by Chuck Dauphin
A few weeks ago, I wrote about the never-ending debate about the definition of Country Music. As tough as that is, it’s nothing compared to how one defines the term “Americana.”
In writing about this topic, I’m going to be (gasp!) honest about my thoughts – as they were when you first started hearing the term to describe a musical genre. There were several artists who had been favorites of the Country genre who no longer found themselves played on mainstream radio. Rodney Crowell and Emmylou Harris were two examples of this. Crowell had a string of top tens from 1988-1992, but all of a sudden his name disappeared from radio playlists. The same happened to Emmylou Harris following her 1988 top ten “Heartbreak Hill.” Critics of the musical format said it was that Country Music had changed – and gotten more pop and rock influenced. That is true – but, only halfway. If you listen to some of Harris’s post 1992 work, as well as Crowell’s, you’ll find some different sounds and subject matter that they weren’t doing earlier. That’s not saying they weren’t doing great music – but it WAS different than their own music that was played on top-40 Country radio just a few years earlier. So, (at least in my mind), that’s how the Americana format was born– as a place for acts who weren’t getting the commercial reception that they once had.
Ok, I know I just offended several of my friends with that – but that’s my opinion. I never said that the music was bad, just different. Twenty years later, the definition of Americana is not that simple in my mind. One of the best albums of late in the format is Radney Foster’s current album, DEL RIO, TEXAS REVISITED: UNPLUGGED AND LONESOME , is a stunning re-take on his classic 1992 album DEL RIO, TEXAS 1959. The songs are the same that were radio hits back in the early 1990s. They were Country then, what changed? When artists like Patty Loveless release new projects, they get a warmer reception in the Americana format than Country – and this is by an artist that is a former CMA Female Vocalist of the Year. Granted, she wasn’t cutting Bluegrass music back in 1988 as her last album was, but the voice is still as pure and stunning as ever.
But, Americana reaches far beyond the Country format. There’s tinges of Blues, Rock, Gospel, and Bluegrass that are sprinkled throughout. So, is Americana “anything outside of the mainstream?” I don’t know. The Civil Wars, a critical favorite, recently collaborated with Taylor Swift on “Safe and Sound.” What do you call that?
Part of my continuing education concerning “Americana” took place when WSM-AM became a reporter to the Americana chart a few years ago. I have become a huge fan of some of the acts featured on the “50,000 Watt Blowtorch of the South,” such as Will Hoge – who I think could be a huge star in any format. Listening to a lot of this music makes me realize that it’s not as different as I thought. Then again, being 38 means that life’s experiences have made me appreciate deeper and introspective lyrics more than I used to.
I say all that to say this. I’m not sure if I have made this definition any more clearer – or murkier than before. But, the Americana format has become one of the most exciting movements out there – regardless of definition or lack thereof!