The Civil Wars Help Shift Americana’s Boundaries

The Civil Wars — Rick Diamond/WireImage

Where did you see Americana’s boundaries shifting this year?

That is the fifth and final question we posed to an outside authority and a pair of CMT Edge insiders. They reported back that they’ve seen signs of the genre rising from underdog to contender status — like repeat Grammy nods for the Civil Wars, who’d begun their journey as the little indie-roots duo that could — and even spotted something of a ripple effect in neighboring musical categories.

Barry Mazor
Americana’s not trend-free, exactly, but its working artists by definition are attracted to messing with music that’s rooted in place and lasts across time. Shifts may not come that fast. Over the years, we’ve seen mini-trends in what roots music segments are momentarily hotter, or seem so, sometimes sparked by just a handful of releases — more bluegrass turns one year, soul turns the next, more alt-country rock on the chart one year, more acoustic the next, more duos or solo singer-songwriters or groups. Those internal blips things don’t change the territory boundaries much. They’re included.

But I’m noticing lately boundary shifts coming from outside the reservation, reflected, for instance, in the Grammy nominations. The rock nominees include Americana roots rock-friendly Jack White, the Black Keys and Bruce Springsteen, as well as Mumford & Sons and the Alabama Shakes — outright Americana acts. The “folk” nominees include the Guy Clark tribute, Carolina Chocolate Drops and Ry Cooder, and the boundary there is hard to make out at all! And the nominated country acts tend toward the traditionalist-influenced and Americana-friendly side. Close observation shows notable Americana influence in the songs and sounds included in the Nashville TV series, too.

Only a few years back, there was much public dismissing of “rootsy” material as not fresh or daring enough, or outright boring for rock, country and in pop music circles. Yet we seem to be back in one of those pendulum swings where roots music is gaining a broader attraction with, incidentally, some bonus prestige thrown in. That’s got to be healthy for Americana as such — however long that trend lasts this time around.

(Mazor writes for the Wall Street Journal and Engine145.com.)

Chris Parton
For a long time, Americana and roots music in general struggled to be seen as a “real” genre. I think last year was the tipping point on that front. No longer is this music stuck in small clubs, college radio or wedged into another format. It’s just part of the musical conversation like anything else. In late 2011, the Avett Brothers headlined Nashville’s Bridgestone Arena, and nobody even blinked an eye. It was taken for granted that those guys are stars and not just to their own little cult following.

Institutions like the Recording Academy are on board. At the 2011 Grammy Awards, Bob Dylan was joined onstage — and maybe even upstaged — by the Avetts and Mumford & Sons. The Civil Wars won a Grammy in a country category in 2012 and garnered another nomination this year for a song from a blockbuster movie. The Lumineers landed on national television commercials and Saturday Night Live, one of many, many late night television appearances by roots musicians.

Pop music can appeal to people from a wide array of lifestyles, whereas hip-hop, rock (lately) and country often target a certain type of music listener. As for roots music, people of all ages can like it, but I think the artists are not trying to go for mass-market appeal. However, I believe that roots artists are now seen as the real thing, potentially as commercially viable as hip-hop or rock artists.

(Parton writes for CMT.com and CMT Edge.)

Craig Shelburne
With the launch of CMT Edge, I’ve been getting pitched more bands than I could have imagined. And I’ve had to turn some down, to be honest, because they don’t fit the roots-oriented sound of Americana. (Or bluegrass or classic country.) When it comes to Americana, my boundaries have become more defined this year. I’m always trying to figure out why certain musicians might belong on CMT Edge while others do not.

A decade ago, I threw everything that was sort of acoustic or songwriter-driven — but decidedly not mainstream country — into the Americana pile. You still sound country, but you can’t get a hit anymore? Americana! You write incredible songs and critics worship you, but you sell about 30,000 albums? Americana!

These days, I’m way more selective about what I’ll call Americana. I don’t really care how much you sell or what you look like, but I do pay attention to how you play and if you appear to be faking it. (Oddly, I’m a lot less stringent about what the term “country music” means these days.) So, in regard to authenticity and musical approach, my boundaries have become tighter.

At the same time, I’m overjoyed to see younger artists applying for the Americana music festival because when it started, it always seemed like the same old, same old. I’m crazy for the music, but I didn’t care much for the festival because I felt like I’d heard it all before. (Probably the previous year.) But in 2012, the Americana festival was the most exciting and definitely the most encouraging musical experience of my year, thanks to a host of compelling new artists.

In other words, I do have boundaries for Americana, but if you’re talented and show respect for musical roots, I’ll find a spot for you.

(Shelburne writes for CMT Edge and CMT.com.)