God and Country Music: The Decemberists as Americana’s Newest Converts

Each week in God and Country Music, Nick Rynerson gives country music a chance and examines the world of Americana, folk, alt-country, and popular country music. 

Recently, country music acquired a new convert: The Decemberists. Having long been indie-rock heroes with a reputation for releasing records with abnormally wonderful songwriting and a flare for the literary, their 2011 efforts The King Is Dead and Long Live the King (EP) crossed into my camp, i.e., old time country music. Recorded in an old barn in the Pacific Northwest with Americana queen Gillian Welch singing background and front man Colin Meloy touting a prominent harmonica, the Decemberists turned heads, especially within the Americana community. As is bound to happen when the great Gillian Welch graces you with her voice, The King Is Dead seemed to be more than just another indie-pop band trying to “get back to their roots.” The efforts appeared genuine, and Meloy would prove his sincerity.

It turns out Gillian Welch was not just a hired hand in the project, but would stick around for performances on Austin City Limits, The Tonight Show, and a host of live shows, adding her immeasurable charm all the while. Meanwhile, the Decemberists would keep their seat at the Americana table with the addition of another new touring member: the lovely Sara Watkins. Watkins is the wonderful fiddle player from the successful Americana-mainstream crossover group, Nickel Creek. She has brought a stable, folky feel to the Decemberists’ live shows for the last year with her signature melodic voice and rootsy fiddle playing. Sara Watkins has undoubtedly played a key role in the transition of the Decemberists’ sound, and what a smooth transition it has been!

Their Austin City Limits last October was simply one of the best ACL performances that I have seen in quite a while. The rural Neil Young-esque harmonica and acoustic guitar sent the message to their fans that their brand of country music is authentic and permanent. And like a perfect cherry on top of it all, Colin Meloy was sporting a beard that is a folk music beard if I have ever seen one!

Now comes release of The Decemberists newest album: We All Raise Our Voices to the Air, which is a twenty-song live double album recorded between April and August 2011. The album has been streaming at Rolling Stone and Paste for the past week or so and is a real charmer. Sara Watkins brings a lot to the whole outfit, and the band swings effortlessly between their newer Americana jams and older material alike.

It all makes grand sense really: The roots of rock and roll (especially lyrical indie rock) lie deep in the mines of American Country music. And much respect due to both The Decemberists for having the foresight to tap into that mine and to Americana matriarchs like Welch and Watkins for welcoming Colin Meloy and his crew like the prodigal son returning home. I can’t wait to see where The Decemberists are heading next, and hopefully there will be some banjo involved.

For a glimpse of this newfound eye for Americana, watch this performance (with Sara Watkins) on NPR’s Tiny Desk Concert Series.

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  • Kelly Thornton

    Excellent write up!