Americana: Great Outlet for Songwriters

Roots music with a country base – that’s one description of Americana music, and despite what its “founders” might have you believe, the music has been around for a long time. It has its base in the folk songs that came across with the settlers; it continues today as singer/songwriters like Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, Joe Ely and Kelly Willis further its cause at mainstream record labels and events.Roots music with a country base – that’s one description of Americana music, and despite what its “founders” might have you believe, the music has been around for a long time. It has its base in the folk songs that came across with the settlers; it continues today as singer/songwriters like Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, Joe Ely and Kelly Willis further its cause at mainstream record labels and events.

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The genre embraces many forms of music, including traditional country, western, and bluegrass. Many of the proponents of the music were kind enough to share their thoughts with us for this issue.

Dan Roberts

The very title of the format holds the answer to the lure of the music. It’s roots music. So many people think outside the box as individuals, and Americana music is the only radio format that gives them the variety that doesn’t always come with mainstream radio. I also think it holds the listener by promising either something that they haven’t heard for a long time, or something new that they have never heard, so there is a certain anticipation attached to it.

Cowboy/Western music is never heard on mainstream radio, with the exception of those stations that dedicate one hour a week to a special show. So the Americana format is the only place you will hear it.

Jerry Jeff Walker was Americana when Americana wasn’t cool. It’s a shame that an artist like him can’t be on the radio all the time.

Ranger Doug, Riders in the Sky

I think Americana works so well because it DOESN’T focus on what kind of songs are written “for” it or what kind of music is directed “to” it. It just accepts the best and most interesting music and songs that are out there and plays them simply because they are good, or different, or interesting, or touch us in some way that contrived, calculated pop or country music cannot and does not. If artists and writers embraced by the Americana stations ever begin calculating what will work to get them on those charts, they will kill the goose that lays the golden egg, because Americana thrives on the integrity of picking the offbeat, the wonderful, the different, and offering it to a discriminating audience which treasures what is independent and unique.

Stacey Earle

Music played on Americana is not based on one format of music.

The door is BIG and wide. This generation was raised on a wide form of music. The way I write is a patchwork of music I grew up on. My folks loved musicals, traditional country, flamenco and country swing. My older brothers’ record collection included the Beatles, John Fogerty, Mamas and Papas, Everlys, and Motown. But the main thing about Americana is about the Americana lyrics. The mainstream lyrics, I feel, are mostly an insult to the listener. But we need mainstream. I like to dance to it. With Americana, they listen and so they think and there’s the wonderful surprised feeling you get when you figure out what else that song is saying.

The singer/songwriter who wants to be outside the mainstream and thinks his music might fit into the Americana format should start networking with the Americana Music Association. That could be a great help. When performing, find the places your music belongs. There are some great listening rooms and clubs that now book Americana artists. Stop in and visit your Americana radio stations. It’s easy to find them, they all have web sites. Their doors are wide open. They truly enjoy live music on the air.

When I am writing, I know a song is finished when I have said all I need or want to say without writing it over and over again. Open your story, tell it, and add the end.

I have a song on my Simple Gearle CD that is 90 seconds long. I looked at it for two years. There was nothing else to say. I said it all. Song done and finished. And, yes, Americana still played it. I have a seven-minute song, “Tears That She Cries.” I need all that time to say it all. It was a true story. Yes, they still played it. No time limit there. They have all the time in the world for a wonderful song.

I was told by my brother, Steve, a long time ago, sing like your damn self. I was trying so hard to be somebody else. Somebody I thought other people wanted to hear. Then one day, I realized maybe if I sing like my damn self and write like my damn self, not how somebody else wants me to write or sing, maybe somebody would listen. I did know it would never go mainstream at that point. But I was truly happy and thrilled about the songs I was writing. WOW damn what a line. Says a lot. ART. But in my heart I knew finding a home for it was going to be tricky. And Americana came to life just in time. Home Sweet Home.

Tim O’Brien

Americana music is real, and unlike pop country, it’s not assaulting the people who listen to it. It’s more like they get to decide if they like it, as opposed to a programmer or corporate record company deciding they like it for them. It doesn’t insult their intelligence.

My advice to songwriters is to write the best song you can. Do what seems right for you, what’s true to you, and don’t let radio trends distract you. Following fashion means it’s already out of date. Do what you do well and it will come in style.

I never think about the format when I write, though sometimes when I’ve finished something, I realize that it might get on radio more easily than others. There’s more factors than the song, there are the cool arrangement, or special chemistry that happens in the studio.

I’m always looking for ideas for songs, and when I find a good one, the song writes itself quickly. Write about what you’re interested in. When I put a frame around things, it’s real easy to color it in, if the frame is strong. I always have a notebook handy, and I jot down tons of stuff, then I go back now and again. Usually there’s something in there, even a word or two that will kick-start a song.

Jason Ringenberg

I would hope the Americana format is driven by the strength of the songs. It is a very song-driven format. I think Americana songs tend to be more lyrical based.

I never think about any format when I write. I just follow wherever the inspiration leads. Just write from the heart. People will pick up on that.

Robbie Fulks

Since “Americana” lyrics are so intimately tied to the personalities of the writers, in order to say what makes them distinctive, I would ask: what personal qualities do we see the Americana songwriter continually trying to project? Let me suggest thoughtfulness, worldliness, spirituality without dogmatism, a cultural if not specifically political liberalism, a comic sense, and a certain approachability. This last is interesting compared to modern country, in which freakish 3D supermodels sing about our everyday concerns. In Americana, no matter how much obliqueness or godlike detachment is in the lyric, the singer is always one of us.

When setting out to write a song, the first thing to remember is that good songs are written without regard to radio format, or proximity to the alleged mainstream. Second, to ally yourself deliberately with a musical substratum which, rather than arising organically from musicians and a popular audience, was carved out by marketers, critics, and obsessive aficionados would seem to be a bad choice by both artistic and careerist criteria. As exciting as it is to think that somewhere out there is the next Townes Van Zandt, it is very sad to think of someone trying to be that.

David Olney

Music that is played on Americana stations is more diverse and inventive than that played on other stations. Americana stations are not in the grip of the major labels. This allows for more freedom in programming. What gets played on Americana stations is what, for whatever reason, won’t be played on other formats. The problem becomes that Americana is defined by what is not, rather than what is. But that is also the charm of Americana.

Sometimes the songs are amateurish. Sometimes they are just plain poorly written. But I would rather put up with a few poorly written songs to get to an out-of-left-field, totally inspired song than to be put to sleep by the same old crap played on other formats.

I don’t write for the Americana format. I just try to write a good song and hope somebody will like it. Because I record for independent labels, the only format that will play my stuff is the Americana format. But I don’t worry about that sort of thing much. If I worry about who’s going to play my song, it will divert my attention from the song itself. I get an idea. Just a seed. And I have to be careful how to make it grow into a song. I like to do the melody and the words at the same time so that one doesn’t get too far ahead of the other. Once the idea is rolling pretty well, I try to get out of the way as much as possible and let it develop in its own way. It’s more like gardening than, say, building a house. It all has to be done as quickly as possible to keep it fresh. But what’s quick for one song may not be quick for another. When I’m asked how long it took me to write a song, I say, “Well, I was 40 when I wrote that one, so it took me 40 years.”

John McEuen

I think what draws people to Americana music is that it is usually acoustic and personable, less produced in regard to heavy instrumentation…it’s more accessible, and you can hear artists you are familiar with along with new people. It is like ‘70s FM.

Americana songs are better – not just a well-crafted 10-second idea crammed into three minutes, as most of the current hits seem to be…always looking for a cute line…the regular commercial stuff is just too predictable.

I would advise artists and songwriters first and foremost to love your work, as it will most likely not earn you money for a long time…get the book by Randy Poe – Music Publishing – it’s a great reference for you.

When I write, I usually construct a scene that the music is to reflect…a script for the music to be inspired by, a soundtrack for a movie not yet shot, but you know what it is about…It is finished when I don’t have to reach for the tape machine to add something that I think is missing.

Write as much as you can. I suggest that you write songs as birthday presents for friends, write for situations you make up, go about the country getting experience…make a schedule, stick to it…move to a city where music is made…

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