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Music Journalist Geoffrey Himes Gives His Definition of Americana

Geoffrey Himes

Music writers have the difficult task of describing music with words. Geoffrey Himes is one of the best. I've seen him through the years when I visit Nashville for the Americana conference. He's always at the good shows and wears great T-shirts!

Bill Frater: What got you started in the music business -- when and why?

Geoffrey Himes: The first record I ever bought with my own money was the Beatles' “I Want To Hold Your Hand” b/w “I Saw Her Standing There” just as it was entering the American charts in the spring of 1964. I was 11, and it’s not an exaggeration to say that those early Beatles records changed my life. I plunged into music by collecting records, reading magazines and papers and finding I had very strong opinions of my own. I published some of those in my high school and college papers. It never occurred to me that one could make a living doing that -- especially if one didn’t come from privilege.

But after I’d graduated from college and was teaching high school and community college English, I started freelancing for alt-weeklies and national magazines. I found that every story was a chance to learn new information and develop new ways to talk about culture, whereas teaching freshman composition was the same thing over and over again. Every semester I taught a little less and wrote a little more until one semester I wasn’t teaching at all. That’s one decision I’ve never regretted. Here’s an essay I wrote on the importance of music criticism.

What was the first artist or album that got you into roots music?

I paid close attention to the songwriting credits on those early Beatles albums, and those alerted me to Chuck Berry and the Everly Brothers. Berry led me to Muddy Waters, who led me to Robert Johnson. Phil and Don led me to Bill Monroe who led me to the Carter Family. Bob Dylan led me to Woody Guthrie, who led me to Jimmie Rodgers. The Byrds led me to John Coltrane who led me to Thelonious Monk. I wrote an essay for Smithsonian Magazine about my feeling that the problem with music history is it’s almost always presented in the wrong direction. History would be more meaningful if it were taught backwards.

How do you describe what you do now?

I write about film, theater, travel, books, and art as well as music, but 90 percent of what I do is music. Most of what I do is interview profiles of artists, which I write for The Washington Post, Jazz Times, Downbeat, Smithsonian Magazine, American Songwriter, Texas Music, Offbeat, Baltimore Magazine, Music Aficionado and others. I run the annual Country Music Critics Poll (which I created in 2000) for the Nashville Scene, and I write obituaries and a monthly column for Paste Magazine. The latter allows me to write true essays, which I enjoy a lot. I do occasional liner notes, and I write an average of 25 songs a year. I host a monthly singer-songwriter series in Baltimore. I just won my fourth ASCAP/Deems Taylor Award for writing about music.

How do you define what Americana music is?

The question "What the hell is Americana" sounds flippant, but there’s actually a serious issue wrapped inside the wisecrack. Sure, most artists hate category labels; they’re scared of excluding any possible customer. But for those of us who like to write and talk about music, well-defined category labels are indispensable. We want to be able to talk about the similarities that bind various artists together, and each time we refer to such a cluster of musicians, it's a whole lot easier to use a shorthand phrase like Americana.

Allow me to offer my own definition: Americana music is any music clearly based on the way working-class musicians from the Greater American South between 1925 and 1965 handled the traditions imported from the British Isles, West Africa, northern France and northern Mexico. By the Greater South, I mean the Confederate States plus such crucial border states as Oklahoma (home of Woody Guthrie), Missouri (Chuck Berry) and Kentucky (Bill Monroe). I chose 1925, because that's when recordings and radio began to codify regional styles, and 1965, because that's when TV began to homogenize those regional styles beyond distinction. I addressed this question more extensively in an essay for the Nashville Scene.

Where do you see the music business going?

If I could predict where the business of music was going at any point, I’d be a lot richer than I am. The things I’m most interested in (how songs can open new windows on the human experience) doesn’t really change that much from decade to decade.

What upcoming projects are you working on?

I’m working on a big book for the Country Music Hall of Fame and Vanderbilt University about progressive country music in the 1980s.

What inspires you or what keeps you going?

My philosophy is that it doesn’t really matter how much bad music is out there. All that matters is finding enough good music to keep one interested. I’ve never found that to be a problem.

It seems that Mr. Himes and I have more than our age in common, seems we both bought the same single as our first records. I appreciate the attempt to refine the overly broad definition of Americana offered by the AMA (last time I looked, a HUGE umbrella defintion that does not say much). This "genre" as defined by Mr. Himes is primarily based on geographical origin, not necessarily by style. As a geography major, I appreciate this. But as someone who cares deeply about what constitutes, and what should constitute, what I still refer to as country music (which seems to share much in common with this regional definition), I'm wondering if it's still a pretty broad stroke. Rock of course involves the beat, jazz improv, etc.; how is Americana thusly defined? And of course when one looks at the AMA radio charts, there certainly has to be some outliers to this still fairly broad definition. As often noted in these pages, the genre harks back to origins in Great Britain, which also got us to notice it partly through the British Invastion, and through it The Byrds and country rock. In the excellent Nashville Scene article Mr. Himes brings up race as an inclusive factor, but I would think that must still be a touchy subject among AMA conference attendeees. I'm told by some that I'm a relic of the past, should accept that "Big Hat" country has usurped the country genre, but the younger bands I book, while influenced by the past, certainly bring much to the table that is always grounded but new (not a fan of simply "trad country" if it doesn't add something new). I still maintain that Americana is a safety valve to keep the pressure off big business and its domination of the actual country genre. Thank you for all the great work you are doing Mr. Himes. (And I did read and appreciate the the Nashville Scene article, thank you, and not holding a grudge that the magazine didn't make me a Critic's Pick for our ninth annual!)

Enjoyable interview, and the link to the essay was enlightening as well...

What an enjoyable read - thank you Bill for this and to Geoffrey of course - I particularly love the specificity of your definition of Americana. I didn't want this conversation to end!

Well, I don't know -- defining "Americana" geographically comes perilously close to a political statement. Is America really defined as The South?  Of course, the words chosen for genres aren't always apt, but still. . .

This definition is pretty limiting.  It excludes much of what we think of as folk music, which has a similar international origin, but evolved elsewhere in the Americas.  And what about Canadians like Ian Tyson?

I've always kind of resented the assumption that singing with a southern twang somehow made music authentic.  For those adopting the pose in their music when they don't in their spoken voice it represents a kind of pandering which does the music a disservice. Sadly there are some Canadian musicians who do just this (NOT Tyson).

R.

I couldn't agree with you more Ron, especially re: Canadian country and Ian Tyson, et al.