"I don't want to mention the names of any bars, but there was one place that did get really scary," says Al's Fast Freight singer-guitarist Howard Micenmacher, whose father was an independent trucker and the inspiration behind the band's moniker. "They were screaming for real country music, and we literally shut down and had to leave. It was a couple of years ago. Anywhere south of here, we would be thought of as a rock band. I hate to keep saying this, but if it was the '70s, we would be called a rock band. Bands like Neil Young and the Byrds were twanging along back then, but they were still called rock bands, and no one even thought of them as country."
Since its connection to country is tenuous, Al's Fast Freight comes under the category of "Americana," a term used to describe acts that fall between the cracks of country and rock. (For the definitive Americana album, see Uncle Tupelo's 1990 masterpiece No Depression, an album on which the mandolins and banjos are cranked up as loud as the guitars.) As a way to nurture the local Americana scene, a group of local Americana bands, including Al's Fast Freight, Cletus Black Revue, and Christopher, will play at the Agora on March 10. The concert will culminate with a set by ex-Long Ryder Tom Stevens, who's coming in from Indiana for the show.
As Micenmacher suggests, the roots of Americana or "alternative country," as it is sometimes called, actually go back to the late '60s. People like Gram Parsons and Neil Young wrote songs about working-class people, and inflected them with touches of folk, blues, and rock. It's acts from the late '60s and '70s (rather than more modern bands such as Wilco, Lucinda Williams, and the Jayhawks) that these Cleveland bands use as their touchstones.
"I think that the genre Americana takes from folk, blues, rock, and country, and kind of crosses the lines now and then. It mixes them together, but it all sounds like it fits," explains concert organizer Larry Koval, the president of Little Fish Records, a local label that's home to Cletus Black. "We've put up billboards at the college vending machines, and one of the things we tried to do was tell people what Americana is, and the best way to do that was to list acts that come under that heading. We listed bands such as Uncle Tupelo and Buffalo Springfield, and went back all the way to Woody Guthrie, the Byrds, Grateful Dead, and Bob Dylan. That's where some of the roots are for it. It's good old American rock and roll music -- before they had all these labels for it. Then, you could listen to one station and hear all this music."
For singer-guitarist Cletus Black, whose music isn't considered straight-ahead blues, the term Americana at least gives him the leeway to play to different audiences. He and his band -- bassist Pat Walsh, harmonica player Dave Morrison, guitarist Kevin McCarthy, drummer Roy King, and electric viola player Michael "Doc" Dreyfuss -- play a rugged mix of drinking ballads and country blues that's amplified by Black's booming voice.
"Part of my music is Americana, and part of it isn't," says Black, whose raspy vocals resemble those of Warren Zevon. "It's really hard to pigeonhole my music. We get more into rock and roll and blues. Americana fits as well as other things. I guess it's a great handle, because it does take in country and bluesy rock and roll, which is kind of where we're at."
Black actually put out his first album in 1979, but after releasing two more albums in the early '80s took a 12-year hiatus. With the popularization of the compact disc, which had become inexpensive to reproduce by the mid-'90s, he decided to remix some of his favorite songs from his early albums and cut a compilation. Once he got into the studio, he realized that his music had actually aged gracefully.
"I went into the Magnetic North Studio, and [engineer] Chris Keffer encouraged me to put the compilation out as a CD for the public," he recalls. "I got a great response and had a CD release party, and things just snowballed from there. The big thing that people impressed upon me was that my music was timeless and still relevant today, just like Neil Young and his influence on grunge. The audience was anywhere from 20 to 60 years old. I just sort of got the bug back, and I started writing some new songs."
Black released his "comeback" album, Shades of Black, in 1996 and has completed two subsequent albums (1998's Back It Up and last year's Cletus Black). Even though much of Black's music is built around blues guitar riffs, Black says he seldom plays at blues clubs around town. His music simply has too many rock overtones for those places, and he instead plays at clubs such as Stampers and the Barking Spider. He says finding a proper venue for music that crosses genres isn't easy.
"It's really kind of disappointing that there isn't much going on here -- you don't have a venue for Americana," he says. "I would imagine some of the acts have a hard time getting shows. We do 80 percent original material, and there's not a lot of venues where you can do that and go over well. As far as doing covers, we'd rather drive trucks. We're committed to original material. In Cleveland, there's not a whole lot of venues that are receptive to it. If they are, they're not going to pay any money. It's like "Here's your 20 dollars for the door.' I'm not that familiar with what's going on across the country, but I gotta believe there's a lot more going on with Americana elsewhere than here."
For Christopher Reynolds, a local singer-guitarist more identified with folk, the coffeehouse isn't quite the right venue for his style of playing. He plays a balance of acoustic and electric songs on his latest album, Unio Mentalis: The Mind of the Land.
"Acoustic rock doesn't quite describe my music," says Reynolds. "I think of Americana as thinking man's country."
Reynolds, a schoolteacher whose parents were both musicians from southern Illinois, says he "grew up with the idea that, if you're a man, you just play music." His first band of any significance, a group called Those Guys, released a cassette in 1991 before breaking up. He kept playing solo and sold his cassettes at his shows. His solution to finding gigs has been to book his own shows at unconventional venues.
"I do these shows at a French restaurant in Westlake," he says. "Everyone has great food and a really good time. I do those shows periodically and an occasional Borders show. I play about once a month. That's the thing I like best, because everyone is there to hear me, and they have a great time anyway. You don't have to deal with bar stuff. It's almost like a catered event. The people who follow Americana have money to buy music, but the radio doesn't play the music they listen to. It's sort of an untapped musical audience."
Micenmacher says Al's Fast Freight, which has released two albums, 1997's Interstate 90 and last year's The Devil and the Deep Blue Sea, plays about four to five times a month and hasn't had problems finding a supportive audience. The band has opened for national acts such as the V-Roys, Mary Cutrufello, the Derailers, and Richard Buckner.
"One year, there's more interest in local bands, and one year there's not," Micenmacher says. "All in all, I think people get a lot of support. If you're a hard-working band, you don't go unnoticed, and you end up getting interviews and gigs."
With bands such as Rosavelt, Stacie Collins, and Hillbilly Idol all falling within the realm of Americana, Koval would have plenty of acts from which to choose if he wants to schedule another Americana night, and he says it's not far-fetched to think that this will become a regular event.
"I think there's probably going to be at least one or two more versions of this down the road," says Koval, who also runs a local publishing company called Cross Track Music. "Already I've had calls from two or three acts who fit this bill. Even Stacie Collins talked to us about trying to get on the bill. And Shades of Grey -- who sound like Crosby, Stills & Nash meets Yes, with a little jazz influence thrown in -- are a possibility. Where do you put that? But if you heard their CD, you'd be floored, and these kids are all in their early 20s. Our goal is getting this out to the public to let them know this is out there. This is tough -- that's why we wanted to do it and see if we could put together some coalition."