With Momentum And Growing Diversity, Americana Celebrates 20 Years

Sep 8, 2019

When the founders of the brand-new Americana Music Association first met in Nashville in 1999, there was no Third Man Records, no 5 Spot and no Mercy Lounge. The Country Music Hall of Fame was under construction, but high-rise cranes were a rarity on the skyline. Artist showcases came along a year later, and what's now called AmericanaFest began a journey of growth that's paralleled its home city, which is to say surprisingly fast and nearly out of control.

Musical genre communities had created associations before, but this was different. Americana was more like a fan's sensibility, a frame that included many strains of roots music old and new, so instead of a preservationist mission, it came on more like a crusade for art. In notes from the 2000 conference, one sees advocates for a righteous cause. Jon Grimson, who coined the Americana, called those early gatherings, a "call to arms." Rodney Crowell addressed the convention and said Americana was a music community “where idealism is still alive and where quarterly profits don’t shape the records being made.” And then-record executive Steve Wilkison explained what he saw happening: “The people who have long loved and supported this kind of music are getting more and more organized."

Johnny and June Cash made their final public performance together at the first Americana Awards event in 2001.
Credit AMA archives

"This kind of music" was never contemplated as a definable sound or genre. Rather it was an ethos already familiar to at least part of the bluegrass and folk music communities of balancing respect for heritage with progress and artistic freedom. Thus it became friendly terrain for hard country throwbacks and avant-garde string bands, political folk singers and punks with banjos. There was head-scratching and pushback among those who couldn't or wouldn't grasp the association's stated definition of Americana: "contemporary music that incorporates elements of various American roots music styles, including country, roots-rock, folk, bluegrass, R&B and blues." There were jabs about Americana being a scene with more artists than fans, about it being a graveyard for late-career country artists and about it being inept at monetizing talent. Yet the accumulated efforts the AMA's members - the festival producers, label folk, videographers, radio hosts, journalists, managers, agents and of course artists - consistently outshone the cynics.

Here are just some of the biggest wins for Americana music in these twenty years: The O Brother, Where Art Thou? phenomenon in 2002-3 put old time music and Delta blues front and center at the Grammy Awards and lifted the careers of Gillian Welch, Dan Tyminski, Ralph Stanley and others to new heights. Old Crow Medicine Show, a band of kids who loved old-time string band music, parlayed outdoor busking to a long-term relationship with the Grand Ole Opry and a career selling out major halls and amphitheaters. Elizabeth Cook brought deep country music and wicked wit to the national conversation via David Letterman and Don Imus. Alison Krauss partnered with Robert Plant and producer T Bone Burnett to produce the iconic Raising Sand, named Grammy Album of the Year for 2009. The Carolina Chocolate Drops landed on Nonesuch Records, one of the country's most prestigious labels and upended what we thought we knew about race and country music while launching the careers of Dom Flemons and Rhiannon Giddens. The Avett Brothers, Mumford and Sons and the Yonder Mountain String Band blasted past all expectations and recent precedents for tickets and albums sold by contemporary folk artists. In recent years, a new cohort of hard country songwriters - Jason Isbell, Sturgill Simpson, Margo Price and Tyler Childers among them - have routinely knocked mainstream albums off the top of the country charts and proven the proverbial Circle of country music history remains unbroken.

Did the Americana Music Association cause those success stories? Of course not. But as a membership collective, it's done a lot to build a world where they became more likely. It's helped shape a business community that's more prepared for lightning to strike and fostered networks of professionals that made the journeys of excellent artists faster and more robust than they'd have been working in isolation. And the AMA has fostered change and growth directly too. The association presented Levon Helm's Ramble at the Ryman in 2008, enabling one of the more important career revivals of modern times. AMA launched an annual outdoor festival at Lincoln Center, bringing world-class roots music to New York City. It's sponsored music exchanges with Australia and supported the creation of an AMA UK, which has now had four festivals and award shows.

In 1999, the major country labels were still making gestures toward "alt-country." Sony had its Lucky Dog imprint with Bruce and Charlie Robison and Jack Ingram, while Universal let Luke Lewis run his boutique Lost Highway label, which launched Mary Gauthier and Hayes Carll. Jim Lauderdale was on RCA, though not for much longer. Over time, especially after the album sales crash of the 2000s, the majors retreated to super-serve corporate radio, and Americana built up a parallel business universe that used a mix of old school and new tech approaches to release music they felt was great. The margins were often thin, but over time, companies like Thirty Tigers and New West Records became pillars of a new music business that put music first.

Another affirming way of looking at these 20 years is to recognize that in 1999, a teenager picking up a banjo, an archtop guitar or a dobro and diving heart first into folk music was a pretty radical life choice. One could keep up with all the meaningful new roots and bluegrass artists in the pages of No Depression and a few other like-minded magazines. Now the magazines are online but even at digital speed, they struggle to assess the staggering flood of new players and content being released in roots space. This hyper-supply is affecting all genres, and of course not all of the music is good, but folk and roots music feel relevant and accepted in the American zeitgeist to a degree not seen since the early 70s.

Solomon Burke's appearance at the 2005 Honors & Awards was an early gesture in widening the Americana idea to include soul, gospel and blues.
Credit Rick Diamond

  The most significant evolution of the Americana idea over twenty years has been its journey of inclusion and diversity. It's been a complex, sometimes awkward dance, but roots artists and fans know in their bones that the blues is the foundation of American popular music and as essential to what we make and love as salt is to food. The question was how to acknowledge and empower that in a format born of a very white country and bluegrass base? Few artists of color were vying for slots in America's folk clubs and festivals in the 2000s, but that changed, especially with the advent of the Carolina Chocolate Drops. Meanwhile the Association used the tool it had at its disposal, which was to tell a story through the Honors & Awards show. They invited Solomon Burke to perform in 2005. Allen Toussaint earned a producer lifetime award in 2006. And Mavis Staples was recognized with the Free Speech award in 2007 (she will accept that award in person this year). It's certainly a work in progress, but where the original Americana implicated Nashville, Austin and Los Angeles primarily, nowadays it feels much more involved with Muscle Shoals, Memphis and even Mobile. A new Legacy of Americana Award, presented in partnership with the new National Museum of African American Music, is a promising harbinger. Flaco Jimenez and Alejandro Escovedeo remain the only two Latino artists who've enjoyed the full Americana spotlight, so that's a largely untold part of the story. A robust public conversation about acknowledging the contributions and outlooks of LGBTQ artists has only recently begun.

AmericanaFest has courted growth in the past decade, some argue to the point of sprawl. The last few years have seen 300-plus official showcasing artists at more than 50 sanctioned venues or spaces stretching from Greenhills to Inglewood to Franklin. It's evolved from an insider's professional scouting event where one could see virtually every artist on tap to a matrix of difficult choices and exorbitant opportunity costs. But the lineups are rich and mind-boggling in range and quality. The institutional part of Americana gets questioned and critiqued regularly, as it should. But it's quite hard to believe that the roots music boom of the 2000s and the 20 years of the AMA are merely a coincidence.