Pet Peeve: the term "Americana" music - what precisely does it mean?

The term "Americana" gets used more pervasively on this site than does "billion" by our congressmen, and I tend to wonder if either word is truly understood.  "Americana" appears to include a billion different things and exclude very few.  The more I read and hear the word "Americana" as applied to music, the more I understand where the "whatever that is" used by the No Depression magazine came from, though the answer is no more clear now than it was then. 

Before continuing, let me say that there are obviously more consequential topics of interest in music that will foster interesting discussion, but this just happens to be a pet peeve, a pebble in my shoe if you will. 

My notion is that "Americana" is a fairly recent wide net marketing phrase thrown retroactively over a very diverse group of roots music going back decades, and that more than anything else, it is a playlist and means of promoting roots music.  On the other hand, others have called it a genre, which seems out of line with the definition of genre, which is: "a particular kind or style of art or literature" according to the Oxford American Dictionary.  Leaving out arguments about the ancient origins of all music, I'd argue that the primary colors of American music are jazz, blues, folk and country.  These are genres.  But what do you call the blends?  That's the tricky part.

Is Americana a genre?  A sub-genre?  Neither?  Is it a marketing device?  A playlist?  The latest way to describe country rock?  Folk rock?  Alt Country? No Depression?  Does it mean all music with a fiddle?  Only music with a fiddle?  All music liked by those who play and like fiddle music?  Is it anything old timey and rustic sounding?  Does it include punk?  Does it exclude the blues and jazz?  Is bluegrass bluegrass and/or Americana? Is it only Gram, Lucinda, and Buddy (okay, that last one is tongue in cheek, they are as ubiquitous on this site as is "Americana", if not moreso, but better understood). Circle all that apply, if you can.

In recent years we've had new terms describing roots music crop up: Alt Country, No Depression, Americana.  Are they distinctions without difference, do they have separate meanings, or are they simply the latest phrases that have caught on to describe roots music? Where'd the phrase cowpunk go? Morphed into one of the above?

According to Wikipedia, the definition of "Americana music" is as follows:

Americana is an amalgam of roots musics formed by the confluence of the shared and varied traditions that make up the American musical ethos; specifically those sounds that are merged from folk, country, rhythm and blues, rock and roll and other external influential styles.[1] Americana is popularly referred to, especially in print, as alternative country, alt-country or sometimes [1] 

Americana as a radio format

Americana, as defined by the Americana Music Association (AMA), is "American roots music based on the traditions of country. While the musical model can be traced back to the Elvis Presley marriage of 'hillbilly music' and R&B that birthed rock 'n roll, Americana as a radio format developed during the 1990s as a reaction to the highly polished sound that defined the mainstream music of that decade." Because of listener interest in the artists who do not fit as comfortably in the country or rock genres, a radio format called "Americana" was developed by the AMA and reported by R&R (Radio & Records, a radio trade publication). Born out of the Triple A, non-commercial, country and other formats, the Americana format is the sum of the parts that have showcased Americana music since its inception.

The AMA grew out of the format as an effort to bring all Americana music supporters, performers, and professionals together to expand the visibility and viability of the music. The radio format, including the term "Americana," began in early 1995 through the efforts of Rob Bleetstein of San Francisco, and Jon Grimson of Nashville. Bleetstein became the first Americana chart editor as Gavin (a former radio trade publication) magazine created the first Americana radio chart which was published on January 20, 1995. This came about when KFAT (defunct) radio in Gilroy, California went off the air, and Bleetstein went to the Gavin Report, asserting that they were missing a category of music. He described the KFAT format, which had the widest playlist of any station in the country, and most of whose artists whose music would come to be known as Americana. Bleetstein worked closely with KFAN "Texas Rebel Radio" in Texas and KPIG in California in developing the Americana format. Both stations had been on the air with their own versions of an independent format for several years and had been instrumental in the development of the AAA format as well. The publisher agreed and gave Bleetstein the job of creating and running the chart. Grimson coined the term Americana and became the first Americana radio promoter after having promoted the music previously at Warner Brothers Records Nashville, and promoting those releases that WB worked to radio formats outside the mainstream country stations. The AMA was later established to expand the musical format outside of strictly radio, but still including the radio aspect as well. The non-profit AMA now runs the Americana radio chart.

What about the term Alt Country?  Here's what Wikipedia has on that.

Alternative country (sometimes alt-country,[1] insurgent country,[2] or Americana[3]) is a loosely defined sub-genre of country music, which includes acts that differ significantly in style from mainstream or pop country music. It has been used to describe country music bands and artists that have incorporated influences ranging from roots rock, bluegrass, rockabilly, honky-tonk, alternative rock, folk rock, and particularly punk.

And Wikipedia says this about No Depression music:

No Depression in Heaven" (or simply "No Depression") is a song that was first recorded by the original Carter Family in 1936 during the Great Depression. Although A.P. Carter has frequently been credited as the author, some sources attribute the song to James David Vaughan.[1]

Over the years the song has been recorded by artists as diverse as the New Lost City Ramblers and Sheryl Crow. Uncle Tupelo made the song the title cut of their 1990 album, No Depression. Since then, the title has become synonymous with alternative country music. What is now described as the "No Depression movement" [2] is covered by many fan publications including the magazine No Depression.

Obviously Wikipedia is not necessarily 100% accurate and the arbiter of all things. But a discussion has to start somewhere, and so these excerpts are offered as food for thought and starting points for anyone interested in the relatively inconsequential in the scheme of things discussion over this ubiquitous phrase.

So then, what does Americana as applied to music mean, specifically. Not vaguely.

Views: 1117

Comment by TenLayers on January 10, 2011 at 10:06am
For some reason whenever I say "Americana" it leaves a bad taste in my mouth.  It's like I'm lying about something and I don't know what.
Comment by Hal Bogerd on January 10, 2011 at 12:15pm
If you want to get me wound about ask me WTF R&B means in the year 2011!
Comment by Jack on January 10, 2011 at 12:28pm
The Who - Maximum R&B.  No?
Comment by Will James on January 10, 2011 at 2:16pm
Yes (re: The Who among others). Americana, well, I guess I've commented ad nauseam on that elsewhere, most recently on Adam's X-rated blog (as you know). Scan that blog for my comments and you'll pretty much get my entire viewpoint.
Comment by Lyman Ellerman on January 10, 2011 at 2:42pm
I feel you. Sometimes when I refer to my own music as Americana, I feel like I'm kinda' lying. But then, I don't know what the heck else it would be either. So I sort of feel like that's what Americana is. Lot's of different kinds of music rolled together. It's much easier to know what Americana ISN'T to me. But it feels good to me for the most part when I find something new in this field. There's certainly an original variety and we're not going to find that in a lot of different places ie:, mainstream radio. My cent-and-a-half's worth. I'll enjoy reading the comments on this one. Thanks for making me look, L
Comment by Easy Ed on January 10, 2011 at 4:14pm
Now you've gone and done it Jack. Questioning the unquestionable and looking for answers to an unanswerable question. It's everything that Wikipedia says it is and none of it at all. Just another label that makes sense to some and none to others. And on top of that you want a specific answer and not a vague one? OK here it is (and it applies to alt country too): you know that question about what one hand clapping sounds like? It's the other hand.
Comment by Will James on January 10, 2011 at 4:31pm
From part of my response elsewhere: Used to be I could go to the record store and flip through bins labeled folk, rock, and country. My recommendation when made King Labelmaker: start playing good "rock" again and keep that label (try to separate out "pop"); take alt, regressive, outlaw, etc., and make it "country" again (and thereby re-new the tradition of getting Nashville back on the track instead of using the AMA as a relief valve); and revive "folk" and use that instead of "Americana" as, to my ear, most Americana is what we used to call folk music.  Then we can have a big Americana label bonfire (don't worry, No Depression will be stronger than ever... although we could use some of those old copies Grant and Kyla can't get rid of). Grant once wrote that he and Peter didn't know what to call "it" so they invented (?) the term alt. country as a joke; Parsons, trying to introduce country to a new audience while not turning his back on innovation, and not liking labels himself, jokingly called his music "Cosmic American Music" and he died and everyone took it seriously (except Grant;). Let's get regressive folks, at least in labeling.
Comment by TenLayers on January 10, 2011 at 5:03pm

Every time...ok, some times.. I go into Amoeba to buy something I try and grab a worker bee and tell them instead of all these silly categories, they should just alphabetize the whole damn store.  I walk in with my lists and I can never find anything unless I ask a worker "and in what category will I find X?"  And what's really frustrating is when they rack an artist in several different categories according to where they think a particular release within the artists catalog should be.  

Alphabetize and you get rid of the class struggle.

Comment by Easy Ed on January 10, 2011 at 5:08pm
@TenLayers: I'm with you. I ran a store back in the eighties and although I knew where everything was, half my employees and most of my customers were lost. Elvis Costello in "new wave", the Beach Boys in "surf", Otis Redding in "R and B", etc. And we didn't have a section called "Cosmic American Music" because nobody but Will took it seriously.
Comment by Craig Young on January 10, 2011 at 5:11pm
@ Ten Layers: I like the way you think! Yes just put it under "Music" Everyone likes music!


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