Tracing the English fascination with Americana

An alternate view of Ray Davies — Our Country Americana Act II

Ray Davies

The Brits have always conveyed an inherent interest in all things American, from the black and white westerns of the 1950s to the early rumblings of rock and roll as conceived by Elvis, Little Richard, Chuck Berry and Jerry Lee.

It’s little wonder then that the roots of the so-called British Invasion were sown with the seeds of the sounds transported from across the sea by sailors, soldiers and seafarers in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s. Whether it was blues, country or R&B, America provided the essential additives that gave English musicians initial inspiration.

Not surprisingly then, American country and western attracted a separate interest all its own. It was, after all, part of the very fabric of the U.S. interior, and again, given its novelty and — on occasion — an inherent insurgence all its own, it naturally attracted those young bands hoping to distance themselves from the sound of skiffle while showing a willingness to push their parameters. Consequently, the Beatles gave Ringo opportunity to indulge his interests by singing a song by Buck Owens, and later contribute such distinctly twangy tunes as “Don’t Pass Me By” and “What Goes On.” It eventually led the bedazzled drummer to record an entire album of country standards shortly after the Beatles’ breakup. The Rolling Stones — Keith Richards in particular — were so smitten with Gram Parsons that they wrote and recorded “Wild Horses,” a country classic of their own spawned from Parson’s initial inspiration.  The Who’s mini-opera “A Quick One” included “Ivor theEngine Driver,” a tongue-in-cheek, homespun excerpt from that early opus, so it wasn’t surprising that an occasional solo outing by Townshend or Daltrey might show a particular penchant for rural reflection. Later, bands like Brinsley Schwarz and Starry Eyed and Laughing followed suit, steering their sensibilities in harmony with the emerging sound of country rock that surfaced on America’s West Coast in the early ‘70s. Their obvious descendants, Nick Lowe and Elvis Costello, followed suit by plunging in head on. The Moody Blues may have seemed the least likely British band to boast a country connection, but two albums of outside bluegrass interpretations of their essential songs proved the distance between genres wasn’t all that far indeed.

Ironically, few bands showed as strong a country connection as the Kinks. They may have been inherently English early on — We Are the Village Green Preservation Society famously encapsulated British manners and mores — but the release of Muswell Hillbillies in 1971 effectively combined Ray and Dave Davies’ take on their early origins with the native nuances of American musical tradition. Granted, Ray Davies’ astute observations and satiric sensibilities often intruded on the proceedings, but his fondness for the form was apparent all the same.

Now firmly implanted in solo terrain, Davies has given full reign to his early Americana musings, beginning with a memoir of the same name and an initial soundtrack titled, rather explicitly, Americana which was released last year. Our Country Americana Act II follows quickly on the heels of that first album, and indeed, the two collections are wholly interlocked and interconnected, essential parts of the same soundtrack for the main manuscript. Like Davies’ early novel X-Ray, the material is autobiographical (both sung and spoken), and although one suspects some of the narrative may have been exaggerated for the sake of drama and detail, It’s also little surprise that at least a pair of tracks on the new album — “Oklahoma U.S.A.” and “Muswell Kills” — are variations of songs spawned from the original Muswell Hillbilly album.

Likewise, hiring the Jayhawks, a band that helped spawn Americana from an earlier country rock crossover, proves that Davies is indeed committed to his cause.

Granted, there may not be hoedowns in Henley, ranches in Reading or barbecue in Brighton, but given Davies’ knowing look at our heartland, and the sprawling silhouettes he paints using America’s environs, it’s as expressive and intuitive as any true native son might ever offer.

Lee Zimmerman

Lee Zimmerman is a writer and columnist based in beautiful Maryville Tennessee. Over the past 20 years, his work has appeared in dozens of leading music publications. He is also the author of Americana Music: Voice, Visionaries, and Pioneers of an Honest Sound, which will be published by Texas A&M University Press early next year.

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