AMERICANA – Legitimate genre or lame excuse? – by Chris Smith for Country Music News International Magazine & Radio Show


Legitimate genre or lame excuse?

Chris Smith for Country Music News International Magazine & Radio Show

Look up
‘Americana’ in any dictionary and it will tell you the word simply describes
“things associated with America” and indeed it can be and is used to describe a
variety of things from classic cars to soft furnishings, but no dictionary I
have found gives any sort of definitive boundaries as to how the word can (or
should) be used to describe music.

My earliest
recollection of Americana being used to describe someone’s music was at that
point of Emmylou Harris’s career when she certainly wasn’t a folk artist any
more, and the songs she and the Hot Band were releasing did not fit that
Nashville category which became known as ‘New Country’. For a while Americana
almost seemed a protest genre used by some excellent musicians who, for
whatever reasons, did not want their creative output to be lumped in with what
was currently being perceived as country music. And a perfectly legitimate use
it was at the time too.

Since then I have
had much more involvement in country music radio and I have been writing
articles and reviewing new releases for a decade or more. I have to say that
when I see the word Americana used to describe new music by a new artist these
days it evokes more dread than eager anticipation.

Americana has,
quite possibly because of the loose dictionary definition, become in my opinion
a PR person’s get out of jail card when the music they are taking money to
promote clearly does not have a home anywhere else. How the heck do we describe
an album by a new British singer who is neither traditional nor new country,
not pop, blues or rock and who certainly wouldn’t be accepted as a folk
musician?  Easy – we’ll call it top
quality Americana. And if one were to question how that collection of songs
about, say, drinking in pubs, walking through the English countryside and breaking
up with a lover are “things associated with America” one might be told that “doh,
of course” the melodies are like those in America- but more likely you wouldn’t
get a reply at all. 

Let’s face it we
all like categories; we all want descriptions, we like to know what to expect
when we make a purchasing commitment. That applies to many things in our lives;
if we are booking a stay at a hotel we like to feel we know what to expect from
a place which boasts five stars – and equally we have a pretty good notion of
what one which doesn’t have any stars at all might be like….  and some of us might prefer to stay in the no
star establishment; that is our right to choose.

But if we go
grocery shopping how lost would we feel if the sourdough, the brioche, the
wholemeal, the granary and the plain white toastie were all in identical
wrappers and simply labelled “Bread”? 

So yes, most of
us prefer new music to come with some sort of explanation; some sort of
signpost which suggests “if you like music by X and Y you will probably like
this”. A lot of the new releases I receive come accompanied by a media sheet’
frequently written and distributed by a professional PR company who charge a
fair amount for their services and my choice with those is to largely ignore
them. I might seek some basic biographical information from them but not until
I have listened to the product without reading how amazing that paid for PR
company say it is. 

I prefer to let
my own ears decide whether I think it is great or not, and am not afraid to put
my opinion in print without ever worrying that others might not agree with me.
A review, whether of a CD, a film, a restaurant or that five star hotel is
simply one person’s opinion, but I am frequently amazed to see reviews of the
same albums in other publications which are little more than a copy and paste
of the media sheet. But I believe if you can copy and paste well enough these
days you might get a University degree as a result.

My first question
to you, the reader, is this – if you see a new release by someone you have
never heard of simply described as Americana would you be confident you knew
exactly what kind of music it was? My second question is – have you ever spent
your hard earned money on an ‘Americana’ album only to be very disappointed
with what it turned out to be? 

Using that one
word description to encompass folk, rock, blues, so called alt-country and
downright self indulgent self produced fantasy albums is no more than a
marketing ploy to get the unwary to buy it. I accept that is what those artists
pay their PR companies to do but feel by using Americana as a catch-all
description instead of employing a little brain power to describe it more
accurately debases that original use of the word to describe a certain type of
music from America.

I have had
conversations with some very talented American song writers over the past year
and am pleased to report most of them are thinking seriously about refusing to
let their creative output be described by that particular ‘A-word’ in future,
because they don’t want it to be lumped in with what is becoming perceived as

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