Michael Scott Cain,
The Americana Revolution: From Country & Blues Roots to the Avett Brothers, Mumford & Sons, and Beyond
(Rowman & Littlefield, 2017)

Is there an "Americana" genre? It's a question my Rambles.NET colleague and fellow music geek Michael Scott Cain raises repeatedly in his readable and informative The Americana Revolution. One is tempted, noting that the second band (which is English) cited in the subtitle, to answer in the negative. Another "Americana" hero is the very British guitarist Richard Thompson, whose guitar style owes far more to the English and Scottish folk tradition (to which the guitar was introduced, by the way, just a few decades ago; Thompson is among its inventors) than to the vernacular styles of the subtitle.

If I were asked, I'd propose this definition: alternative American pop music. It certainly isn't mainstream pop, and most consumers are unaware that a would-be genre called Americana (a label invented in the 1990s to protest the corporatization of radio playlists) is struggling for recognition or even existence. It isn't precisely folk music, either, or even "roots" music in some broad sense, unless one thinks of 1960s guitar-rock bands and 1970s singer-songwriters as "roots." Some do, apparently. Not I.

The problem, or one of them, is that ordinarily when one hears an act or an album characterized as Americana, one has no idea what is meant. It could be anything so long as, I guess, it isn't hip-hop. And when it does seem to mean something, it's, well, see previous paragraph. To my hearing, as one long immersed in more historically rooted music (and really, in the Americana context "roots" can only mean traditional folk music, encompassing downhome blues as one example of same), most otherwise uncategorizable Americana seems bland, watered-down and, yes, rootless.

In common with other Americana chroniclers and advocates, Cain stresses that folksingers, blues artists, traditional country acts, roots-rockers, bluegrass and oldtime bands, and just about all whose music sounds as if it has an actual past are part of "Americana." Well, maybe. On the other hand, why on earth do people specializing in blues, bluegrass or whatever need another name for what they're doing? The late Ralph Stanley, for example, called what he did mountain music, while others called it bluegrass. Either label fits; why do we need a third? And what purpose is served by labeling Muddy Waters, who virtually defined the blues of his generation, as Americana?

On the other side of it, I think of Emmylou Harris, who produced a series of memorable albums as a folk-inflected country singer (and, not incidentally, as a sterling interpreter of other people's songs). Now that she has embraced and championed the Americana label, she has become barely more than just another singer-songwriter. It's not that her albums of the past couple of decades have been bad. They have their points, but Harris's good name aside, they're not all that distinctive.

My own experience as a music writer has taught me that if the promotional sheet that arrives with a CD for potential review tells me the disc is Americana, I probably won't make it through the first listening. If the music is not some recognizable form of folk or blues or country or whatever, it probably will strike me as, well, sort of undigested. If you want to fuse genres with the long, complex histories of American roots sounds, you need (1) to know a whole lot about those genres and (2) to have both acute creative ideas and the technical skills to pull them off. I think immediately of Ry Cooder. I might add, in a slightly different context, Lucinda Williams and Lyle Lovett, who besides being credits to the singer-songwriter tribe are exemplary absorbers of various vernacular genres.

I am old and just smart enough to understand and appreciate that listeners respond to music in their own perfectly legitimate ways. Songs and styles that move me, in other words, may do nothing for you, and that's OK. So if Americana (whatever it is) is meaningful to you, God bless you. Cain writes that those who practice it (whatever it is) work outside the industry's business strictures and -- literally -- pay for their independence; their determination to make and perform the music that meets their vision and taste comes at a cost. That's heroic.

Though (obviously) I don't share Cain's enthusiasm for the Americana concept, I do admire his thoughtful, intelligent approach, which boldly takes up all the questions, even those for which no answer is currently, or perhaps ever will be, available. One musician he quotes observes that "Americana" amounts to no more than an umbrella under which disparate acts, pursuing their own non-mainstream interests, can gather. I am all in favor of non-mainstream music of every stripe. In truth, in my listening I am rarely in the proximity of the mainstream and would want it no other way. Probably, if you're reading these words, you feel more or less the same.

Does Americana have a future? There is an Americana Music Association, together with an annual awards show and some radio/satellite/public-television programming with that format. There are a few magazines (one of which employed me for a short, unhappy tenure). No one who is not financially involved with the music industry would deny that independent voices are a good thing.

So it's worth your while to pay attention. And while you're doing so, you really need to read The Americana Revolution, a spirited guide to both the sounds and the questions.

book review by
Jerome Clark

20 May 2017

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