What do you get for the genre that has everything?
The best music takes on a life of its own, but it’s important for fans to ensure it doesn’t become a shut-in. Consider rock and roll's recent slide in popularity (to some extent at the hands of the banjo). Rock may yet rise again, but let's examine its current wreckage for clues that our the home of Americana music doesn't collapse just as tragically.
Americana music has been fortunate with its evolution from those Tupelo boys (or the newgrassers, depending on your point of view) through the Coen Brothers’ boost, to the recent burst of young hitmakers. Through it all, the genre has nurtured an iconoclastic bunch of lifers while continually finding couches and floor space for guests and acolytes alike.
But as the tide has begun to recede a bit, it's important to remember the things that have sustained the community to this point, like continued focus on legacy artists and songs, diaphanous boundaries that allow plenty of room for experimentation and exploration, and the cross-pollination of younger and older artists. These things disappeared from rock over time, with its wide divides between aging superstars and insurgent acts, cycling generic genre-driven hitmakers, trend-chasing legacy acts and diminishing underground “gentrification.” The Who now have a Vegas residency, U2 is reprising a 30-year old album, and R.E.M. has given up the ghost. Meanwhile, Tom Petty and the Foo Fighters are holding out like Bowie and Travis at the Alamo.
In the Americana world, sensations like Lana Del Rey, Lumineers, Alabama Shakes, and Mumford & Sons have already begun to hug the horizon line in the rear view mirror. These artists (and the Civil Wars) landed six albums in 2012’s Billboard Top 100 albums. By 2014, there were just four Americana albums among the Top 100, then three and two the past two years. Last year’s Lumineers follow-up, Cleopatra, failed to crack the top 50, and Mumford & Sons’ third release, 2015’s Wilder Mind, stalled at number 33. If the commercial market is lately not as welcoming toward Americana as it is of barely cogent cowboy anthems about Friday night and cute girls, at least the dissipation of rock music has ceded large expanses of what was once Adult Contemporary and AAA (Adult Album Alternative) to our crew. Old punk rockers (Chuck Prophet, Alejandro Escovedo, John Doe, Nick Lowe) have been gravitating toward Americana for years, making music for grownups.
Of course, there’s little doubt why Americana’s deep heritage and humble, down-home intimations appealed to the punk generation, who began their careers seeking authenticity amidst our culture’s Vegas strip of advertisers and brands on the make. Americana's lack of pretense is summed up whenever someone calls it “folk” music, and its traditions transcend boundaries, despite often being of a particular place or time (Celtic folk, murder ballads, Southern soul).
For that, we can credit the work of archivists like John and Alan Lomax, as well as organizations such as Folk Alliance International, Americana Music Association, and the International Bluegrass Music Asssociation with helping knit these disparate strains into an historical tapestry. This codified web of connections has created a kind of Welcome Center where newcomers can explore the genre’s far-flung array of influences and styles. Thus, Americana’s tradition has provided structure and mooring without getting too caught up in rules. It has allowed room for bluegrass, for example, to pass from Bil Monroe and Ralph Stanley, through Sam Bush and Béla Fleck, to Chris Thile and Sara Watkins, picking up new generations of followers with each iteration as it has continued to grow and evolve.
Americana’s musical traditions are also built around an appreciation of the song as much as the songwriter. Rock’s preoccupation with authorship as a sign of authenticity contributed to the decay of its mandate. This goes beyond Led Zeppelin’s repurposing of other artists’ work and to the limiting idea that an artist’s power is bound up in who they are, not what they do. Admittedly, it’s probably much easier to market a brand than the band’s actual product, but I’d take any of Bettye LaVette’s releases over Aerosmith’s last half-dozen albums. Not only did rock's preference for originality ding overall quality, but new artists grew less inclined to pay homage to their musical heroes (and vice-versa), thus increasing the generational divide. (The Neil Young/Pearl Jam collaboration was the exception to the rule.)
An additional benefit of cherishing song over songwriter is that it affords respect to interpreters and great singers who climb on the backs of great writers to take the art further than either could go on their own. Rock realized this early on, bootstrapping on the talent of artists like Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley, before leaving the legends behind to focus on the (white) kids.
Americana, meanwhile, benefits from its big tent. It’s best for everyone involved when there’s room to move around and experiment (without forsaking their audience) as Jeff Tweedy has done, as did Bob Dylan before him. To boot, embracing a panoply of American musical experiences –blues, folk, soul, greasy rock, jump jazz, and piano pop – with plenty of local stops in between, Americana is like a writer’s camp whose familial collegiality helps it avoid the backbiting bitchiness of the other cabins. The kinship is nutures is attributable to this shared sense of history.
Where rock and other forms are notoriously male-centric, Americana has gathered probably the most formidable lineup of strong, distinctive women artists of any genre on earth including Rhiannon Giddens, Alynda Lee Segarra, Shelby Lynne, Alison Moorer, Brandi Carlile, Gillian Welch, Allison Krauss, Neko Case, Tift Merritt, and Eilen Jewell, to name a few. And, as great artists and acts keep multiplying, the genre's legacy only deepens. Respected, pedigreed combos like Drive-By Truckers and the Steeldrivers have shed members, only for Chris Stapleton and Jason Isbell to find greater success on their own. That vibrancy is amplified by the long bench of still-vital elders like Emmylou Harris, Willie Nelson, Mavis Staples, Ray Wylie Hubbard, Robert Plant, Billy Joe Shaver, Lyle Lovett, Bonnie Raitt, Lucinda Williams, Patty Griffin, John Hiatt, and others. Their continued dedication to the craft – instead of a determination to coast on past efforts – enriches the genre’s back catalog and spurs more collaboration and imitation.
Make no mistake, integrity, authenticity, and distinctiveness are much easier to safeguard when money’s not showering from above, but the challenge remains retaining the humble, communal elements that resonate so broadly while affording the weirdoes and newcomers wide berths. Like our neighborhoods and cultural diet, or music will be rewarded by cultivating diversity, visibility, and variety. Americana wins when it intermingles with a vibrant, sustainable musical heritage that highlights our connections and sustains our traditions.