Roots Watch: Americana’s Younger Than That Now

Barry Mazor | October 24th, 2011

At this year’s Americana Music Association’s Fest and Conference, staged mid-month here in Nashville, there were plenty of convincing signs that the Americana field and format has finally come of age, and in a healthy and forward-looking way—sixteen years since it was first identified and promoted to radio, twelve since the AMA was founded, and at the tenth anniversary of the annual Americana Honors and Awards show.

Back when the AMA was getting started, there were (almost inevitably) meetings and open debates about what Americana music took itself to be and include, how the organization might get the music (whatever it included) more known and accepted, and what milestones might prove that it was really happening.  There were those who saw Americana as (literally) alternative country—an alternative outlet and chart for country singles, for acts just far apart enough from the so-called “Hot New Country” of the nineties by their sticking with older country sounds and themes not to work in that format, and appealing to an older audience with a taste for those sounds. (The early AMA slogan “We walk the line” was supposed to suggest just that—not straight and narrow monogamy.)

There were those who saw “Americana” as just a new name for the great little scare of the time, built on the rock music with roots in punk beloved by young hicksters, the audience No Depression magazine courted and built on. Some thought it was mainly going to be a home for grittier (mainly Texan) folksingers who liked playing in smoky bars more than coffee houses, others the local version of World Music—like Miss USA in the Miss World contest.  Were blues and older soul to be included? Bluegrass? Gospel?  Roots rock?  Rootsy jamband?  The answer that eventually emerged was basically “Just Say Yes”—to be inclusive of most all of the above. “Americana” was defined, easily and simply enough, as contemporary music that finds ways to acknowledge and build on American roots— sounds and themes, history and place. (Americana is about as “amorphous” as jazz, country, rock, classical music, easy listening–or any other lasting genre—all commercial constructs, all evolving and inclusive.)

What this format needed, the early confabs decided, in addition to a marketable definition and identifiable audience, were such items as radio stations dedicated to it, a chart (preferably in some public place like Billboard) to note the winners, a Grammy category to note excellence, and a telecast of the awards ceremony.  All of these were put in place—many of them since 2007, under the relatively activist, focused AMA leadership of Executive Director Jed Hilly.

Some issues have been settled by the times.  It’s come to be better understood that much of the music’s charm is experienced live, so sustainable careers for people making that music needs to be a real organizational goal—one that would assure that Americana was out there to be heard, whatever the emerging media. No musicians expect to live or die by CD sales and broadcast radio play alone in the digital age—and even how many dedicated Americana broadcast stations exist is less of an issue, with the general availability of strong digital radio stations to do the job nationally, even globally, and all sorts of streaming alternatives out there to get the music out. And there’s no longer much talk of Americana being on the verge of being “The Next Big Thing,” outside of over-excited hype talk—because nobody much believes in any Next Big Thing in popular music, in the terms of 15 years ago.  As the gigantic goals of the music conglomerates fade, and other charts wend their way closer to Americana scale, it seems a very positive thing that Americana looks to be sustainable—and healthy.

Eight years ago, frankly, there was reason for serious doubt about the future of the format. 2003 was a year in which every AMA award winner (Johnny Cash, Kris Kristofferson, Levon Helm, Gram Parsons, Sam Phillips) had been active and more prominent and groundbreaking thirty years or more earlier; it might as well have been 1970—an interesting and tumultuous year in many ways, but not one which, personally speaking, I was interested in repeating and repeating.  Those were all extraordinary contributors to American music, of course, and Kris and Levon still are, but this backward-looking focus and fixation added plenty of fuel to the widely-held suspicion that the field was simply a catch-all resting place for artists not cutting it commercially in other formats any more.  In 2011, that’s no longer a credible charge. Americana, to steal a 47 year-old phrase, was so much older then; it’s younger than that now.  Even the elder statesmen artists recognized with Honors this year—Robert Plant and Gregg Allman for two— have come to the field taking fresh turns in their music, invigorated by meeting younger artists active in the field.

And there for all to see on awards night were young acts of every flavor ready to carry this Americana torch forward–soulful Amos Lee and (the most improved act I’ve ever watched improve—the tuneful, original, formerly screamer) Avett Brothers, the traditional country Secret Sisters (now developing their own songs in that vein), the attention-grabbing Civil Wars duo, Hayes Carll (from Texas), Justin Townes Earle with the song of the year—built on 1920s vaudeville and blues—and, awarded in absentia, the Americana-centric British folk rockers Mumford and Sons. There are no re-treads and simple do-overs or flashbacks in that list. And there’s no doubt in any case that they offer real reason for Jim Lauderdale to shout “Now that’s Americana!”

You’ll still see general media reports on this roots music field that suggest that it’s “amorphous” or hard to define, or a dumping ground for acts without a category, or  “supposed to be derived from punk like Uncle Tupelo” (maybe 5 of 30 acts at the awards this year actually were) but you know what—in 2011 that stuff has to be coming from commentators who’ve either never paid much attention to what’s actually happening, or have a massive case of 1990s mind-lock.

Americana’s never looked healthier, younger, or easier to identify.

Highlights of the 2011 Americana Awards show will be televised nationally on PBS’s Austin City Limits during the week of November 19-26; check your local listings.

  1. Rick
    October 24, 2011 at 9:15 pm

    Interesting article Barry. I first encountered the concept of “Americana” music head on back around 2002 or 3 when Denver radio station KCUV was a full time dedicated station that I listened to online. The DJ’s were free to focus on the Americana artists they liked and they took requests, something which soon became quite burdensome. About the only artist roster limitation was that Top 40 commercial pop-rock country artists were not played as they wanted no playlist overlap with Top 40 country radio. After a year or so the station wasn’t earning enough money to survive in a pure Americana format, so the format was tweaked but it was fun while it lasted!

    A quick story: Because they played a song by Nashville session piano player Steve Conn, I once requested Steve’s intentionally creepy “I’ve Got Your Dog” just to see if KCUV would spin it. They did that one time. A few days later a guy who had just broken up with his girlfriend requested that song again and dedicated it to her. She was listening and called in to dedicate Patsy Cline’s “Crazy” to him in response! Best dedications ever! (lol)

    I try to catch Americana acts when they come to LA if they play in smaller, cheap venues and the audiences usually are mostly young people in their 20’s. LA has spawned its own Americana acts like The Dustbowl Revival, which combines a string (and brass) band sound evoking folk and pop songs of the 1930’s mixed with dixieland jazz. This band is building a following of 20 somethings, which is very encouraging.

    I’m just glad the Americana organizations and radio shows exist to support a wide variety of artists the commercial format radio stations wouldn’t touch, even if I don’t care for most of them.

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