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Doc looks at changing face, new sounds of Music City

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John Leventhal, left, and Rosanne Cash have been welcomed in Nashville, where songs matter more than image.

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John Leventhal, left, and Rosanne Cash have been welcomed in Nashville, where songs matter more than image.

It's the place where musicians can go when the mainstream -- contemporary, format-driven radio -- no longer sees a bottom-line benefit in their songs and styles.

It's where songs and songwriters and music that has a melody rather than just a driving backbeat can find refuge and an appreciative audience.

It's where old and young converge, agreeing to ignore their disparate ages and refusing to be categorized by genres or limited by the notion of commercial potential.

It's Nashville -- the new Nashville -- and musically speaking, there's a whole lot going on.

The depth and breadth of this new musical realm is showcased in the PBS special Nashville 2.0: The Rise of Americana, an inspiring and illuminating offering. The program, part of the PBS Arts Fall Festival 2013, combines interviews with dozens of musical greats with brilliant performance clips from some of the "Americana" field's brightest new talents.

"I would say that it's about real songwriting," country-music veteran Rosanne Cash said during PBS's portion of the U.S. networks' semi-annual press tour in Los Angeles, when asked by the Free Press to define the term "Americana." "(It's) the craft of songwriting, not six people putting together a sequence of beats, but a real song that has a narrative arc and a melody and imagery. And the other part is, I think, that we respect the tradition we came from -- we know our folk music and Appalachian and Delta blues, and all of that has become part of the river that goes into what's now called Americana. So melody, real songwriting, tradition -- that's a good start."

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of this Americana thing is how readily it embraces artists and styles from outside America's borders, as evidenced by the inclusion in this film of across-the-pond types such as Billy Bragg, Richard Thompson and current Grammy champs Mumford & Sons.

And while it's relative old-timers like Cash and Dwight Yoakam and Nashville insiders Buddy Miller and Jim Lauderdale who provide the historical perspective in Nashville 2.0, it's the new generation -- the Avett Brothers, Shovels and Rope, Carolina Chocolate Drops and the Civil Wars -- who provide the hour-long program's soundtrack.

And it's mesmerizing, in its diversity and the depth of the talent on display.

"One thing that I would say is country music is a part of what Americana music is, but Americana, because it's roots-based music, embraces a much wider range than just country," said the film's co-director, Susan Wittenberg. "So it's blues, it's rock, it's bluegrass. It's Latin music. It's gospel music.

"These artists... don't want to identify themselves as country artists or musicians right now because they find that category too limiting. And why they gravitate to this category called Americana is because it gives them an opportunity to be much bigger than that, and much more expressive, and each have their own style and form but fall under a category together that they call 'Americana.'"

-- -- --

Peaky period drama: It's set in the same era as Downton Abbey, but there's a noticeable lack of teacups, doilies and properly accented civility in the British drama Peaky Blinders.

The murky, mucky serial, set in the mean streets of Birmingham right after the First World War, focuses on a criminal enterprise known as the Peaky Blinders (named for the razor blades they sew into the peaks of their caps for use whenever trouble starts), which controls much of the illegal activity in the city's shipbuilding sector.

The gang is led by young thug Thomas Shelby (Cillian Murphy), but his grasp on the reins of power is about to be tested by the arrival in town of a new police chief, C.I. Campbell (the ever-reliable Sam Neill), whose principal mission is the recovery of a stolen shipment of military weapons that the authorities fear might fall into the hands of the Irish Republican Army.

As he rides the train toward Birmingham, Campbell reviews the case file; its first page has a photo of Shelby paper-clipped to the fact sheet.

If the first episode is any indication, Peaky Blinders will be a stylish, violent ride.

brad.oswald@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 20, 2013 C3

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