Editors Note: As the old saying goes, everything old is new again. In an intriguing new book titled United States of Americana , author Kurt B. Reighley examines a cultural return to simpler times — like the resurgence of knitting shops and vinyl record stores. And don’t forget about Prohibition-era cocktails and vivacious burlesque shows when the sun goes down. In this excerpt, Reighley examines the encores of musicians who initially made their mark in a previous generation.
One of the most interesting aspects of the flourishing of Americana has been the second acts the genre has ushered in for older roots artists written off by the mainstream. For O Brother, Where Are Thou?, T Bone Burnett tapped bluegrass great Ralph Stanley, born in 1927, to sing the haunting Appalachian traditional “O Death.” His eerie a cappella performance was recognized with a Grammy for best male vocal country performance, beating out Tim McGraw, Willie Nelson and Johnny Cash. In 2006, Stanley was awarded a National Medal of Arts, presented to him by President George W. Bush.
Solomon Burke, the “King of Rock and Soul,” was one of the cornerstone acts of Atlantic’s seminal R&B roster in the 1960s, racking up hits like “Cry to Me,” “He’ll Have to Go” and “Got to Get You off My Mind.” It wasn’t until well after he’d vanished from the commercial landscape that he won his greatest accolade. In 2002, the small Fat Possum label teamed Burke with producer Joe Henry, to record new songs by Americana heavyweights like Nick Lowe, Tom Waits, Bob Dylan, and Elvis Costello. “I never thought that something called Fat Possum Records would do what all the record companies in my life had never accomplished: getting me a Grammy,” [admitted] Burke. That 2002 release, Don’t Give Up on Me, won for best contemporary blues album.
The same producer, Joe Henry, and rowdy Southern rockers Drive-By Truckers also helped soul singer Bettye LaVette reach beyond a handful of vintage R&B enthusiasts. LaVette’s inimitable interpretive gifts, seasoned over decades of experience, brought added gravity to material by Lucinda Williams, Sinead O’Connor and John Hiatt on her albums I’ve Got My Own Hell to Raise (2005) and The Scene of the Crime (2007). More than 45 years elapsed between LaVette’s 1963 Top 10 smash “My Man — He’s a Loving Man” and her performance alongside Jon Bon Jovi at the Washington, D.C., inaugural celebration of President Barack Obama. “I am relieved that it doesn’t look like I will die in obscurity,” she confessed in 2005. “I won’t have to go door-to-door, saying, ’Hi, my name is Bettye LaVette,’ and do a show on everyone’s porch!”
The best example of this second-act scenario is American Recordings by Johnny Cash(1). In the early 1990s, the Man in Black was a genuine folk hero. Yet he’d failed to have any significant commercial impact since 1976. Producer Rick Rubin, who’d built a formidable reputation working with acts as diverse as the Beastie Boys, Slayer, Red Hot Chili Peppers and Run-DMC, reversed that by recording Cash in a bare-bones setting and interspersing original compositions by the singer with sympathetic selections by Leonard Cohen, Nick Lowe, Tom Waits and even Glenn Danzig (formerly of New Jersey punk combo the Misfits).
In Cash, Rubin had a sound that was authentic, trusted, time-tested, and wholly American. American Recordings didn’t need to add unnecessary bells and whistles, just introduce its star to a younger audience and demonstrate that the same gifts that distinguished Cash in his initial heyday could be successful applied in modern times. Over the next decade, until his death in 2003(2), Cash enjoyed a tremendous resurgence of popularity and influence. His interpretations of acts like Nine Inch Nails, Soundgarden and Depeche Mode inevitably got the most attention, but Cash sounded even better on songs written by like-minded followers such as Will Oldham (“I See a Darkness”) and Nick Cave (“The Mercy Seat”), who’d been steeped in similar roots music traditions.
Since then, plenty of younger artists have used their commercial clout and industry prestige to resuscitate the careers of veteran musicians. In addition to including covers of blues greats Robert Johnson, Son House, and Blind Willie McTell on early albums, Detroit alt-rock two-piece the White Stripes used versions of Loretta Lynn’s “Rated X” and Dolly Parton’s “Jolene” as single B-sides. In 2004, 28-year-old Jack White joined forces with 69-year-old Lynn to produce Van Lear Rose, and the outcome won a Grammy for best country album. Since that comeback, Lynn has gone on to collaborate with Elvis Costello (co-writing “I Felt the Chill” for his 2009 album Secret, Profane & Sugarcane), while White was recruited to make a record with the Queen of Rockabilly, Wanda Jackson.
A musician doesn’t even have to have been famous to enjoy this type of resurgence. Gospel preacher Reverend Johnny L. “Hurricane” Jones has been the minister at the Second Mount Olive Baptist Church in Atlanta for more than 50 years. Singing and sermonizing with a full rock band behind him, Jones drew huge congregations at the height of his popularity in the 1970s. By the turn of the century, attendance had dropped off, and he was just accompanying himself on the organ. After a local PBS affiliate spotlighted Jones as part of a larger piece on archival label Dust-to-Digital, he found a new following, including members of notorious punk quartet Black Lips. Atlanta musicians offered their services, and Jones resumed performing with a full band . . . now made up of young, white players in their early 20s.
2. And even after — released posthumously, the final Rubin/Cash collaborations A Hundred Highways (2006) and Ain’t No Grave (2010) entered the charts at number one and three, respectively.
Excerpted with permission from United States of Americana by Kurt B. Reighley, published by Harper Collins.