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.