Reigning in the Wild West: The Evolution of Americana with Tar and Flowers

>> Tar and Flowers' frontman Taylor Hungerford is no stranger to the honky-tonk lifestyle. Growing up on mountainside property owned by Roy Rodgers and working as a ranch hand on a Colorado farm after college, Hungerford has had folk and roots music embedded into his blood and bones. Our latest guest blog post features Hungerford's opinion on the changing world of Americana music and pays homage to pivotal songwriters within the genre.

Please introduce yourselves, describe how the band began, and tell us a fun fact about YOU!

My name is Taylor Hungerford. I am the founder and frontman for the band Tar & Flowers. Tar & Flowers’ beginnings go back to Chatsworth, a sleepy town in the west San Fernando Valley. My parents moved here in the early 90s. The particular part I lived in was nestled up against the mountains. I was literally within walking distance of an old stagecoach trail, Indian cave paintings and filming locations for old westerns. Add to this the fact that my house was built on ranch land that was owned by Roy Rodgers and there being an old honky tonk up the street, the place was the nearest thing to being with the ghosts of the west as you could get in LA county. It was not until many years later that I saw how this setting affected me. I became interested in folk and roots music in high school and saw a direct connection with the western history I had lived around throughout my formative years.

After college, a cousin of mine who owned about 20,000 acres in the Arkansas Valley in Colorado asked me to come in as a ranch hand and farm and cowboy for him a couple of summers. It was here that I felt I was in the living west. Unbeknownst to many folks, we still have brandings, cattle drives, and remnants of those old days. I got to be part of all that those summers - and it was something I wouldn’t forget. I had been noodling with what is now Tar & Flowers during this time. I recorded one full-length album at my friends’ studio, a second album in a friends living room. However, I never really pursued what was capable with that music or that act - also both albums were somewhat rushed (which is why you won’t see them anywhere). Wolf Kroeger, who is a great engineer and producer, approached me about doing “Indian Summer” a few years ago. He explained to me his vision for the album - he wanted it to be a journey. I was doing an open mic in Echo Park and was workshopping songs - some of which came to fruition and were included on the album. I was in the process of moving out of my childhood home at the time and I saw it as a sort of goodbye to that period of my life - a reflection on the innocence of those days as well as ruminating on nostalgia. When it came to bringing the album to life, I conscripted Wolf Kroeger for bass, Michael Ward, who was living with me at the time, for guitar and backing vocals and more recently, Matt Brundrett for drums. Since then, we’ve been playing shows all over LA. FUN FACT: Wolf and I are huge Trekkies. We will occasionally sit and watch an episode with friends. It’s always enriching. How has the evolution of country and Americana music influenced your sound? I think that Americana music has become to folk and country what Alternative became to rock: a sort of catch-all term that describes music that does not fit into any one genre. I used to describe us as simply folk music but I was told there’s influence from too many other genres. I think country music is at a crossroads right now in that it has taken the same leap rock music took many years ago and incorporated other genres into its sound. Right now there’s a contention over this, as purists want country to return to its roots while more contemporary folks want to see it continue to evolve and incorporate other genres. Much of the stuff that the radio now refers to as “country” I find somewhat foreign, but I think the same listeners of that station would say the same of our sound. I think the reason being is our sound lives at the intersection between country and folk music. There was a specific point where the country genre was born out of folk in the same way country rock became separate from country. I’d like to think that we are at that crossroads as well. I think when we figure out where we lie, perhaps we’ll be more specifically categorized. Until that day comes, I'll continue to say we’re “Americana.” Please name your top five records of all time and explain to us how they specifically influenced you/your sound.

The Trinity Session - The Cowboy Junkies

One mic, one night is how I always pitch people on this record. Not only does it sound amazing with the natural reverb of The Holy Trinity Church of Ontario, but everything is just so perfectly set and placed - both in terms of sound and the physical placement around the mic. The entire band stood around a single mic and recorded the entire album live in one night - an ambition in and of itself that’s pretty incredible. They used to do old field recordings like this. You wanted someone to be front in the mix, you literally put them in front of the other players. Not only does the record have that nod to the past, but the way it interpreted country and folk songs was very unique. In a single record, you have covers of Patsy Cline, Waylon Jennings and Lou Reed - and they all come together. If you can place a country song with a folk song and a rock song, imagine what you can do with other artists of that genre. It was a comment at the time of where country was and where it could go. I think that’s a question that needs exploring with the direction country music is going in today. It bears a weight in our sound in that I think we’re asking a similar question with folk and country music. We’re trying to interpret these genres in a way that is honest, but also faithful. What has come of it is something very different, in much the same way The Cowboy Junkies interpreted songs of these country and rock acts in a way that nobody had heard before.

The Gilded Palace of Sin - The Flying Burrito Brothers

I have a shirt for these guys, and people always asks if its a Mexican restaurant. Little do they know they’re the grandfathers of modern country music. The Flying Burrito Brothers was Gram Parsons’ foray into creating what he called “cosmic country music.” What came of it was a record that was of a somewhat similar aim as The Trinity Session. They covered all types of songs, from “Do Right Woman” by Aretha Franklin to “Wild Horses” by the Stones and it all fit together. The Burrito Brothers succeeded in popularizing Country Rock in a way that Gram’s previous iteration, Sweetheart of The Rodeo, was not able to. It took the standards of the Bakersfield sound and launched it into the stars and asked what country music was capable of and where it was going - I’d like to think that Indian Summer lies in that space. Live At The Old Quarter - Townes Van Zandt

Two discs and one man with a guitar. Live At The Old Quarter is a great introduction not only Townes’ music but to the troubadour tradition. It’s an album in the raw - there’s mistakes, glasses breaking in the bar, coughs - a total anti-thesis to the squeaky clean studio production we have nowadays in modern music. Townes plays the greats from his repertoire - tells stories, jokes. It’s a testament to the power of his songs but also his storytelling. I think in the scheme of production, people can forget the intimacy you can have in having a single man play to a crowded bar with only his voice and a guitar. There’s a power in that intimacy that is often overlooked. I wanted to keep that intimacy on “Indian Summer.” The last track “The Lovin’ Kind” is only guitar, voice and pedal steel. We could have produced it more, but I wanted to keep it simple, and I looked toward this album for that inspiration.

Revival - Gillian Welch

In talking about the current path of Americana music, I can think of no better example than Gillian Welch’s “Revival.” The album, somewhat like “Live At The Old Quarter,” was stripped down and intimate. On much of Gillian’s stuff, it’ll just be her and David Rawlings. Gillian sets the meat with the chords and David fills in with harmonies and some guitar licks. The album was so called because it was a return to the roots music tradition. Gillian Welch has said several times that her influence was from The Carter Family and it shows very strongly on this album. If you didn’t know any better, you would think it was recorded during the depression with songs of orphans, spirituals and failed crops, but the sentiment was current. The question comes up as to why we keep these old traditional forms of music around. The depression seems like a time that’s so far removed from what we’re experiencing today, especially in cities. I think if you look at where the world was at that time not a whole lot has changed. The sci-fi writer Philip K. Dick put forth the prospect that time stopped during the Roman

Empire and what we’re experiencing today is just a repeat of those times. With strongman dictators coming into power, a return to religious fundamentalism in the face of science and perpetual war, I think there’s some truth to this. With that being said, these traditional music forms I think bear as much weight today as they did a hundred years ago. It was that sentiment that I wanted to include on “Indian Summer.” It is a contemporary album, but it is very much rooted in the past. Pet Sounds - The Beach Boys

Talk about an album that was too far ahead of its time. “Pet Sounds” was a commercial failure upon its release and really destroyed Brian Wilson for many years. I think it’s an example of a piece of art that nobody knows what to do with - not even the critics were receptive to it. Wolf was very influenced by the production and you can hear it on the album - from the non traditional percussion, to the layered choruses, to some of the psychedelic guitar work. He even wanted to go more into the psychedelic element - but I pushed back against it. Perhaps in the next iteration, we will explore that further. Until then, I’m comfortable at where we currently sit.

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