Americana: How the Genre Went Mainstream in the 2010s - Rolling Stone
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How Americana Went Mainstream in the 2010s

Once a niche genre, Americana music found a wider audience in the last decade with artists like the Lumineers, Mumford & Sons, and the Avett Brothers

Americana Music The Lumineers

The Lumineers were among the Americana artists who helped the genre go mainstream in the 2010s.

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No one ever knew what to call Mumford & Sons. The Guardian had already described them as “Coldplay reincarnated as hillbillies” by the time the group released their debut album in the U.S. in February 2010, a moment that garnered a slurry of descriptors: “foot-stomping British folk;” “skiffled Frames (nice banjo);” or, as this magazine wrote, “if Dexys Midnight Runners aged into boozy-pub session romantics.”

One word eventually stuck: Americana. The New York Times would describe the group as “Britons touched by Americana” later that year; a Spin cover story would soon declare them at the “forefront of a neo-Americana wave.”

The word “Americana” had been used as a musical term for more than a decade when Mumford & Sons broke out in 2010. In the late Nineties, the Americana Music Association formed in Nashville as a way to centralize promotion of the type of singer-songwriter and folk-based country music that had found itself without any proper commercial home as country music radio consolidated.

Just a few years after the founding of the Americana Music Association, the hobbyist radio format experienced an unlikely renaissance with the runaway success of 2001’s O Brother, Where Art Thou?, which featured roots pioneers like Ralph Stanley and John Hartford alongside their modern inheritors like Gillian Welch and Alison Krauss. In the late Aughts, the blooming folk-rock resurgence from artists like Welch, Avett Brothers, Kathleen Edwards, Old Crow Medicine Show, Conor Oberst, and the Felice Brothers helped increase the music’s critical visibility and grassroots momentum.

But the term Americana had never been attached to an act in the pop mainstream until Mumford & Sons were introduced to the States en masse in 2010. It was a perfect storm for the genre-in-the-making: two weeks before Sigh No More was released in the U.S., the Grammys awarded its first-ever award for the Best Americana Album (to Levon Helm’s Electric Dirt). The following year, Merriam-Webster added the musical term “Americana” (alongside words like “Tweet”) to its dictionary, defining it, however accurately, as “a genre of American music having roots in early folk and country music.”

Call it Genericana (as Jason Isbell once did) if you’d like. But over the past decade, the eternally-hard-to-define roots-music community has exploded into a low-overhead, commercially viable pop genre. It began the 2010s as a still-niche corner of Nashville’s music industry before transforming into a bona fide mainstream force that would heavily influence Top 40 pop and country, from dance-pop hitmakers like Avicii and Kesha to country juggernauts Chris Stapleton and Zac Brown Band. All the while, the past decade of Americana has served as a breeding ground for collaboration between generations, a space for torch-passing dialogues between legends like John Prine, Loretta Lynn, Mavis Staples and artists — Kacey Musgraves, Margo Price, Rhiannon Giddens, and Brandi Carlile — who are young enough to be their grandchildren.

The unexpected success of groups like Mumford & Sons and their compatriots the Lumineers and the Avett Brothers showed the rest of the music industry that there was a large audience for pop music presented with banjos, kickdrums, and rapidly-strummed acoustic guitars, and the Americana industry responded in kind. In 2010, the Emerging Artists of the Year nominees at the annual Americana Honors & Awards were small-time country/folk troubadours like Corb Lund, Joe Pug, and Sarah Jarosz; by 2011, Emerging Artists of the Year nominees the Civil Wars and Mumford & Sons sold more than two million equivalent albums combined.

The tale of Americana’s boom decade also mirrored the explosion of gentrification in the city of Nashville, which enjoyed a massive period of growth in its economy, development, and tourism over the past 10 years. By 2015, artists like Aaron Lee Tasjan were already parodying the inflated scene: “Americana bands and crack cocaine,” he sang on “E.N.S.A.A.T,” “Move out to East Nashville/And write a song about a train.”

But before it was getting parodied in song, the first few years of the decade produced a foundational artistic flourishing in East Nashville, with superb records by local artists like Caitlin Rose, Andrew Combs, Jonny Fritz and neighborhood legend Todd Snider all coming out within months of one another. By 2019, all of those artists had either left the neighborhood, fled the city altogether, paused their music careers, or became realtors in Los Angeles.

Mumford & Sons’ wave of Top 40 success never yielded the type of major-label banjo feeding frenzy that took place during the post-Nirvana grunge Nineties, according to John P. Strohm, the head of Nashville roots label Rounder Records; the post-piracy, pre-streaming recession-era labels simply didn’t have the money. But Mumford’s handclapping, stomp-and-holler sound paved the way for Americana as pop-adjacent, or at least mainstream-friendly. In December of 2012, the only artists with songs higher on the Hot 100 than the Lumineers (who scored a hit with “Ho Hey”) were Rihanna and Bruno Mars. Within a couple years of Mumford’s arrival, Top 40 titans like Imagine Dragons were mining their sonic template, Kesha and Pitbull were smuggling a blues-rock harmonica riff to the top of the charts, and Avicii was enlisting Oh Brother, Where Art Thou? mainstay Dan Tyminski to sing on his EDM records.

The success of pop-roots music also helped solidify the folk-strumming aesthetic as a goldmine for syncs and commercials and showed institutions like the Americana Music Association, whose stated goal is to promote the viability of roots music, that their project was working.

Marcus Mumford also played a central role in Inside Llewyn Davis, the 2012 film that served as T Bone Burnett’s Oh Brother, Where Art Thou? roots music reboot with the Coen Brothers. The film, and its accompanying concert movie Another Day, Another Time, used A-listers like Justin Timberlake, Oscar Isaac, Jack White, and Mumford to spotlight a slew of the ensuing decade’s emerging Americana stars like the Punch Brothers and Rhiannon Giddens (the Town Hall concert served as an industry launching pad for the latter’s solo career).

But after the short-lived Top 40 boom from 2011 to 2014, by the middle of the decade Americana had largely reoriented toward roots-steeped singer-songwriters like Shakey Graves, Sarah Jarosz, Sturgill Simpson, and Jason Isbell, whom GQ coined the “The King of Americana” in 2016. At the same time, Americana sought to broaden its boundaries, incorporating rootsy up-and-comers like Leon Bridges and Alabama Shakes as the genre increasingly claimed lineages like blues and R&B in its ever-expanding definition. “If you can taste the dirt through your ears, that is Americana,” said AMA president Jed Hilly, in a comment as commercially convenient as it was meaningless, in 2016.

Perhaps no moment of the past 10 years better illustrated the increasingly thorny racial and genre politics of Americana than emerging country star Chris Stapleton’s viral 2015 CMA Awards performance with secret 2010s Americana influencer Justin Timberlake. In a concentrated dose of blue-eyed Americana interpolation of black musical traditions that could launch a dozen American Studies dissertations, the duo performed the former’s rendition of George Jones’ “Tennessee Whiskey” set to an Etta James melody before segueing into Timberlake’s 20/20 Experience pop rendering of Memphis soul. The following year, after he had taken his Seventies country-rock-soul to the top of the Country Charts, Chris Stapleton was named Artist of the Year at the Americana Music Awards.

Stapleton’s christening as a hybrid Americana/country music superstar coincided with a larger resurgence and renaissance of Seventies country sounds halfway through the decade. Retro stylists Margo Price and Sturgill Simpson were concurrently thrust into the national spotlight, with each honky-tonk inheritor debuting on Saturday Night Live within less than a year of each other. Artists like Simpson and his Kentucky counterpart Tyler Childers, both Americana stalwarts who’d surely reject that designation, earned major label deals based on the word-of-mouth success of their old-school country records. Albums like Stapleton’s Traveller and Simpson’s Metamodern Sounds in Country Music provided the industry with an unexpected slow-burning success, selling hundreds of thousands of copies.

In 2018, Hollywood turned its eyes to Americana for the Lady Gaga blockbuster A Star Is Born. Bradley Cooper played a withered roots-rock troubadour whose theme song was written by Isbell, while Brandi Carlile and Lukas Nelson both appeared in the film. The musical mastermind behind the forging of those worlds was Dave Cobb, who served as the film’s musical consultant and its soundtrack producer after becoming the most in-demand Americana producer of the decade based on his success with Isbell and Stapleton.

That same year, John Prine-worshipping two-time Americana Award nominee Kacey Musgraves burst into the mainstream with Golden Hour, earning a big-tent pop fanbase and winning the Album of the Year at the Grammys. Despite Americana’s increased mainstream viability, by 2018 Musgraves was just the most high-profile of an entire legion of country/folk-rooted singer-songwriters trying to turn away from what they perceived to be the overly strict ideological confines of the genre. “Though I love Americana and roots music, it feels like there’s a contest sometimes with how country or traditionalist you can prove yourself to be,” she said in 2018.

Talk to most any Nashville-based singer-songwriter who had been making country-inspired “Americana” records earlier this decade, and they’ll likely tell you something similar: Americana’s narrow confines became too limiting; dressing up as a troubadour cowboy began to feel like a ruse; artists felt an increasing desire to explore the full breadth of their artistic influences. Acts like John Moreland and Dawes began experimenting with more varied sonic textures; others, like Caroline Rose, Brittany Howard, and Leon Bridges, turned to different genres outright (synth-pop, Prince-indebted rock, and contemporary R&B, respectively).

What might the 2020s bring, then, for Americana? Despite its artist defectors and skeptics, the community ended the decade on a thriving note, with newly-minted superstars like Brandi Carlile selling out Madison Square Garden days after becoming the 2019 Artist of the Year at the Americana Honors. Meanwhile, fast-rising up-and-comers like Yola and J.S. Ondara continue to show a fresh, more musically and representationally varied path forward for the community. The former garnered a Best New Artist nomination at the Grammys based on the strength of her idiosyncratic pop-roots pastiche debut Walk Through Fire; the latter brings an intangibly global perspective to his coffeehouse folk.

In 2017, several years before she would become one of the genre’s brightest newcomers, Yola talked about diversity of sonic expression being key to the genre’s long-term sustainability. “The easiest thing to happen would be for people to react to the success of a certain artist and go: we can just do what they’re doing; let’s just breed these artists, 50,000 times over,” she told Rolling Stone. “As awesome as Chris Stapleton is, having difference is important. That’s the strength of the genre, is the great sense of varying styles.”

Americana’s “saving grace,” she continued, is “it not turning into one single genre where you wear plaid and play guitar music where it’s basically indie rock with a pedal steel. Dusty roads and trains, it’s always about those trains,” she laughed, recalling a decade of Mumford knockoffs dressed up as dusty Depression-era play-actors singing about freight-train hopping. “The trains, guys, chill out about trains!”

Mumford & Sons have struggled themselves with their relationship to music about proverbial dusty roads and trains. In 2015, the band went electric, trying their best to sound like the National on Wilder Mind, a move that earned a lukewarm response (and resulted in the group being excluded from the emerging British Americana chart). By the time Mumford returned to an ever-so-slightly more roots-friendly approach on 2018’s Delta (a release that they promoted by returning to Americana strongholds like the Americana Honors and the Newport Folk Festival), the musical moment and movement had mostly passed them by: To date, the quartet’s most recent record is their only release to not be certified Gold in the U.S. How did the band that began the decade jumpstarting the pop commercialization of Americana end their decade? By playing an alt-rock radio station’s holiday concert alongside Cage the Elephant and Jimmy Eat World.

But just before that, the group gave fans one final 2010s nod to their boots-and-banjo past, releasing the Sigh No More Sessions, a five-song EP commemorating the 10th anniversary of the album’s British release, this past October.

“Looking back and seeing what we actually wore…the whole thing was a bit of a joke to us,” Mumford said of the band’s heavily-branded folk/Americana aesthetic. “None of us thought this would go very far, we were just having a laugh.”

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