“Now that’s Americana!”
The phrase has been uttered so many times during the annual Americana Music Festival and Conference that an outsider may miss the fact that it’s practically an inside joke. For those who are artists or aficionados of the Americana genre, the actual definition of “Americana” has been a divisive and hotly contested subject for the past decade that the event has taken place.
And for good reason. Just look at a handful of the artists who have participated in the event — which starts this Wednesday — over the years: The Avett Brothers, Mavis Staples, Loretta Lynn, Robert Plant, Jack White, The Jayhawks, Jason and the Scorchers, Lucinda Williams, John Mellencamp, Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash. It’s no wonder that it feels like a stretch to find a common thread.
The yearly festival, conference and awards show is produced by the locally headquartered Americana Music Association, a professional trade organization with a mission to build and promote the Americana genre. Jed Hilly, who has served as executive director of the Americana Music Association since 2006, has seen considerable growth in all areas of the organization during his tenure. Membership is up by 45 percent; and, as the number of artists seeking to perform at the festival has doubled, the number of artists showcased has doubled as well. In 2006, the total conference attendance was at 5,600; this year, projected attendance is at 15,000.
So, what is Americana? [Click here for a Venn diagram that takes a shot at answering that question.]
The consistent growth and attention to what The New York Times deemed “the coolest music scene today” suggests that it doesn’t really matter if the genre exists in a gray area.
“Americana music, by definition, is contemporary music that incorporates great American roots traditions from blues to country, from gospel to bluegrass, to rock and roll,” Hilly states, referencing the 2011 addition of the term “Americana” to Merriam-Webster’s dictionary. “But, after all of these years of trying to define it beyond Webster’s dictionary, you might just say it’s great music.”
If great music defies categorization, this explains why our Americana Venn diagram looks ... nothing like a traditional Venn diagram. Now that’s Americana.
The Americana Festival and Conference runs Wednesday through Saturday and includes an awards show, artist showcases, panels and more. Information is available at americanamusic.org.