On Friday, Bob Dylan will wrap up the Americanarama Festival of Music, his six-week U.S. tour alongside an all-star cast of colleagues, including Wilco, My Morning Jacket and Ryan Bingham. All those acts have a home in the genre called Americana -- a nostalgic musical stomping ground where musicians act as ambassadors for the country's past and its indelible ideals: community, endeavor, democracy, frontierism.
But there's something wrong with this picture. If Americana represents some broad definition of American identity, then how does it manage to exclude the influence of so much music made here in the past 40 years? And where, you've got to wonder, are the artists of color? Can a genre that offers itself up as a kind of fantasy soundtrack for this country afford to be so homogeneous and so staunchly archaic?
Maybe, at the very least, it's time for a name change.
Before it became a term for a musical genre, "Americana" was slang for the comforting, middle-class ephemera at your average antique store -- things like needle-pointed pillows, Civil War daguerreotypes, and engraved silverware sets. In the 1990s, radio programmers coined a new, related usage: "Americana" became a nickname for the weather-beaten, rural-sounding music that bands like Whiskeytown and Uncle Tupelo were making. It was warm, twangy stuff, full of finger-plucked guitars and gnarled voices like tires on a dirt road. If you can imagine an Americana song as a bottle of beer (easy enough), you'll probably taste a hint of salt from the lead singer's tears mixed in.
But the genre defines itself by its progenitors more than its present. Any Americana artist working today ought to know his Woody Guthrie, his Carter Family, his Willie Nelson, his Blind Willie McTell.
Case in point: The nonprofit Americana Music Association formed in 1999, and held its first festival and conference the following year in Nashville. The big coup came in 2009, when the Grammy Foundation established an independent category for Best Americana Album. In the four years since, no musician under 60 has won the award.
And despite the genre's roots in gospel and the blues, the 20 Americana nominees to date have included only one black artist: the singer Mavis Staples, who won the award in 2011 for You Are Not Alone. (The album was produced by Wilco's Jeff Tweedy.)
Americana's proponents position themselves as anti-establishment gadflies to the left of commercial country. Many see themselves as preserving some bygone, purer strand of Americanness, and argue -- in distinctly rockist terms -- that this genre is just the modern-day manifestation of a timeless truth. (CBC radio personality Madonna Hamel gave a digestible synopsis in a recent radio special on Americana: The Americana Music Association, she said, is a brotherhood of "ex-industry types [who] quit their lucrative day jobs to get exposure for the artists they love. Their goal was simple: find a home for singers who can sing, writers who can write, players who can play.")
But you'll notice that it didn't take long for Americana to earn industry acceptance, which can be explained in much the same way as the existence of the genre's other, less flattering nickname: "dad rock." The music business was happy to create a niche for the country's most fiscally dependable demographic -- white, male Baby Boomers. Along the way, a handful of artistic traditions founded in rebellion (blues, Appalachian folk, outlaw country) got elided into a relatively conservative format.
Americana is music that sticks up for its drinking buddy, remembers the first time the flag was hoisted over the corner store, kicks up dust on its way out of town. After work, it watches TCM. But ultimately, if an art form is going to name itself after this country, it should probably stop weatherproofing itself against America's present-day developments. And it hardly seems like enough to say you're carrying on the legacies of black gospel and blues if the performers and listeners venerating them are almost all white.
In her book It Still Moves, a loving depiction of Americana's roots, Amanda Petrusich gets it right: "It sometimes seems like the Delta's legacy is most present in modern hip-hop" -- rather than Americana -- "where its basic tenets are still being perpetuated, even if the form has altered dramatically."
When Bob Dylan performs, he channels a whole universe of time-weathered emotions, ideas, and legacies. He refits himself to work as their vessel, but in the process, he makes them his own. In his memoir, Chronicles, Dylan describes songwriting as a form of inheritance: "Opportunities may come along for you to convert something -- something that exists into something that didn't yet." That, he said, is composition. And he's right; the vast American songbook and the styles that bind it together have always developed as a negotiation between self-sustaining tradition and venturesome experimentation. This is often lost on Dylan's latter-day disciples in Americana.
Older societies around the world -- African, European, Native American, and so many others -- developed folk-music customs that held for many generations. The United States, though, didn't have that option. It's a relatively new country, and one founded on adaptation and expansion -- into new territory, new markets, and new models for society.
To wit: In the early 20th century, white southerners like Hobart Smith and Dock Boggs transferred English folk songs to the banjo, an instrument invented by blacks as an adaptation of certain West African instruments. Folks like Smith and Boggs incorporated African-American syncopation into the mainly British roots of Appalachian folk, creating the framework for bluegrass and other styles. Wandering white songsmiths penned murder ballads (a form of oral history with origins in Scandinavia and Britain) that shot dark, smoke-ringed enigma into the lore of the American West. Then black singers fused the murder ballad format with the blues, giving rise to timeless, ululating songs like "Stagger Lee."
Despite de jure and de facto segregation around the country, intermingling across ethnic and racial lines was inevitable: Wage work on railroads and coal mines, minstrel shows, and, eventually, radio broadcasts brought people together.
Folk music lost much of the nation's attention during the Depression and World War II, but a generation of young urban liberals revived it in the late 1940s and '50s at open-mics in New York's Greenwich Village basements and singalongs in Washington Square Park. In January 1961, just arrived from the Midwest, Dylan snuck onto the scene like an agent provocateur, living on people's couches and haunting folk clubs. The 20-year-old could sing old ballads and blues with the tanned-leather sagacity of an old timer; he was signed to Columbia within the year. As is so often the case, it took a bit of iconoclasm to make him the movement's leader: He wrote his own songs, often from scratch -- a rare practice on the revival scene. And into his ballads he wove misty threads of poetry that were unlike anything the Dust Bowl generation had known.
Five years later, Dylan had left folk behind. He was already being called "the voice of his generation," but to merit that title he couldn't just keep writing about revolt -- he had to make sizzling, mercurial music that actually sounded like mutiny. His subsequent albums became invitations to an intimate American wonderland where Woody Guthrie, Son House, and Jimmie Rogers messed around with Louis Jordan, T-Bone Walker, and Elvis Presley, then wandered off together into the unknown. Dylan is monumentally important today precisely because he broke with a movement that held so fast to its own ideals, and his protean career hasn't sat still since.
Dylan can be seen as the father of Americana, but his lessons often don't seem to register. Have they reached Jason Isbell, the somber guitar plucker who's presently on top of the Americana association's radio charts? Isbell draws on a lot of familiar imagery ("Money and liquor and lust had taken my heart and my trust / I could see ashes and dust were headed my way"), but he rarely stirs it up into anything new. What about Dawes, a band that opened for Dylan on his previous tour? The quartet has some range but sticks to a fairly closed circuit of influences: mostly 1970s folk-rock and country artists like Willie Nelson, Crazy Horse, Kris Kristofferson, and the Charlie Daniels Band.
By implying that bands like Dawes encompass some omni-American ideal, the Americana genre doesn't just reify the notion that a white male perspective defines the American experience. It runs the risk of confusing oldness with authenticity. The music looks to conjure an America before big-box stores, when commerce was still a community-based ritual, when a fistfight and a beer were enough to settle a debt. This is all a sort of mythmaking, which is fine: That's part of what music is for. But as Oscar Wilde expressed, art is useful because it invites life to imitate it; what separates the two also holds them together. Music gets its power from a keen, contemporary perspective, not from reviving someone else's memories. America, like its many musical forms, is becoming more diverse, so it feels facile to let this one strain of yellow-page nostalgia represent it.
As Wilco has proven in their performances on the Americanarama tour, some so-called Americana bands do make their own rules and write songs that are entirely their own. But to get there, they have to break the genre's glass walls. In the moody abstraction of Wilco's lyrics, and its fractured sonic pastiches, you thank goodness for the influence of John Cale, Can, and Portishead.
And what about that all-encompassing American identity? Is there one? Kendrick Lamar is saying some things about city living that could never make it into an Americana song. And for a cold, hard read on the present state of Middle America, you might want to look a little closer to the marketplace than Americana is willing to tread. Give a listen to "Weed Instead of Roses," by the country singer Ashley Monroe, and try to imagine that the original country outlaws wouldn't pick her over Dawes any day.
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