TIDAL 10 – COUNTRY: Americana Breaks Through

After decades of cult status, Americana becomes a commercial coup.

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To celebrate the close of this remarkable decade in music, we’ve launched an article series called the TIDAL 10 – that’s 10 essays reflecting on 10 movements that have helped to define the past 10 years in 10 diverse genres. The pieces will appear throughout December, and cover a striking range of music, from Chicago drill to crossover classical, Americana to the R&B avant-garde. Enjoy. – Evan Haga, Editor, TIDAL Read  

There’s a joke that radio and label folks used to tell on Nashville’s Music Row. “What’s the definition of Americana?” they would ask, and they’d answer their own question: “Country music that doesn’t sell.”

You don’t hear that joke much anymore. Not after Americana artists such as Jason Isbell, Chris Stapleton, Sturgill Simpson, the Highwomen and Tyler Childers have topped Billboard’s Country Albums chart. Not after the Avett Brothers, Mumford & Sons, the Civil Wars and the Lumineers have had top-5 albums on Billboard’s pop charts.

Not after Billboard, quite sensibly, began including such aging rootsy rock acts as Bruce Springsteen, James Taylor and John Mellencamp in the publication’s Americana/Folk Albums chart. And not after Isbell, Brandi Carlile, Margo Price and Old Crow Medicine Show started selling out multiple-night runs at the Ryman Auditorium.

Americana — an umbrella term that includes alt-country singers, string bands, folkie singer-songwriters, roots-rock bands, blues and old-school R&B — has long enjoyed critical acclaim. With their emphasis on historical influences and smart, often political lyrics, these acts are like catnip for a certain kind of music writer (mea culpa). Another Nashville saying is “Critics don’t sell records” (though if you’ve ever seen music journalists carrying boxes through the door of a used-record store, you know that’s not true). And yet, these Americana acts, critics’ favorites all, have started moving albums and concert tickets and earning streams in quantities that can’t be ignored.

A sizable audience for rootsy, storytelling music has always existed, and before 1990 the country and rock genres supplied those songs. But rock’s compulsive hunger for innovation and novelty pulled it away from its sense of history and melodic pleasure, and Garth Brooks figured out there was more money in the abandoned pop-rock audience than there was in the old country-music audience. Brooks proved how much money Nashville could make, and Music Row converted to his formula of catch-phrase songwriting and arena-rock production.

These changes left the audience for narrative-based roots music stranded without an industry to serve it. Plenty of artists were willing to try, but they lacked the radio, venue and media networks to connect to those listeners. In 1999, a Nashville group founded the Americana Music Association with the quixotic goal of creating those links.

It took 10 years of suffering jokes like those above, but the group finally made some headway — establishing its own radio chart, convincing the Grammys to add an award for Best Americana Album and creating an awards show that continues to fill the Ryman each year. The unabashed carnival hucksterism that accompanied this effort was sometimes over the top, but it was just what was needed to lift the would-be genre’s visibility and make stars of some unlikely characters.

Consider, for example, Jason Isbell, who’d served time in the Drive-By Truckers, a Southern-rock act that could have held its own with the Band and Lynyrd Skynyrd in an earlier era but found its ceiling lowered in a time when rock tastes had moved on from narrative and echoes of the past. Isbell was asked to leave the band when his drinking got out of hand, and he initially floundered as a solo act. But then he sobered up in 2012 and started writing country songs as good as those of Merle Haggard and Willie Nelson. Country radio wasn’t interested, but the expanding Americana audience was, and Isbell’s live shows soon moved from nightclubs to theaters and pavilions. So did the shows by the Grammy-nominated Margo Price, whose first two studio albums landed in the top 15 of Billboard’s Country Albums chart. She did it by sounding more country than country radio, which gave her no help, and by being unsparingly honest about the damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t expectations of today’s young women.

Consider Sturgill Simpson, a big-voiced country-rocker whose songs pioneered frank talk about drugs and the visions they might stimulate. Simpson also produced the breakthrough albums by fellow Kentuckian Tyler Childers, whose Appalachian sound is classic country but whose sharply observed stories are too dark and lurid for country radio. Or consider Chris Stapleton, who once supplied a Howlin’ Wolf-like voice to the Americana string band the SteelDrivers. As a solo artist, he was able to bypass country radio’s resistance with some well-timed TV appearances that made him a country star. The two studio albums by Stapleton’s most obvious imitator, Luke Combs, have broken sales and streaming records.

And then there are the Highwomen, an all-female supergroup punningly named after the Highwaymen (Nelson, Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings and Kris Kristofferson). This new quartet matched two Americana artists (Isbell’s wife, Amanda Shires, and Grammy-winner Brandi Carlile) with two mainstream country acts (Maren Morris and Natalie Hemby). Even though the quartet’s debut album fell short of the members’ high-water marks as solo artists, it did prove how much overlap there is between country and Americana. Morris and Hemby clearly envied the loosened boundaries of Americana, while Shires and Carlile benefited from the tightened focus of commercial country.

More and more such collaborations have occurred over the past decade. Country superstar Eric Church name-dropped Americana’s Ray Wylie Hubbard on “Mr. Misunderstood,” a top-15 country single and the title track of Church’s 2015 album. This led to a songwriting collaboration between the two men that produced the title track of Church’s 2018 album, Desperate Man, another top-15 single. Jim Lauderdale, the early long-running host of the Americana Music Awards show, has written songs for George Strait, Patty Loveless and Gary Allan. Buddy Miller, Lauderdale’s frequent duo partner, was the executive music producer for seasons two and three of Nashville, ABC-TV’s show about mainstream country music.

As in any other genre, the talent in the Americana field goes from the sublime (James McMurtry, Rhiannon Giddens) to the ridiculous (the hipsters dressed up as Hee Haw cast members at your local club). You can joke about the latter, but you can no longer joke about the genre’s economic viability.

Geoffrey Himes writes about music for the Washington Post, Paste, American Songwriter, the Nashville Scene, JazzTimes and DownBeat.

Image: Jason Isbell and Amanda Shires perform at the Ryman Auditorium in October 2019. Credit: Erika Goldring/Getty.

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