Definition is Americana’s Greatest Challenge, Not Diversity

Jason Isbell accepts the 2018 Americana Album of the Year with producer Dave Cobb

At the 2018 Americana Music Awards held on September 12th, the amount of diversity represented in both the performances and the award recipients was above and beyond anything we’ve seen from a country music organization, whether it’s the CMAs, the ACMs, Ameripolitan, the IBMAs (bluegrass), or any other similar grassroots awards or country music offshoot. Out of the six Lifetime Achievement honors handed out on the evening, five were for women, three were for members of the LBGT community, and two were for African American performers. There wasn’t a single white male to receive a non-voted award personally curated by the Americana Music Association.

The 250+ names in the lineup for the week-long 2018 AmericanaFest had more diversity than ever, whether that’s considering the amount of women, members of the African American community, other minorities, representation from foreign countries, or LBGT performers. 2018 saw Americana sanction the first “queer roots” showcase, where artists like Lavender Country, Little Bandit, and Amythyst Kiah performed. Multiple panels and showcases during the event specifically highlighted the influence of African Americans on Americana music, as well as a panel on the challenges women in music face.

Americana has always insisted on being inclusive, and has emphasized the role of blues and soul as vital influences to the diverse palette that composes Americana music. Keb Mo and Taj Mahal were early adopters and champions of the music, Mavis Staples and the McCrary Sisters are now as synonymous with Americana as anything.

2018 was a high water mark when it came to the amount of diversity showcased by the organization and its community. But still the criticism for Americana’s lack of diversity have grown louder, bolstered by the current political climate where many feel they need to insist upon more diversity, regardless of the level of diversity being represented already.

Jason Isbell, who won Album of the Year, Song of the Year, and Duo or Group of the Year at the 2018 Americana Awards said the following day, “I’m conflicted. Yes, I’m extremely grateful for the awards last night, but I also wish the list of winners was at least as diverse as the list of nominees. How to move forward with voters who share that sentiment? I don’t know. I’d honestly like to see it, though.”

Jason Isbell’s opinion underscores the underlying problem with Americana diversity. The community’s diversity issue is not on the stage, or even in the representation of award recipients or nominees. The problem is that when you look out over a given crowd at an Americana event, it is still nearly 100% white. It also tends to be very educated and predominately affluent.

Americana does not have a diversity problem on the stage, it has a white gaze problem from the crowd, and this is on the fans and the community, not the organization or its representatives and artists, if anyone deserves to be blamed at all. When Jason Isbell said that he hoped the award winners were more diverse and that it somehow needed to be dealt with in the voting population for the awards, he was referring to a voting population that is predominantly white.

UK-based African American soul singer Yola Carter was one of the cornerstone performers at AmericanaFest 2018. As the Artist of the Year for the UK-based arm of Americana last year, she’s a burgeoning star in the scene. On Thursday night of AmericanaFest, she appeared at the Nashville Palace as part of the week’s Music City Roots taping. Yola received standing ovations for her heart-stopping performances. But not a single African American was in the audience. At the 2018 Americana Music Awards show, the audience was almost exclusively white as well, even though African Americans made up nearly half of the performers and musicians who appeared on stage.

There is no easy way to diversify the Americana audience. As the old saying goes, you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink. People listen to what they want to listen to. African Americans and other minorities are just not as interested in Americana music in the same numbers as they are in other genres, and efforts to integrate Americana with more African American and minority artists in general has not changed that outcome. That’s why it also stands to reason that adding even more diversity to Americana events will not in any way influence the white gaze issue.

There will never be a point where Americana will find a level of diversity that will satiate the calls of those who see a lack of diversity as a blemish on the burgeoning genre. But in its effort to try, Americana could continue to erode the support behind the genre as it continues to work to define itself, and the listening public continues to be more confused by what the term means—even more so as more diversity is added, and artists from other genres outside of the intuitive borders of Americana are included.

This is not to say that diversity is in any way a bad asset for Americana, or shouldn’t be constantly strived for. Diversity is one of the elements that has created the strength behind the movement. But if the genre stretches to meet arbitrary diversity requirements imposed that will never be satiated in the first place, it risks losing the integrity of the superstructure of representing and defining American roots music in all of its multiple forms.

At the discussion panel “Minds in Potion: Ongoing African-American Innovation in Roots Music” that occurred on Friday, September 14th of the event, the idea of adding hip-hop to the Americana was discussed, and was championed by important members of the Americana community such as NPR’s Ann Powers. “People who don’t think hip-hop is part of  Americana are out of touch,” panelist Kam Franklin of the band The Suffers said, later suggesting that hip-hop acts such as Big K.R.I.T and others should play AmericanaFest in the future.

It’s true that many of the same blues influences that went on to infer country, bluegrass, and other more established Americana art forms are also at the foundation of hip-hop, and there may be some artists that could be represented in Americana that could help illustrate that shared lineage. But hip-hop is also the largest, most successful popular genre in all of music, enjoying much more representation on radio and at major mainstream festivals, and is a genre that is heavily funded and favored by major labels.

Regardless of anyone’s definition of Americana, something most can agree on is that it’s a genre that represents music that otherwise would not be represented by a major organization. Though just like country or Americana, hip-hop may have acts that need support that is not being received, hip-hop enjoys its own infrastructure and support base to find and develop talent. Americana was set up to give support to music that didn’t have it at all. Adding hip-hip to Americana would ultimately mean the edging out of artists who do not have opportunities without the Americana organization, while once again working to confuse the public about what the term “Americana” even means, and still not measuring a dent in the white gaze issue. Many of the artists supported by Americana had to flee country because of the infiltration of hip-hop influences edging them out.

At the 2018 Americana Music Awards, country comedian Wheeler Walker Jr. joked that Americana is country music that nobody listens to. Often people have defined Americana as the the farm league/retirement home of the country genre. As funny or insulting as these things may come across, there is also an element of truth to these assessments, and something the Americana community shouldn’t be ashamed of. Calling Americana the non-commercial side of country music should be a badge of honor for the community.

Americana was created because artists such as Jim Lauderdale, Buddy Miller, Lucinda Williams, and even aging country greats like Johnny Cash were being overlooked. Since then it has found a shared mission with artists such as Keb Mo, The Mavericks, Irma Thomas and Buddy Guy who both won Lifetime Achievement awards in 2018, as did Rosanne Cash and KD Lang, with little to no complaints from the Americana community, but a honor to represent such diversity, both sonically and culturally.

But the most talked-about moment of the 2018 Americana Music Awards was not Jason Isbell’s three wins, John Prine’s award for Artist of the Year, any specific performance, or the Lifetime Achievement recipients. It was the moment Tyler Childers won the Emerging Artist of the Year trophy, and then proceeded to lash out at the idea behind Americana as being a distraction from the real issues plaguing country music, and for being a nebulous, indefinable term.

There will never be a firm definition for Americana, and what the genre encompasses will always be up for discussion. Diversity should also always be a priority of the genre, as it should be for every art form and cultural institution. But as the community moves forward, it should also understand that the greatest risk and challenge to Americana is its inability to explain itself. You can strive for diversity among the population of performers, and still help define Americana sonically by not stretching the sonic palette too far.

And Americana music should never be embarrassed about putting its best foot forward. Jason Isbell winning most all of the competitive awards right now may feel unfair. But he’s also the genre’s superstar, and the way for Americana to put its best foot forward. At some point in the future, other artists will rise up to take Isbell’s place, possibly a woman or a minority, and Isbell will be the one receiving a lifetime achievement award. But that will only happen if Americana survives, and doesn’t implode from trying to be all things to all people, as opposed to attempting to define its place in the music world, even if that definition continues to breathe and shift, and is never fully codified.