Celtic Connections Americana
The new world
To kick off our special coverage of Celtic Connections, Norman Chalmers celebrates the newest addition to the global party: an influx of Americana.
Is Scotland slipping across the ocean. Are young Scots morphing into Americans? The broad church of Celtic Connections has from its inception flown performers across the Atlantic, to audiences who might make the delighted discovery of a new musical style, or fans who get to see and hear their heroes up close. But the large, and growing, appetite for contemporary North American roots music is a notable social and cultural phenomenon that’s bringing obvious changes to the tone of the music played on our radio stations, and texture of the Scottish music scene.
The term Americana has been around long enough for it to gain usage as a non-defining coathanger - a bit like ‘celtic’ - for a music that’s not jazz, not blues, not rock and certainly not hip hop. All of these are born in the USA, but don’t qualify. And mainstream Nashville country doesn’t either. Too glitzy. A band playing Americana has to symbolise something homespun, natural, real and rooted in the continent’s past, or the singer perform a wind-swept, heart-felt self-penned number accompanied on a Martin or Gibson acoustic (em, wait . . . that could be Dougie MacLean). Bluegrass can make it, but not all the time. Think Garrison Kieller and not Barry Manilow.
It can all get a bit silly.
Definitions aside, the good news for Glasgow and some select other parts of Scotland is that bands and soloists flying over the pond for this year’s CC include the great musical talents of gals like the Stairwell Sisters (and yes, it’s all right, seemingly, in Americana land to call a group an all-girl band rather than all-women). The San Francisco-based Sisters formed when former Crooked Jades players hooked up with vocal harmony duo and a clog dancer. Fiddle-driven, rowdy and (musically) infectious, they are simply, they say, ‘good-time gals who love old-time tunes’. Uncle Earl ain’t a guy either. It’s another famous five-piece old-timey string band - and all women. Then include the wonderfully punning Canadian harmony trio The Wailin’ Jennys. There’s Roseanne Cash, The Cowboy Junkies and long-term CC favourite and ace banjo player Alison Brown.
Of the guys, and talking of banjos, the all-time virtuoso on the instrument is Bela Fleck, arriving for the first time with the Flecktones. He’s taken the quintessential Afro-American instrument on roads never before travelled, and with huge musicality and invention. Recently he’s been recording with jazz giants McCoy Tyner, Ron Carter and Jack DeJohnette, performing in Nova Scotia with fiddler Natalie MacMaster, and jamming with Chick Corea, Gary Burton and a symphony orchestra!
Six-strong Railroad Earth have over just five years generated a massive grass-roots fan base (they call themselves hobos) in the States for their skilled multi-instrumental bluegrass-rooted contemporary songs, and they are also making their first trip over to these islands. Boston’s lonesome Crooked Still marry banjo and cello to great effect, and Canada’s JP Cormier will blow you away with his acoustic guitar.