As Americana Editor for the trade magazine Gavin, easily my most often asked question is “What the heck is Americana?” in some permutation or other. It’s as tough a question to answer as the question “What is rock and roll?” was in the mid ‘50s. Let’s face it, it’s hard to define an attitude, but more than anything, that’s what we’re dealing with. And with country defining itself as pop these days, things can get a little confusing.As Americana Editor for the trade magazine Gavin, easily my most often asked question is “What the heck is Americana?” in some permutation or other. It’s as tough a question to answer as the question “What is rock and roll?” was in the mid ‘50s. Let’s face it, it’s hard to define an attitude, but more than anything, that’s what we’re dealing with. And with country defining itself as pop these days, things can get a little confusing.
Americana is as much about the way the music is conceptualized and made, as it is its sound. What we are talking about here is an independent spirit, the desire to communicate through a song of one’s own making. There is no committee dictating hairdos and dress here. It’s a much purer pursuit, one that is reminiscent of the old days, pre-“star maker machinery.” But everything old is new again. Americana music comes from all the traditional textures that have made up the country landscape, from mountain music on.
Western Swing, Bluegrass, Rockabilly, Honky Tonk, Outlaw – they are all welcome under the Americana umbrella – and the vitality of the music is undeniable. Let’s face it, there have always been outsiders to the Nashville establishment. Here is a movement that celebrates that. It’s music made from the heart. It embraces regionalism; it rocks, and purrs, and twangs and cooks.
And although we coined the name “Americana” five years ago to be the umbrella term, the music and its muse are much older than that. We have seen this format morph and grow over the years. From the progressive country movement of the ‘60s and ‘70s, Willie Nelson, Gram Parsons and others planted seeds. Over the years, the music has flourished, spawning a host of artists and bands all over the country, no, really the world, now as we are exposed to artists from Australia, Europe, and Japan.
The Americana pages in Gavin date back five years in January, which was when the album chart was started. The Gavin Americana tracks chart was added in January 2000. Our reporters have grown to number in the nineties, with new stations calling to inquire about reporting status on a weekly basis. We have also included audio streams on the web, and other cutting-edge reporters like Music Choice and DMX’s Americana channels, which can be found on digital cable systems in homes all over the United States. There are still some mavericks out there at radio, too. Unfortunately, with consolidation having gobbled up the best signals in their respective markets, most of the Americana reporting radio stations have challenges in this regard. But where this music is being heard, it is working. Heads-up promoters are bringing the artists through town, and stories are being grown, one market at a time. Again, the old-fashioned way. What’s especially significant about this is that, given a way around the machine, the will is there to make it work. Remember that Loretta Lynn drove stations to station to get airplay on “Honky Tonk Girl,” and that’s pretty much a blueprint of what these upcoming Americana folks are doing today.
I like to define the music through the people who make it, so here goes – Americana’s marquee artists are quite a list, and you are on a first name basis with many of them – Willie, Waylon, Lyle, Dwight, Emmylou, Robert Earl. Then there are upstarts like Steve Earle and Lucinda Williams. We embrace those worthy folks who have lost major labels deals, but who make music with integrity, like Rodney Crowell, Jim Lauderdale and Marty Stuart. There are rising stars like Jack Ingram, Allison Moorer, and Charlie Robison, and break-out bands like Reckless Kelly, The Souvenirs, Trent Summar and The New Row Mob, and The Great Divide. Grand Ole Opry stars like Johnny Russell, Porter Wagoner, and, yes, Dolly Parton, have graced our chart, with music that was largely ignored by mainstream country. And have you noticed who has been booked on the Opry lately? Gillian Welch and David Rawlings, The Stevens Sisters, Don Walser, The Derailers, BR5-49, Alseep at the Wheel, to name just a few.
We’re not the only ones doing the talking, Americana has become the darling of the press, with recent, significant ink in the New York Times, The Washington Post, The Atlanta Journal Constitution, The San Antonio Express News, The Wall Street Journal, and many other mainstream dailies. Americana artists play The Tonight Show, Letterman, and Conan, much more frequently than the hat acts do. They populate the Grammys more frequently than you would expect by the lack of attention paid to them by mainstream radio.
At the same time that Country has lost audience, both at the record buying and radio audience level, Americana is fresh and exciting. It represents a stylistic change as large in scope as the Outlaw Movement was in the ‘70s. Americana embraces entrepreneurial spirit, and in this day and age of homogenization, it is timed to serve us well.
Of late, thirty industry types have started a trade organization to deal with Americana’s issues: branding, distribution, increasing the audience. It’s called the Americana Music Association, and its members have grown to over 250 in six short months. The membership represents every walk of life of the business, from artists, to radio, to press, to PR to management, to labels, distribution, mail order, magazines, bookers, agents.
Get on board with us at www.americanamusic.org. Our motto is “We Walk the Line,” and together we can move mountains.