AMBIENT AMERICANA MUSIC
- INTRO: The Sound and Space of Ambient Americana Music
- ABOUT THE PLAYLIST: More than 50 songs by 40 plus musicians offer a comprehensive listen
- PLAYLIST: On YouTube and Spotify
- RESOURCES: echoes.org, Uncut magazine
THE SOUND AND SPACE OF AMBIENT AMERICANA
Trending subgenre bridges acoustic roots and ambient electronic
The languid and relaxed, sometimes twangy and occasionally haunting sounds of Ambient Americana music have been reaching more listeners as a growing number of musicians experiment with this increasingly popular sound. Could be that the pandemic and other tough times are drawing a crowd to its welcome and unhurried sounds.
Pedal-steel guitar virtuoso and Canadian producer Daniel Lanois says the current trend reminds him of when he and musician Brian Eno were making ambient albums together in the 1980’s.
“Hardship is with us these days,” Lanois says in the May issue of UK music magazine Uncut. “This is instrumental music that has a lot of spirit in it and can really take people on a journey without bashing them over the heads with beats and all that. I’m happy to be part of that wave. We never intended for things to go that way but sometimes you just catch one.”
Ambient and Americana: two become one
Ambient was made popular in the late ‘70s by influential producer Brian Eno who coined the term. Its intention, he said, is to “induce calm and a space to think.” Music with sonic ambience goes back to the late 19th century when maverick composer Erik Satie started making what he called “furniture music” – sounds meant to be heard but not listened to.
The older Americana has its roots in American folk music drawing on the folk traditions of England, Scotland and Ireland. This genre is a mix of folk, blues, country, country folk, bluegrass, Appalachian and gospel.
Combine the two and you have a unique subgenre which often suggests a certain time and space.
“It’s music that evokes people and places not through lyrics, melodies or rhythms but through sustained notes suggesting a vast star-strewn firmament overhead and dusty terrain underfoot,” write Uncut’s editors.
While that’s a good description, the music is about more than big sky, miles of highway and endless prairie. The ambient element adds a spacey, psychedelic and experimental dimension featuring synthesizers and other devices.
Who started it? Five key albums
Uncut cites five seminal albums representing different slices of Ambient Americana which is also sometimes called Cosmic Pastoral and Kosmiche Pastoral. Those different labels point to the range the its compositions encompass – from finger picking acoustic to deeply electronic.
1) Bruce Langhorne‘s 1971 soundtrack for Peter Fonda’s western film The Hired Hand. In a recent review on npr.org, writer Lars Gotrich says, “His (Langhorne) 1971 soundtrack for Peter Fonda’s directorial debut, The Hired Hand, in particular, sounds like it could be released today — it layers dusty acoustic guitar with fiddle, harmonica, organ and dulcimer with desert-swept space and a melancholy that stares into an endless horizon.”
2) Brian Eno‘s Apollo: Atmosphere’s and Soundtracks. The music was originally recorded in 1983 for a feature-length documentary movie called Apollo (later retitled For All Mankind). Eno worked on the album with Daniel Lanois and it makes good use of Lanois’ pedal-steel while exemplifying the more electronic and ambient aspects of the music.
3) Ry Cooder scored 1983’s Paris, Texas for Wim Wenders’ desolate film about a man wandering the desert looking for identity and family. The spare compositions foreground acoustic and slide guitar showcasing Ambient Americana’s more haunting profile.
4) 2001’s Slider: Ambient Excursions for Pedal-Steel Guitar sees guitarist Bruce Kaphan showcase ” a highly melodic playing style with ambient textures drawing from Eastern influences,” according to Uncut.
5) And I Await The Resurrection of the Pedal-Steel Guitar is former country music player Susan Alcorn‘s 2006 experimental and avant garde exploration in which she coaxes previously unheard noises out of her instrument of choice.
Notes on the playlist
Kurated’s handpicked playlist is an easy going foray into the beauty, resonance and fine-tuned delicacy of this musical form. There are a variety of styles and instruments used in Ambient Americana. The style I like best and is featured on the 50-plus pieces here is pretty relaxed and slow. The tempo and timbre vary a little. You might sense the overall feel of a movie soundtrack. Indeed, nine of the songs come from films – Paris, Texas; The Hired Hand; Into the Wild and Friday Night Lights.
I also like a balanced juxtaposition of acoustic and electric sounds in the music. While pedal-steel and other plugged in instruments are well-represented, so are guitars, banjos, violins plus one song featuring harp by experimental musician Mary Lattimore – Sometimes He’s In My Dreams. Since I’m not wild about the more exploratory and challenging styles, they aren’t represented here.
A mostly instrumental form
Most of Ambient Americana features instrumentals. But a number of artists present vocals and a few of them are here. Brooklyn’s Steve Gunn sings on the playlist’s opening song, Way Out Weather. Alison Krauss provides vocals on two of her brother Victor’s compositions from his superb 2004 album, Far From Enough. The Cowboy Junkies‘ Margo Timmins lends her voice on the group’s rendition of Blue Moon Revisited.
There are two songs featuring spoken word by country/indie/alternative singer Heather McEntire. They come from the ninth album by a collaborative project called Field Works. One song talks about mountain top removal coal mining and the other references toxic cotton-growing practices in the southern US.
Most of the artists on this playlist don’t specialize in playing Ambient Americana. Veterans like Ry Cooder, Bill Frisell, and Daniel Lanois are known for their wide ranging musical explorations in numerous genres over decades-long careers. Others like Cowboy Junkies, Michael Chapman, Mary Lattimore and Yo La Tengo have a few songs in their catalogues. Players such as Balmorhea, Lanterna, Marisa Anderson, William Tyler, North Americans, Bruce Langhorne, Bruce Kaphan and others are deeply rooted in various styles of the subgenre.
And, I’m not familiar enough with a number of the other players to place them. Of the 35 artists on the playlist, 21 were completely new to me. Doing a deep dive into this music is a wonderful revelation. The form is rich and gorgeous. It’s varied and open to a lot of different interpretations. It’s also really cool and calm while being inspiring and innovative. I hope you find some new songs and players here to launch your own explorations.
Welcome to summer!
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03 July 2021
Feel free to share this post with your musical friends (see below).
Stay tuned and enjoy,