What Was Americana?
Next year the Americana Music Association will turn 20. Since that first meeting of 30 or 40 folks, the music that goes by the label “Americana” flourishes, continuing to find listeners engaged by its freeform style. Americana music now has its own Billboard chart, and last year WSM in Nashville recognized the power of the music’s audience and established a 24/7 stream devoted to programming Americana music. AmericanaFest, the association’s annual conference and festival, this year drew close to 30,000 people. Every night—and many afternoons—attendees had their pick of listening to over 250 artists, spread out over Nashville at more than 50 venues. Panels during the day covered topics focused on helping artists navigate their way through the music industry, as well as subjects as diverse as Appalachia in Americana and “activism, commerce, and the soul of Americana.”
It was a robust week of running from venue to venue to hear artists such as the McCrary Sisters testify, Mandy Barnett lay down a soulful vibe that reveals her range as a jazz and rhythm-and-blues singer, the Birds of Chicago deliver their always-powerful haunting and evocative music, Mike Farris carry his audiences into another world, and Amanda Shires and Peter Levin ride higher and higher on their version of the Allman Brothers’ “Midnight Rider.” But amid all that, the perennial question nags: “What is Americana?”
I used to ask this question much more than I do now, since I have accepted that “Americana” is simply—and always has been—a brand. It’s a word that album promoters can use when they can’t describe music any other way, but it’s also a way of referring to music that recognizes the buying power of the demographic who listens to Americana music. “Package the music the right way, and they will buy it,” is the mantra of promoters of Americana music. After all, Americana music is a far more palatable phrase than blues or even folk (which has its own professional and promotional organization anyway, with its own concerns, audience, and artists).
The far more pressing question for me, both at AMA and Folk Alliance, has been diversity. While there is certainly diversity in musical styles at AmericanaFest, artists of color have very often been underrepresented, or featured in a kind of token way—”let’s honor Buddy Guy and have Keb’ Mo’ present his award to him and that will be our diversity for the night.” The AMA has been so criticized over the past few years for its lack of diversity that the Milk Carton Kids, the hosts of the AMA Awards show this year, joked about it in their onstage patter. The greatest irony of the awards night is that women were honored for their achievements in establishing recording companies and for advocating free speech, but they were shut out of the awards by the voters (with the exception of Molly Tuttle, who won for best instrumentalist). Many moments during the evening felt a little uncomfortable because it felt as if women were being patronized. While the AMA continues to work toward embracing all—through some brilliant panels and astonishing performances—some members told me they still felt the week lacked diversity.
At 20, the AMA is still young; it’s still growing and finding its way. We’ll never find a definition of Americana on which everyone can agree, but we’ll also never find songs that touch everyone equally or empower everyone in the same ways. We’ll keep asking the questions, no doubt, but we will seldom use the word to describe or to label the music itself. Americana is really all about the music: it’s what creates community, it’s what stuns us out of our complacency, it’s what takes us out of ourselves for a moment in which we believe in our hearts that the community that music just created can change the world. It’s what gives us heartache, and it’s what soothes us.
On the cusp of the Americana Music Association’s 20th birthday, at least one book has appeared that offers a little history of the organization, as well as some attempts to answer the question, “What is Americana?” Because it is the first that attempt to deal with the subject, it succeeds in some places, and it falls short in others. While it serves as an adequate introduction to the issues, readers will often find themselves disagreeing with the author about how he approaches Americana.
Michael Scott Cain’s The Americana Revolution: From Country and Blues Roots to the Avett Brothers, Mumford & Sons, and Beyond (Rowman & Littlefield) provides a helpful brief history of the beginnings of the Americana Music Association, and that may be the best part of the book. Cain loses readers with his spacy comparison of Americana to quantum physics, though, in the opening pages; the writing is often turgid and jargon-filled, and readers may sometimes have difficulty following his long, awkward sentences. He begins to lose the reader early: “Contemporary pop and country are Newtonian physics, while Americana is quantum mechanics … pop and contemporary country deal with the known … they are the Newtonian physics of music: interesting perhaps but only useful with visible, known objects and taking place in a framework we have explored before until it has become obsolete. Americana is quantum physics. It is capable of incorporating Newtonian physics but goes well beyond it into a universe where objects can be and are more than one thing, a universe where the unknown becomes familiar and where complexity and authenticity are valued beyond a superficial understanding or the full understanding of the very simple.”
Those opening sentences are enough to discourage readers, but some of the book’s values lies in interviews with individuals who were in the early meetings of the group that came to be called the Americana Music Association. Al Moss said, “Of course, we resisted for the longest time putting a definition on it.” Dennis Lord, who is executive vice president of creative and business affairs at SESAC, said, “You see, the key is that Americana is not really a genre, it’s more of a movement … The AMA said ‘no, no, no, this is about art.’”
At the end of his book, Cain’s descriptions of Americana grow a little fuzzy. He admits that Americana music is difficult to define, but he then proceeds to identify Americana artists as “authentic” and “real”: “In Americana, quantum effects are created. The artists are true to themselves and to their music. … The artists are not distant archetypes, as linear mainstream performers attempt to be, but instead real, genuine, and authentic people.”
Cain’s book steps out into a void and tries to map out a terrain. He has established a foundation, unstable though it may be in some places, upon which others can build or can tear down and start over. There are at least three other books on Americana coming in the near future, though they have not been fully announced; they are by top-notch music historians and music writers, so we can look forward to more conversations about the contours of the geography of Americana music.