Let’s Celebrate — Not Deny — Americana’s Country Roots
Fifteen to 20 years ago, when some music industry professionals were trying to define and popularize “Americana music” as a distinct genre, they had a pretty clear idea of what the term meant. They were thinking of contemporary songs and artists that borrowed from country-music traditions — music that had been labeled as “alt-country” or “insurgent country” or “Twangcore” or “No Depression” (the magazine that gave its name to this website).
In hindsight, it’s clear that this definition was too narrow — encompassing too few artists with too small a fan base. Now, less than two weeks before the 15th annual AmericanaFest event in Nashville, there seem to be two different ideas about how to define Americana broadly enough to build a healthy audience and generate the revenue that songwriters, performers and the music industry need:
- The “contemporary roots” approach is the one that seems to have been adopted by the Americana Music Association, the organization that puts on AmericanaFest. This approach de-emphasizes the influence of country music — for several years in the mid-2000s, the AMA’s definition of Americana didn’t even mention the word “country” — in favor of a longer list of influences: “various American roots music styles, including country, roots-rock, folk, bluegrass, R&B and blues.”
- The “country-rock generations” approach seems to be more widely embraced in Europe, where there is a thriving Americana fan base and a growing number of homegrown artists who describe their music as Americana. This approach retains the link to country music, while also allowing Americana to include country-and-rock blends that existed before the term had been coined: for instance, country/rock mixtures from the 1970s and punk/country blends from the 1980s.
I believe the “country-rock generations” approach is superior. I think we should be celebrating, not de-emphasizing, the country roots of Americana. I also think we should embrace a definition of Americana that incorporates a half-century of music that blends country and rock.
Imagine an Americana fan base that included not only people who love up-and-coming artists like Shovels & Rope and Sturgill Simpson, but also those who enjoyed the late-1990s “alt-country” wave (say, Steve Earle and Rosanne Cash), rock-influenced country artists from the early 1990s (Hal Ketchum and Kathy Mattea), 1980s country-punk (Jason & the Scorchers, Lone Justice), 1970s country rock (Eagles, Jackson Browne), and 1950s performers like Buddy Holly and the Everly Brothers. That would be a huge music audience.
A couple of weeks ago, I wrote an article for NoDepression.com entitled “Defining ‘Americana’: Isn’t It Just Country-Rock?” The article attracted quite a bit of interest – more than 1,000 views, a lengthy comment thread, and some discussion on Twitter. One of the commenters pointed out a No Depression article he’d written on the same subject in 2011, “Pet Peeve: the term ‘Americana’ music – what precisely does it mean?”
As this 2011 article points out, the word “Americana” was first used in the mid-1990s when the Gavin Report, a radio industry trade publication, adopted it as the label for what people were then calling “alt-country.” At the time, radio played a much bigger role in music distribution and discovery than it does today — the idea was that “Americana” would become a successful radio format (which it never really did).
Using the Internet Archive, I did a little research about the evolution of the “Americana” definition published on the AMA’s website.
As late as January 2006, the Americana Music Association’s website was calling Americana “American roots music based on the traditions of country.”
Sometime between January 2006 and September 2007, the AMA website changed the definition — and entirely removed references to country music. Americana, the AMA said in September 2007, was “music that honors and is derived from the traditions of American roots music.”
The AMA’s definition has been updated several times since then, ultimately leading to today’s description, which has restored the reference to country but also lists several other musical styles:
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.
At the beginning, then, country music was essential to defining Americana. Now, in the eyes of the AMA, country is just one of the “American roots music styles” that contribute to Americana music.
I am neither a musicologist nor a music industry expert — I’m just a fan of good music who also plays in a Chicago band (Twangdogs) whose repertoire of cover songs straddles the line between country and rock.
But I think I understand some of the reasons today’s “Americana” definition made sense to the AMA. They include:
- “Roots music” expands the list of influences, increasing the number of people who might be interested in Americana.
- By encompassing more musical styles, Americana might be able to avoid some of the criticism it has received for being dominated by white male artists. (See “Why Is a Music Genre Called ‘Americana’ So Overwhelmingly White and Male?“)
- By emphasizing “contemporary music,” the definition zeroes in on newly released songs and albums, which is where recording artists, touring performers and most of the music industry are focused.
- This definition acknowledges the reality that great songwriters and performers inevitably have blended musical interests and may not want to be limited by a narrow definition of “Americana.”
Thinking of music listeners and fans, though, I think the AMA’s current definition is confusing and is actually limiting Americana’s potential audience. I believe there are music fans who loved one flavor of country-rock and just need to be introduced to others. A 1970s Eagles or Jackson Browne fan would like the Avett Brothers or Jamestown Revival. Fans of Old Crow Medicine Show would appreciate Buddy Holly. All of them might enjoy Whiskeytown or Uncle Tupelo. And music from these performers — and many others — can fit together nicely on a setlist or a playlist.
My band, Twangdogs, plays exactly this kind of a music mix. And we’ve found receptive audiences for our music in Chicago, Iowa, Indiana and even Scotland, where we played the Edinburgh Fringe Festival last year. (We’ll be debuting our “Love, Americana Style” show Sept. 20 at 12th & Porter in Nashville.)
Some might argue that debating definitions is hair-splitting. But it’s in the interest of all Americana artists for more people to self-identify as “Americana” fans. And that means we need a definition that lots of people can embrace.
I’m sure that’s part of the reason that the AMA is defining Americana as influenced by “roots music” rather than country music. But in doing so, the organization is now out of sync with the categories for the Grammy awards, which have an overarching category called “American roots music” — and under that umbrella, separate awards for Americana, bluegrass, traditional blues, contemporary blues, traditional folk, contemporary folk, Hawaiian music, Native American music and Zydeco or Cajun music.
Goodness knows the Grammy categories can be debated (what the heck is “contemporary folk” anyway?) but I agree with the Grammys’ general approach: Roots music is the top-level category, with Americana and other genres as subcategories. If the Americana Music Association wants to claim all of these genres as its own, maybe it should rename itself the Roots Music Association — and those of us who love country-rock can rally around “Americana.”
Not that I’m arguing for renaming the AMA. Instead, I think, AMA should remember its original musical inspiration: songs and performers that blend country and rock.
The time is right, I think. From country music, probably the most popular music category today, Americana can pick off rock-flavored country performers like Little Big Town and Pistol Annies. From the “jam band” circuit — perhaps the most consistent genre for selling tickets — Americana can claim Old Crow Medicine Show or the Allman Brothers. Among classic rock fans, who still buy CD’s, Americana can incorporate the early Eagles or Doobie Brothers. From indie rock, popular among today’s young adults, Americana can borrow the Avett Brothers or the Decemberists.
With country-rock at the center of its definition, Americana can appeal to more people, distribute more music and sell more tickets. Let’s embrace, not deny, Americana’s country roots.