Another blog on Americana and categories of music, such as they are

(Not sure this post arrives at a solid point, but it seemed too long to post in anyone's comment thread.) 

I've never been good with answering the question, "What kind of music?" 


When this question was asked of me regarding songs I'd written myself, I'd throw out random qualifiers: folk, acoustic, contemporary, narrative, quasi-political, navel-gazing, quiet, bangy.


When the question comes up regarding the music I write about these days, the same qualifiers come out. If I'm in the mood. If I'm not in the mood, I just name artists I've written about. Usually a name will strike a chord, and then we can move on to more interesting topics of conversation. 


Answering "What kind of music" is like being asked to describe a person. No adjective ever covers it. Songs, melodies, rhythms, individual people, poetry, good films, dance, storms, sunsets, waves on the ocean...these are all things which are better experienced than described. 


Nonetheless, I've taken it upon myself to be a writer, so I'm frequently tasked with putting words to things. Part of what keeps me sane is recognizing the futility of the task. I've come to the conclusion that the best a writer can do is to word something well enough that the reader might put down the book/blog/whatever (even if mid-sentence; even if they never return to what we wrote) and seek the actual experience for his/herself. 


And so I've been reading blog post after forum after comment thread about what constitutes Americana, folk, XXX, purple monkey music... (the latter has yet to be ascribed to any style I know of, but give it time). 


Mind you, I come from classical music - perhaps the most rigidly categorical music I've heard of in my 33 years. But, even within classical music, you have differences in style, function, intention. Consider the gulf between Mozart and Tchaikovsky; between Haydn and Bach and Chopin. It's not the same. None of it. Not even close. Not even comparable. You can hear influences, you can suppose inspiration, love or hate it, group it in your head next to something else you know; but that doesn't make it any more "classical" than "punk rock" (I'd argue - and I have - that Mozart was as punk as John Lydon, if that word means anything). 


I imagine folks who don't come from that world see some kind of connection between Chopin and Mozart (piano-driven instrumental music, perhaps), but the musical similarities between these writers are about as close as those of Tori Amos and Billy Joel. As close as AP Carter and Garth Brooks.


An instrument and a formula do not a "style" make.


I recognize that this XXX thing is to give artists who don't have a place on country or rock radio a place, but that's the same place from which "Americana" was developed. As such, I'm confused about why we should not build where we are, rather than going somewhere else to call it the same thing by a different name. Nonetheless, I respect Shooter and Adam's dedication to the cause, and I don't at all mean to poo-poo their efforts. I simply want to add my voice to the speculation over the point of musical genres in the first place.


And to repeat that I find them irrelevant.


Few musicians work toward a specific style. Creativity just doesn't happen that way; naming it seems to me only to point out the unfortunate chasm between artist and fan, rather than bridge it. Similar to the way we define our points of view on the world - our sympathy for each other, our concern for each other's well-being, our dedication to peace and personal safety - by choosing to call ourselves Democrats, Republicans, Socialists, Independents. The result of that kind of categorization only takes us further from the things we have in common, rather than closer. As we've seen. 

It misses the point.


Yes, we need words (and, by extension, categories) for the sake of discussion. There is some kind of a natural human compulsion to organize. We group things by color, by class, by alphabetical orientation, by style, by shape. But music is separate from that. The arts in general are separate from that. We are all informed by tradition. There's no getting away from that. We are all creatures of this world. Joe Shmoe or Britney Spears or Shooter Jennings or Barack Obama. 


I listen to music because it helps me understand myself. It spotlights beauty. It commiserates with my loneliness when I need commiseration. It reminds me of things I'd forgotten to pay attention to. It teaches me about people who have led lives different from mine. It keeps me privy to the fact that most people's lives are the same as mine, in some way. It separates me from the moment. It connects me to the moment. It makes me laugh and dance. It makes me stop short and concentrate.


I don't care if it's a drum machine or a cello or a screaming voice. The good stuff all comes from the same place. The good stuff is all motivated by the very human compulsion to get through life. After all, that's the very thing we all forget to do when stuck in traffic or broken hearted or watching CNN or walking down the street. It prioritizes us. It brings us back. 


Calling it anything other than music serves nothing other than some business aspect. But I assure you it has nothing to do with the actual music. 


All that said, as a marketing wording gizmo, I'm happy to go with Americana. Sure, nobody can agree on what it is. How many of us agree on what America is?


Is it surprising that music which so embodies the spirit of our nation (pulling in elements of jazz, blues, rock, folk, country) is itself kind of an indefinable sonic collage which leaves scholars and critics scratching their heads? Is that a problem? I would say no. 


These days, I work in folk/roots/Americana music.  What's generally agreed upon as "folk music" comes first from oral tradition. Its origins don't fit into what we've come to expect about where a song comes from. It comes from everywhere and nowhere.


Where it comes from depends on who you're talking to. Just like the definition of America depends on whether you're standing in 42nd Street and Broadway in Manhattan, or on Town Mountain Rd. in Asheville, or on Ballard Ave. in Seattle, etc.


Folk music and Americana music (two phrases which strike me as interchangeable at this point), far as I've been able to discern, is that which talks about all those things; which makes sense in all those places. Not that it matters at the end of the day. The only thing that matters: does it move you? 

Views: 109

Comment by Kyla Fairchild on January 18, 2011 at 1:24pm
Nice Kim! Beautifully put.
Comment by on January 18, 2011 at 2:10pm

Excellent post Kim. Sometimes the discussions mirror the "What is an American" discussions in political fringes today. At best pointless, at worst....?


I come to Americana from the country side rather than the folk side, but I think we all end up near one another in the end.

Comment by Easy Ed on January 18, 2011 at 3:27pm

Well written and I'm with you, but of course now you've done it...unleashed another eight pages of comments of what it is,what it isn't or what it should be. Americana as a "marketing wording gizmo" made me chuckle as when I was selling music to retail buyers that term equated small sales and a small order. If you look at the AMA radio chart reporters you find some great stations and shows, but unfortunately mostly all with small audiences in small markets. When I read about the move to a XXX format, it's the same thing: pigeon-holing music into a narrow format in small markets. You're right...we already have a marketing term (that's never caught on), so why add another one? One more a previous comment you mentioned that when you try to explain the music you write and listen to you would mention artists like Steve Earle and Lucinda Williams until people gave you the head nod. As big as her or she are here, out in the real world I get the glazed eyes whenever I mention them...which is why I prefer calling it folk music and then within the conversation I can connect the dots and move it up to the bigger tent.

Comment by Jack on January 18, 2011 at 5:11pm
Trying to think of the various playlist names I've heard....Jack FM and Alice come to mind.  Not sure if they're still around and I forget what they were playing.  Ed, any recollection of those two?  Classic rock seems to be a readily understood term, but why it's not called oldies instead I don't quite get. Ah well, phrases.    
Comment by Easy Ed on January 18, 2011 at 5:49pm

Alice is alive and well, as is Jack on over 60 different stations. The Edge, Zone, Indie, Froggy and others abound. Too many to chase.

The Rock format is actually split between these: modern rock, active rock, adult alternative, (regular) alternative, classic rock, heavy metal and...hold onto your Stetsons...americana. The format gods describe americana as this: Such a genre features a mixture of adult alternative, blues, and progressive county music.


Comment by Hal Bogerd on January 18, 2011 at 6:35pm

Jess Walters asked in his novel  The Financial Lives of Poets: Why isn't poetry divided into fiction and non-fiction?

Maybe we need more genres!  

Americana non-fiction?

Alt country fiction?

Maybe not.


Comment by Derek on January 18, 2011 at 8:12pm

This  movement to reject  Americana seems to resemble the heavy metal subculture. .  Similar characteristics include:


 “Code of authenticity” - This is real country, not that Nashville pop rock.

"Sell out" or "disinterest in commercial appeal” - The members dislike those who are popular despite what the music sounds like.

An intense “subculture which identified with the music” - Call this the faux working-man complex.

A strongly masculine “community with shared values, norms, and behaviors” - Smells of machismo. 

"subculture of alienation", including classifying some members as "poseurs," that is,  performers or fans who pretended to be part of the subculture, but who were deemed to lack authenticity and sincerity.   In this case, white liberal NPR urbanites are held out for ridicule. 


I would rather be postive as we are all friends on this website, but this purposeful splintering and intentional attempt to divide our community frustrates me.  Americana fans have a lot more in common than not.  Why focus on the slight differences. 


I still remember my high school days debating who was "heavier" Metallica or Slayer.  And everyone knew Winger was a "poseur."  Just ask Beavis and Butthead. I grew up and realized it didn't matter.  If the music was good, there was no shame in listening to it.   


Yes, Americana has differences.  I can't define it.  What I do know is that Americana unites us, not divides us. 





Comment by Derek on January 18, 2011 at 8:17pm
The above rant does not apply to Rascal Flatts.   They are poseurs.  Exceptions to every rule.
Comment by Will James on January 19, 2011 at 9:10am
Definitely nice blog. But I just can't do another eight pages on this. Last word on labels, Gram Parsons: it's either good or it's bad. I'll fold.
Comment by Dustin Ogdin on January 19, 2011 at 9:17am
Great post, Kim.  Maybe this can be the nail in the "what is..." coffin.  Who am I kidding though?  These arguments never grow old.  (In the same way that Kenny Rogers face hasn't...)


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Created by No Depression Feb 17, 2009 at 9:06pm. Last updated by No Depression Sep 24, 2012.