Americana the Beautiful: Lovers of Roots Music Convene in Nashville

A radio ad running on WSM-AM (650) touts an organization “so new, it might actually make a difference.” Multi-instrumentalist Sam Bush, Grand Ole Opry veteran Porter Wagoner and Country Music Hall of Fame member Merle Haggard speak on behalf of the organization, which they say aims to bring together fans and the music industry “to celebrate and promote the music they love.”

Haggard and his pals are talking about the Americana Music Association (AMA). “Americana” is a relatively new but highly elastic term that takes in music mostly on the margins of mainstream country: folk, bluegrass, rockabilly, country-punk and retro hillbilly. Legendary country music veterans and creatively adventurous country music mainstreamers are also a part of the fold.

“Americana is spiced with twang,” says Dennis Lord, a music industry executive serving as interim president of the fledgling AMA. “Commercial country has evolved beyond its roots, while Americana is roots music.”

Today and Saturday (Nov. 10-11), the AMA will hold its first-ever meeting in Nashville. Formed in 1999, the non-profit trade organization has more than 500 members whose professional roles encompass radio, record labels, the press, promotion, publicity and booking agencies. They share a common goal: making Americana grow.

“The conference will be an opportunity to exchange ideas, report on the progress of the association, listen to new music and educate ourselves as a membership about what’s going on in this genre of music,” Lord says. “It gives us the chance to solicit from the membership their views on where the genre needs to go and where the association needs to go to make that happen.”

Among those embraced as Americana artists by radio stations, magazines and consumers are Steve Earle, Lucinda Williams, Gillian Welch, Robbie Fulks, BR5-49, The Derailers, Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard, Dwight Yoakam and Allison Moorer.

Helping the genre toward a de facto definition of itself is a network of magazines (such as No Depression), websites (Miles of Music), independent record labels (HighTone, Bloodshot), e-mail discussion groups (Postcard 2), specialized music festivals (MerleFest), TV programs (CMT’s Western Beat With Billy Block) and a loose circuit of nightclubs (Schubas in Chicago).

Even as it convenes for the first time, the AMA finds itself working to overcome a recent setback. Radio and music industry trade magazine Gavin, the first to publish an Americana chart, discontinued the listing after its Oct. 13 issue, ending nearly six years as the primary measure of Americana success.

The Americana chart helped organize the eclectic format by tracking a diverse array of musical styles including alternative country, folk, rockabilly and bluegrass — genres that don’t sell in high enough numbers to register on more mainstream trade charts. Gavin’s Americana chart grew to measure airplay on around 90 radio stations and specialty shows. It also served as a guide for radio station playlists, and it provided good publicity for the artists listed on it.

Lord believes the Gavin setback will be an easy hurdle to jump. Still weighing its options, the AMA feels it can find a home for a new Americana chart by early 2001. “The comments I have heard outside the Americana community have been akin to condolences; that the format now is going to die,” Lord says. “Within the genre, the approach has been quite to the contrary.”

Kieran Kane, a singer-songwriter who also is an owner of the Americana-oriented Dead Reckoning record label, sees the development in positive terms. “It’s been very helpful to have a banner to wave, a flag, some way of identifying these people and this music,” he says of the old chart.

“In some ways, it’s a good thing that the chart is gone,” he feels. “It may be the kick in the ass that everyone needs to seek out something different, something more. It was stagnant a little bit, because the main way of recognizing this movement was a trade paper.”

Such chart recognition, Kane goes on to say, requires that independent record labels spend a significant portion of their marketing budget for radio promotion. The Gavin chart, he reasons, was invisible to consumers, since it was published in a trade magazine rather than in a consumer-oriented outlet such as No Depression or folk-oriented magazine Dirty Linen.

Without the pressure to move an album up a trade chart, record labels and artists can use marketing money for consumer-oriented advertising, thus supporting magazines that broaden awareness of the artists and their music. In an ideal scenario, if the chart is revived, it might appear in a consumer magazine rather than in the trade press, Kane says.

At any rate, the Gavin chart’s demise may work to everyone’s advantage. “I don’t think they’re looking at it as a disaster,” Kane adds. “They’re looking at it as a harbinger of change. Maybe it’ll shake people up — us included.”

Chart or no, Lord feels confident that Americana is here to stay. “There are too many people that make a good living in this genre of music for it to go away overnight,” he reasons. “There are too many people with vested interests. It’s not just a genre of music; it’s more a movement. It’s got its own heartbeat and it can grow new appendages.”

A diverse slate of talent will be on tap for the AMA showcases held in conjunction with this weekend’s meeting. The range of talent includes Porter Wagoner, rockabilly stalwart Sleepy LaBeef, country star Rodney Crowell, bluegrass pickers Rhonda Vincent and Sam Bush, alt. country favorites Chris Knight and Jim Lauderdale and newcomers Trent Summar & the New Row Mob and Robert Lee Castleman, among others.

In addition to concert showcases, the two-day event will feature a keynote address by Ken Paulson of Vanderbilt University’s First Amendment Center, two town hall meetings (one for AMA members, the other for all registrants) and panel discussions on radio, retail and distribution, record labels, touring, public relations and other industry-related topics.

Audience profiling is high on the agenda. Mainstream country radio’s use of demographics and research to determine music’s commercial viability often has drawn fire from artists and labels in Americana. Results from the AMA’s initial audience survey will be presented Saturday by Bill Troy (RadioResearch.com) and Tom Hutchinson (Middle Tennessee State University).

“The research we are reporting on is very different than commercial country radio research,” Lord explains. “We’re not looking for which beats-per-minute to play at what time of the day. What we’re looking for is pretty basic; we want to know who listens to Americana music. It is very important for us to identify our target markets. Using that initial foundation, we have goals of making the general public aware of Americana. We want to make retail outlets aware. We want to show radio stations this is a quality format they can adopt.

“Market and promote the genre, that’s what it is all about. A trade organization helps the participants in that trade to make a living, whether it is doctors or the Country Music Association. That’s what we are intent on doing.”

As yet, the fledging format has not produced a major retail success story, though it has turned out its share of critics’ darlings who enjoy modest but ardent fan support. Lucinda Williams’ Car Wheels on a Gravel Road sold a half-million copies, and Steve Earle, Emmylou Harris and Kelly Willis have released independent albums that sold 100,000 units or more.

“Everybody says Americana doesn’t sell records,” says Lord. “Well, it sells as much as country did in the ’60s. We understand that Americana music is presently a niche business, but we strongly believe that niche businesses, properly run, can be and are enormously successful.”

Jay Orr contributed to this story.