Inside the Americana Genre's Identity Crisis
As the burgeoning musical format kicks off its 18th Americana Fest, some question if the community is as inclusive as it should be
In June of 2015, Rosanne Cash performed at Dockery Farms, an early 20th-century Mississippi Delta sharecropping cotton plantation – recognized as one of the foundational birthplaces of the blues – that's now a popular site for tourists wanting to soak up some blues history.
After her headlining performance, Cash approached "Cadillac" John Nolden, a local 88-year-old blues harmonica player who had been enlisted to perform at Cash's Dockery afterparty. "When I was behind the mule in the cotton fields back in the Fifties," he told Cash, "we had a radio on the porch and whenever your daddy [Johnny Cash] came on the radio we all ran out of the fields to gather around and listen."
"I started crying," says Cash, recalling the encounter two years later. "It was like this lightning bolt of connection."
But despite the revelatory moment, Cash is still unsettled about one aspect of her Dockery performance. "This man has been playing the blues harp his whole life and I owe what I'm doing to him and, yet, I'm getting all the attention," she says. "It just struck me so profoundly how much we need to honor him and his tradition."
Rosanne Cash's experience at Dockery is illustrative of both the incredible potential for cross-cultural connection, as well as the subtle racial tensions and profound power dynamics at play in the world of roots – or Americana – music, a genre that in the last few years has become a commercially viable format in the pop marketplace.
To coincide with this year's 18th Annual AmericanaFest, a six-day conference and music festival held in Nashville every year, Rolling Stone Country spoke with more than a dozen musicians, industry professionals, label executives and music historians about the state of Americana music in 2017.
With flagship artists like Jason Isbell and Chris Stapleton earning CMA Awards nominations and Number One country albums as they blur the lines between commercial country music and its singer-songwriter-based alternative, Americana has more mainstream visibility than ever before.
But the Americana music machine, which in many ways still exists as a niche artistic subset of Nashville's country-music industry, is still fine-tuning its identity as an evolving musical community, an industry format and an umbrella musical genre.
Much of the inherent tension comes from what some see as the growing chasm between the reality of Americana's close connections to Music Row and the community's insistence on selling itself not as any sort of rebellious extension of the country music industry but, rather, as an all-encompassing "amalgam of different cultures and multiple races," as Americana Music Association executive director Jed Hilly puts it. According to the organization’s website, Americana music is a sweeping, all-inclusive home for a wide range of American roots styles that include "country, roots-rock, folk, bluegrass, R&B and blues."
"Americana is and always was an umbrella term," says Craig Havighurst, senior producer at Nashville's Music City Roots, a regular Americana radio and web showcase. "It's an industry category and a commercial radio format that has grown to include the big half-dozen or so American roots genres."
As one of its touchstone artists, Rosanne Cash is deeply grateful, if not downright effusive, when she talks about Americana. "It was like finding this really cool island that you tell all your friends about because the hotel is great and the weather is always sunny," she says of first stumbling upon the genre during its turn-of-the-century infancy.
Yet it takes only a few minutes of conversation for Cash to bring up what she sees as the community's greatest shortcoming.
"The Americana community needs to embrace more black musicians," she says, unprompted. "That's the one area where I feel it should really strive to be even more inclusive. I, for one, wouldn't be doing what I'm doing if there wasn't some black musician who had suffered in the South. That needs to be honored, and if amends need to be made, they need to be made.
"If the Milk Carton Kids and Van Morrison and William Bell can co-exist under the same umbrella," Cash continues, "then I think that some deeper blues artists could come under that umbrella as well."
While the upper tiers of the Americana format have become a haven for roots-leaning artists of color of different generations – encompassing blues singer Keb' Mo', soul legend Mavis Staples, roots revivalist Rhiannon Giddens, the Mavericks frontman Raul Malo, and singer-songwriter Alejandro Escovedo – the demographic makeup of this year's AmericanaFest puts the community's representational dynamics in stark relief. A cursory search of the festival's lineup points to a startling disparity: of the roughly 300 artists listed in this year's AmericanaFest roster, more than 90 percent of the acts are made up of exclusively white performers.