Defining “Americana”: Isn’t It Just Country-Rock?
With just a few weeks to go before the 15th annual AmericanaFest in Nashville, now is a good time to ask: What the heck is “Americana” music anyway?
The Americana Music Association, which puts on the conference, puts it this way:
Americana is contemporary music that incorporates elements of various American roots music styles, including country, roots-rock, folk, bluegrass, R&B and blues, resulting in a distinctive roots-oriented sound that lives in a world apart from the pure forms of the genres upon which it may draw. While acoustic instruments are often present and vital, Americana also often uses a full electric band.
That’s a lot of words. But is Americana really that complicated? I think not.
To me, Americana is easy to define: it’s the musical neighborhood where country music and rock ‘n’ roll meet. Or more accurately, all the places where country and rock have intersected over the years. Which include:
- Rockabilly: Carl Perkins, Gene Vincent, Buddy Holly;
- Country rock: The Eagles, Jackson Browne, Linda Ronstadt, Pure Prairie League
- Cowpunk: The Blasters, Lone Justice, Rank and File, Jason and the Scorchers
- ’90s country: A brief period when country radio was playing rock-inflected artists like Hal Ketchum, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Kathy Mattea, Dwight Yoakam and the Desert Rose Band
- Alt-country: Uncle Tupelo, Drive-By Truckers, Steve Earle, Whiskeytown, early Wilco, Son Volt
… and, in today’s world, any music that blends country traditions with a rock sensibility. That encompasses veteran performers such as Buddy Miller, Emmylou Harris, Richard Thompson, Rodney Crowell and Rosanne Cash, and newer artists like the Avett Brothers, Jason Isbell, Sarah Jarosz, the Milk Carton Kids, Mumford and Sons, and Shovels & Rope.
The performers I’ve listed don’t fit neatly into the country-music category — or today’s country radio — but all draw on country traditions, whether chord progressions, song topics (family, faith, alcohol, etc.), or instrumentation (cue banjos, fiddles and pedal steel guitars). The artists who’ve performed since the 1970s also tend to owe a debt to genre-busting rock pioneers like Bob Dylan, Gram Parsons and The Band.
As a music fan since the early 1970s, the list of artists above pretty much defines the core of my musical interests. In high school, I loved early Eagles, Pure Prairie League, America and Doobie Brothers records. Delving into their roots, I worked my way back to the Byrds, Gram Parsons, Buddy Holly and the Everly Brothers.
In the 1980s, I gravitated to performers who blended country and punk, like X and Lone Justice, and the twangier sounds of rockers like John Mellencamp (Scarecrow and Lonesome Jubilee) and Tom Petty (Southern Accents). In the 1990s, I fell in love with “alt-country” music, bands like Uncle Tupelo, Steve Earle, Whiskeytown, Wilco, Son Volt, Lone Justice, and Jason & the Scorchers. And of course, I discovered and subscribed to No Depression magazine, which declared that it covered “alternative-country music (whatever that is).”
I now realize that if there’s a single word to describe all of these, it’s “Americana.” But although there has been an Americana Music Association since 2000, I was unaware of the term until last year, when my Chicago-based band Twangdogs traveled to Scotland to play the Edinburgh Fringe Festival.
I was trying to craft a description of the band for the Fringe website, and I proposed “alt-country.” The owner of the nightclub where we played suggested “Americana” — and once we got to Scotland, we discovered that the term seems to have more meaning among music fans in the British Isles than here in the States. Maybe it’s easier to hear the commonalities among all of these artists from across the Atlantic.
As for my band Twangdogs, you could call us an Americana tribute band. Our motto is “Country, rock ‘n’ roll — and everything in between.” We’ll be playing in Nashville on Sept. 20 (during, but not part of, AmericanaFest) — a show we’re calling “Love, Americana Style: a song cycle of romance, rage, resilience and the road.“
Our set will include songs originally recorded as far back as 1957 (“Oh Boy,” by Buddy Holly) and as recently as 2013 (“California (Cast Iron Soul)” by Jamestown Revival).
In between, we’ll likely include country-rock songs by the Eagles and/or Jackson Browne (who will receive one of the Americana Music Association’s “lifetime achievement awards” on Sept. 17), and alt-country tunes by the likes of Steve Earle and Kathleen Edwards.
We’ll also include some rockin’ songs that were originally recorded by mainstream country artists — for instance, “Hell on Heels” by Pistol Annies or “I’m With the Band” by Little Big Town.
Whenever this music was originally recorded and whatever it’s called, all of it hangs together as a blend of country and rock. And when I say “Americana,” that’s what I mean.