Alabama Shakes Hold On to Americana’s Shifting Style

Alabama Shakes

Where have you seen momentum headed in Americana this year?

Even though there’s a lot of emphasis on Americana celebrating and carrying on musical tradition, it’s hardly a static genre. From the roots-soul sound of Alabama Shakes to the increasingly urbane approach of artists like Tift Merritt, here’s how two esteemed guest contributors and a CMT Edge regular interpreted the stylistic shifts they saw in 2012.

Jewly Hight
As you’d expect in Americana, some of last year’s finest work came from solo singer-songwriter types, not only John Fullbright but Tift Merritt and a back-in-action Iris Dement, too. But I also saw a lot of attention shift toward duos and bands.

The musical spouses in Shovels & Rope and Whitehorse got further together than they had apart. And all those sing-along string bands threw a brighter spotlight on their collective energy, crowd-friendly sounds and crescendoing dynamics.

Americana Grammy nominations aren’t always a reliable reflection of who or what has impacted the genre in a given year. But this particular Grammy slate actually illuminates where the action was in 2012. In addition to Fullbright’s nomination, three of the albums in the running are from folk-rock bands (the Avett Brothers, the Lumineers and Mumford & Sons) and the other is from a master of intelligent, bodily expression who seldom does her own writing (Bonnie Raitt).

Raitt is pretty much the archetype when it comes to performers who join the suppleness and sensuality of R&B-based traditions with the substance of lyrically-sophisticated songwriting. Not only was there a revival of interest in her work last year, but Alabama Shakes found their own way to unite those disparate performing impulses in the garage-rocking roots-soul sound heard ‘round the world.

I can’t help but see a connection between all this and the albums Shemekia Copeland and Janiva Magness released in 2012. They’re blues singers by billing, yet they found material in the catalogs of Americana luminaries like Lucinda Williams, Shelby Lynne and Buddy and Julie Miller.

Both the rise of bands and the influx of the blues made for a very different listening experience — a more physically engaged and immersive one.

(Hight writes for CMT Edge, The Nashville Scene, Nashville Public Radio, American Songwriter and Relix.)

Ann Powers
There’s a lot of insurgent talent in the field, pushing the boundaries — though not necessarily in overtly rebellious ways. Commercially successful folk-rockers like the Avetts and the Lumineers boisterously bash away some of the overly reverential aura surrounding the field. John Fullbright and J.D. McPherson, both Oklahomans, reminded me of elders like the Blasters and Dwight Yoakam in the way they adopted but also kicked new life into familiar forms.

Alabama Shakes, a band as Americana as it gets without easily fitting into the scene’s usual molds, not only made clear how important soul is to this subgenre, it also reminded us that rocking out is not a sin. Chris Thile, who’s been reshaping bluegrass in amazing ways for a while now, won a MacArthur Fellowship, and along with his current band Punch Brothers and his former Nickel Creek bandmate Sara Watkins, continued to expand the ways that bluegrass can be both pop and avant-garde.

Shovels & Rope and Hurray for the Riff Raff reinjected buskers’ energy into the Americana sound. And in different ways, Angel Olsen, Sallie Ford and Kelly Hogan strongly reimagined what a woman performer can do, defying the sometimes confining girl-in-vintage-gingham stereotype. Most of these artists are fairly young, and they’re renewing Americana’s self-definition.

(Powers is a critic for NPR Music.)

Juli Thanki
With Mumford & Sons’ mammoth album sales, the Lumineers’ breakout success and the Avett Brothers’ Gap commercial, 2012 was the Year of the Earnest Neo-Folk Band. Those events, along with the attendance records set at this year’s Americana Festival, point to the genre’s growing popularity. In addition, Americana mainstays Tift Merritt and Justin Townes Earle released the most polished records of their careers.

Even so, it’s doubtful that Americana will make the permanent leap to the mainstream. Mumford & Sons aside, as a whole, the Americana genre (thankfully) lacks the bombast of commercial music. The bands above signify the genre’s increasingly urbane sound, and that’s something I think will continue whether or not Americana’s mainstream popularity continues to grow.

(Thanki writes for Engine 145, M Music & Musicians and Bluegrass Unlimited.)