Rooted in the past, Americana blasts off into the future

Wednesday, September 16, 2009 at 11:39pm
Alison Krauss and Robert Plant

Overwhelmed and optimistic, Americana Music Association (AMA) Executive Director Jed Hilly is exuberant about how far this relatively new genre has come in the last decade.

“I think there’s no question that it’s (Americana) comes a long way,” he said. “This year we have broken through to the mainstream and we’ve continued in maintaining our mission, which in many ways remains to establish the genre.”

Whether it was the Oscar success of O Brother, Where Art Thou? or the Grammy-winning collaboration of Alison Krauss and Robert Plant or the way mainstream artists embraced the sound, Americana music has been rising steadily. Now, this is the week to celebrate that success.

The 10th annual Americana Music Association’s Festival and Conference, which began Wednesday and continues through Saturday at several Nashville locations, marks an impressive period of growth for both the trade association and the variety of sounds and idioms that comprise the genre.

Among the many things that Hilly cites as benchmarks that indicate positive developments for Americana is the decision by the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences to provide the music with its own Grammy award beginning with the 2010 ceremonies.

“It’s enormously important,” Hilly said. “The reception has not only been very important in terms of the musicians within the community, but also in terms of the minds of the public.”

Hilly said that in many ways Americana music is similar to jazz in that you can have such a wide range of great performers, all of whom are connected to the tradition of the music, yet also maintain their individuality.

“Just as jazz can have Wynton Marsalis, Billie Holiday, Miles Davis and Harry Connick, Jr., Americana can have The Old Crow Medicine Show, Grace Potter, Lucinda Williams and Hank Williams III, each one unique, yet all linked to the strains and influences that comprise the genre,” he said.

Another milestone was reached this week with the insertion in the latest Billboard of an Americana chart listing the top sellers in the idiom for the first six months of 2009.

“We’re obviously quite pleased to see that happen,” Hilly added. “It’s something that we continue to lobby for in terms of having a regular presence and we’re continue discussions in that area. Certainly we’re thrilled to have it published this week while we’re having our conference and we hope that this becomes a regular feature.” 

One area Hilly downplays — and is periodically voiced by others — concerns the importance of radio to Americana and whether getting a dedicated channel to the format on satellite radio is essential or important.

“Well I know that there are supporters of Americana in the Sirius/XM family,” Hilly continued. “Little Steven for instance is a huge supporter. But Americana has never been reliant on radio for success or exposure, although we’re certainly always happy to get any of our artists played anywhere.”

Hilly noted that it is not like commercial country for example, where you have a long and direct tie and connection.

“In many ways Americana artists have been developing a new business model for the industry that now performers across the board are emulating,” Hilly added. “I come from a rock and pop background in New York and was never a proponent of putting all your eggs in the radio basket.

“What you’re seeing and have been seeing for the last several years in terms of Americana artists are people who utilize a wide range of forums to get their music out there. This includes touring, maybe even selling your CD out of your car and at shows, working the Internet and establishing an interactive website, and any radio airplay you might get,” he added. “But it’s all about being the type of artist that’s always working to get their music to the audience and using any platform that’s available.”

Last year more than 2,000 artists, fans and entertainment industry executives attended the various seminars, panels, and networking events, as well as Thursday night’s Americana Music Association Honors and Awards show at the Ryman Auditorium.

As a professional trade and advocacy organization, the AMA’s presence on the Web and in the music community keeps growing as well. Hilly is quite happy to see the idiomatic and artistic diversity in the field as well.

“Americana is ever expanding and growing, especially in terms of the types of performers who are embracing it,” he said. “You’re seeing everyone from a Hayes Carll to a Nekko Case to Elvis Costello and his wonderful new record. [And] we’ve got people like John Fogerty, Robert Plant and Alison Krauss.

“When you look at the big festivals and events like South by Southwest or Bonnaroo or Coachella, sure they have the big rock acts that draw the thousands of people, but during the daytime you can walk around and you’ll catch four or five Americana acts. This year at Bonnaroo I caught three or four Americana acts on the stages in the afternoon.”

Fogerty, who as leader of the American hit-making Creedence Clearwater Revival, has always had his feet in Americana soil. Listening to the CCR songs “Down on the Corner” or “Looking Out My Back Door” it’s hard to call them rock songs in light of today’s Americana sound.

And Fogerty this year has dusted off his countrified post-Creedence outfit, the Blue Ridge Rangers and playing with success all over again.

“We’re still out there grappling with and trying to define what success really means in terms of the mainstream for Americana artists,” Hilly concluded. “I feel over the last 10 years we’ve really helped to change the landscape of music and the way that people look at music and performers.”

He believes that Americana artists emphasize integrity and pride in performance, history and tradition, as well as innovation and progress.

“When you see breakout acts like The Avett Brothers, that’s another testimonial to the growth of Americana music,” Hilly said. “We’re just as optimistic about the future, because we think Americana will continue to grow and thrive in the years to come.”