There is a moment in Martin Scorsese’s The Last Waltz that I especially love. Just over forty-six minutes in, the documentary, which captures the final concert of The Band, shows three members playing the classic Gospel tune “Old Time Religion.” The footage is not a part of the concert and was captured during some spare bit of downtime. The band members are just sitting around, shooting the breeze, having a light jam session. With a cigarette or some other narcotic hanging from the side of his mouth, The Band’s lead singer Robbie Robertson casually strums on his guitar and sings the melody. Rick Danko, wearing a black plastic hat and messing around on the fiddle, joins in with the harmony. Richard Manuel plays the harmonica. The moment lasts for only one minute. “Oh, it’s not like it used to be,” says Robertson, laughing, as they finish playing. Then the film switches back to the concert.
Scorsese was skilled at capturing behind-the-scenes jam sessions with accomplished musicians, but there’s something more to this scene. It certainly does not depict moral innocence or sober religious devotion – Danko, at least, is clearly high. The members of The Band were major drug users, and Robertson decided to break up the group in part because he felt the behavior of its members was becoming truly destructive. At one point in the documentary, Manuel says The Band toured for as long as they did specifically because they loved sleeping with women on the road. But for all this, the musical traditions that stand behind the Band are haunted by Christianity. Some American musical genres can never fully disentangle themselves from religion, a feature which, from time to time, can become an occasion of grace.
The Band plays a major role in John Milward’s new history of Americana music, Americanaland: Where Country & Western Met Rock ’n’ Roll. Milward traces the group’s career from their time opening for Bob Dylan to when they came into their own, and identifies them as a central forerunner to the genre now known as Americana.
Whether Americana really is its own genre is a matter of dispute. Like the color gray, Americana always has an undertone that defines it, including blues, out-and-out country, bluegrass, rock, folk, and gospel. The choice to give Americana its own category in the Grammy Awards rests on its use of electric instruments and the claim that it has a “distinctive roots-oriented sound that lives in a world apart from the pure forms of the genres upon which it may draw.” Unofficially, of course, the story is more complicated. As Milward tells it, the Grammy category was born out of commercial pressure as much as musical necessity. After Johnny Cash’s 1996 album Unchained won the Best Country Album at the Grammys, unhappy “Nashville music executives … successfully lobbied the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences to protect their franchise by creating new Grammy categories.”
Musicians have also weighed in on this debate. When country musician Roy Acuff arrived at the studio to record for the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s Will the Circle Be Unbroken – a defining proto-Americana album, featuring performances by legendary figures like Doc Watson and Mother Maybelle Carter – he was skeptical of the project until he heard the music being made. When the band’s manager identified the music as “kind of Appalachian, old timey, American folk,” Acuff responded, “Hell! It ain’t nothing but country music! Good country music! Let’s go make some more, boys!” In The Last Waltz, The Band’s drummer Levon Helm puts the matter in a different light. Talking about the area surrounding Memphis, Helm says “That’s kind of the middle of the country, you know, back there. So bluegrass or country music, you know, if it comes down to that area and if it mixes there with rhythm and if it dances, then you’ve got a combination of all those different kinds of music, country, bluegrass, blues music, show music.” “Right. What’s it called then?” asks Scorsese. “Rock and roll,” Helm answers, smiling.
Since “best Americana album” became a Grammy Awards category, just twelve albums have won (a new album will join the small club this April). These albums, by artists like Helm, Jason Isbell, Mavis Staples, Emmylou Harris, Keb’ Mo’, and others, capture the varied sound of Americana, however you define it.
Why, though, do people love this music so much? Does the music mean anything, or is it just enjoyable, if you happen to enjoy it? Though Americanaland hints at answers to these questions, it ultimately leaves them up in the air. Milward offers a readable “musical genealogy” of contemporary Americana and gives the reader a sense of what’s made its lineage great and innovative. Occasionally the level of detail about, for example, which musicians played on which albums, may strike the general reader as cluttered, but, for the most part, he keeps his history moving. But while Milward includes biographical information and anecdote – sometimes colorful, sometimes tragic, sometimes horrifying – and touches occasionally on politics (Americana, he notes, has been called “country music for Democrats”), the reader may find it difficult to discern why this music matters to those who make it and those who love it.
My own introduction to Americana came around 2010, when bands like Mumford & Sons were especially popular. Mumford & Sons, whose 2012 album Babel was nominated for the Best Americana Album award, played one of the first concerts I attended. In an effort, I guess, to realize every cliché, I trekked up to Canada during the winter, in a red-and-black checked lumberjack-style coat, to see what was, at the time, my favorite band. I loved bands like Mumford & Sons and The Head and The Heart because they seemed to convey feelings of a more rooted and authentic life – pieces can (and have) been written on the high degree of artificiality and nostalgia that generate those feelings. But I also loved Mumford & Sons because some of their songs seemed theological. It was popular in certain Christian circles to speculate about whether, for example, a passage from Chesterton inspired the lyrics of the Mumford song “The Cave” (Marcus Mumford’s parents are leaders in the Vineyard Churches). It was especially moving when these groups closed their shows with old gospel tunes or hymns. Mumford & Sons, for example, ended their 2011 set at Bonnaroo with “Amazing Grace”; the Avett Brothers have also sung this hymn in concerts.
Americana artists draw from the well of American music, which has been fed by the springs of religion. On a musical retreat of sorts in Woodstock, New York after his famous motorcycle accident, Bob Dylan took a years-long break from touring, instead writing music and playing with the group that would become The Band. Milward writes that “the band started having informal musical sessions with their boss” and “Dylan began by surveying his past via a wide variety of folk, country, and blues songs”:
‘With the covers Bob was educating us a little,’ said Robertson. ‘The whole folkie thing was still very questionable to us – it wasn’t the train we came in on. He’d be doing this Pete Seeger stuff and I’d be saying ‘Oh God …’ And then … he’d come up with something like ‘Banks of the Royal Canal,’ and you’d say, ‘This is so beautiful!’
In a later spontaneous recording session Dylan did with Johnny Cash, eventually released on Travelin’ Thru, “Just a Closer Walk with Thee” appears naturally among the Jimmie Rodgers medleys.
Other examples of this natural turn to the religious abound in Americanaland. Emmylou Harris, who started her career as a folk musician, shifted to country music after Gram Parsons sent her an album by the Louvin Brothers, who released albums like The Family Who Prays, Satan Is Real, and Weapon of Prayer. In a famous Memphis jam session the group that became known as the Million Dollar Quartet – Johnny Cash, Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Carl Perkins – sang “Farther Along” and “Peace in the Valley” alongside heartbreak songs like “That’s When Your Heartaches Begin.” Willie Nelson too, to whom Milward gives a fair amount of attention, released Gospel Favorites and Gospel’s Best (with Merle Haggard).
Because American music contains so many religious songs in its canon, the instinct to “return to the roots” keeps religious material in circulation. This musical fact fits human life. Searching for God, like romantic love, is human. “The human sense of the sacred,” writes Marilynne Robinson, “is a fact. Like mathematics or human selfhood, its existence is not to be reasoned to by way of positivist or materialist premises. It is a given, a powerful presence, whose reality it is perverse to deny on the basis of a model of reality constructed around its exclusion.” To identify a sense of the sacred as something human includes it with all the other human concerns that occupy musicians. Bruce Springsteen describes the humanity of country as his reason for working in the genre:
I wanted to write about the way people lived and the possibilities of life. … Country asked all the right questions. It was concerned with how you go on living after you reach adulthood. I was asking those questions myself. Everything after Born to Run was shot full with a lot of country music – those questions.
Country music dwells on heartbreak because heartbreak is a part of life, even though not everyone is heartbroken at every moment. In just the same way, Americana music recognizes, implicitly, that religion is a part of life, even if it doesn’t seem to apply to you.
And then suddenly, perhaps, it does.
If Dylan helped forge Americana musically, he also embodies its relationship to Christianity. In D. A. Pennebaker’s 1967 documentary, Don’t Look Back, Dylan disavows any interest in religion. At one point a reporter leans in, conspiratorially, and asks in a whisper “Do you ever read the Bible?” “Um, no,” says Dylan, “I’ve glanced through it. I haven’t read it.” Later, he is standing around with a small group and someone asks him, “Are you religious?” “Ah, well, I don’t know. What does that mean, you know? Religious. What does it mean? Does it mean you bow down to an idol, or go to church every Sunday? That kind of stuff?” “No. Believe in something,” a person replies. “I don’t believe in anything, no. Why should I believe in anything? I don’t see anything to believe in … I can’t see anything anybody’s offered me to believe in, believe and put all my trust and faith in. Nothing is sacred, right?
And yet a little over a decade later, Dylan released the first of three “Christian” albums, Slow Train Coming. Milward fills in some of the gaps:
A few years after his divorce from Sara, an actress girlfriend brought Dylan to church at Vineyard Christian Fellowship. Musicians from the Rolling Thunder Revue were in the congregation. ‘T-Bone [Burnett] was the first one to go through this [born again] experience and Steve [Soles] sort of followed him, and I eventually did too,” said David Mansfield. “And T-Bone has more than a bit of preacher in him and was probably hammering at all of his friends in the way that he could be most effecting – arguing …
Eventually Dylan followed. As Milward notes, he “approached his newfound devotion to Jesus Christ with the same dedication he’d shown to painting, taking a three-month, four-day-a-week course at the Vineyard Fellowship.”
Dylan was always a mythmaker about himself; you can never take him simply at his word. Like the character in “I Contain Multitudes,” a song from his 2020 album Rough and Rowdy Ways, Dylan can say “I’m a man of contradictions, I’m a man of many moods, I contain multitudes.” So it’s hard to know his real thoughts about Christianity, then or now. But clearly something, however ambiguous or temporary, happened to him. Christianity became something more than an antique or an “idol.”
Not every Americana album is about Jesus, but the genre as a whole has Christianity in its DNA. To love a musical tradition of that sort is to open yourself up to the possibility that, at any moment, the words might surge off the music sheet and become real for you, that you might find yourself experiencing a dimension of human life you previously only knew mediated through a song. For a Christian, it’s comforting to know that there exist musical traditions that continue to hold the greatest reality – the love of God – in this way, no matter how morally broken or individually secular its performers may be. Americana music holds this treasure in earthen vessels.
I recently saw Dylan in concert, forty-five years after he appeared in The Last Waltz with his former band. He’s eighty now. He played a roughly ninety-minute set, without intermission. The lights were low on stage, and I was in the cheap seats, so I couldn’t see well – but I could hear. His voice was as distinctive as ever. Out of his large catalogue of songs, he chose to include one from Slow Train Coming. I can’t know what he thought or felt as he sang an up-tempo version of “Gotta Serve Somebody,” a song about our inescapable citizenship in some spiritual kingdom or another. But in keeping the song alive, he keeps the human truths it contains alive too.
Who knows who might find them to be true next?