EASY ED’S BROADSIDE: Can Americana Music Survive Taylor Swift?
Photo by Jana Beamer / Wikimedia Commons / Creative Commons 2.0
Among the many important breaking news stories that seem to shout at us from social media and the television every 15 minutes, I don’t think anything got my attention more than the one about Taylor Swift. No, I’m not talking about her very public fight with her old record label, but rather the announcement that in January, at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival, a new Netflix-produced documentary about her titled Miss Americana will debut.
Let that sink in.
How many times has someone asked you “What sort of music do you listen to?” and you’ve replied, “I like Americana music”? A glaze sweeps over an expressionless face and then the follow-up question comes: “What’s that?” And off you go, trying to explain it:
“Do you know who Gram Parsons and Townes Van Zandt are?”
“Alright, well it’s sort of like folk music but it also includes a little country, some bluegrass, the blues, rock, gospel … “
“So, it’s country music.”
“Well yeah, sometimes. But not Nashville country because that stuff is too commercial. Listen, have you ever heard of Gillian Welch and Dave Rawlings?”
“Those two I know. And I really like their music, but don’t they live in Nashville?”
“They do, but they’re not Nashville country, they’re Americana.”
“Dave always wears a cowboy hat and I’ve heard Gillian yodel, so it sure looks and sounds like country music to me. I’m confused. Who else is Americana?”
“So many … Bob Dylan, Steve Earle, Levon Helm, Jason Isbell, Neil Young, Buddy Miller, John Hiatt … ”
“Sure sounds like it’s a boy’s club musical genre.”
“No no no. There’s Lucinda Williams, Mavis Staples, Roseanne Cash, Emmylou Harris, and Linda Chorney.”
“Never mind about her. You know, there’s a lot of groups too. Older ones like The Byrds, Grateful Dead, and The Band. Then you had Uncle Tupelo, which became Wilco and Son Volt; Los Lobos, Old Crow Medicine Show, Nickel Creek … lots more.”
“How about The Lumineers and Mumford and Sons?”
“Well, their music is kind of too pop to be considered Americana.”
“Ok, I think I got it. It’s American roots music that features different musical elements and people from many backgrounds.”
“There you go. You got it.”
“And you have to be American to be Americana?”
“Not exactly. According to the Americana Music Association, people like Richard Thompson, Van Morrison, and Robert Plant are considered Americana musicians.”
“The guy from Led Zeppelin?”
“You’re not making this very easy.”
In a few short months, when Taylor Swift’s new documentary is available, you can almost see it coming like a train wreck in slow motion. Teenage girls will be wearing “Miss Americana” T-shirts. Instagram influencers will be posing draped in stars and stripes over #americana tags. There will be billboards, headlines, endorsements, magazine layouts, and more. When you hear the word Americana, you’ll immediately think of the 30-year-old blonde superstar who was named after James Taylor. Which is ironic, because I think he too falls under the banner of Americana music.
Many of my past columns, articles, and essays can be accessed here and at my own site, therealeasyed.com. I also aggregate news and videos on both Flipboard and Facebook as The Real Easy Ed: Americana and Roots Music Daily. My Twitter handle is @therealeasyed and my email address is firstname.lastname@example.org