Was The Rise of Americana Music Inevitable?
Prepare for a fascinating conversation about musical genres, if that fascinates you. Otherwise this might be the most boring article I have written.
Five years ago if you had asked me, “Brent, what style of music do you perform?” I would have responded that I play Country, or more specifically, Texas Country. Yes, Texas Country is a genre, and has been for quite some time. Before its explosion into a larger market I would have defined it as, “Country music instrumentation with a heightened focus on storytelling and folk subject matter”. That has changed recently. And now I would define current Texas Country as “90’s Country revival”. It is a copy & paste process of 90’s country, which incidentally is considered Classic Country to the generation of 20-somethings who are writing it. Texas Country has changed and evolved. Songs have fallen victim to the myth that a successful song must be less than four minutes in length, ignoring the fact that Don McLean’s “American Pie” is one of the most successful songs in US history at more than eight minutes. I would argue that the four-minute-or-less rule is the result of a marketing strategy to force-feed poor songwriting to the consumer. One verse and a repeating chorus on top of a monotonous drumbeat? The average American can handle that for about 2.5 minutes. But give them a good story? Maybe they can handle a bit more? We don’t really know because we no longer try.
Now if you’re still with me, I’m presenting this point to drive you like a cattleman into my point. Are there still people in America would listen to an eight-minute song if it had the content they were looking for? If those people do exist, and they are looking for music, where would they turn to once it was off the airwaves? And it is indeed, off the airwaves.
I opened this by mentioning myself and my relationship with Texas Country. That was my musical background as I endeavored to become a songwriter. But let’s look at the national scene. Country music has a smaller than pop, but yet very loyal fanbase. Pop fans tend to embrace change. It sort of goes with the genre that pop music is going to be whatever is “pop”-ular at the time. Country fans are a bit different. They tend to stay in the place where they first discovered it. Country music has always evolved also. But when it evolves, it tends to leave behind the previous generation. I grew up in the 1990’s Country Music scene and my heroes were George Strait, Alan Jackson, and Mark Chesnutt. All had a neo-traditional sound with fiddles, steel-guitars, and acoustic guitars, all instruments commonl to the genre across multiple generations. 90’s Country also mixed a heavy dose of piano into the mix that partly defined the 90’s Country sound. The Classic Country guys during my time were Merle Haggard, Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, and Jerry Jeff Walker (yes, my Texas roots are revealed here). When Tim McGraw appeared on the scene blatantly showing off that his songs were pretty rock & roll, I was a little nervous. When Rascal Flatts hit the scene I cried “blasphemy!”, and all but jumped ship. This is typical of Country Music fans, who tend to build a relationship with their era and don’t want anything to change. But change must come, and always has. Today’s Country Music on the mainstream level is very Pop, but Pop if Pop were even worse than it is. It’s bad Pop, because shaking your booty to a banjo is just a little weird and uncomfortable.
I would argue that Modern Country Music has pushed its listeners more to the brink than ever before. Why? Tyler Mahan Coe, producer and star of the wonderful Country Music podcast “Cocaine & Rhinestones” wisely notes that the centricity of musical genres is the danger. What he means is that all genres of music are losing their identity and heading towards an all-encompassing center where they mostly sound the same. That center is Pop. Now people will claim that they hate the sound of new country music. But what do they mean by that? Why do they hate it? Most likely the sound that they do love was once a new sound also and was likely hated by the previous generation (note: at one point drums were introduced to Country Music with great controversy and resistance). I think what they really mean when they claim to hate the genre, is that they don’t understand it, they don’t identify with it. And that makes sense. We love the music that we relate to and identify with.
This brings me around to the foreshadowed point of my introduction. If there are people in America who want to listen to music that tells their story, and more rural story, a blue-collar story, a struggle story, a down-home story, where do they go to find that music? It used to be Country Music? But Country Music has perhaps for the first time drifted a little too far for their comfort. Even Tim McGraw was still singing about farms and first dates and good old country fun. The average rural American who loves to work with his hands still does not relate to seducing women and getting drunk while watching a girl dance seductively on a tailgate, all themes in today’s more modern sound. That’s just not their reality. Fantasy perhaps. Not reality.
Americana music is a relatively new genre in the music industry. The term has existed for well over a century to convey an attachment to American roots, or American originality. It has existed in literature and arts, but only recently has become attached to music. Why? Because it was once easier to define original American roots music. Most of it fit cleanly into one of these categories; Bluegrass, Folk, Country, or Blues. All those genres shared a sense of honesty, self-disclosure, and good American storytelling. In more recent decades the explosion of Hip-Hop conveys that an American sub-culture still wanted to consume music that told their story. Hip-Hop roots make it some of the most “folk” music in American history. However, I would argue that even Hip-Hop is threated by the movement to centricity mentioned previously. It has become pop also. Where do we go?
I believe the landscape of the music industry in the past decade has forced the evolution of this new genre we call Americana Music. It developed as we pushed to the margins the American music consumer who still hungers for a song they can relate to, and a story that they can follow. Multiple genres left them behind, with nowhere to turn. They hungered for these characteristics so badly that they were willing to compromise a little on style and were not as picky about the instruments or the presentation. The traditionalists would tolerate a little electric guitar so long as the story is still good .The edgier listener will still throw praise at a folk arrangement featuring only mandolin and guitars because they want to feel what the songwriter feels.
So much has been written and continues to be debated about what defines Americana Music since the genre has so many different characteristics throughout. But the reason why the genre is so diverse is because the American listener was left starving, and a starving person doesn’t argue about vegetables, meats, potatoes, or pastries. They just eat. They need it. I believe we needed Americana Music. The individual musical genres are no longer capable of providing us a Saviour, because the sound that would require would not even be accepted in the industry anymore. Don’t hold out for another George Strait because there are no large-industry experts who are going to invest in a George Strait even if he does exist. Americana is our hope. Americana is our lifeline. Americana is the final rise of a third-party politician who has never been able to get a leg-up in history, but the time is finally right for his place in the debate.
If you ask me today to define my musical style, I would tell you I play Americana music. If you ask me what that means…well, that’s a little harder to answer. And that’s the beauty of it. Just give it a listen.