Inside the Americana Genre’s Identity Crisis
In June of 2015, Rosanne Cash performed at Dockery Farms, an early 20th-century Mississippi Delta sharecropping cotton plantation – recognized as one of the foundational birthplaces of the blues – that’s now a popular site for tourists wanting to soak up some blues history.
After her headlining performance, Cash approached “Cadillac” John Nolden, a local 88-year-old blues harmonica player who had been enlisted to perform at Cash’s Dockery afterparty. “When I was behind the mule in the cotton fields back in the Fifties,” he told Cash, “we had a radio on the porch and whenever your daddy [Johnny Cash] came on the radio we all ran out of the fields to gather around and listen.”
“I started crying,” says Cash, recalling the encounter two years later. “It was like this lightning bolt of connection.”
But despite the revelatory moment, Cash is still unsettled about one aspect of her Dockery performance. “This man has been playing the blues harp his whole life and I owe what I’m doing to him and, yet, I’m getting all the attention,” she says. “It just struck me so profoundly how much we need to honor him and his tradition.”
Rosanne Cash’s experience at Dockery is illustrative of both the incredible potential for cross-cultural connection, as well as the subtle racial tensions and profound power dynamics at play in the world of roots – or Americana – music, a genre that in the last few years has become a commercially viable format in the pop marketplace.
To coincide with this year’s 18th Annual AmericanaFest, a six-day conference and music festival held in Nashville every year, Rolling Stone Country spoke with more than a dozen musicians, industry professionals, label executives and music historians about the state of Americana music in 2017.
With flagship artists like Jason Isbell and Chris Stapleton earning CMA Awards nominations and Number One country albums as they blur the lines between commercial country music and its singer-songwriter-based alternative, Americana has more mainstream visibility than ever before.
But the Americana music machine, which in many ways still exists as a niche artistic subset of Nashville’s country-music industry, is still fine-tuning its identity as an evolving musical community, an industry format and an umbrella musical genre.
Much of the inherent tension comes from what some see as the growing chasm between the reality of Americana’s close connections to Music Row and the community’s insistence on selling itself not as any sort of rebellious extension of the country music industry but, rather, as an all-encompassing “amalgam of different cultures and multiple races,” as Americana Music Association executive director Jed Hilly puts it. According to the organization’s website, Americana music is a sweeping, all-inclusive home for a wide range of American roots styles that include “country, roots-rock, folk, bluegrass, R&B and blues.”
“Americana is and always was an umbrella term,” says Craig Havighurst, senior producer at Nashville’s Music City Roots, a regular Americana radio and web showcase. “It’s an industry category and a commercial radio format that has grown to include the big half-dozen or so American roots genres.”
As one of its touchstone artists, Rosanne Cash is deeply grateful, if not downright effusive, when she talks about Americana. “It was like finding this really cool island that you tell all your friends about because the hotel is great and the weather is always sunny,” she says of first stumbling upon the genre during its turn-of-the-century infancy.
Yet it takes only a few minutes of conversation for Cash to bring up what she sees as the community’s greatest shortcoming.
“The Americana community needs to embrace more black musicians,” she says, unprompted. “That’s the one area where I feel it should really strive to be even more inclusive. I, for one, wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing if there wasn’t some black musician who had suffered in the South. That needs to be honored, and if amends need to be made, they need to be made.
“If the Milk Carton Kids and Van Morrison and William Bell can co-exist under the same umbrella,” Cash continues, “then I think that some deeper blues artists could come under that umbrella as well.”
While the upper tiers of the Americana format have become a haven for roots-leaning artists of color of different generations – encompassing blues singer Keb’ Mo’, soul legend Mavis Staples, roots revivalist Rhiannon Giddens, the Mavericks frontman Raul Malo, and singer-songwriter Alejandro Escovedo – the demographic makeup of this year’s AmericanaFest puts the community’s representational dynamics in stark relief. A cursory search of the festival’s lineup points to a startling disparity: of the roughly 300 artists listed in this year’s AmericanaFest roster, more than 90 percent of the acts are made up of exclusively white performers.
“There should always be more people of color, and more women, and, especially now, more radically-minded people on stages.” – Alynda Segarra
For a musical community that lays claim to the racially heterogeneous traditions of Southern roots music, such an imbalance has been even more glaring throughout the history of the Americana Honors & Awards, a ceremony in which artists receive membership-voted awards in categories like Album, Group and Emerging Artist of the Year. While the AMA regularly hands out lifetime achievement awards to a diverse group of musicians, there have been only two occasions in which an act led by an artist of color have won any of the six voted-upon categories since the first Americana awards in 2002: the Mavericks, in 2015, for Best Duo/Group; and the Alabama Shakes, in 2012, for Emerging Artist of the Year.
This year’s Album of the Year Nominations – which pit industry veterans like Rodney Crowell and Drive-By Truckers against commercial heavyweight Sturgill Simpson and genre-defying upstarts like Rhiannon Giddens and Hurray for the Riff Raff – is perhaps the most diverse set of nominees for a major award category the Americana Honors have ever seen, a fact the organization is quick to point to as evidence of the progress it’s made with regards to inclusion.
“We take that work as seriously as anybody,” says Hilly. “And actually, we’re doing that work. Look at our awards show. Clearly we are doing that work and think it’s important. Is diversity an issue? I think the reflection of the nominations of who our membership has acknowledged has been based purely on artistic integrity and it shouldn’t be based on anything else, so whatever we’re doing is working.”
Some members and observers of the Americana industry challenge the talking point that artistic quality alone is the sole factor in determining what music gets elevated and celebrated within the community.
“The most insidious part of American racial politics, music industry or otherwise, is the part that says that race doesn’t matter,” says Charles L. Hughes, author of Country Soul, a history of Sixties Southern roots music that upends widely-conceived notions of Stax and Muscle Shoals as interracial utopias. “Americana is very directly tapping into that mythology.”
Many younger artists would like to see the community take a more active, and perhaps deliberate, stand in trying to confront the plethora of structural problems – including questions of audience demographics and commercial consumer preferences – in a musical format whose rhetoric of inclusion often belies its close ties to the segregated Nashville music industry.
“The way I think about white privilege, or straight privilege, is that you can say as much as you want that you’re giving opportunity to everybody, but even if people have the best of intentions, you’re not giving up your white privilege unless you give up your position of power to someone in a minority or marginalized group,” says Alex Caress, a gay Nashville singer-songwriter who performs under the moniker Little Bandit and is appearing at this year’s festival.
For some performers, the current national political climate has brought these issues of representation, power and inclusion to the forefront. “From Americana music to the Google headquarters, so many organizations are trying to figure out how to diversify their employee base and it’s difficult. It’s something that requires commitment from the top down,” says Kaia Kater, a Canadian folk-roots singer-songwriter who is performing at AmericanaFest for the second year in a row and has been pleasantly surprised by how warmly she’s been embraced by Americana in recent years. “It is a lot of work, and it happens slowly and deliberately.”
Traci Thomas, a founding member of the AMA who manages Jason Isbell, John Moreland and St. Paul & the Broken Bones, sees Americana music first and foremost as an overwhelmingly inclusive, progressive community.
“The whole point of this format is that there aren’t really borders. It’s inclusive instead of being exclusive, as long as it comes from a place of purity. That’s what it’s all about: purity, honesty and integrity,” she says, offering that the genre sometimes co-opts artists they feel fit that mold.
“Sometimes we like to embrace people and put their stamp on it whether they like it or not,” Thomas says. “I don’t know that Mumford & Sons consider themselves Americana, but of course the community likes to attach themselves to them sometimes.”
Some feel, however, that the genre isn’t putting its stamp on enough minorities.
“No matter what, there should always be more people of color, and more women, and, especially now, more radically-minded people on stages,” says Alynda Segarra of Hurray for the Riff Raff, who will be performing at Wednesday night’s Americana Honors. “That’s something that needs to change with all festivals, and I can help anybody if they want that. I have a never-ending list of incredible artists who happen to be Latin and who are making amazing music right now. But even though I like to be hard on people and push for more, I do understand that the vibe of this country for people who have not been directly affected changed very rapidly, so now it’s time to play catch up.”
This year’s AmericanaFest has indeed attempted to address these evolving concerns, in part, with a series of panel discussions surrounding identity and a star-studded kickoff concert – dubbed “The People Sing!” – featuring artists like the Blind Boys of Alabama, Billy Bragg and Rev. Sekou that “gives public expression to rebels, dissenters and visionaries to educate and inspire a new generation of people working for social justice.”
“Americana” first came to fashion as a descriptive musical phrase in the mid-Nineties, when a group of radio promoters and industry outsiders dispersed throughout Nashville, California and Texas sought to carve out a distinct marketplace for a wave of traditionally minded songwriters like Guy Clark, Darrell Scott and Jim Lauderdale, artists whose work was no longer being served by a country music industry riding high on Garth Brooks and Shania Twain. Americana, notes Kaia Kater, was “formed from the rib of country music.”
Tamara Saviano, a former President of the Americana Music Association who is currently writing a book that traces the history of Americana, fondly recalls the symbolism of the first-ever Americana Awards ceremony: Johnny Cash and June Carter performing in a hotel ballroom for some 200 people while, across the street, George Strait played to an arena crowd of 20,000. At the 2016 Awards, George Strait was onstage at the Ryman honoring Jim Lauderdale.
In its early days, most artists resisted the Americana label for fear of being pigeonholed in the commercial marketplace. The late Al Bunetta, John Prine’s longtime manager, famously remarked that Americana was “the only genre with more artists than fans.”
Much has changed since Bunetta’s proclamation. Americana music has earned its own Grammy category, Billboard chart and an official definition in Merriam-Webster, which defines the music more narrowly than its main practitioners: “a genre of American music having roots in early folk and country music.”
For the many artists who make country music but don’t fit the current trends on country radio, the Americana format still effectively and wonderfully serves the same purpose that it served 20 years ago. “Commercial country is just male-dominated and formulaic and there’s really no opportunity, so I’m so grateful that Americana exists,” says country singer-songwriter Angaleena Presley.
But for others, Americana’s close connection to old-fashioned country music isn’t necessarily something to be celebrated.
“These heroes are not my heroes,” says Alynda Segarra, who has undergone an artistic rebirth as of late, embracing her Puerto Rican identity after spending her early career idolizing classic country music.
“Loretta Lynn loves [President] Trump, and I know it’s a very unpopular thing to hold her to that, because she’s a legend, but I’m holding her to that,” Segarra continues. “She is standing for a very evil person who is coming after my people and encouraging violence against us. So, that is the hard part in the world of Americana.”
Lynn, who suffered a stroke in May, performed at an Americana Music Association event this past spring and received a lifetime achievement honor from the organization in 2014.
Since its inception, the Americana music industry has struggled with its foundational paradox: a group of tightly connected Nashville music professionals laying claim to the entirety of American roots music, or at the very least, Southern roots music. Nearly 20 years later, the question of what gets defined as Americana, and more importantly, who gets to define what’s under that umbrella, remains.
The first time Keb’ Mo’ stumbled upon Americana, in 2011, he says, “it literally looked like, ‘This is where all the country people who are not right-wing Christian Republicans can go.'” (Indeed, a favorite joke around Nashville is that Americana is “country music for Democrats.”) Six years later, Keb’ Mo’ has come to greatly appreciate Americana’s ever-broadening scope, and today he’s become one of the community’s foremost spokespersons, serving on its board of directors and naming his 2014 album BluesAmericana.
Keb’ Mo’, however, is one of several artists who would love to see Americana expand its definition of American roots music even further. He hopes to one day see jazz and even hip-hop performed at the Americana Honors.
“My hope is that it becomes a place where you can go to the Americana Awards show and it’s just purely about music and no categories,” he says. His vision of Americana’s future, in other words, is one where the community’s meritocratic aspirations catches up to the present state of Americana, in which a rather narrow strand of American roots – namely, Seventies-influenced country-rock – still maintains an overwhelming dominance over the format.
“Hip-hop is as old as outlaw country,” says Charles Hughes. “The black music incorporated by Americana stops at about 1972.”
“Americana being an umbrella term gives it the breadth that it needs to exist without it being strangled into one genre, and that, I think, is its saving grace,” says Yola Carter, before offering up a humorous explanation of the way in which Americana music’s thematic proclivities can, at times, run the risk of being as easily parodied as bro-country songs about trucks. “Otherwise,” she says, “it could turn into one single genre in which I wear plaid and play guitar music, which is basically indie rock with pedal steel, and sing about dusty roads and trains. Chill out about trains!”
Tamara Saviano wonders if that particular train has already left the station, noting the ways in which the Americana industry has become consolidated to the point that it’s started to resemble the country music machine that it once set out to defy 20 years ago.
“It all goes back to who’s connected,” says Saviano. “Let’s just say you’re a young artist, and you consider yourself an Americana artist, and you’re out touring and doing your own thing, but you’re not on the Americana radio chart. Well, that might be because you can’t afford to hire a radio programmer who works the Americana chart. In some ways it’s like we’ve created the very beast that was the reason we started Americana.”