How Americana Music Left a Mark in 2012

The Lumineers

What sort of cultural presence did Americana have in 2012?

That’s the question taken up by this week’s trio of contributors, two of them CMT Edge regulars and the other an Americana-attuned critic whose work is widely read elsewhere. Considering that popular listening habits are profoundly eclectic these days and that the rootsy sensibilities of Americana offer an outside-the-mainstream alternative, it’s worth pondering exactly how big of a footprint the music made last year.

Jewly Hight: I watched several marquee acts broaden Americana’s reach well beyond its core fan base last year with a sense of déjà vu. Every decade or so — and this began before it was even a recognized genre — people seem to rediscover the authenticity-championing stance and commercial potential of the music we now know as Americana. It happened when the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack achieved bona fide blockbuster status, and during the brief mid-’90s period when major labels took chances on alt-country bands, and that late ‘80s/early ‘90s window when folk-steeped, intellectual singer-songwriter types landed mainstream deals, and so on.

What really struck me was the degree to which Americana impacted the youth-centric pop music landscape last year. The two sonic languages that dominated sounded like almost perfect opposites: the electronic aesthetic — heard everywhere from dubstep to glitchy, futuristic R&B and the acoustic aesthetic — the accessibly stripped-down, traditionally-minded instrumentation embraced by a small army of acts.

On the latter end of that spectrum, the modern folk of the Lumineers and the Civil Wars was a go-to for ad campaigns and movies, and whether in physical or digital form, people actually bought their music. Mumford & Sons had one of the year’s biggest sellers in any genre. Folk flavors even seeped into unexpected places. There was a fiddled-laced track from R&B singer-songwriter Elle Varner. All told, it would’ve been hard to make it through 2012 without somewhere, somehow hearing the influence of Americana, even if you didn’t seek it out. (Hight writes for CMT Edge, The Nashville Scene, Nashville Public Radio, American Songwriter and Relix.)

Chris Parton: Americana and roots music had a much bigger cultural presence this year than it has in the past, and I would expect that trend to continue into 2013. Not since O Brother, Where Art Thou? has it been so visible, but the infiltration goes beyond music now.

Sure, the music is still front and center: From the Lumineers’ television commercials (I saw a new one using “Ho Hey” just the other night) to the Civil Wars’ “Safe & Sound” in The Hunger Games and Mumford & Sons topping the Billboard 200 album chart, Americana music has found its way into the mainstream media. And acts like Alabama Shakes have been near the top of the bill at massive festivals like Bonnaroo and Coachella.

But more telling in everyday life, I think, is the way fashion has started to come around. Americana can’t claim credit for the recent “hipster” explosion, but rootsy/old-timey sensibilities are an obvious part of it. You can walk through any mall in America and see it. Kids are gravitating toward retro-looking clothes, wearing Buddy Holly-styled glasses and lacing up boots that look like they’re from the early 1900s. Vinyl is even back in style. Americana music has always looked toward the past to make something new, and now that just about everything is disposable, young people are looking for something more permanent and expressing themselves through the same process. (Parton writes for CMT Edge.com.)

Ann Powers: The commercial success of bands like Mumford & Sons, the Avetts and the Civil Wars has definitely led to a surge in emotionally intense sing-along folk. It’s dominating a whole wing of indie rock now, and that stuff is crossbreeding with Americana pretty heavily. It seems like every other new promo I check out from relatively new artists — sister act the Staves, Southern country rockers Mount Moriah, English troubadour act Villagers — has that polished but earnest vibe. At the same time, I’ve noticed a new wave of bands that are in it for the party, like Lake Street Dive from Brooklyn or L.A.’s Dustbowl Revival. And there are some great young soul bands out there — St. Paul and the Broken Bones and Nashville’s own DeRobert & the Half-Truths, to name two. I hope Americana, as a genre, welcomes them all in. (Powers is a critic for NPR Music.)