To start this new “Higher Culture” feature off on the right foot, let’s check the definition of ‘Americana’ from the Americana Music Association (you don’t get more official than that):
Americana is contemporary music that incorporates elements of various American roots music styles, including country, roots-rock, folk, bluegrass, R&B and blues, resulting in a distinctive roots-oriented sound that lives in a world apart from the pure forms of the genres upon which it may draw. While acoustic instruments are often present and vital, Americana also often uses a full electric band.
But, what if that doesn’t give us enough to go on to decipher what Americana’s about?
Something that could give a hint is when we remember that it’s also sometimes called roots-rock. To my mind, alt-country also comfortably lives in the neighborhood.
But, the genre seems to get muddied, when you wade into the realm of music awards. For example, the 63rd Annual Grammy Awards, because of the coronavirus pandemic, were given out on March 14 this year, instead of during the scheduled ceremony in late January. Almost no one tuned in, as RedState’s Brandon Morse wrote this past week.
And one of the album category winners last Sunday night comes from Nashville indie label Acony Records — which only releases work from three artists. Two of them are on this album.
All The Good Times Are Past And Gone by Gillian Welch and David Rawlings won what’s apparently called Best Folk Album, which the Grammys people define as “….albums containing at least 51% playing time of new vocal or instrumental folk recordings”; somebody else won Best Americana Album (World On The Ground by Sarah Jarosz).
The album has 10 songs, all reinterpretations of songs by rock/folk singer and musician Bob Dylan and the recently departed master songsmith John Prine, among others. And there’s a song like “Jackson” which is famously connected to legendary country couple Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash. There are also a handful of traditional songs, including the title track, below:
Coincidentally, the performer who swept the 2021 roots categories (which Grammys world called American Roots Music) is the late John Prine. His stellar, final song, “I Remember Everything,” won both Best American Roots Song and Best American Roots Performance. Co-writer Pat McLaughlin shared the prize for the former.
Here’s 2021 Grammy winner Brandi Carlile (who won the Americana Album and American Roots Performance awards in 2019) paying tribute to the man (Carlile also performed the song during the telecast):
Let’s step away from officialdom, though. Music isn’t about accolades or honors. Especially this music. It tells stories of simple people, but at the same time, explores and expresses complex emotions.
Back to alt-country. It’s arguable that North Carolina native Ryan Adams and his former band Whiskeytown’s country-rock swung for the Americana fences in the waning years of the 1990s.
In the intervening years, Adams released a slew of music in disparate rock genres — including metal — but you can’t listen to most of Adams’ record along with his then-new band the Cardinals, Jacksonville City Nights (2005), and come away with a different description.
Here’s “Silver Bullets”:
By the way, even in these pandemic times, the prolific Adams managed to put out a solid, new album of wistful regret, loss, and remembrance, which you can call alt-country, Wednesdays.
Essential Listening Verdict: What makes Americana essential listening is that it sounds like real life — and there’s beauty in that.
Tell me if I’m wrong in the comments:
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