In the morning we ride…
Friday morning, that is, on the road before dawn, my co-conspirator Christian Nagle and I will be making a beeline to Nashville, Tennessee, from whence we shall commence a journey through the South, Deep South, and South by Southwest, to discover and uncover the swampiest, deep-hollerest, twangiest, rockin-est, funkiest, most absolutely legit representatives of American roots music to whom fortune, friends, and friends of friends will lead us.
The seed of this plan was sprouted, as these things often do, with a back porch conversation between two old friends, talking about taking a road trip together. I had a few assignments, all music related, that happened to fall along an arc on the map that encompassed just about every major fountainhead of American music. Nashville. Memphis. Mississippi. New Orleans. West Louisiana. Austin. And Christian, a veteran of the Nashville punk scene from way back–now an award-winning writer and a documentary filmmaker–had quite a few friends in high places, and one or two others hiding under a mossy stone thirty miles down a dirt road, all of whom had connections to various roots musicians all along the exact trail I was taking. What would he think, I asked him, about riding shotgun with his HDcam and shooting some footage; we could find some old-timers, some young upstarts, some blind fiddle players, some crazy hybrid bands playing some kind of zydeco-punk-bluegrass with Duane Allman-style slide guitar. Or whatever. We both knew enough of what we didn’t know to know that there was probably more incredible music out there just waiting to be heard than we could even fathom. As we continued to toss the idea about, over-caffeinated and mutually prone to flights of fancy, it slowly became clear to both of us.
We had to make a film. A real film.
And so, after many back-and-forth emails and a lot of texting and skyping and a few more back porch conversations, we began to reach out to our friends. We sent out an email, asking for help on what we had begun to call “The Fertile Crescent Project”. Fertile, because we realized that between the southern Appalachian mountains and the hills of Texas there was a spring, a river, a deep well–use whatever metaphor you like–that from the early days of European settlement and on into the present has continued to bubble up with some of the most exciting and world-changing music that history has ever witnessed. Robert Johnson. Louis Armstrong. Muddy Waters. Elvis. Bill Monroe. The Neville Brothers. Stevie Ray Vaughn. And this region, this crescent, this series of arcs that lopes in a south-westerly direction along the former strongholds of the Cherokee and the Chickasaw and the Choctaw, continues to be a hotbed and an incubator for music into the twenty-first century.
With all those thoughts in mind, I dashed off a précis to Christian, he made a few modifications, and we sent off the email, thinking we might get one or two responses to help us get started along the way:
The Fertile Crescent: Following the Trail of American Music
They say that Jazz is America’s only truly indigenous music. Whoever coined that idea must never have been to a juke joint, or stayed up all night sitting around a fire at an old-time festival, or watched pickers and fiddlers blaze through suped-up folksongs at a bluegrass concert. Or listened to country radio on a long drive. Or followed the second-line of a brass band throwing out two-chord jams through the streets of New Orleans.
The worldwide domination of American pop, hip-hop, and rock aside, the melting pot of diverse cultural influences that spawned American roots music has given rise to more distinct styles than any other country can boast. And in the American South, along the folkways that trace a diagonal path from Virginia to Texas, those traditions are alive and well, and continue to inform and influence musicians and captivate listeners around the world.
We are on a journey to trace the “Fertile Crescent” of indigenous American music. From the mountains of Southern Appalachia where immigrant homesteaders holding on to a half-remembered oral tradition of Scots-Irish song, dance, and instrumental music created the primal mountain sound known today as “old-time;” to the hills of Kentucky where virtuoso musicians took the essential elements of old-time and turned it into the “high lonesome sound” of bluegrass; to Music City, Nashville USA, home of country, alt-country, roots rock, and the highest per-capita concentration of musical talent in the world; to Memphis, home of Gospel, Beale Street blues, and Elvis; and on down through Mississippi, where Delta blues rose up through the sweat and struggle of African slaves working in cotton fields that stretched from horizon to horizon, transforming ancestral sounds from Senegambia and the Congo into the dirty dust-my-broom 12-bar stomp that carried the seeds of rock and roll in its threshers; to New Orleans, birthplace of jazz, home of the world’s greatest brass bands, and a bubbling soup of multicultural traditions and musical styles, from the funk of the Neville Brothers to the raunchy Bounce music of Cheeky Black, to the ghostly African call-and-response chants of Mardi Gras Indians, and the proud traditions of the Preservation Hall Jazz Band…. From there we move west, into Texas, where white folks grab the blues and crank it up to eleven, and the Spanish influence gets stronger. From the ghosts of Stevie Ray Vaughn’s Texas blues to the breakneck pedal-steel-and-fiddle rhythms of Western Swing, and into Tejano territory, where Mexican and American folk blend into a modern troubadour tradition that sings of the struggles of life along a border fraught with racism, drug trafficking, and political chess-games.