After New Billboard Distinction, The Time for Americana is Now
It seemed to be inevitable that Billboard would have to make this move. When Jason Isbell bested mainstream country superstar Alan Jackson on the Billboard Country Album’s chart by a couple hundred albums last July and walked away with the #1 spot for his record Something More Than Free, Billboard had little choice. The tally was so close, Alan Jackson’s publicity camp announced they were the ones who had earned the #1, and then appeared to refuse to recognize they had actually come in at #2. It was almost like the Jackson camp was quietly saying, “Jason Isbell has the #1 in country? Isn’t he more Americana?”
It was all water under the bridge when the next week, Alan Jackson officially did land at #1 with his record Angels & Alcohol, but the battle illustrated just how far mainstream country music artists had fallen, and how far Americana artists like Jason Isbell had come. Then the conversation became heated again when a country band out of Texas called Green River Ordinance was denied entry on the Billboard country charts with their latest record. This is when you could tell the Billboard editorial staff was attempting to draw a line in the sand with the Country Albums chart. Why they chose Green River Ordinance, and not an artist that clearly isn’t country like Sam Hunt, still remains a mystery. But now there will be a chart home for both an artist like Jason Isbell, and a band like Green River Ordinance, without anyone feeling slighted.
On Friday (5-13), it was announced that Billboard would finally be adding an Americana chart to their weekly albums chart roster. This is 10 years after the Grammy Awards began to recognize Americana, nearly 17 years after the Americana Music Association formed, and at a time when Americana artists from across the spectrum—from the Lumineers to Jason Isbell, from Sturgill Simpson to the Alabama Shakes—are seeing recognition, sales, and a larger share of the music pie than ever before. Americana is a strong, vibrant, and growing movement, and though many may quibble on how exactly to define the genre, few will say this distinction on the Billboard charts isn’t deserved, or long overdue.
“This change recognizes the growth of Americana and the prominent rise of the term overall, both within the industry and in widespread music coverage,” said Gary Trust, co-director of charts for Billboard to Nate Rau of The Tennessean.
But Billboard is not adding a new chart to comprise the Americana chart. Instead it is renaming the existing Folk Albums chart, which has increasingly become dominated by Americana acts, and has become less relevant over the years, especially as folk artists are more frequently identifying themselves as Americana anyway. There is sure to be a few hurt feelings from pure folk artists who would prefer their own chart, but overall the move appears to be for the better.
The decision also comes the same week the Americana Music Association announced the nominees for the 2016 awards to be held in September. Included in the distinctions are mainstream country artists such as Chris Stapleton, who might be better categorized as Americana than straight-laced country, and Kacey Musgraves. The Lumineers were also announced recently as the headliners of the Americana Music Conference in September, and left and right the stakes appear to be raising for the organization and genre who’ve been enacting a very slow, but very steady build since the late 90’s.
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So here it is. One can now make the case that Americana is no longer a second-class genre, destined to be frequently misunderstood, institutionally-ignored by the rest of the industry, and having to resort to scrappiness to earn every inch of ground in musical real estate. The Billboard recognition feels like legitimacy, and will feel like another layer of legitimacy for the artists who fall under the Americana distinction, including performersd who are too country for country, or too mature for country and end up finding a home in Americana later in their careers.
The training wheels are off, and it’s time for Americana to move forward on its true path and purpose. When Americana the trade organization was formed in 1999, alt-rock was arguably bigger than mainstream rock. Alt-country was very much the precursor to what eventually became Americana, but with the lack of a prefix, Americana can sell itself as a legitimate equal as opposed to an alternative to anything.
There are more artists and labels who are looking for an alternative to mainstream country than there are ones who’ve bought into the mainstream system. So the next question is, will Americana be the distinction that can step up to the plate and finally offer a true counterweight to Nashville’s major labels? One of the lingering issues with Americana was evidenced last week when they announced their annual awards show nominees. With only four names in many of the categories, and only six categories to choose from, how is Americana supposed to broaden its appeal while showcasing so few names? Americana, just like the mainstream in some respects, still feels exclusive, and not always in a good way.
When the whole “roots” movement was dominating all of mainstream music in 2012 with artists like The Lumineers and Mumford & Sons, it looked like the perfect time to usher in an aggressive expansion of Americana. But like all trends in popular music, roots acts eventually fell back out of favor with flighty mainstream fans. Americana has always been more about sustainability than empire building. But at some point, with artists like Chris Stapleton and the Alabama Shakes making huge waves in mainstream music—artists Americana can legitimately claim—it may be time to start looking a bit more big picture.
The artists of Americana continue to grow, and continue to earn deserved recognition from the greater music community. Now it’s time for Americana to do the same, and offer a more healthy alternative for artists who want to put the music first.
May 16, 2016 @ 9:07 am
I feel like it could be a good venue for artists like Alan Jackson, George Strait, and other older artists to put out music to radio. I just wish my area had a station for Americana.
May 16, 2016 @ 9:41 am
I still think Billboard decided to create an Americana chart only after indie artists were outselling major label acts so as to not piss off the corporate labels they’re in bed with.
May 16, 2016 @ 9:44 am
I totally think that’s the reason. Americana needed it own chart and years ago, but Billboard wasn’t budging for whatever reason. But when Billboard’s buddies in the mainstream started complaining, they were more than willing to do whatever they could to keep them happy.
Fat Freddy's Cat
May 16, 2016 @ 10:55 am
I very much want Americana artists to be able to come out of the shadows and get the success they truly deserve, but at the same time the thought of Americana getting bigger makes me a little nervous. I’m concerned that the “suits” will jump on it and then the next thing you know the artists will be told things like “okay you’ve got to wear a really short skirt for this video, and do some sexy dance moves…and oh lay on some autotune while you’re at it…”
In short I hope the artists go over the contracts very very carefully.
May 16, 2016 @ 11:06 am
They only need 2 categories–for both kinds of music–country AND western.
May 16, 2016 @ 3:17 pm
Wow, this is great news! Very exciting. Changing the name of a chart might not seem like a big deal to some, but musical labels do matter, and I do think this feels like validation for the Americana movement.
I thought this quote from Jed Hilly in the Tennessean article was interesting:
“I think it’s a game-changer and that’s why it is a home run, because this chart will represent the importance and sales potential of this genre, and we’ve never had that before,” Hilly said.
I guess that’s what it’s all about, whether you’re talking about the alternative rock boom of the 90’s or the Americana movement of today. People can whine and moan about the injustice of good music being oppressed by commercial garbage all day long, but at the end of the day, it’s money that speaks the loudest. Now that various Americana-affiliated artists are pulling very respectable sales numbers (relative to today’s market) and going number one on various charts, the movement can’t be denied.
It will be interesting to see how the Americana chart develops from here, and what effect it has on the growth of the genre, er… movement.
May 16, 2016 @ 3:24 pm
One question I have is, will this move really prevent indie artists form invading the Billboard Country Albums chart?
As far as I know, artists can submit albums to multiple charts, as we have seen previously from both Sturgill and Isbell. If I were Jason Isbell, I would thumb my nose at Music Row and submit my next album to both charts, regardless of what anyone says. No, Isbell’s music isn’t pure country, but according to mainstream Nashville’s own standards, I don’t see how they have the authority to say he’s not a country artist.
May 16, 2016 @ 4:01 pm
Well they said that to Green River Ordinance, who is easily more country than Jason Isbell. That is why that Green River Ordinance moment was so important in the grand scheme. After they got jobbed, something had to change. They took the bullet so the Americana chart could come into being.
I really have no idea where Jason Isbell will end up. I love Jason, but I honestly have reservations putting him on the country charts. Other artists can slide in between, like Sturgill (though his recent record complicates the matter).
May 16, 2016 @ 4:30 pm
That’s my beef too: Sturgill is sitting #5 on iTunes Country charts (albums sold), but in Singer-Songwriter he doesn’t chart at all.
(Isbell is sitting 14 and 16 in that category.)
Folk doesn’t exist there, neither does Americana. Maybe they’ll add the latter because of this Billboard move?
May 16, 2016 @ 7:49 pm
If you go to country in iTunes and look to the left there is a America link. There is a Texas Country link as well. Unfortunately they only rarely update the lists.
May 16, 2016 @ 7:50 pm
That would be the right of the page. My mistake.
May 16, 2016 @ 7:52 pm
The link is on the right. My mistake.
May 16, 2016 @ 6:36 pm
So now the weird thing will be artists like Alabama Shakes and more traditional artists like old country artists being played back to back, this genre will be very diverse, if not more so than the hip hop country versus the more traditional leaning country acts that are still around, recent examples being Stapleton or Jon pardi
May 16, 2016 @ 7:55 pm
This definitely seems pretty cool. The only thing I worry about now is that we may end up seeing Americana turning into the go-to genre for all traditional country artists and the “country” genre continuing to fill with all the mainstream pop music it’s saturated with now. I think that this could cause two problems; one being that the Americana artists that aren’t quite traditional country (more folk) may lose their home, and traditional country artists from other countries (I am Canadian, by the way) won’t quite have a proper genre at all. I don’t see Billboard creating a “Canadiana” genre any time soon.
May 17, 2016 @ 12:47 am
Storiesofyou, I don’t think you have anything to worry about. My girlfriend is Canadian, and she introduced me to Corb Lund and The Hurtin’ Albertans. I have a feeling his next album is going to chart in the Americana chart, even though he’s Canadian.
May 17, 2016 @ 8:49 am
I think you’re probably right. I think Colter Wall (thanks for the intro Trig!) will probably end up there as well. But that’s what I meant by them not having a “proper” genre. Do they want to be labeled as Americana? Do Americana artists want them in their club? It seems like a name for a genre that would be rooted in American culture, and Canadian country has its own. We’ve always been able to say “I may be Canadian, but I’m as country as they come”. Once Americana becomes the new “country”, will we have to say “I may be Canadian, but I’m as American as they come!”? Probably just a minor gripe, but the whole thing just feels like a sideways step, so that the pop country artists can keep their new home.
May 17, 2016 @ 9:40 am
Not trying to be a smartass, but isn’t Canada part of North America? I have no problem calling Canadian artists Americana, and would take issue with anyone who did.
May 17, 2016 @ 10:39 am
Hey Trigger! As I said, it’s just a minor gripe. I’m sure most people wouldn’t have an issue with it. I’m just wondering how the artists might feel. Of course Canada is part of North America (as is Mexico), but you know that when someone says that something or someone is American, they’re more than likely not talking about the continent. When something is spoken to be truly American, it usually brings a feeling of culture and pride (as it should) to the speaker, that Canadians aren’t really a part of. Just an opinion, that’s all. Corb Lund could come on here and reply “Dude, I’m cool with it”, for all I know.
Love ya Trigger, SCM is always the first tab I open when I get home from work.
May 17, 2016 @ 2:07 pm
Sometimes I think Americans are a bit selfish when speaking about American Roots Music…I’m just reading a book that is called The Woman of Country Music
by Charles K. Wolfe and James E. Akenson
One chapter in book is about young girl from Georgia, named Roba Stanley, who, in 1924, according to one of the authors made the first solo recording ever by a female Country singer.
And one of the songs Is called “Devilish Mary” and is reworked versionf of an Irish
song called “The Wearing of The Britches” And of cource this is not the only song from the beginning of the last the century that is of European origin…
Last time I called the Carter Family Country Music pioneers I was immediately told that the Carter Family was not Country Singer but Hillbilly singers so I like to point out it’s not me who’s callling her (Roba Stanley) a Country singer. It’s one of the authors…
And I really dont care that much what the music is called I love those old tunes…
Her is her singing “Devilish Mary” And link to a version of “Frankie and Johnny” that she called “Little Frankie”.
May 17, 2016 @ 4:23 pm
This sort of thing has been going on for a long time. Billboard idiotically failed to let Wanda Jackson’s album with Jack White chart country despite it’s featuring covers of Jimmie Rodgers and Kitty Wells (and thus denied her what would have undoubtably been a top ten album, her first since the 1960’s) and around that time didn’t count Marie Osmond’s gospel album as country (both albums did rather well on the main chart the pop Hot 200). Then the next year they put Marie’s brazenly uncountry duet album with brother Donny on the country chart!
Alan Jackson’ s people shouldn’t be crabbing about Americana though – it’s pretty much guaranteed to be his next stop as well as nearly anybody else who wants to sing classic-era influenced country music.
May 18, 2016 @ 8:00 am
If you look at the Americana Music Associations award nominees, it’s even narrower – four names in each of six categories – than Trigger suggests. Isabel is nominated in three of those categories, Lucinda Williams and Chris Stapleton in two each. This is actually an improvement on some previous years when certain nominees gobbled up even more of the possible slots.
Question that occurs to me is whether Billboard will try to define “Americana,” something the AMA has never managed, not, mind you, that anybody else has done any better.
Problem with superannuated country stars rebranding themselves so they can get back into a Billboard chart is that one can easily see an Americana chart becoming a grab bag, where Billboard dumps anything that doesn’t easily fit anywhere else.
May 18, 2016 @ 8:39 am
Most mainstream artists don’t even care about the current country albums chart, partly because they can’t because their fans don’t actually buy albums. We’ve been seeing aging stars using Americana as a soft landing for years and I see that continuing, but I don’t see Billy Ray Cyrus aiming for a spot in Americana because he thinks he can make some headway there.
May 18, 2016 @ 3:31 pm
Trig, a soft landing is exemplified by the Grammy Americana award which often seems to be a Last Chance/Lifetime Achievement Award for artists who are stretching any possible definition. You’re probably right about Billy Ray Cyrus but for publicists especially, placing in ANY chart is preferable to being shut out completely.
May 21, 2016 @ 8:07 pm
Hey Trigger, I live just a few miles north of Birmingham, Alabama. We have had a Nash Icon station here for a couple of years now. On Friday, May 20, they changed their format. It’s now 99.5The South. They are now playing alt-country, Americana and Texas country. Needless to say, I was quite shocked when I tuned in and they were playing Alabama Shakes, Sturgill Simpson, OCMS, Robert Earl Keen, and Guy Clark, just to name a few. No bro country or metro bro. I found it interesting that they do this one week after Billboard started the Americana chart. I was wondering if Cumulus is going to be doing this to all the Nash Icon stations. I think it’s something to keep an eye on.
May 21, 2016 @ 8:36 pm
Interesting. Thanks for the heads up.
May 21, 2016 @ 8:45 pm
You’re welcome. We were one of the first cities to get Nash Icon. Now the new station’s promo says ” if it’s from the south or about the south, we will play it”. The format is somewhat similar to outlaw country on Sirius. It’s wonderful to have a station like this. Been listening to it all evening.
May 23, 2016 @ 2:24 pm
Well , I should have known that was too good to be true. Changing the format over the weekend was just a tease. Starting tomorrow, it’s going to be a talk radio station. My God , Cumulus Media SUCKS!!!
May 23, 2016 @ 10:17 pm
Looks like they’re flipping this to a talk station and it was just a “stunt” as radio stations are known to do when switching formats.