Discussion

How do you define Americana music?

When I am asked to define Americana Music, here is what I say.

“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."

How do you define AMERICANA MUSIC?

I took a whack at this subject a while back, as have many others. For whatever it's worth here's a link to that discussion: www.nodepression.com/profiles/blogs/pet-peeve-the-term-americana

And for whatever it's worth, from that discussion, here's the definition that Rob Bleetstein had in mind when he coined the term "Americana music".  Obviously his original use of the term morphed out of control thereafter, hence discussions like yours and mine! 

Comment by Rob Bleetstein on January 12, 2011 at 1:57am
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When asked 'what is it?"  I always liked to refer to it as "every element of country music that you no longer hear on country radio." outside of Jamey Johnson these days of course. But my motivation back in 1995 was to just get the music we love on the radio as the country format continually spiraled into hell and the artists we loved had no real outlet. It could've easily been the alt.country format and alt. country chart, but by '95, the word alternative was used and abused.  So we needed something and Americana is what stuck. Call it whatever you want, as long the music is good and being made and people get off on it, that's what matters.

I really like Jim M's analysis. For me, Americana music is a broad category that is uniquely "American" since in some way it all can be traced back to songs played by workers in the fields or hills in the 19th Century in the Mississippi valley and coal country. The instruments started with banjers, dobros, and small drums that had their roots in Africa, and traditional European folk instruments like fiddle and accordion that came across with transplanted immigrants; the music gradually took on new forms in churches and taverns. Gospel, blues, and country folk music all evolved for the most part from slaves, miners, and other itinerant workers. With time, IMHO these forms refined themselves as individual writers crafted memorable songs within the genres, adding to the traditional catalog. Subtle differences based on geographical area and song styles, and  gradually changed rural blues morphed into bluegrass, country, folk, and eventually rock music, plugging in some of the instruments in the process but still centered on strings, percussion, and basic melodies-often based on pentatonic blues scales and three or four chords, most unwritten.

I think a whole lot of music fits this description, but I don't get an Americana vibe from most jazz music, electronica, hip hop/rap, progressive rock, and hard/metal rock without a blues base. Like someone said, you know it when you hear it: Rory Gallagher: yes, King Crimson: no. The Band: yes, Spiro Gyra-no. In another thread I posted that Bob Dylan is my favorite all time roots/Americana artist, and you can hear almost every flavor of Americana in his music, from traditional to folk, blues, rock, folk rock, and even bluegrass and gospel.     

Jim, I like your description - I won't use the word 'definition' because I, too, believe it is difficult to put to words. You referenced the exlusion of "most big label artists and artists that are not popular or mainstream" and I think this is a key factor. Certainly, Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash are household names and their ties to Americana cannot be denied. Truth be told, I have enjoyed the migration of several R&R heavyweights that have come to roost in the genre - Robert Plant, Peter Wolf and Elvis Costello are some of the most recognizable. Even John Mellencamp's last release "No Better Than This" is straight-line Americana. But it is the artists that live comfortably in this genre while teetering on the fringe of any one of the ingredient genres that are the trailblazers and true definers. No matter how we offer a definition, it always needs to be qualified with "I'll know it when I hear it."

To me Americana music is music that has as it's core the music that developed in the South at the end of Vaudeville. That's when cinema killed Vaudeville and before Southern music split into Country, Blues, Jazz.

The reason I say Southern music is because in that time frame Northern performers continued to play dance hall music geared more towards the  Broadway style of show music.

 

 

The more I think about this issue, the more I realize how hokey and non-descriptive the term "Americana" is.  I like "roots" or "roots fusion", though we will never satisfy our "unelightened" (and impatient) friends who want a simple one or two word description of what kind of music Leftover Salmon or Holy Ghost Tent Revival play.

 I think Americana is folk based to rock, it needs to have an edge to it usually, alt/country/acoustic music, a very broad based category, including artists from all over the world, usually out of main stream, excluding most big label artists,  and artists that are not popular or main stream, would not include traditional bluegrass music, a lot of Americana is fusion type music which includes many parts of different genres, like funk and folk or something punk with some bluegrass influences. Honestly, I don't know how an artist is put in the Americana Music label, just some observations.

There was a good article on the AMA and Americana music genre by Barry Mazor in Wall Street Journal on September 18.  The article quoted John Fulbright on his definition of "Americana"

"Americana isn't techno-pop done on a Casio keyboard; it's people playing wooden instruments, electric guitar included, and singing songs that they wrote—living, breathing music from our roots. That's what I like".

 

I couldn't say it any better.   Here is article

 

http://online.barrons.com/article/SB10001424127887324123004579054983538924984.html

Great discussion here, as well as the prior ND discussions going back to 2009.  It is clear that folks have thought a lot about the issue and really care about their music.  The conclusions I come away from all the discussions are:

(1)  there will never be a universal definition of "Americana"

(2)  the existence of the AMA and Americana radio shows probably gives independent music artists some useful exposure.  this is the general theme of a music trade publication that basically said Americana is a "big tent" definition that helps bring attention to a wide range of artists deserving recognition.

  (3)  a lot of folks agree that Americana may be a definition of exclusion:  we know what does not belong under the tent

  (4)  "roots music" is probably as useful a description

  (5)  we may never be able to explain to our friends in a couple of words what type of music Sam Bush band or Railroad Earth play

(6)  folks like The Band, whose music might have been the first to be labeled "Americana" by the music press, were important to the development of Americana

(7) the musicians do not care what their music is called

 

I agree. You might say almost any musical artist that was influenced by Dylan is working in the so-called Americana genre, at least with some of their music.

This topic got kicked around on the posting: "The Unofficial Americana Nominations According to ND Readers" where there were some interesting points made starting on p. 2. Check it out.

Americana music is like a river.

I used to say Americana was rock with  at least some country/folk instrumentation. Mandolin, Banjo, Fiddle....

Today I would have to define Americana by what it's not.

It's not Rap.

It's not mainstream popular.

It's not music whose bands can fill a 30,000 seat stadium, but they might fill a 2,000 seat theater. More likely, a bar with a fire code limit of 150 people. But they WILL play their hearts out in front of 5 fans.

It's not easy to find , especially on the radio, but when you do, you can mine a vein of gold for quite a while.

It's never had a "Boy Band"

It's not Country Joe McDonald. No jeers please, I had all the Fish LP's.  1-2-3 what r we fightin' for, don't ask me I don't give a damn , next stop  Afghanistan.

AMERICANA IS COUNTRY DICK MONTANA !!   R.I.P.

It's not a fad. It's a long term passion. For people stretching from Appalachia in the 1800's, to every small town or large city today. It may have ingredients from  the  music of countries all over the world, but it could only have been stewed and brewed here, in America.

Though there have been similar discussions on this issue on ND in the past, it is still relevant to me for a couple of reasons.  The first issue can be illustrated by an example.  A public radio blues show deejay friend of mine was asking me the other day to tell him what kind a music was played by a band I had just heard in concert.  Knowing that the friend is a deejay who slides funk , gospel, and rock into the playlist, I started to give the usual detailed answer about the types of music the band played.  It was a no go.   He just wanted a one or two word description.  He is a dear friend but should know better.  This is the problem we "educated" observers run into in all the time at social gatherings:  what kind of music does that band play?

 

The second issue is that the rage in roots music festivals for the last few years has been bands that use different combinations of accoustic and electric  instruments and, in some cases, play long jamband songs that include a lot of rock music features.  Just a couple of examples might be Sam Bush's band, Leftover Salmon, and Railroad Earth.  Sometimes the songs are 4 minutes; other times they might be an Allman or Dead style 12 minute jam.   

 

The problem is that in our short sound bite world, there is no good single term that describes the unique combinations of bands out there in the roots music world.  I used to use the term "Americana" until I realized that I could not explain exactly what it means.  This makes  it is hard to define the boundaries.  If the bondaries are not clear, too many styles are included and the definition becomes even more useless.

 

My first attempt was to define Americana as "songs about people, places, and events, performed mostly with roots music instruments".  I'm not sure this helps as it might rule out roots rock and electric blues, but maybe by exclusion it takes classical, jazz, funk, reggae, current rock, and today's country out of the mix.  In my mind the New Traditional country artists of the 1980's (Strait, Skaggs, Randy Travis, early Reba) might qualify as well as country music up to the time  the awful Nashville Sound came on the scene. I think it could include what Bob Seger called "Old Time Rock and Roll" from any era, as long as it still has the "Roll" that was influenced by blues, gospel, country boogie.  Here I would include Springteen, the Stones, Petty, Mellencamp, etc.  but not Nirvana.  Clearly this is a matter of personal taste. 

Using the "I'll know it when I hear it" definition of Americana, I think we could clearly include The Band, Grateful Dead, and Dave Alvin as charter members of a pure Americana genre.  Brother Levon was Americana right to the end.  Beyond that, you end up using terms like "roots", "roots fusion", "traditonal plus" (Doc Watson term) or other variations to try to describe the music but even these are not adequate.  "Alt country" is another term some folks have used but that term is too limiting. 

 

In short, there may not be a single term to describe the music of ND and similar enterprises, and with all the variations of music under this big tent, it may not be necessary.  What we all seem to be getting to is that the term "Americana" is no better than the others.  The good news is that the artists generally don't care about and fans of each genre, with one notable exception, are very open minded about the musicians who are included in their category.  It reminds me of the wonderful spirit of Louisiana musicians of many genres who love to get together at a festival or back porch and play those great songs.     

That's right.  Well said.  Americana music has emotional realism.  The feelings expressed in an Americana genre song aren't tame, by comparison to folk music, in general.  

The lyric is more important than the tune, where rock music is just the opposite, again, in generalities. 

And Country music has become part of the star maker machinery (thanks Joni), where Americana music doesn't have a formula or commerciality, like Country generally does. 

Americana is where Rock meets Country meets Folk, with a little Blues thrown into the mix for flavor. To me Americana sits out on the fringe of mainstream, along with Outlaw. It is one of the most expressive genres of music in existence, where feelings can override pure talent, and anything goes.

Bob Dylan.

Hi, Harry, well there are the relatively obvious ones, that have made an impact over there, like Kasey Chambers and Shane Nicholson, and Kasey's dad, Bill. There is a wonderful NZ band called The Eastern, a singer songwriter originally from NZ but currently living in Melbourne, Donna Dean, she's a member on here and about to tour the Southern US. others include, Tiny Ruins, Into the East, Delany Davidson & Marlon Williams, Flip Grater, Jess Chambers .. the list really does go on and on!

This one from The Eastern, with images of Christchurch, NZ in ruins after the earthquake that devastated it 2 years ago:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X8bNzibtcVk

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ekrxqtJvxW0

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jnqc4falhGk

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M6Oc85YV0io

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kPbvqJ1xROE

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lwcASWX-bt4

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JHVqWmBmCX4

... and that really is just a tiny taste!

Hi Jamie,

Who are some of the Kiwi or Aussie bands with an Americana flair, that you like and listen to?

Thanks,

Harry

Hi Lost Hills,

You're right.  Americana music is , or has become, its own genre.  The term "Americana" is gaining traction, but the average music fan probably isn't aware, or can't define it.  Of course, Americana music is not really for the "average" music fan.  Maybe we (Americana music) is the opposite of jazz. 

Interestingly, fans of Americana music know it when the hear it, but the term encompasses more influences than any other genre of music, in my opinion.

Harry

Personally, I still struggle with the use of Americana as a genre definition. I think there probably IS a genre that is Americana, but it has become such a broad umbrella term.

I come from New Zealand.  We have some fabulous artists and bands that seem to fall under the banner that Americana now encompasses, and there certainly is a strong American influence to some of what they do.  There is also a strong Celtic influence, a strong Anglo-Folk influence and a very distinctive Kiwi (New Zealand) influence.

I liked the term Alt Country.  We have had an incredibly strong Country Music Scene here, and in Australia, for decades. Again, it always tipped a Stetson to the USA, but it was still distinctive and different to much of what was happening in North America.

I know that it's just a term, but it still bothers me!

As a footnote, and I have no idea if it was her definition originally, but I once heard Dolly Parton being asked to define Country Music. I loved her answer:  "If it ain't city ... it's country!"

It's country rock.

Or alternative country.

"Americana" is stupid. It's not even a word. Can you imagine Steve Earle or Gillian Welch or Kris Kristofferson or Chris Thile saying they play "Americana" music without a smirk?

Folk is folk. Blues is blues. Bluegrass is bluegrass. Country is country. Rock is Rock. Alternative is Alternative.

Combine two of these words to describe a hybrid and at least they are real words.

Once you make up a word you surrender to the "branding" and marketing people and the part-time free-lance music writers who are trying to make some money by covering an awards show or write a review.  "Americana" implies a connection between hundreds of independent musicians and diverse styles. It puts them under a banner that's vaguely patriotic and old-timey sentimental. Billy Bragg is not patriotic. TVZ is not old-timey or sentimental.

ND had it right. Alternative Country, whatever that is.

 

KPIG

There are only two definitions that concern me - bad and good.  Of the two i prefer the latter category.  It matters not one whit where on this planet music is composed, sung, played.  To be good, music needs to move, to transport the listener in some manner.  All other genres, labels, pigeon holes, tags, varieties are crutches for critics who invariably rag on any musician perceived to playing beyond a sacred boundary. 

i think we try to fit things into catagories too much - leave them open and amorphous  - i am not a fan of trying to pigeon hole everything however if i were pressed i would say 

personally i like think the definition should fit with the image conjured by the word americana (as that at this time seems to be THE word)  - that is something that encompasses all of the music that is here with the exception of mass produced music - it is songs sung with heart and soul and not just put out to make money - so it is broad from acoustic folk, to knock down the doors gospe,l to rip up the dance floors zydeco or cajun, to rip our fingers to shreds bluegrass and so on to all the other forms such as country/rock to blues to...

a key ingredient is the part that it is performed with a passion that shows the performer gave his all and doesn't have any sweat left - recently seen shows by mavis staples and mike farris that fit this, also billy joe shaver in his cook craftsmanship manner, marcia ball, eric clapton, terrence simien and so forth - richard thompson - it isn't american but it is broad and open to influences just as america is/was - 

all that said it is good music played with heart and soul that moves the listener -