I listen to Session Americana a lot. The band is based in the Boston area, and they are known for the portable bar table they set up on stage. They sit around the table to harmonize, trade vocals, invite guests, and rotate instruments on thoughtful and literate original tunes as well as on a diverse list of covers that runs from the historical to the contemporary, recalling the spirit of The Band — collaborative, committed, honest — in the Big Pink days.
When they play Dinty Child’s “It’s Not Texas,” they recall another aspect of The Band’s legacy. Greil Marcus called it “the yearning for home and the fact of displacement that rule[s] our lives” in his chapter on The Band in Mystery Train: Images of America in Rock ’N’ Roll Music from 1975. In the song, Child (who is member of Session Americana) writes about an artist who journeys from Texas to Nashville, Boston, and then finally Los Angeles, facing trials in each city — never feeling like she’s home or that any place is the same as Texas (because it can’t be) — but gaining hard-won wisdom along the way with each displacement. The song, rich with a series of finely wrought vignettes, appears on Session Americana’s 2015 album Pack Up The Circus:
In the first verse, we find the artist in Nashville with her “beat-up case,” on the open mic circuit. (I should note that I’m quoting the song from listening to it; I don’t have the official lyrics.) She faces the inevitable “Music Row indignities” but is nonetheless able to fall in with like-minded musicians who value music for reasons other than its life as a commodity. The first chorus brings us the first memory of Texas:
[I remember when we]
Used to drive to Austin
With the pickup windows down
Find a country station
And sing along too loud
A character in a song listening to country music always makes me think of that radio station playing “soft” in “Visions of Johanna,” or of the driver in Son Volt’s “Windfall” who finds a “truer sound” with the pedal steel he hears on the AM dial. Here there is also a subtle tension between Austin and Nashville: the “tribe” she finds in Nashville might have more in common with the outlaw country crew more closely associated historically with Austin. Nashville: It’s all right, but it’s not Texas.
From Austin and Nashville to Boston: a change in weather as well as a change in manners for the second verse. People in Boston “can be cold that way,” like the weather, a way they weren’t in the south, though we can’t forget the “indignities” of the music business in Nashville. But in Boston you make real friends, friends for life — and you see the “magic in the snow,” which gives you a new perspective on the warmth of Texas and Tennessee. In other words, the yearning for home remains. And is it the Charles River in Boston that reminds her of the Frio River in Texas, the central image of the next chorus? Or is the association that Boston is cold, and that “frio” means cold? But I remember when we’d float down Frio River on a yellow April day.
The third verse brings the final displacement, across the continent to the “neon light” of Los Angeles. The “neon” is harsh when compared to the mellow “yellow April” of Texas in the preceding chorus. Our musician does not know what she seeks in LA, though she’s able, it seems, to find beauty there, reading the city of “angels” in a way that allows for some kind of solace: We’re made of stars, so it’s all right.
The final chorus comprises the song’s richest scene:
All the two-step nights on old wood floors
With fiddles in the band
Sunday dinners after church
Please and thank you, ma’am
We get a clear sense of the country-music origins of the artist, and I love the touch of “old wood floors” underneath the two-stepping boots. The family traditions and manners of this particular Texan contextualize the alienation she felt in Boston, when people wouldn’t even make eye contact.
“The yearning for home and fact of displacement,” Marcus wrote of The Band’s quintessentially American music. Child’s song echoes this truth of American music throughout each of its choruses:
If they should ask about me
And the place I lay my head
Tell them it’s all right
But it’s not Texas.
I recommend all of Session Americana’s music and look forward to writing about more of it. I also recommend you check out how this song is rendered beautifully by the band in live performance.
Here’s a version from 2017 at Ear Trumpet Labs:
“It’s Not Texas” is also the opening song of this concert at Goddard College (I recommend the entire thing; you will become a fan if you’re not already):
Thanks for reading,
Welcome to Borushko Variorum, a collection of occasional writings (on music, books, sports) and reflections. Coming soon: on metaphors in Townes’s writing; on The Band’s The Band at 50; notes on listening to Travelin’ Thru; on Session Americana’s Northeast; and more. You can subscribe to the newsletter version (it’s free) and get these as emails:
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