The world would be a mighty silent place had it not been for Little Walter wailing on a harp with Muddy Waters egging him on in Chicago come 1950 or thereabouts. In that instant, the Chicago Blues were born — urban blues, electric blues. The sound filled Chicago and it came to define it. It was the moment when the music of the Midwest was born. This is to say nothing of the influence of other artists, such as Duluth-native Robert Zimmerman, better known as Bob Dylan, of course.
Which is all to say the Midwest has sound. It trembles. There is music in these roads, nestled deep in these pines. It is folk, it is country, it is the great Americana backbeat pressing back against your tires as you cruise up I-94 through Madison, WI. From Minnesota’s own Jayhawks (who produced the masterpieces “Hollywood Town Hall” and “Mockingbird Time”) to Allison Krauss — the queen of Americana who hails from Decatur, Illinois. To those artists whose boots are dirty and sounds are rich, to those reclaiming country from Nashville and putting it back in the Heartland where it belongs, I do tip my hat.
We have a hillbilly-tinted concept of country music, dominated by fake twang and pop sentimentality. Country music may have been born in Bristol, Tennessee, but that kind of music was meant for folks all over every stretch of America to which a dirt road leads you. The Midwest is dotted with rust towns and green towns and towns where the wheat swallows up old tractors and metal Tonka trucks. There are all sorts of Midwesterners to whom country music sounds like home. Take, for example, the guy who fixed my tire when I was stranded in Onaway. Or my dad, who walks his property on the weekends and checks to see how much maple sap collected in the buckets for him to make maple syrup. Even this guy I once saw drinking a Budweiser and driving a tractor down 29 Mile. These are country folk. You can see it in their eyes.
Michigan band Frontier Ruckus has been steadily putting out what I can only refer to as criminally-underrated folk-Americana since 2007. I cannot recommend “Way Upstate & the Crippled Summer,” both parts 1 and 2, enough. Frontman Matthew Milia’s warbling, intense lyrics find a cozy nook in between the banjos and rusty chords.
Lord Huron — an LA-based indie folk crew made up of Michigan natives — produces some of my favorite music, by far. Their debut album, “Lonesome Dreams,” has just enough distant ambience to remind you of how beautiful the loneliness of nature can be. “She Lit a Fire” is particularly striking, with dancing, sparkly chords that blend into the ambience. Their sophomore album, “Strange Trails,” plays heavy to a country-rock vibe. Tunes like “Meet Me in the Woods” and “Love Like Ghosts” are spectral and haunting, buried deeply within the mythos of solitude peppering Michigan’s natural splendors.
Yet, the heart of Midwestern roots is Minnesota — specifically the Twin Cities. For proof, grace your eardrums with Garrison Keillor’s folk spectacle “A Prairie Home Companion,” which played live from the Fitzgerald Theater in St. Paul. The show has since been renamed “Live From Here,” with Punch Brothers frontman Chris Thile taking over hosting duties. Essentially, the show features skits, music and performances by folk, blues and Americana artists of all kinds, oftentimes performing twangy impromptu renditions of newer songs.
Your Michigans are not all Detroit or Grand Rapids. Your Wisconsins are more than Milwaukee, and Iowa is not only Des Moines. There are people here and they are breathing. The sound of their breath is Motown, is the Delta blues humming in St. Louis. It’s the sound of scratchy strings when you’re changing chords and banjos idly plucked by the window. You are surrounded by country. Drive to a cornfield, throw on some country or bluegrass or folk. Take your time. Participate in roots. Just get lost.