I’ve loved American music for as long as I can remember. Growing up in a household with a worthy record collection is more prized a memory with every passing year, enriching my life and career in a multitude of ways I could barely have recognised when I was a young man. But it could have been so different – had I not been blessed with parents who not only demonstrated good taste in their already voluminous assortment of vinyl and newly introduced CDs, but also actively sought out the new and the good from their local record store almost weekly, then perhaps I wouldn’t be sitting here writing this blog at all. Or perhaps I’d have been on a different musical path altogether, hanging with the headbangers or rapping with the rude boys. Fans of the show will know from the type of music we play each Thursday that fate had something else in mind, and so I was born into a house that – amongst some pretty diverse records from all over – seemed to favour music from the other side of the Atlantic.
I did rebel for a while during my formative years, every child must, and to my shame even showed signs of embarrassment at times. But I eventually came round to my parents’ way of thinking. My mum was a fan of Stax, Motown and Tamla records (especially Smokey, Stevie and Otis), whilst my dad opted for the more rustic of American performers: top of the list was Bob Dylan, closely followed by Neil Young, Tom Waits, and then the harmony-drenched sounds of bands like The Byrds and Crosby, Stills and Nash. Sunday mornings were particularly redolent round our way – hearty breakfasts, scattered newspapers, and the exotic strains of some American troubadour or other drifiting through the rooms of my childhood home. It was this otherworldly-ness that grabbed my attention at first – so far from my own normal existence that it seemed almost a different planet – and so I found myself eager to find out more about the rag-tag bunch of musos who inhabited Laurel Canyon, California, or the man they called “The Boss” who frequented the boardwalks of Ashbury Park, New Jersey.
It was a magical voyage of discovery, criss crossing the American plains uncovering everything from Woody Guthrie to Warren Zevon, The Beach Boys to Big Star, Judee Sill to Jackson Browne and beyond. I found myself lost in music, as they sang of life, of love, of death, of chasing the American Dream over near mythical landscapes. The good ones had the knack of making almost any subject matter sound cool, given the luxury of framing their songs against the backdrop of a country so vast and impressive it could provide for an almost endless stream of invention and inspiration. And it continues to this day in the long line of American artists who continue to impress, from Arcade Fire to The National to Wilco and many more, all of whom carry the torch for a great nation of musical mavericks.
The Land of the Free is an alluring place alright, my love affair with its musical inhabitants never ending, and to celebrate Independence Day we have a special show with some of the best music America has to offer, including a Record Of Note from New Albany’s Houndmouth, Live On Arrival with Seattle’s Jimi Hendrix and Undercover with Muhlenberg County’s Everly Brothers. And it’s all happening this Thursday July 4th from 10.05pm on BBC Radio Scotland.
As my own musical career has developed I have come to realise just how much of my parents’ record collection has seeped into my own blood stream, and how crucial early exposure to great music can be in the life of any young person, whatever continent it happens to hail from. The lesson? Teach your children well.