Our curious obsession with branding music
by Jeff Sandgren
This summer I discovered Americana music. Or rather, this summer I discovered that what I have been listening to with increasing regularity is sometimes called ‘Americana’ … whatever that is. Like the oft-quoted definition of pornography, which one can’t clearly define but knows when one sees it, it’s difficult to describe the genre of Americana music – but I think I know it when I hear it. And the hearing of it, the discovery of it, the branding of this elusive-yet-distinctive style, has been seeded in my ears and nourished in my aural psyche by a heapin’ helpin’ of high technology.
For a descriptive starting point, there’s a music industry trade association dedicated to the genre, the aptly-named Americana Music Association which offers the following:
“Americana is 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. While acoustic instruments are often present and vital, Americana also often uses a full electric band.”
This begs a follow-up question: well then, what is American roots music? And it helps to explain the affinity of a growing number of listeners, since many of the varietal ‘roots’ are styles that resonate with our already-acquired musical tastes. It’s not roots music; it’s contemporary music that, to borrow terminology from the Web, works as a ‘mashup’ of elements of roots music. There’s a same-yet-different, yin-yang part of the listening experience: the analytical side of your brain tells you this music sounds sort of like something you’ve heard before, while the creative side of your brain says yes, but this is different. This repurposing of styles underlies the fun of discovery.
In fact, I didn’t even know there was such a genre as ‘Americana’ until the Three Vowels of Digital Musical Curation – Amazon, eMusic and iTunes – began to pick up on my change in musical preference and start gently nudging me into orbit around it. I began to see the word in reviews and recommendations; but searching would just take me to a recent album by that very name, in this case Neil Young’s 34th studio album (34th!), or to a more general reference of antiques and ephemera that evoked earlier American merchandise – and had little to do with music.
Then one day, while updating my iTunes Genius Mixes, there it was: Americana. It was somehow official. Now I should note that I have come to regard the Genius Mixes with healthy skepticism. To illustrate, right now, on my iTunes screen I see a mix labeled ‘Mainstream Rock’ with the following four corners: Steve Van Zandt, Carolyne Mas, Anita O’Day and the Ozark Mountain Daredevils. Say what? The only possible label I could think of applying to that amalgamation is “Record Store Day Rummage,” which actually is a fairly accurate depiction of how they came to share space in the Music folder of my computer. But Ms. O’Day and the Daredevils are arguably the spectral equivalents of ultraviolet and infrared; and chances are good that you, esteemed reader, might not have heard of either.
In comparison, the Americana Mix seemed like a somewhat tighter cluster, in this case including Leon Russell, Mark Knopfler and Emmylou Harris (a duo album), Neko Case and T-Bone Burnett. Leon seemed like a stretch … until I thought about it. Mark, Emmylou and Neko all made sense. And Mr. Burnett, from what I perceive, may currently be the de facto Godfather of Americana. Think of the soundtracks for O Brother, Where Art Thou and Cold Mountain. That’s right; you’re starting to hear it.
So what’s in my collection that fits the moniker? Well, for starters, I must confess that I was drawn to some by the Siren Call – my male ears are easily seduced by the female voice. The haunting vocals of Annalisa Tornfelt drew me to the band Black Prairie, where I serendipitously discovered even more instrumental-only tracks, all showcasing superb musicianship, as one would expect from the alumni of The Decembrists who make up the majority of the band. Just in the past month I happened upon perhaps the most genuine and authentic of recent female vocalists: Alynda Lee Segarra, and her group Hurray for the Riff Raff. Alynda’s story sounds almost too rootsy: a Brooklyn runaway who rode boxcars across America until she settled in New Orleans, initially playing washboard with street musicians. Once you hear her voice, all thoughts of such a narrative as public relations posturing fade quickly away.
Then there’s Tamara Lindeman of the Weather Station, and Katie Crutchfield’s Waxahatchee recordings – more musical gems. Other new artists include delightfully surprising Valerie June, Jason Isbell, last year’s breakout stars the Alabama Shakes and this year’s Shovels & Rope. But it isn’t just about new artists on the scene – stalwarts like Bonnie Raitt and Patty Griffin are still raising the bar of their own musicianship with critically acclaimed releases this year, and surely fit this genre. Looking back at artists of yesteryear, The Band is sometimes cited as the “first Americana group,” Neil Young has certainly charted this territory before, as did Kate and Anna McGarrigle. The list goes on and on.
There are even sub-genres. Once can find reference to “Gothic Americana” (don’t ask: I have no idea.) A significant set of recordings bridges the genres of Americana and Classical, coming to musical fruition in the collaborations of Yo-Yo Ma, Edgar Meyer and Mark O’Connor with the remarkable Appalachia Waltz and Appalachian Journey albums. Ma and Meyer collaborated more recently again, this time with Stuart Duncan and Chris Thile in The Goat Rodeo Sessions. Here again is the dilemma: are these Americana? “Symphonic Americana”, perhaps, to coin a new sub-genre name? If I may borrow from The Bard: these songs by any other genre-name would sound as sweet.
If you enjoy musical exploration, and haven’t tickled your ears with some of these artists, I hope you’ll give them a try. And if you really want to immerse yourself live and in person, then consider the Americana Music Festival coming up in September, in Nashville, which promises a stellar lineup.
So what’s the technology angle in this branding story? Saying I ‘happened upon’ these and other artists sounds like more bargain bin browsing at the record store – when in fact this is where the technology aspect worked it’s magic. From streamers like Pandora, Slacker, Spotify, Rdio, MOG and Rhapsody/Napster; to music lockers like Amazon Cloud Drive, Google Music and iTunes Match; to sniffers like Shazam and Soundhound, and sharing networks like Soundcloud, a vast array of technologies are lined up like … well, like the AM/FM radio stations that once dominated our musical explorations (and for surprisingly many, still do) and these provided the navigation that led me to this new musical playground.
Before closing, I’d like to cite a famous quote that seems rather relevant: that “writing about music is like dancing about architecture.” The problem is that I cannot discern to whom this slyly clever quote should be attributed. No kidding. Google it up and you find multiple ‘experts’ ready to assert that the quote comes from Charles Mingus, Thelonious Monk, Frank Zappa, Elvis Costello and Martin Mull. Are these the scions of a new genre? Alas, the problem with names. – JTS