Americana is a loosely defined genre, but in terms of studios, it knows what it wants.
Humourist and Late Show host Stephen Colbert coined the snarky neologism ‘truthiness’, defined as ‘the quality of seeming or being felt to be true, even if not necessarily true’. Put another way, it’s truth that cannot be held back by mere facts.
Americana, a music genre that’s attained a growing level of validation in recent years (The Gavin Report ratings service gave Americana its own chart in 1995 even while it debated what the genre was) is kind of like that, its peripheries protean and subjective. Some said it was the land between country and alternative music; others questioned whether blues or jazz should fall into the nascent category. Hearing the adjective ‘Americana-ish’ spoken, as the speaker does mental calculations while evaluating a record, is not uncommon.
The Americana Music Association (AMA) defines the genre as ‘contemporary music that incorporates elements of various American roots music styles, including country, roots-rock, folk, bluegrass, R&B and blues, resulting in a distinctive roots-oriented sound that lives in a world apart from the pure forms of the genres upon which it may draw’. That’s a long sentence, but it does underscore the continued ambiguity of the category, and that last clause about ‘world apart’ is suspect: artists move routinely in and out of Americana’s porous boundaries, as is expedient for them and their labels.
Those borders can be chronological as well as cultural — like a certain large American church based in Utah that periodically ‘baptises’ thousands of deceased non-members in a kind of post-facto recruitment drive, Americana will include artists who were firmly planted in other genres during their heydays, such as the Band and John Mellancamp. Led Zeppelin’s Robert Plant is, despite his West Midlands, UK, nativity, squarely Americana these days.
It’s often become a place for those who once inhabited country music, after country radio’s tightly controlled playlists were no longer welcoming. That includes names like Lucinda Williams, Patty Griffin, Carlene Carter, Loretta Lynn and Tom T Hall. The genre’s first real breakout star, Jason Isbell — voted Artist of the Year for the second year in a row at the 2015 Americana Honors & Awards in September — crossed that threshold when his Something More Than Free LP topped Billboard’s country, rock and folk charts. But that ironically also reinforces the ambivalence surrounding Americana: even when one of their own connects with a wider audience, the music business still doesn’t know where to put them.
Americana’s trade group may be headquartered in Franklin, Tennessee, near Nashville, but it’s less a geographical proposition than an intellectual self-assignment. Studios from Austin to Brooklyn to Boston have had artists and producers from the genre knocking on their doors. Further afield, John Webber at Air Studios in London and mixer François Michaud’s Paris studio all come up on online music-production marketplace soundbetter.com with ‘Americana’ tags.
There’s also a live-music infrastructure that’s been built underneath it, a kind of Chitlin’ Circuit for the largely affluent white audiences that Americana attracts. These are sit-down clubs, like the City Winery group or the Cutting Room in Manhattan, that are closer to dinner theatres, where you can get a $45 filet and a $125 bottle of Stag’s Leap to go with it after you’ve paid $50 to listen to someone who looks suspiciously like Bob Dylan.
Simply put, Americana doesn’t lend itself to pithy definition, like when Louis Armstrong told us, “If you have to ask what jazz is, you’ll never know.” That may turn out well for the studios that this amalgamation of artists and producers seek out. “While acoustic instruments are often present and vital, Americana also often uses a full electric band,” says the Americana Music web site, and its participants do tend to seek out acoustically compelling environments with lots of wood on floors and walls. The music tends not to be recorded in ad hoc locations like spare bedrooms, and doesn’t avail itself of edgy platforms like iPhones and tablets. Americana wants — and will pay for — the warmth of analogue tape. Along with hard rock bands, Americana clients consistently ask for minimalist technology, says Chris Mara, owner of Welcome To 1979, an all-analogue studio in Nashville. “These types of artists are more concerned about where they record,” Mara told me, adding that he recently completed a 10-song Americana record with a four-piece group all using a single microphone and preamp recorded to quarter-inch two-track. Think hardcore, with some chilled Chardonnay.
Every studio shares some basic commonalties, both technical and acoustical, but many have famously leaned towards one genre or another, like John King’s serial Chung King locations in New York that had a dedicated hip-hop clientele. But those outcomes were the result as much of serendipity as of calculation; to purposely restrict a studio’s appeal is economic suicide. But there is something to be said for a facility shading itself towards a particular mindset, in terms of both technology and market perception. Analogue gear is a kind of catnip for the Americana cohort; location is another: suburban and rural settings attract the genre’s diverse exponents, with bluegrass studios blossoming in Virginia and Kentucky and old-timey country nurtured in Texas and Kansas.
At a time when the once-rigid barriers between music types have broken down, Americana’s innate fluidity seems well-suited to the moment. Its native embrace of analogue meshes well with music culture’s current fascination with vinyl. And to be completely mercenary about it, Americana’s appeal to an affluent audience — one that will still buy vinyl and CDs — gives it some economic heft. Even if some of it might incite you to defenestrate your Bluetooth speaker, Americana is a reminder that not only is everything on the table in music production’s New World Order, but that there’s more of it than ever before.