After Historic Sales Week, Americana Positioned to Become Major Rival to Mainstream Country
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The second week of October 2016 may very well go down as a watershed moment in the history of American roots music. For the first time ever, and only six months after Billboard christened their previously-named “Folk Albums” chart the “Americana/Folk” chart, Americana as a genre outsold country music in the volume of album sales according to Billboard. Yes, more people bought albums from artists like The Drive-By Truckers and John Prine last week than purchased albums from Jason Aldean and Florida Georgia Line.
Earlier in the week, the big news was the stunning report that John Prine’s latest record For Better, Or Worse came in at a surprising #2 on the Country Albums chart. But Prine’s sales of 15,000 units was only good enough for #5 on the Americana chart, where the competition was unusually stiff. Bolstered by big releases from folks like Bob Weir and Van Morrison, Prine faced stronger headwinds in the more distinguishing Americana genre than even mainstream commercial country.
Even more stunning, and speaking to just how historic the sales week was, Americana also bested the Hip-Hop/R&B chart in sales, the Dance chart in sales, and all the other genre charts except for rock. And this is not just for the top titles, but the full breadth of the respective charts, even though the Americana/Folk chart stops at the Top 50, while the Top Country chart on Billboard goes out all the way to 75 titles.
Granted, it was a pretty spectacular release week for Americana (and a slow one for country), and a couple of the titles included on Billboard’s Americana chart could be quibbled with as actually being Americana, like Bon Iver who landed at #1 on the chart. But even excluding the Bon Iver numbers, Americana still beats country head to head.
So what does all of this mean?
First off, let’s not fool ourselves into thinking this isn’t any more than a one week anomaly, at least at this point. But Americana has threatened to beat country in album sales in the past and has come very close. And it’s almost for certain to happen again in the future. And with the way mainstream country consumers stream their music instead of purchasing, along with a general down tick in popular interest in mainstream country in the implosion of Bro-Country—while the ranks of Americana fans continue to swell, and continue to be willing to support their artists financially by purchasing cohesive records in physical and digital form—this anomaly is most likely to become a common occurrence moving forward.
As Saving Country Music has been asserting for years, as soon as music listeners discover they have better and healthier alternatives, they will make better choices. We’re far from a downright implosion of mainstream country, and there will always be listeners who will listen to whatever corporate radio serves them. But it’s all of a sudden not out of the realm of possibility that Americana could become not just the scrappy, baby brother gadfly of mainstream country, but a true rival regularly equaling if not surpassing mainstream country in not just album sales, but overall popularity.
This isn’t possible, right? Small, independent labels and artists reigning in and equaling their popular country counterparts? It’s actually happened in the past, and to the point where the mainstream of a genre did virtually implode.
In the 80’s, throngs of disenfranchised rock music fans fleeing the trends of hair metal and rap metal started listening to bands like R.E.M., the Black Crowes, and the B-52’s that were harbored on the small college radio format before breaking out into the mainstream. Then grunge hit with acts like Pearl Jam and Nirvana, and alternative rock as a radio format and sales designation shortly began to overtake the well-established “mainstream” of the rock world.
Soon alternative rock became the mainstream, and it wasn’t strange to hear artists like Nirvana, Pearl Jam, The Smashing Pumpkins, and Marilyn Mansion on pop formats. It has been popular to say over the last few years that mainstream country needs to have “a Nirvana moment.” Well we may be seeing this with the major popularity and mainstream acceptance of Chris Stapleton, Sturgill Simpson, Jason Isbell, Margo Price, and many other major Americana acts with swelling fan bases and surprising sales numbers.
History is deemed to repeat itself, but more than likely, the way an Americana revolution of country and roots music would occur wouldn’t look exactly like the rock revolution of the 90’s, though the impact could be very much the same. Would anybody be surprised if Chris Stapleton is selling out arenas by the end of 2017? Sturgill Simpson, Jason Isbell, Aaron Watson, and Blackberry Smoke have already topped the country album charts. Radio is the last bastion of resistance to an Americana revolution, but even that stultified environment is beginning to see inroads with the success of artists like William Michael Morgan, Jon Pardi, and a #1 song from Americana favorite Lori McKenna with Tim McGraw’s “Humble and Kind.”
What the spectacular sales week for Americana means is that a scenario where an alternative to mainstream country rising up through the independent channels to challenge Music Row’s dominance is no longer a hypothetical, it is a reality. Granted, it is not the style of Americana or its many labels and artists to look at music as competition, and one of the reasons Americana has been able to build the strength and momentum behind itself to pull off such a unfathomable feat is by focusing more on sustainability and quality as opposed to commercial prowess exclusively. This puts Americana on much more firm footing in the future, so it doesn’t succumb to its own adverse trends in the marketplace, or simply becomes a home for fake interlopers fleeing the dying mainstream country model.
At the same time, one of the strengths of Americana has been how it embraces artists of quality as mainstream country summarily pushes them to the side. Isn’t it fitting that right as Americana is hitting its high water mark in regards to album sales, artists like George Strait and Dwight Yoakam are embracing the format by making appearances at the recent Americana Music Awards, and it’s older acts like John Prine and Dwight Yoakam helping to push those sales over the top.
One of the reasons we feel so surprised at Americana’s success and so many have been so slow to recognize it is because it has been a slow and steady process as opposed to the overnight sensationalism that accompanied the rise of alternative rock. Because of Americana’s model of sustainability, the revolution has been plodding, yet purposeful. And now it’s success is palpable, and measurable by industry-standard metrics.
Mainstream country must either figure out how to incorporate elements of the burgeoning Americana movement into their model—or at the least offer a more diverse alternative to ingratiate themselves to the growing demand for more choice in the American country and roots marketplace. Or it may not be out of the realm of possibility that we see an implosion in the country industry. We definitely saw that with rock, and mainstream radio is already sitting on the precipice of financial implosion.
But at the same time, the success and embracing of Chris Stapleton by the industry, the rise of a new generation of true country stars embodied in William Michael Morgan, Mo Pitney, and Jon Pardi, speaks to how the country mainstream sees these trends as well, even if it’s molasses slow to maneuver, and only gets the spirit behind the Americana insurgency half right.
All of this also puts pressure on Americana to step up its game while it deals with the economic realities facing independent music. One of the things that made this record-breaking week for Americana possible was the christening of new infrastructure for the genre, specifically the new Billboard distinction, which felt like a long time coming. AmericanaFest held in September saw record numbers, and help put momentum behind the album projects of John Prine, Bob Weir, Dwight Yoakam, and others to push overall sales for Americana over country. Americana now is defined in the dictionary and has Grammy awards, even though these awards have to be fought over to preserved each year. But with distinctions such as this record-breaking sales week, it helps solidify support behind the Americana idea.
But let’s not abandon the idea of country music as a worthy genre either. Ideally, this upsurge in Americana would not spell doom for country, but inspire it to search for the generational talent that Americana currently boasts, to offer more variety through its format, and diversity among its ranks. It would push country music forward in a healthy competition that doesn’t just use radio play as a primary metric. And just maybe the idea of saving country music could become less of a fanciful, idealistic notion, and more a present-day reality delivered by a new era of creative freedom for all artists, and a fair environment where the most talented, not the most closely-connected, rise to the top to the benefit of all music fans, and to the benefit of those singular artists who were put on the planet to touch us with their musical talents, and inspire us all to pursue and fulfill our own dreams and passions uninhibited and full of purpose.
October 17, 2016 @ 10:30 am
Let’s wait 15 years for an alternative rock comeback and see bands listing their ‘americana’ heroes and influences. And Turtles All the Way Down gets covered by said bands 🙂
October 26, 2016 @ 12:52 pm
Wake up, the Rock is dead and has been dead for some time. And good riddance to it.
October 17, 2016 @ 11:02 am
If Americana gets big people will end up invading it and destroying it like they did to country music. Let’s hope they stay small that way hopefully they don’t get changed into something unrecognisable.
October 17, 2016 @ 12:05 pm
Yeah yeah. This is the same argument we hear when any artist, label, subgenre, or genre finds some success to the point where we preordain failure or dilution. So many folks have identified so long with being underdogs and losers, they don’t feel comfortable it a situation where stuff is actually going right for a change. There’s also the nasty disposition of independent and underground fans to hate anything that’s popular, which ultimately is a dumb limitation we put on our musical experience.
“Let’s hope they stay small”
Too late. You can however, grow the music in a more sustainable and substantive way, and make sure the gatekeepers remain. This is where country music failed.
October 17, 2016 @ 11:04 am
The reason that Americana (I hate that term) is rising so slowly, yet so strongly, and will continue, is because of the longevity of the material.
Nobody writes a song for Luke Bryan with consideration to its age or its meaning. It’s formulaic stuff designed to meet a deadline, fit on an album, and meet radio qualifications.
And to do that, it uses the buzzwords of the day.
Meanwhile Sturgill Simpson just released an album that included N64 references that most Bryan fans won’t get and relies on less “buzzwords” and more “real words.”
The reason Americana is rising is because the material doesn’t age as conspicuously.
“Southeastern” and “Something More than Free” could well have been released three, six, ten years ago or just yesterday. They don’t feel dated, and the songwriting is universal in its scope.
That’s something that John Prine was touching on in that interview about “people heard me in their parents’ trucks and they grew up with me.”
The music doesn’t age, and it doesn’t have an obsolescence programmed into it based on radio trends.
It’s art that can represent more than just “that summer” or “my college days” it can represent a whole spectrum of the human experience.
The songwriting won’t go as out of style as dramatically because it was created out of a rich human experience.
The Americana crowd is relying on these human experiences and these timeless artistic tendencies. The whole point of Americana is creating music as a storytelling art and creating and preserving music to be passed down from each generation, and even more so for the current one to take the music with it into the future.
Luke Bryan CDs will be populating Goodwill in just a couple years, but I’ve never seen a Sturgill Simpson or Jason Isbell CD there yet.
The music has a longevity to it that radio fodder can never have because it was created as quickly or as slowly as the writer was inspired and not released on a timetable. It’s purely and truly organic, and it isn’t just a marketing tool that coincides with summer or spring break or a time of life, it’s music that can be revisited easily.
And the reason Americana is poised to rival mainstream Country Music is because the booming culture war for the soul of our genre has gotten so many people talking from so many places in the spectrum that a lot of light got shined on American to people who didn’t know about it before.
If I had to make any predictions, it would be that Americana never truly “takes off” as a genre except during brief hypertrends like back in 2012 when Stringband music was all the rage before the Bros came and messed it all up.
It’s simply too “weighty” as far as the breadth and depth of the material goes to make it in our shallow, materialistic, spur of the moment culture.
I mean face it, we’re arguing over whether to vote for Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump. That’s not exactly the kind of brainpower it takes to appreciate Jason Isbell, is it?
We watch the Kardashians, for crying out loud, how can we as a species appreciate “Sailor’s Guide to Earth?”
So I’m guessing that the high investment of brainpower and cognitive skill it takes to appreciate the quality music that Americana represents is a bit beyond the majority of our culture, and will always be reserved for the “cut above” class of listeners.
Not that I’m saying people are idiots or that being mainstream is selling out, but my point is that from a cultural perspective it seems a bit unlikely that Jason Isbell will ever be a big deal like FGL because it’s not in our culture to embrace music like his.
Or at least, it hasn’t been for a decade or so.
We could be swinging back.
October 17, 2016 @ 12:06 pm
Good point on the longevity of the material.
November 3, 2016 @ 5:52 am
I am 63 years old and an Americana fan. Americana fans appreciate the music of Johnny Cash, and were quick to embrace him. Mainstream country turned it’s back on him. I wonder who’s music will have longevity and continue to influence, Cash’s, or today’s hot country artists? Americana acts seem to know and have been influenced by folks like Cash, Jimmy Rogers. the Carters, Bob Wills, Hazel Dickens, the Stanley Bros. etc. If you want a country music experience, go see an Americana act at a small venue near you. If you want a 1980’s Glam Rock experience, go see a stadium performance by one of today’s “Hot Country Star”.
“There are two types of music, the blues, and zip-pe-dee-do-da” Townes Van Zandt.
October 17, 2016 @ 12:40 pm
So Americana tunes needs to be more songwriterly, is that what you’re saying F2S?
October 17, 2016 @ 1:59 pm
yes and no.
the “songwriterliness” is what makes the material outlast its less songwriterly peers…
Think about it, MOST classic tunes from the past several decades have been written WITHOUT buzzwords and trendy slang and “terms of the day” or “current issues” but are written about overlying themes that we as a species still deal with regardless of our cultural perspectives or our level of technology.
But this comes at the cost of alienating the primary market group, the hip young people who every five years or so create a new hypertrend and have yet to develop a sense of “real world experience” that would cause them to understand and connect with the more professional and songwriterly material.
When you were a kid did you listen to the best stuff or the stuff that caught your ear the most?
When I was a kid my favorite songs were all about melodies and fun beats…
But because I grew up on Hee Haw and Green Acres those fun songs came from the likes of Grandpa Jones and Buck Owens.
I almost never listen to much Owens these days because the lyrics are so simply written than I usually prefer “heavier” material.
It’s not that Owens was a talentless hack like Aldean…
But from a quality perspective “Act Naturally” is a pretty straightforward tune that I think most of us would say we’ve “outgrown” at some level.
October 17, 2016 @ 4:07 pm
I can relate to your sentiment..
Would you be interested in being a “Sound board” for my original music?
I’d like an honest unbiased opinion…
I’m suspicious of friends thinking my original songs are “great”…. I mean they’re my pals…and associates…but I do appreciate CONSTRUCTIVE criticism….
If you’d be interested in listening to a few tracks from a new record I’ve recorded ( not released as of yet)
I’d like to send to you a few mp3’s for your feedback.
New Orleans, LA.
October 17, 2016 @ 6:34 pm
would love to.
do you want to email them to me?
October 26, 2016 @ 12:59 pm
Good comment. In other words the Americana artists’ music deals with real issues of life and the mainstream Country artists’ music deals with superficialities and fakery of life.
October 17, 2016 @ 11:09 am
Wonder what the proposed Ameripolitan charts will bring into the mix the next few years.
October 17, 2016 @ 12:12 pm
The ultimate problem with Ameripolitan is that it focuses on artists, not albums and songs, which doesn’t foster the economic process that these artists need behind them to launch sustainable careers. It’s a popularity and “get out the vote” contest. I love Ameripolitan and all it is doing to spread the word about worthy artists. But if folks were voting for actual music, it would actually have an economic impact in music, and ultimately benefit the artists. The economics of music—independent, underground, or mainstream—all surround the album cycle. And Ameripolitan seems to have no clue about this.
October 17, 2016 @ 9:07 pm
So this means there is some credibility to award shows that vote on singles and albums such as Accademy of Western Artists even without charts?
October 17, 2016 @ 11:13 am
i was ok with Americana not being cool. i blame Darius Rucker
I miss Stevie Gaines
October 17, 2016 @ 11:19 am
it seems a bit unlikely that Jason Isbell will ever be a big deal like FGL because it’s not in our culture to embrace music like his. Good quote, I think Joe six-pack peeps rather hear lines like, going down to the river, setting a fire and watching a girl with painted on jeans dance on a tailgate. Just my two cents.
October 17, 2016 @ 4:01 pm
“it seems a bit unlikely that Jason Isbell will ever be a big deal like FGL because it’s not in our culture to embrace music like his.”
I wouldn’t be so sure. Great songwriters like Hank Williams, Bob Dylan, later Gordon Lightfoot, Paul Simon, Kris Kristofferson and others were embraced as superstars of their time.
But what is important behind this historic sales week for Americana is that it proves the breadth of the genre. Sure, there may not be any massive superstars, but there are scores of artists with significant support behind them. That is why it is so important to point out that Americana beat country, even though country had 25 more albums on their chart. The failing of mainstream country is it’s too top heavy. The talent in the middle and the bottom has virtually no support, while Americana is able to make a living for dozens and dozens of artists. The wealth of attention is shared more equally in Americana, and when you combine it, it’s actually bigger than mainstream country. At least it was last week.
October 17, 2016 @ 12:29 pm
As a fan of folk music, I don’t want Americana to just be another name for “good” country music. I think if all that happens is that Americana becomes the new country, than we all lose (like what happened with rock). Music is healthier if Americana flourishes and creates its own identity, and country continues to have (& reclaims) it’s own identity.
Jason Isbell should have a home, and a chart, but that home and chart shouldn’t be country music, anymore than Sam Hunt should be country music. Just because Isbell’s music is better, doesn’t make it more country (& actually Anderson East is probably an even better example than Isbell, but not nearly as well known, or as good).
October 17, 2016 @ 7:57 pm
massive superstars. Bob Weir was playing stadiums last summer. like multi-platinum Van Morrison? and how does he get to be “americana” all of a sudden? He’s Irish.
sorry there’s too many ‘yeah, buts’ involved for this to have real meaning. Bon Iver might be a folk artist but this album, as stated in the Billboard article, is more electronic based, so not really Americana but the record company wanted to hit all their spots so it would land on a chart somewhere and they could claim it made a splash. mission accomplished.
you got your timeline switched a little as well. REM and grunge made their impact in the late 80/early 90s. Is there something similar going on today? impossible to tell when the facts and the numbers have been fudged.
October 17, 2016 @ 8:20 pm
“massive superstars. Bob Weir was playing stadiums last summer. like multi-platinum Van Morrison”
Please. Let’s not swing the hype the other way. The only reason Bob Weir was playing stadiums is because it was the very final shows of the most popular American touring act in history, and Van Morrison’s last (and only) multi-platinum album was released 45 years ago.
As I went out of my way to stipulate in the article, it was a lopsided week for Americana, and that should be taken into consideration. But if the current trend holds form, in 6 months or so, we’ll see Americana regularly outselling country even on regular weeks in regards to album sales.
October 18, 2016 @ 7:20 am
it was lopsided because literally anything can be Americana. When they get that straight, and it’s been almost 20 years, let the American record buying public know.
October 17, 2016 @ 12:29 pm
Great article and good thoughts from all who have weighed in. This brings a question to mind: Will we start seeing Americana radio stations on traditional radio, or am I wishfully dreaming? Of course we have Internet radio and satellite but you have to pay for both of these.
As great as Americana is, it still ignores many styles, and that is precisely why we now have the Ameripolitan movement , which I favor. But it is interesting to see some outlaw country artists getting recognized finally in Americana like Stapleton, although curiously he seems to be finding favor in mainstream country as well. It is a funny thought that potentially you could have country, Americana and ameripolitan all recognizing the same artist! Hasn’t happened yet but it could. I know, Ameripolitan is the new kid right now and it lacks the funding of Americana at the moment, but it has a place covering outlaw, western swing, rockabilly and honky tonk. I think one of the biggest differences between them is that Americana seems to lean a bit more to artists who bring a rock background to their country such as Isbell , drive by truckers, and others. Your thoughts?
October 17, 2016 @ 3:20 pm
Americana fans are predominantly in the 35 to 60 age range. The older fans among us came of age when college radio represented a viable alternative to mainstream AOR and championed bands like REM and Cowboy Junkies. In the 90’s many of us got into artists like Steve Earle and Lucinda Williams and read No Depression magazine. In the 00’s we found online communities among the fans of bands like Drive By Truckers, spending long weekends to catch two and three night stands with friends in that community. In the 10’s we celebrated the rise of a new generation of young artists like Alabama Shakes and Lydia Loveless as well as spearheading the revival of vinyl as a viable format.
While Americana has been around for 20 years its biggest challenge is attracting a new generation of fans. Much of the audience for artists like Alabama Shakes are old enough to be their parents. Music was less important to our kids. The “rockstars” of their generation built websites, social media platforms and designed video games. Musicians were as important to them as circus performers were for our generation.
October 18, 2016 @ 11:15 am
“Music was less important to our kids. The “rockstars” of their generation built websites, social media platforms and designed video games. Musicians were as important to them as circus performers were for our generation.”
This is really important, I think. My son (a violinist) knows very well that most of the money to be made is music is related to video games. The boys aren’t at bars. Some of them are at festivals. Most of them are online playing video games. That’s where they hear music. Hell, he was telling me that some game is playing CCR and Taj Mahal, and I had the pleasure of telling him who they were.
Times have changed.
October 18, 2016 @ 8:35 pm
You’ve got a 19 year old Americana fan right here, while none of the people my age i know are into my music (they always call it old fashioned and ‘too white’) i’m always trying to introduce them to people like Nickle Creek, Mandolin Orange, Devil Makes Three, The Lone Bellow and Jason Isbell
November 3, 2016 @ 6:31 am
I’m 63 years old and you hit the nail on the head. My journey is that i grew up with the 60’s music in my pre teen and teen years. The AM radio stations would play what the DJ’s wanted to put in their shows. Motown, British Rock, Memphis Soul, New Orleans R+B. I would buy albums by the Stones and look at the songwriting credits. Berry, Morganfield, Burnett, Williams, Dixon. I had to track these people down. This led to Blues in all forms. This led to Zydeco and Cajun. Then to Southwest and Mexican music. Then on to California and back to dustbowl era music from Oklahoma and Arkansas. This led me back to Appalachia then on to the folk scenes of New York and Boston. I realize that all this music is folk music. Played and performed by ordinary folks, some with extraordinary talents, to ordinary folks who wanted to hear music that made them feel something that was relevant to their lives.
When Iris Dement was pitching her early music to a country radio station she was turned down flat. She was told that her music sounded too country for their listeners, and that their station only played “Real Country” Tells you all you need to know about what is wrong with Country Music.
There are only two kinds of music,”the Blues and zip-pe-dee-do-da”. Townes Van Zandt
October 17, 2016 @ 12:48 pm
And yes Trigger, u are right, Ameripolitan has not focused on songs and albums to its detriment, thus far it has been funded by the artists and a go fund me page.
October 17, 2016 @ 12:54 pm
Thing is, two of the four top-selling “Americana” albums are by old rock stars Van Morrison and Bob Weir, both of whom have been around since I was in junior high.Another is the Drive-By Truckers, who I like, but have been around for nearly 20 years.
What this tells me is that older people (like me) are buying more music recently than younger folk.
October 17, 2016 @ 1:12 pm
true story, younger people really don’t buy much music & on a lot of levels it makes sense. I like way to many styles and artists to really be able to afford all that music that I want to listen to. Plus a lot of albums are filled with filler, that I don’t want to pay for anyways. I probably only pay for a couple of albums a year (but I do pay for a premium streaming service). On the other hand I like going to live shows, and I try to go spend my money supporting artists live.
October 17, 2016 @ 4:06 pm
No doubt Americana fans tend to be a bit older, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t any younger fans or artists. Fans of Sturgill Simpson and Jason Isbell tend to be in their 30’s. Fans of The Lumineers and Alabama Shakes can range into their 20’s. I saw plenty of younger people at AmericanaFest, and many of the biggest acts are younger acts. I think Americana still needs to reach out to younger fans, but younger listeners are more likely to buy vinyl records than older listeners. I think we’re underselling the growing appetite among younger listeners for the greater substance embodied in Americana.
October 17, 2016 @ 4:34 pm
Agreed Trigger. For every frat boy who drives around in his dad’s jacked up F-150, there are just as many–if not more–young men who can’t stand the image that FGL, Bryan, and Aldean are selling. Some of them are hipsters, to be sure, but I have found just as many, if not more that are just sick of having their intelligence insulted by the songs at Country radio. It ain’t just middle-aged or older people who are pushing Stapleton record sales every week higher and higher.
October 17, 2016 @ 7:30 pm
Oh, I like Americana (well some of it, never been a huge jazz fan & so don’t like the stuff that is more jazz derivative, but blues, folk, southern rock, yes please). Was more commenting on who is buying the albums.
December 29, 2016 @ 12:23 am
There should be more Americana artists like the Dixie Chicks Kacey Musgraves,basically Americana artists with a slight pop sound that could get them on radio (if the programmers aren’t a bunch of Neo-Nazi’s) but that still sounds different than the stuff on the radio but.I feel like those kinds of artists could maybe get appeal with like pre-teen girls and other much younger groups.
October 17, 2016 @ 5:48 pm
….and now for the bad news: Jon bon jovi, Steven Tyler and Brett Michaels have just announced that country music is dead and they are now recording Americana albums. Fortunately for us, Brett Michaels will steer clear of original new songs and only be re-recording classic Poison songs in the Americana style (needless to say, Talk Dirty to Me is included in the track list and is slated as the first single due to incredible demand amongst Michaels fans due to the fact that the song obviously lends itself to the Americana treatment). Of lesser interest, Demi Lovato has expressed interest in working with JBJ on his Americana remake of You Give Love A Bad Name (she will also handle all guitar chores for the MIA Richie Sambora). Steven Tyler has indicated that to save money he will simply re-release his “country” album to Americana radio and call it good.
October 17, 2016 @ 5:58 pm
In a lot of ways, Americana has really existed in some form or another for a fairly long time; it’s not just a recent thing. One could argue that some of the genre stems from that part of the 1960s folk music explosion that saw young musicians of that era explore traditional country and roots music, like bluegrass and old-timey Appalachia (Carter Family; Louvin Brothers, etc.), and mix in what they had learned from Elvis and the Beatles, and Bob Dylan as well. Out here in Los Angeles during the late 1960s and early 1970s, with further inspiration provided by the Bakersfield Sound of Merle Haggard (“Okie” and “Fightin’ Side Of Me” aside) and Buck Owens, this ended up spawning the country-rock movement that led to Gram Parsons, the Flying Burrito Brothers, Poco, the Eagles, Linda Ronstadt, and Emmylou Harris, to name just a few. In fact, so far as the womenfolk go, I would go so far as to argue that Linda and Emmylou are essentially the Godmothers of Americana, by virtue of their pioneering work of the 1970s, which would inspire generations of Americana women, including current favorite Margo Price, not to mention a lot of mainstream female country artists as well.
It has only been in the last two decades or so, slowly but surely, that Americana has become a big force, but as of late, because Music Row is so much into getting their rocks off with Metro-Bro and whatever else anyone wants to call Bro-Country now, it’s become a serious deal. Will it ever exceed the mainstream in terms of sales and popularity? Maybe, maybe not; who knows. But I think it will serve as a counterweight to Music Row’s excessive obsession with fads, images, and half-baked ideas of rural and small-town life that have been a hallmark of the Bromeisters.
October 17, 2016 @ 9:22 pm
What exactly is Americana? I guess I always thought John Prine and Dwight Yoakam were just (good) country. Americana seemed to be a vague term for a kind of sophisticated country devoid of twang. Maybe certain John Melloncamp songs fall into this genre. Iris Dement seemed to be somewhere on the Americana/country spectrum. Some Grateful Dead songs might be called Americana or country rock (I have no idea what Bob Weir sounds like now). New Riders of the Purple Sage was more clearly country rock. REM was southern college rock with occasional country(-ish) flourishes in their early albums. Is recent John Prine and Dwight Yoakam less country?
I miss Steve Gaines
October 18, 2016 @ 8:57 am
Really digging Riders of the purple now, killer pedal steel!
October 18, 2016 @ 3:40 am
One danger that we shouldn’t overlook is that Americana is less of a defined genre and more of an encompassing term. It seems to have more to do with how the artists sustain their careers than it does with what the music actually sounds like. By nature, Americana is open to infiltration by drivel-pushing oxygen thieves and, because we can’t clearly define its stylistic parameters, there’s no way for us to stand our ground like there is with country music. I’m all for these artists making more money and expanding their platform, but Americana making it big has a pretty clear trajectory. At the same time, does that mean that these pop artists in the country realm will have a more natural landing place and that maybe legitimate country can regain its footing in the national sense?
October 18, 2016 @ 8:49 pm
This is actually a really interesting point, but if you think about it the same thing happened with country when it slowly started becoming less country. I don’t think this will happen though (i mean fads sure like stringbands or bluegrass movements etc.) but americana by nature is generally ignored by the media as a whole like there’s only one americana grammy (as far as i’m aware) it’s once people see a vacuum for money that things start to go downhill. I mean again, this happened with country there were stylistic perimeters but then it started to garner national attention with people like garth brooks and there was a slow downslide. However, i don’t think the genera as a whole would stand for something like that to happen they recognize that they’re not as commercially valued so they protect their own and what they have. There might be gatekeepers of subsections of americana but like you said it would be difficult for gatekeepers of the whole genera since it’s so large. But a whole is the sum of its parts so who knows what will happen it depends on how badly they want to keep their niche
October 18, 2016 @ 11:19 am
For most people, “Americana” still connotes “what you buy in Cracker Barrel or can find for sale out on a rural highway.”
October 18, 2016 @ 11:21 am
It’s interesting by the way that “Americana” is a more nationalistic term than “country music.” The former has to do with a specific place; the latter, with rural places wherever they are. I think that’s ironic, given that most Americana artist politics skew very clearly Left.
October 19, 2016 @ 7:40 am
Also ironic is many of those lefties show more reverence for traditional country than what is evident on country radio.
October 18, 2016 @ 1:02 pm
Nice article. I like much of Americana, so I’m not sad to see the trend, but I do worry a little bit that it could end up being a flavor of the week genre thing for “hip” music fans, rather than the basis of a longterm revival of genres surrounding country.
Just random clarity point for the article:
The chronology of your rock paragraph is weirdly mixed together.
“In the mid and late 90’s, throngs of disenfranchised rock music fans fleeing the trends of hair metal and rap metal started listening to bands like R.E.M., the Black Crowes, and the B-52’s that were harbored on the small college radio format before breaking out into the mainstream.”
The B-52s are an 80s band (actually forming in the 70s). REM formed in 1980 and was reasonably successful (though maybe not peak success) by the end of the decade. The Black Crowes peaked in the early 1990s. People might have fled hair metal to them (and to grunge), but rap metal was from the late 1990s/early 2000s, after all of those bands peak. It would make more sense to say:
“In the early 1990s….” and then just strike hair metal.
Small point, but it was kind of confusing as a reader.
December 29, 2016 @ 12:41 am
Trigger,do you see in the next few years that Americana music could do to country music,similar to what grunge did to rock in the 90s? Like Americana is a reaction to bro-country,like the way grunge was a reaction to hair metal.For some reason I could feel something like that happening