According to the Americana Music Association, Americana is music that honors and is derived from the traditions of American roots music. In a nutshell this is the truth. However, in addition to being an amalgam of American music hybrids, Americana is also a genre contrived by the radio industry to give a home for those musicians that fall between the cracks between modern genres.
The Roots of Americana Music
Although the roots of Americana lie in the American Folk and Blues of the early 20th Century and the Rock and Country of the mid-century, Americana truly began to come together as its own genre in the 1970’s.
By the 1970’s, Folk and Rock Music had spawned a fusion known, fittingly, as Folk-Rock (R. Lankford “Folk Music USA). Bands such as the Flying Burrito Brothers, The Byrds, and The Band created a new sound combining the best elements of the two Genres. One member of both the Byrds and the Flying Burrito Brothers, Gram Parsons, who would later be revered as the god father of Americana.
At the same time in Country Music, a movement was forming away from its traditional center in Nashville. This movement became known as Outlaw Country and was in direct contrast to the Nashville music industry as the tight control producers had over the artists and their music.
Some of these innovators included Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard, Guy Clark, and Townes Van Zandt. Outlaw Country replaced the overproduced Nashville sound with a rawer roots sound more reminiscent of early country musicians such as Hank Williams and Jimmy Rodgers, along with lyrics unbleached by mainstream music.
The Alt-Country Movement and the Americana Radio Format
Alt-Country is basically Hank Williams interpreted by bands who grew up on the Replacements. In the 1990’s, Folk-Rock and Outlaw Country began to merge with other, smaller influences, all coming together in a giant musical stew. With the sneer of Outlaw Country, the songwriting of Folk Rockers, and a healthy dose of Rock and Roll, diverse bands such as Uncle Tupelo, the Old 97’s, and the Jayhawks, along with roots rockers like Steve Earle and Lucinda Williams, developed their own large followings.
Alt-Country developed enough of a following to make radio stations want to cash in. The problem was that Alt-Country was too Rock for Country stations, and too Country for Rock Stations, and neither format was comfortable with the edgier lyrics.
Radio stations decided to create a new format to suit this developing genre. Backed by the newly founded Americana Music Association, whose mission is to “provide a forum for the advocacy of Americana music and to promote public awareness of the genre,” Americana found a niche in the modern American musical spectrum.