The Backpage: Just what is Americana?

Monday, September 10, 2012 at 12:15am
By Abby White

“Now that’s Americana!”

The phrase has been uttered so many times during the annual Americana Music Festival and Conference that an outsider may miss the fact that it’s practically an inside joke. For those who are artists or aficionados of the Americana genre, the actual definition of “Americana” has been a divisive and hotly contested subject for the past decade that the event has taken place.

And for good reason. Just look at a handful of the artists who have participated in the event — which starts this Wednesday — over the years: The Avett Brothers, Mavis Staples, Loretta Lynn, Robert Plant, Jack White, The Jayhawks, Jason and the Scorchers, Lucinda Williams, John Mellencamp, Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash. It’s no wonder that it feels like a stretch to find a common thread.

The yearly festival, conference and awards show is produced by the locally headquartered Americana Music Association, a professional trade organization with a mission to build and promote the Americana genre. Jed Hilly, who has served as executive director of the Americana Music Association since 2006, has seen considerable growth in all areas of the organization during his tenure. Membership is up by 45 percent; and, as the number of artists seeking to perform at the festival has doubled, the number of artists showcased has doubled as well. In 2006, the total conference attendance was at 5,600; this year, projected attendance is at 15,000.

So, what is Americana? [Click here for a Venn diagram that takes a shot at answering that question.] 

The consistent growth and attention to what The New York Times deemed “the coolest music scene today” suggests that it doesn’t really matter if the genre exists in a gray area.

“Americana music, by definition, is contemporary music that incorporates great American roots traditions from blues to country, from gospel to bluegrass, to rock and roll,” Hilly states, referencing the 2011 addition of the term “Americana” to Merriam-Webster’s dictionary. “But, after all of these years of trying to define it beyond Webster’s dictionary, you might just say it’s great music.”

If great music defies categorization, this explains why our Americana Venn diagram looks ... nothing like a traditional Venn diagram. Now that’s Americana.

 

 

The Americana Festival and Conference runs Wednesday through Saturday and includes an awards show, artist showcases, panels and more. Information is available at americanamusic.org.

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1 Comment on this post:

By: Pete Wilson on 9/10/12 at 2:14

Sorry, Abby, but I have to register some disagreement with this one. I see a common thread in the Americana Festival lineup. It's a five-letter word beginning with "w" and ending with "e" and it is a homonym for your name, though that's not relevant. Looking for examples of African Americana, I find the Bo-Keys (partially black), the McCrary Sisters, the North Mississippi All-Stars (assuming Chris Chew still plays with them), and Chastity Brown--are there any others? There may very well be, but they appear to be in far more of a minority than African Americans are in the population, and certainly far more of a minority than they make up in the American musical universe.

I realize that there will be plenty of performers playing music originally written, conceived or played by African Americans, but the fact that most of it will not actually be played by black people at the festival is important. It reminds me somehow of a friend of mine who is an Oneida Indian on her father's side. She said that she once mentioned to a cashier somewhere that she was an Oneida, and the cashier said something like, "Well, isn't that nice? What else do you know about your history?" She was dumbfounded, because to her it wasn't history, it was what she was, right there, right now. From what I have seen, it seems to me that the Americana Festival treats blackness in music as mostly just another historical tributary from which a lot of hip, politically correct white people draw--and profit. To call this festival "Americana" is practically a segregationist act.

Pete Wilson