly rockin' rhythm and for its jokey put-downs with the singer as their target. Besides, it mentions Red Sovine, who recorded some of the most entertainingly, unashamedly cornball records in the history of country music. Just the memory of them lightens my day.

music review by
Jerome Clark

1 April 2017

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