Is Americana a state of mind more than a musical genre?
The juxtaposition was hard to ignore. Last Wednesday, the Americana Music Association honored Dr. John, Grateful Dead songwriter Robert Hunter and Arhoolie Records founder Chris Strachwitz and this year's award winners in the historic Ryman Auditorium, which holds perhaps 2,000 people. A night and a hundred or so yards away, Taylor Swift started a three-night stand at Nashville's Bridgestone Arena with 11 tractor trailers with Swift-specific artwork on their sides parked beside the arena.
In The Nashville Scene, writer Jewly Hight argued in a feature on double AMA winners Shovels and Rope that maybe Americana is losing its underdog status, but the conference's proximity to Swift made that assessment seem hopeful as one night's worth of Swift fans in the arena outnumbered the conference attendees and performers. The proximity highlighted a conceptual gulf as well, one that finds Americana fans on shaky ground.
A Music Row songwriter once dismissed Americana as country that doesn't sell, and for some in the Americana community, the condescension is mutual. One man waiting in the lobby in the Bridgestone Arena to get into a tribute to Eddy Arnold in the Sirius XM Theater spoke with easy disdain about the girls who camped out in the same lobby the day before, waiting for Swift. Any connection he had to his 15-year-old fan self was either lost or smugly dismissed, as was the reality that Arnold was a mainstream country figure in his day. Time has marginalized him, and he was never as big as Taylor Swift, but it's a difference of degree. He was in the hit-making business too.
Americana invites this sort of musing because AMA T-shirts proudly proclaim that "Americana" is a noun in the dictionary now, and it survived as a Grammy category when many other stylistic sub-divisions were purged or merged. In the past, supporters of Americana as a genre have pointed to genre-busting figures such as Steve Earle, Lucinda Williams and Buddy Miller to argue for its necessity, overlooking the many artists who fit fairly comfortably in country, folk, bluegrass and the blues. It often seemed that "Americana" was tied to notions of authenticity and integrity. Arnold and the people who were covering him - Alejandro Escovedo and Chuck Mead among others - had it; Taylor Swift and Luke Bryan (who'd sold out two nights in the arena, I learned from a video screen while waiting to get in to the Arnold tribute) don't.
This year, AMA further broadened "Americana" this year by spotlighting New Orleans as one point in the Americana Music Triangle that effectively covers the traditional homes of much of the music generally agreed upon as Americana. In the past, it has given a Lifetime Achievement honor to Allen Toussaint, and this year it honored Dr. John, who played a beautifully haunting, electrifying version of "Walk on Gilded Splinters" backed by Buddy Miller's band with Don Was on bass and The Black Keys' Dan Auerbach on second guitar. The next day, American Routes' Nick Spitzer conducted a smart, entertaining interview with Dr. John that focused on his early years in way that kept him from repeating a lot of oft-told stories. One of the revelations was that Dr. John backed away from his 1994 autobiography, Under the Hoodoo Moon, saying that it was as much the product of the ghost writer and wise guy friends as his own memory.
In addition to Dr. John, this year the AMA brought Jon Cleary and The Dirty Dozen Brass Band to Nashville to perform on a New Orleans night, along with Dash Rip Rock, Susan Cowsill and Tommy Malone. During a panel that I moderated, Nola.com's Alison Fensterstock said she could see bounce considered an Americana music - a suggestion that would chill the AMA executive this year, but 10 years from now - who knows? If brass bands and an R&B band like J.C. Brooks and the Uptown Sound are Americana, how much wider do we have to open the umbrella to get to a Tribe Called Quest? Eric B. and Rakim? If the real defining characteristics are the music considered the good, the true and the beautiful by the members, how will that definition change when there are a few generations that haven't known life without hip-hop?
A listening party for a deluxe-beyond-deluxe box set of recordings for Paramount Records from 1917 to 1927 at Jack White's Third Man Records pointed in that direction. The set collects traditional jazz along with blues, gospel, one man bands and more, prompting me to wonder if "Americana" really means music that has been moved to the margins, whether by time or shifts in tastes, and that it's a catch-all for songs and artists that merit catching.
That was certainly the impression created by the conference's music showcases. Joplin, Missouri's Ben Miller Band looked disturbingly like white supremacists with their shaved heads and big beards, but they also played hot, consistently sonically inventive hill country blues, including a version of "St. James Infirmary Blues" that featured Doug Dicharry on trombone, percussion and surprisingly sweet harmonies, often within moments of each other.
Giant Sand's Howe Gelb found himself an Americanan as well. Nothing has changed in his music. It's still as personal, beautiful and challenging as ever but by dint of signing to New West Records, he seems to have become Americana.
That broad embrace at times feels like coalition-building, but it's coalition-building for the best reasons. Gelb, Miller, J.C. Brooks, Shannon McNally, Peter Bruntnell (Beatlesque pop) and even AMA royalty Buddy Miller and Jim Lauderdale exist on the fringes of the mainstream marketplace despite making great music. Many of the fine writers and ethical businesspeople who attended the conference have similarly found that technology and changes in their industries have left them with uncertain futures as well. Americana offers all these people hope and a home that is at least musically and spiritually fulfilling, and that's important. At a time when business in America is devil take the hindmost, a genre and community that aspires to be inclusive is important, even if it's a little fuzzy around the edges. And not that fond of Taylor Swift.