After last week's tragic shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School, you could be forgiven for wanting to give up on America. But as we take time to reflect over the holidays (or, as The Onion puts it, crawl into the fetal position under our desks), maybe it's time to put on some music that will make us feel okay about being Americans again.
These five Americana(ish) bands won't solve gun problems in the United States. But if their songs were broadcast across Capitol Hill, I'd wager it would take the gasoline out of the political firefight so Congress could come back after break and start tackling this thing — across the aisle, together.
The members of this guy-girl duo hail from New York and Ohio, respectively, describing themselves as "evoking California's hippie Dust Bowl fringe [with] equal parts Okie squalor and Pacific shimmer." Their song lyrics range from cheeky ("I like whiskey when I'm sick, and a man when I'm well") to heartbroken ("I burned all my clothes to get rid of your smell.") And singer Suzanna Santo somehow plays fiddle, sings, and still finds time to appear on Law and Order. They are touring the West Coast in January with another band on this list, Trampled by Turtles.
2. Punch Brothers
The Punch Brothers are the brainchild of "mandolinist extraordinaire" Chris Thile, formerly of the child-prodigy bluegrass band Nickel Creek. This year, Thile was awarded the prestigious "genius grant" by the MacArthur Foundation. But don't worry about fame going to his head — bassist Paul Kowert told me recently that it has been the rest of the band's "duty" to make fun of Thile ever since. I saw these guys play at Austin City Limits, where they managed to keep the crowd dancing through rain and mud — to what The Times of London pretentiously calls "bluegrass instrumentation and spontaneity in the strictures of modern classical," no less.
3. Trampled by Turtles
If the Punch Brothers are the highbrow art-school hipsters of the 2012 bluegrass scene, then Trampled by Turtles are the kids cutting class and hawking spitballs off the roof. From Minnesota, they're often photographed in big baggy jeans, sweatshirts and unkempt beards. And not to go all music-critic on you, but their sound has the same I'm-about-to-go-off-the-rails feel — and that's a good thing. In the tune, "You Wait So Long," Dave Simonett croons: "You fall to your knees and you pray to the lord, then you take up hope at the politicians," while fiddler Ryan Young goes 100 percent balls-out ballistic in the background. Trust me, it works:
4. Carolina Chocolate Drops
The Carolina Chocolate Drops might be the most accomplished Americana band on this list — their 2010 album Genuine Negro Jig won a "Best Traditional Folk Album" Grammy, if that's any indication. According to NPR, they've derive inspiration from the offensive "minstrel acts in the 1920s" — where white musicians performed in black face. Singer and instrumentalist Rhiannon Giddens: "What we're striving to put out there is… the good side of this time period." The band shies away from electric pedals, but they more than make up the difference by playing kazoos, ceramic jugs, and even bones.
5. Justin Jones
Full disclosure: I am friends with this Washington, D.C.-based band (and once played a show with them) — so if you don't want a healthy dose of bias, feel free to skip straight to listening. But trust me when I say that Justin Jones and his band are fantastic, true-blue, pick-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps Americana. They've spent a good portion of the last year on tour, rocking out in every nook and crevice in the United States. The video above is a song Jones wrote about celebrating Christmas with his wife and daughters ("We'll cook for our babies, even when they're grown") — a poignant reminder of just how lucky you are if you're with your loved ones over the holidays.