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What is Americana Music?

It would be hard to argue that there are two perplexing questions facing Mankind: What is the Meaning of Life? Is there a God?

After those have been debated, dissected and, at times, fought over, to nominate a third would seem somewhat trivial.

But here goes: What is Americana Music?

Do not scoff. To millions of music fans worldwide, this is indeed a very serious question - to be debated, dissected, but, hopefully, not fought over!

To find an answer, all you really need to do is Google - which in fact you can for the first two biggies anyway!

As you might expect in the Internet age, there is a ready-made answer which pops up first on the big-G search:

“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.”

And says who? Well that’s who? And who are they? Well that’s the website for The Americana Music Association (AMA), that’s who!

The soundtrack, master-minded by T Bone Burnett, caused an overnight sensation, introducing a world-wide audience to alt-country – now more defined as Americana music!
Who would have thought that forty-or-so years after he was the darling of hard-rockers, Led Zeppelin lead singer Robert Plant would be described as an Americana artist.
Emmylou Harris -
If you're a songwriter, you always wanted her to record one of your songs. 

Americana Music Association was formed in 1999, we are told, after a bunch of people in the music industry spent years debating how best to represent the music coming out of Nashville that clearly wasn’t "Achy Breaky Heart" or "Stand by Your Man."

The phrase Americana Music is actually attributed, circa 1995, to two men in the industry, one from Radio - Rob Bleetstein of San Francisco - the other - Jon Grimson of Nashville - then a record executive. Nothing wrong with that, you might say. If there were no successful radio or recording companies, then there’s little in it for lay-about guitar pickers!

Once the term or, indeed, a music industry categorisation, had been established, what next? This is where the Americana Music Association (AMA) came in. It, convened its first conference in the year 2000 and seemed to get things right from the very start.

A keynote speaker at an early AMA gathering was none other than Rodney Crowell the Texan-born singer-songwriter who, by then, had been a well-respected fixture in Nashville for more than 20 years and had indeed married into country music royalty (the Cash family). He was spot on when he told delegates that Americana music was “as much a musical mind-set” than as a simple music categorisation.

By 2002, the annual conference had developed into a fully-fledged show-biz event - the Americana Music Association’s Annual Honors & Awards - move over the Grammy’s, CMT Awards et al! This event has indeed now morphed into a week-long Americanafest during which “300 plus” acts and presentations are scheduled over six days throughout 50 venues around Nashville.

But the kick-off for Americanafest remains the Honors & Awards show at the Ryman Auditorium where each year the AMA presents Lifetime Achievement Awards to at least six recipients as well as a number of annual performer and song awards voted by AMA members.

When the inaugural list of Lifetime Achievements honourees was announced in 2002, the AMA hit bullseye with first shot. This was a roll call of country music legends if ever there was - Johnny Cash (Spirit of Americana/Free Speech in Music), Billy Joe Shaver (Songwriter), Emmylou Harris (Performance), Doug Sahm (President’s Award), T Bone Burnett (Executive).

To be fair, at the time, the alternative to pop or mainstream country, call it what you will, was flying high. For in the same year, the soundtrack to a quirky Coen Brothers movie called O Brother, Where Art Thou? was awarded Best Album of the Year at the Grammy’s. The soundtrack, master-minded by T Bone Burnett, caused an overnight sensation, introducing a world-wide audience to alt-country - now more defined as Americana music! A spinoff to the album’s enormous success was a sell-out U.S. tour - titled Down from the Mountain - by most of the artists used on the soundtrack.

All the stars were - quite literally - aligned.

There was another factor, somewhat tragic, in play around this time - the aftermath of the 2001 terrorist attack known as 9/11. By late 2002 the country music industry had fully embraced the hard-core patriotism that had swept across heartland America, with mainstream country stars such as Toby Keith and Alan Jackson flying the Stars & Stripes with songs of a somewhat jingoistic nature. 

To many, this was a double-edge sword. Suddenly country songs were across mainstream radio, and television, adding new ears to the industry. Yet for many country-music fans, this was somewhat of an intrusion, even an irritation, and an alternative - like the more subtle Americana music - was more appealing.

Whatever the underlying factors in those formative years, the title Americana Music has survived nearly two decades into the 21st Century. And of course, so has the Americana Music Association which now publishes weekly Americana Playlist Charts for albums and singles. The AMA, after all, describes itself as “a professional trade organisation whose mission is to advocate for the authentic voice of American roots music around the world.”

The coming of age of the AMA probably occurred in 2009 when its Executive Director Jed Hilly convinced The Recording Academy to split the Grammy award for Best Contemporary Folk/Americana Album to separate categories - Best Folk Album and Best Americana Album. In reporting the change, Jerry Shriver, in USA Today, added to the definition debate:
“Separating contemporary folk and Americana resulted in the crafting of two carefully worked category definitions. Deciding factors will be the predominance of acoustic instruments, a key component of contemporary folk, and the presence of electrified instruments and “twang,” which are markers for Americana.”

(For the record, the first winner of the Grammy for an Americana album was Levon Helm in 2010 for his majestic solo work Electric Dirt - a fitting recipient for an Americana original. He won again two years later for Ramble at the Ryman - one of the best-ever live albums!)

Another writer to provide a definition was Harry Lipson, who wrote in Roots Music journal No Depression

“Americana music is the fertile ground where Rock, Roots, Bluegrass, Celtic, Southern Rock, Appalachian, ‘Austin alternative country’, Folk, and the Delta blues collide and flourish.”

So do paragraphs from the likes of Shriver and Lipson actually provide the answer to question three, posed in paragraph three? Probably not.

In fact the answer lies squarely in the music - and the creative people who make it.

So who is and who is not an Americana musician? Well  - surprise, surprise - a quick visit to Wikipedia will provide you with a list of Americana artists, or, as it states, “some of the notable artists in the genre.” And yes it does include such mainstream superstars of Bob Dylan, Johnny Cash, Bruce Springsteen, Van Morrison, The Band, Linda Ronstadt and Loretta Lynn. And yes it does not include such mainstream superstars as Shania Twain, Dolly Parton, Alan Jackson, Kenny Chesney, Keith Urban, Taylor Swift, Tammy Wynette.

In the early years of the genre, the great Johnny Cash was not actually on the Americana list, even though the same Mr Cash won the first-ever AMA’s Spirit of Americana Award at the inaugural Honors and Awards ceremony in 2002 when he and wife June Carter Cash gave what may have been their last public performance together? In fact, the very next year Cash won three popular categories - best album/song/artist - at the same awards.

So here lies the dilemma in trying to define a genre. Where do you draw a line in the sand - especially in an age where musicians find it easy, and appealing, to switch between genres as Cash indeed did so when he teamed up with legendary producer Rick Rubin? Who would have thought that forty-or-so years after he was the darling of hard-rockers, Led Zeppelin lead singer Robert Plant would be described as an Americana artist. But that is exactly what happened when he teamed up with bluegrass pin-up Alison Krauss to record the Grammy-Award winning album, Raising Sands.

So it is understandable that many artists, in all creative endeavours, resist being labelled or categorized! Americana is no exception.

One recent critic is prolific singer-songwriter Tom Russell, who penned the Tex-Mex classic "Gallo Del Cielo". In launching his 27th album in September 2017, Russell told No Depression he considered Americana “a dumb term .. a grab bag where they throw people who don’t fit anywhere else.” Interestingly, Russell’s Wikipedia profile says: “Although most strongly identified with the Americana music tradition, his music also incorporates elements of folk, rock, and the cowboy music of the American West.”

Nothing personifies this labelling dilemma better than that this one – somewhat contradictory -Wikipedia sentence. Does it mean that forever the heritage of every musician listed as Americana has to be further dissected like some multi-generational family tree?

This is a cue to go back a generation or two.

If folk (Bob Dylan) married rock (The Byrds) and had an off-spring, "Mr Tamborine Man", then would that be folk-rock? Well it was actually introduced as country-rock by the music media at the time.

So was this the real beginning of the mixed musical genres? In fact, Bob Dylan certainly had a lot to do with it, especially when he decided to plug his guitar into an amplifier!

Then of course there is The Band, that bunch of Canadians (and one Arkansas boy) who backed Dylan - and endured the fan’s boos and heckles - during that transitional period of his career in the late 60’s! Of course, both Dylan and The Band are fully embedded in any listing of Americana artists. In fact, The Band have topped various informal polls for “Best Americana Group” and their classic "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down" is often regarded as the quintessential Americana song.

Many might argue that in fact Dylan provides the answer to the second question posted in the opening paragraph! The Nobel Laureate certainly has attained God-like status! 

You could even go so far as to say without Dylan there may well not have been Americana music! Genre legends like Townes Van Zandt, Guy Clark and Steve Earle, who were all teenagers in Texas when the times were indeed a changing, soon headed off to Music City to fulfil their dreams - no doubt inspired by the boy from Hibbing, Minnesota.

In fact, Dylan songs are peppered throughout the catalogues of many fine Americana artists, the best example being the sadly under-rated Texas singer-songwriter Jimmy LaFave, who produced around a dozen albums - most being sprinkled with stunning interpretations of Dylan songs, all sitting nicely alongside his original compositions.

It is probably all too easy to lump well-worn Texas troubadours like LaFave, Van Zandt and Clark in the Americana catalogue of music. They are typical examples of what is known in the industry as lifers - a sad term given all three are sadly no longer with us - for they all personified that wonderful story-telling spirit of solo singer-songwriters selling roots music in crowded smoky bar-rooms and clubs, not only in America but around the world.

It is a little harder to harness groups/bands into the Americana music arena. Yes The Band and The Byrds have already been mentioned and then there were The Flying Burrito Brothers (relic of The Byrds). But these were indeed a generation earlier. Twenty years had passed when the likes of Bleetstein and Grimson began conjuring up a new alternative to whatever was mainstream country. And during this time all sorts of odd musical genres - from punk to grudge - had come and often gone!

A new wave of bands had absorbed these influences and were certainly an attractive target for radio and record executives wanting to harness the fan power they obviously possessed. And remember that all important clause - “Americana also often uses a full electric band” - in the final sentence in the AMA definition.

Two bands in particular were begging for some sort of identification that seemed to be eluding them, and the recording industry.

The first was a group with a cute name - Uncle Tupelo - which was formed in the late eighties by three Illinois musicians Jay Farrar, Jeff Tweedy and Mike Heidorn. Uncle Tupelo was quickly associated with the alternative country scene with a dedicated following, but it disbanded in 1994 before it really achieved commercial success. What emerged from the ruins of Uncle Tupelo is where the real significance to Americana lies. Remember this was 1994 - just when the Americana gestation was about to begin. 

Ferrar and Tweedy, the principal songwriters, had apparently fallen out. So Farrar and Heidorn formed Son Volt, a band which made an immediate impact in 1995 with a stunning debut album Trace which got widespread critical acclaim. Meanwhile Tweedy stayed with the remaining members of Uncle Tupelo but he made a name change, turning them into Wilco - an outfit which was to eventually win two Grammy Awards and sell countless records.

The other band is Whiskeytown which formed in North Carolina in the same year that Uncle Tupelo packed it in! The band was fronted by Ryan Adams, a charismatic - if somewhat troubled - singer with punk influences. He attributed his conversion to alternative country to the influences of Gram Parsons, of the above- mentioned Flying Burrito Brothers. By the time Whiskeytown disbanded in 2000 - so Ryan could pursue what was to be a successful solo career - the group was receiving significant radio play and its alternative tag had somewhat morphed into mainstream.

The point of all this is that Farrar, Tweedy and Adams were, and remain, pivotal players in the Americana music scene, both as individual singer-songwriters and members of whatever formations they have been aligned to at any particular time.

But these individuals and their bands, pale in comparison to the one person who has done more than anyone  - Dylan, Cash, Haggard et al - to stitch together the various strands of country music.

That one individual is Emmylou Harris, above-mentioned as the inaugural recipient of the AMA Lifetime Achievement Award for Performance. As stated, the AMA could not have got it more right!

Universally liked by promoters, record executives and fans for being just a nice person, Harris turned 70 in April 2017. For almost 50 years, her talent as a singer, musician and songwriter has seeped into every strand that has ever emerged in country music -whether it be traditional, gospel, western, bluegrass, roots, alternative. You name it, Harris has been there.

The story goes she first came to the attention of Chris Hillman who spotted her singing in a DC folk club, circa 1971. He told his Flying Burrito Brothers buddy Gram Parsons, who was looking for a “chick singer” to enhance his solo career. The rest they say is history.

Emmylou and Gram’s partnership was sadly cut short by his untimely death. So they were never able to establish a truly memorable musical legacy.

But it did have two significant consequences. It quickly brought her to the attention of the major record companies and it exposed her to Gram’s exploratory journey through the roots of American country. After all, here was a musician who was bold enough to include a country-rock interpretation of Farther Along, a traditional gospel song, on the 1970 Flying Burrito Brothers album Burrito Deluxe.

When a major outfit - Warner Bros Records - eventually cut albums with Harris, her interpretative treatment of such a broad range of country music was simply astonishing. Trawl through any of the many albums she recorded in what is now regarded - and marketed - as the Warner Bros series and you will never cease to be amazed by the depth and breath of her work.

There are the songs of A.P.Carter ("Hello Stranger", the Louvin Brothers ("Everytime You Leave"), Chuck Berry ("You Never Can Tell/ C’est La Vie"), Dolly Parton ("To Daddy") through to Lennon & McCartney ("For No One"), Rodney Crowell ("Even Cowgirls Get The Blues") and, of course, Parsons/Hillman ("Sin City")

Under the stewardship of (one time) husband Brian Ahern - and backed by some of the best musicians in Nashville - Emmylou’s music was a breath of fresh air in the 70’s & 80’s. Here was rocking country music for the masses, not just in the U.S. but world-wide where she and the Hot Band performed to packed-out concert halls.

As her ageless career progressed, Emmylou’s output became a little more defined, with many themed albums - classic (Blue Kentucky Girl), bluegrass (Roses in the Snow), Christmas (Light in the Stable), gospel (Angel Band), concept (The Ballad of Sally Rose) etc!

Then there have been the countless collaborations - Dolly Parton and Linda Ronstadt (Trio albums), Mark Knopfler (All the Roadrunning), old Hot Band buddy Rodney Crowell (Old Yellow Moon, The Travelling Kind). Add to this, duets and backing vocals with some of the biggest names across many genres - Bob Dylan, John Denver, Roy Orbison, Don Williams, John Prine, Steve Earle and so on. 

And to cap it off, just listen to Emmylou and George Jones - the two finest voices in country  - duet on "All Fall Down".

This astounding foray across the various musical strands has netted her 13 Grammys, including Best Contemporary Folk album in 1995 for Wrecking Ball - seen as somewhat of an experimental work by Emmylou. It was the result of a collaboration with distinguished producer Daniel Lanois and once again broadened her appeal far beyond the Nashville City limits.

Perhaps the finest tribute to Emmylou came from Vince Gill, now an Eagle and surely the finest male voice in Nashville (now George has gone). At a tribute concert to Harris, in Washington, D.C., he remarked: “I’m grateful to Emmy for being such a great teacher, of showing us where we’ve been. We don’t have any idea of where we are going if we don’t know where we’ve been. And she’s been the most amazing teacher in showing all of us where this music came from.”

And Steve Earle - arguably the greatest living Americana songwriter - added at the same 2015 concert: "If you're a songwriter, you always wanted her to record one of your songs.”

Emmylou herself has at times entered the genre debate. During a concert at the Ryman in 2017, she made an off-the-cuff remark clearly intended to define one of the greatest US rockers: “One of my favourite country singer and songwriter is Bruce Springsteen.” The audience instantly got the subtle reference and applauded wildly before she launched into "Mansion on the Hill".

To understand how the Queen of Americana music had the creative freedom to span these musical horizons, and why various record companies and promoters were willing to share the risks involving in such musical exploration, you have to travel back in time to Texas.

In the early seventies - just when Emmylou was stepping out of an obscure DC folk club - two emerging country stars from Texas were breaking out of the shackles of the mainstream recording companies.

Willie Nelson worked as a Texas disc jockey while writing a number of songs which were to become country standards ("Funny How Time Slips Away", "Crazy" etc). He moved to Nashville in the 60’s and signed with RCA Victor in 1964. After moderate success over the next few years, he quit Nashville in 1972, returning to Texas where he settled in Austin, the Lone Star State’s music centre. 

A year later he switched to Atlantic Records and then in 1975, he joined Colombia Records. The reason: Colombia promised Willie, and manager Neil Reshen, two magic words:  creative control.

Reshen also had another another Texan big-name in Country music in his management stable. His name was Waylon Jennings. He, like Willie, had been signed by RCA but around this time, like his buddy, Waylon had become dissatisfied with the constraints the record company was imposing on his output. RCA had seen Willie go and there was no way they wanted Waylon to follow, so he too negotiated creative control.

“Neil Reshen changed the art of the deal in Nashville, effectively breaking the feudal system,” wrote Joe Nick Patoski in Willie Nelson: An Epic Life.

The result of this freedom was probably the two best country albums ever recorded - Waylon’s Honkey Tonk Heroes in 1973 and Willie’s Red Headed Stranger two year’s later. And it spawned yet another genre in country music - Outlaw!

The first thing Waylon did with his creative license was to get hold of another Texan in the music business, Billy Joe Shaver. Yes the same Billy Joe who was awarded the AMA’s inaugural Lifetime Achievement for Songwriting. How Shaver, virtually unknown, got to write, or co-write, all but one of the 10 tracks on Honky Tonk Heroes is a story in itself.

Suffice to say, Waylon used his afforded control to insist that Shaver’s brilliant, brooding songs be included on the album, co-produced by Nashville legend Tompall Glaser. The result was what was described as “Jennings’ artistic zenith.” If you are ever feeling down on your luck, just listen to Honky Tonk Heroes. All your sins will soon seem forgiven.

In 1975 came the blockbuster Red Headed Stranger. The arrangements were so sparse, so the story goes, that when Nelson played the finished recording to Columbia executives they thought it was a demo. It wasn’t and Willie wasn’t changing a thing. He had, after all, “creative control.” 
The single "Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain" was released before the album and became Willie’s first number one hit. It was just a sign of things to come. The album was to be certified multi-platinum and Red Headed Stranger has been listed number one in the 40 Greatest Albums in Country Music by the CMT cable channel.

Waylon and Willie were on their way to super-stardom and what they did with these two albums would reverberate throughout the music industry world-wide. Suddenly artists could be outlaws. Country music would never be the same.

In promoting his 2017 album, So You Wanna Be an Outlaw, Earle, yet another Texan, reflected, with Popmatters, on the influence of his outlaw heroes: 
“It was about the way records were getting made. The producers hired the band and that was the way it was done. And that was the way Willie and Waylon’s records had been made up until that point. And this was about them using their own bands - and they had good bands - and having control over what they recorded and recording their own material.”

So if it comes down to solving question three (yes the first two are far too hard) - What is Americana Music? - maybe the answer lies in the name of a single artist, someone who picked up the creative license pioneered by Waylon and Willie.

Pick anyone from a dozen or more?
Top of the list: Emmylou Harris.


Paul Cutler – Editor
Crossroads – Americana Music Appreciation


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