Another Country: The Americana Chart Turns 20
On this date in 1995, radio trade publication the Gavin Report first published its Americana radio chart. The 20 years since have flashed by like lightning. In that time, Americana music, as a category, has grown from a chart to a Grammy category designation, led in no small part by the Americana Music Association (AMA). Against all odds, Americana music has not only held its ground, but has grown in popularity, all while maintaining its integrity. It’s the music’s integrity, of course, that has separated it from other radio formats and music genres. So, let’s take a look back at how this all came together and what keeps it rolling.
My career in radio began in 1985 at the progressive country station KHIP-FM in Monterey Bay, California. I was blessed to join the renegade DJs from the beloved and recently deceased KFAT-FM at this new venture right out of college. Within months of my start at KHIP, we were helping break Dwight Yoakam in the area and supporting acts like Lone Justice, Nanci Griffith, Vince Gill, The Blasters, and Green On Red, helping to bring the KFAT/KHIP audience into the next generation. We thought the breakthroughs of Yoakam, Steve Earle, Lyle Lovett, and Griffith – along with the mainstream country success that Rosanne Cash and Rodney Crowell were finding – would be the icing on the cake. We thought that progressive wave would take over country music, but it was not to be.
The early 1990s saw a tectonic shift in the priorities of the country music industry. By fall 1994, many of us began to notice a slew of extremely talented artists who, through no fault of their own, found themselves in a musical no-man’s land. Radio stations didn’t know where to place them, and their labels were at a loss for how to market them to retail and media. Too often, these artists were told they were “too rock for country, and too country for rock.” The big hats dominated the mainstream country music industry, reaping larger-than-ever profits and giving Nashville a taste of glitz it hadn’t seen in a long time. Country radio was not only closing its doors to any outside or alternative influences, but also eschewing its own legends, whose rise to fame had cemented the jobs of so many of that decade’s major industry players.
On the rock side, the Triple A (Adult Album Alternative) format had taken hold very well. And, while it welcomed certain singer-songwriters, if you incorporated a pedal steel, fiddle, or banjo, you could just about forget getting any airplay there. That just added to the radio no-man’s land, which was soon overflowing with artists who were not only creating great music, but had critical acclaim, solid fan bases, and years of touring under their belts. Among them: Emmylou Harris, Rodney Crowell, Joe Ely, Lucinda Williams, Robert Earl Keen, Johnny Cash, Junior Brown, Jim Lauderdale, Dave Alvin, Merle Haggard, The Bottle Rockets, Tim O’Brien, Iris DeMent … and that barely begins to scratch the surface.
Needless to say, something had to be done. Rock radio had an alternative format; why couldn’t country? The winds of change were blowing, and forces from all over the United States would soon be gathering together, though unbeknownst to them at the time.
Alternative, Progressive, Outlaw
The chasm that held who we now refer to as Americana artists was so great that I felt compelled to take some action. I approached the San Francisco-based Gavin Report radio trade publication that August with the idea of creating an “alternative country” chart, to address the needs of these artists. My hope was that, by compiling radio stations that were already playing some of this music, banding them together, and creating a chart that showed the airplay, we would educate programmers about other music that was out there. In other words, the chart would make a case: This music deserves a home on the radio.
However, by 1994, with the rise of alternative rock music, the word “alternative” was beyond played out, in my mind, so I was convinced there was no way, should this fly, that the genre could be called that. I knew at the time that there were many radio outlets across the country that supported this music. I was ready to do the research and reach out to radio programmers – in primary, secondary, and tertiary markets – to see if they already did or perhaps would support this music. Gavin took the bull by the horns, gave me the tools to begin researching, and we were on our way.
A month later, at the CMJ Music Marathon in New York City, there was a panel called “Another Country: Looking Beyond Nashville for American Music.” Brian Mansfield – then of New Country magazine – was the moderator, and one of the panelists was Jon Grimson, who was doing alternative marketing and promotion for Warner Bros.’ Nashville division. Grimson and I had a little pow-wow after this panel where I informed him of my plans with Gavin and he let me in on his intention of leaving Warner Bros. to branch out on his own. Within minutes, we both knew we had the same goals and plans in mind, and he had already taken the steps to brand the music we were all so passionate about “Americana.”
Grimson came to San Francisco for a meeting with the brass at Gavin, and in that meeting we debated what to call this chart we were preparing to spring upon an unsuspecting world. “I thought it was really important that a good, long-lasting name be utilized,” says Grimson now. “I gave it a lot of thought and believed it to be the broadest name possible. I felt strongly that it had to be a branding thing and was also a name that artists would embrace.”
Alternative country was a unanimous no-go. My original pitch was to call it the “crucial country” chart, in homage to the band name Peter Rowan had used in the mid-1980s, but that certainly wasn’t going to fly at a radio trade publication that depended upon advertising from mainstream country. While throwing around the “Americana” term, several things came to mind. At KHIP we used “American music” heavily in our promos, in homage to The Blasters. The more I thought about Americana in terms of just music and not the flag or Ethan Allen furniture, the more it became evident that it had no existing meaning. So the door was open for us to define it.
Look Out, Nashville
With a name settled on and a one-of-a-kind radio panel made up of commercial and noncommercial stations from across several musical platforms, Gavin descended on Nashville. An industry party in December 1994 at ASCAP’s new headquarters announced the birth of the Americana Chart, along with a Gavin Nashville office headed by Country Music Editor Cyndi Hoelzle. Aside from being a personal friend from the minute I met her, Hoelzle was an incredible ally for all things related to Americana music, and she offered great support and guidance to me in my new role as Americana editor at Gavin. If the heads of Gavin had any skepticism, they never showed it. When Emmylou Harris, Lucinda Williams, Guy Clark, Raul Malo, Jim Lauderdale, Bela Fleck, Sweethearts of the Rodeo, and other artists showed up for this shindig at ASCAP, I think they felt we were heading toward something potentially great.
Our meetings with Nashville record labels over the following few days were productive, with Jim Ed Norman at Warner Bros. and Tony Brown at MCA Nashville certainly in our corner. Brown had visited KFAT back when he was in Harris’s Hot Band, and he understood where I was coming from with this chart. If someone was going to make a home for the likes of Joe Ely, he was all for it.
The launch of the Gavin Americana Chart the following January was met with many reactions and questions, but one thing we found out immediately was that artists, record labels, and the press were all for it. (OK, so Jeff Tweedy didn’t care to be labeled. What are you going to do?)
Texas-based artist Robert Earl Keen, who was featured on the Gavin cover – along with Lucinda Williams, Harris, Lauderdale, and Ely – welcomed the possibilities the chart offered. “I could not have been happier,” says Keen. “Finally, after years without a label for my music, I had a flag to rally around. Musically, Americana is most closely associated with country music, but instead of ‘three chords and the truth,’ the Americana artist is more likely to tap into the kitchen sink. Lyrically, it’s tougher, funnier, and more surreal, with narrative endings that would never pass muster in a focus group. I enthusiastically embrace the Americana moniker, and when a stranger asks what kind of music I play, I look them square in the eye and say ‘I play Americana.’”
Before long, appreciation for Americana crossed the spectrum from indie to major label artists. Legends like Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, and Merle Haggard couldn’t have been embraced it more. Tim O’Brien, who recorded for the independent label Sugar Hill Records and was branching out from his bluegrass days with the band Hot Rize, says, “It gave me a home. I walk in bluegrass worlds, I walk in folk worlds. A little bit of this, that, and the other. A touch of country … and Americana became the home. It added legitimacy. Now, all these years later, Americana is a legitimate thing and it continues to help people understand what kind of music you play.”
Whatever That Is
Gavin’s Americana chart wasn’t the only entity serving the alternative/progressive/Americana/whatever you want to call it mission. Musician/entrepreneur Billy Block was promoting this music under the “Western Beat” banner for years in both Los Angeles and Nashville. And before long came the debut of No Depression magazine out of Seattle. Tasteful, edgy, and done with a unique mix of intellect and street smarts, Peter Blackstock, Grant Alden, and Kyla Fairchild’s new publication quickly became the trusted source to explore this music in print. In curating the Americana chart, I felt as though music with an underground edge that fell within the right parameters was essential, and No Depression’s tastes and talent for finding artists of that ilk were huge assets.
Also around that time came Chicago-based indie label Bloodshot Records, which distilled the sounds of punk-infused “insurgent country” with their initial release – a compilation titled For a Life of Sin. According to Bloodshot co-owner Nan Warshaw, “When Bloodshot began in 1994, there was not any critical language around the type of music our artists were playing. The creation of the Americana chart was an essential part in helping to define a genre. We came to Americana not as a reaction to commercial country music (which simply wasn’t on our radar), but because we were seeking out new, exciting forms that spoke to us once alt-rock had become commoditized and commercialized. Separately, I believe the Americana chart and all that grew around it laid the groundwork for the recent indie folk boom. Also, it’s now especially interesting the international value that the Americana Music Association, conference, and chart all have developed. At Bloodshot, we’ve been proud to be a member of the Americana family from the get-go, and comfortable in our red-haired-stepchild rebellious role.”
Roots labels like Sugar Hill and Rounder Records, meanwhile, were naturally the bread and butter for Americana at its inception. Brad Paul, Rounder’s head of promotion at the time (and later served as a board member and officer with the Americana Music Association), was hugely influential in spreading the Americana gospel.
“From that chart, many great things have happened,” says Paul. “The annual Americana Festival and Conference is extremely beneficial to those who attend. The Awards Show, the Grammy category — all of these things didn’t exist when the chart started, and they do now. The chart was the beginning of that. Certainly, most of that flowed out of the efforts of the Americana Music Association, but the association itself flowed out of the chart. When the doors closed at Gavin, the AMA worked with a few other trades in keeping a chart active and then, when those trades went away, the AMA took on the responsibility of creating the software and maintaining a weekly chart. And out of that came all of these other great leaps and strides forward to brand Americana and give artists a platform from which they could be heard.”
Americana in the New Millennium
The formation of the Americana Music Association – not to mention its ongoing influence and hard work – is an amazing outgrowth that I never could have envisioned when I started the chart. From my vantage point, the chart was simply a means to help create an alternative radio format for country or roots-based music and help promote the artists and music that both needed and deserved a home. While the dream of a full-time radio format in major markets across the country hasn’t quite come true (Jeremy Tepper, programming Outlaw Country on SiriusXM satellite radio, gives us a taste of that dream), it’s a different world now, anyway, as far as how people access music.
Luckily, the Americana Music Association is poised to meet that new world head-on. The AMA’s creation was spearheaded by a large group of passionate believers who put in the time and sweat at their jobs in all corners of the industry. Among them were Jessie Scott and Chris Marino, who had both programmed Americana radio for years and served as Gavin Americana editors after my tenure. There was Jon Grimson, Leslie Rouffé, and Al Moss from the radio promoter side; Brad Paul, Scott Robinson, Brad Hunt, Dan Einstein, and the late Jack Emerson from the record label side; Tamara Saviano, Traci Thomas, and Grant Alden from the print and publicity sides; and J.D. May, who worked at the artist-run Dead Reckoning label when the chart began and served as the AMA’s first executive director. “When you look back at when it started with the chart,” May says, “the odds were stacked against us. Radio was the perfect place to launch Americana, because it started to crystalize a vision inside the industry of what it was, what it could become, and what other steps we needed to take to grow something, so that at the end of the day, artists who wanted to make this music had the mechanisms and the vehicles through which they could be discovered, tour, make a living, and grow a fan base. Those things are happening to a degree right now that I don’t know that any of us anticipated. The real staying power and beauty of Americana is that it’s a musical style that’s been around for decades. It doesn’t need hits in order to thrive and survive.”
The recent years of growth and awareness of Americana music spring from the efforts of the AMA, steered by Executive Director Jed Hilly and his staff, which includes Danna Strong and Michelle Aquilato. From the seeds the AMA planted with The National Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences for Grammy inclusion, to a definition in Merriam-Webster’s dictionary, to expanding the AMA conference to include a festival (and joining forces with the likes of PBS, Austin City Limits, SiriusXM, and NPR), Americana music and its audience is being very well served.
With ongoing changes in technology and the music business, the AMA now finds itself involved in national legislative issues. Last year, Rosanne Cash testified about artists’ digital rights before the House Judiciary Committee, on behalf of the AMA, sharing the deep concerns all musicians have in the new economy. “That was a big deal,” says Hilly. “To continue to encourage dialogue in the music business, to try to figure out the legislative issues, has become another long-range goal, much in the same way as getting a Grammy category was.”
Endurance and perseverance are deeply ingrained qualities of Americana music and artists, including Cash, throughout her 35-year-career. “The Americana Chart has provided a forum for a whole community – and, for me, a new home after feeling disenfranchised for a long time from both the pop and country charts,” says Cash. “I had given up on radio, but in 2014 I had the number-one record on the Americana charts for 11 weeks. There are second acts in American lives!” Cash’s acclaimed The River & The Thread is nominated for this year’s Best Americana Album Grammy, in addition to her two other Grammy nominations for the same album.
Twenty years on, Americana music is succeeding as a musical meeting place – whether it be perceived as a radio format, musical genre, or some other kind of label. It’s an ongoing joy to see so many musicians, fans, and music industry professionals continue to power on with so much passion. If you create Americana music, you’re a part of it. If you listen to Americana music, you’re a part of it. May the Americana road go on forever, and may the party never end.
Rob Bleetstein currently is a host and producer on SiriusXM Radio’s Pearl Jam and Grateful Dead channels; programs and hosts Pearl Jam’s Ten Club Radio; is archivist, producer, and webmaster for the New Riders of the Purple Sage; serves on the board of directors of Rock The Earth; and still loves and listens to a lot of Americana music.