No, Americana is not just that collection of weird trinkets and aged novelty items you see on display at Tiny’s. And when it refers to music, the term encompasses a whole lot more than the “classic” 1998 album by the Offspring.
As far as genre labels go, Americana is one of the most open-handed and indulgent.
Few musical subcategories are turned away from its embrace; it encompasses country, folk, rock, blues and punk. Like jazz, it is a quilt term, composed of many smaller categorical squares, with new ones added every day. It is similarly cooperative, as the musicians of today draw on and reinvent the musical heritage they derive from yesterday.
None of this brings us any closer to explaining what the term actually means. In search of answers, I turned to the Americana Music Association. AMA Executive Director Jed Hilly (an appropriately Americana-like name) offers a definition of the genre on the association’s website, which partly states: “[Americana] is music inspired by American culture traditions which is not only represented in classic man made/roots based sounds but also through new and contemporary artists whose music is clearly inspired by these great traditions.”
Like my own attempt above, his explanation takes a broad rather than a focused approach.
Fortunately, AMA’s annual awards provide more insight. In 2003—a definitive year—the Album of the Year award went to Johnny Cash’s American IV: The Man Comes Around. This album, the last released during Cash’s lifetime, features covers penned by such diverse songwriters as Paul Simon, Hank Williams, Sting and John Lennon. Most memorable is Cash’s version of the Trent Reznor (of Nine Inch Nails) hit “Hurt,” which also won AMA’s Best Song that year.
The song had a big impact on the music world, not least because it was groomed by mega-producer Rick Rubin. Besides being rather poignant, the cover united two seemingly opposite musical factions: country and industrial rock. It also showed that Americana isn’t just about young people ripping/riffing off old hits; it can be old masters riffing off new hits, too.
Bill Hearne, a longtime local champion of the genre, agrees that it’s hard to define.
“[Americana] has become very ambiguous, very broad. I almost hate to use it anymore, because it’s gotten to the point where it’s really kind of meaningless,” Hearne tells SFR.
“I prefer country folk [as a description] for my music.”
When asked about the musicians who have influenced the genre, Hearne names a diverse list: “Anyone from Billy Joe Shaver to Alison Krauss to Lyle Lovett…to Guy Clark to Merle Haggard to Buck Owens to the Bakersfield West Coast retro country swing thing, to the Texas dance hall stuff of the 1960s and early ’50s, to Hank Williams and Ray Price.”
That was the condensed answer.
If Americana is a mutt-genre, then its instrumentation is the kennel. Harder instruments like electric guitar, lap steel guitar, electric bass and drumset often share space with traditional acoustic mainstays such as banjo, harmonica, mandolin, fiddle and cello. Because the music is heavily influenced by folk music, vocals are practically indispensable—especially of the whiskey and cigarette variety when male, and of the Southern twang variety when female.
Americana, then, is not new, though it incorporates innovation. Nor is it old, despite being heavily nostalgic. Being a union of many forms, it resists musical boundaries. Its closest analog might instead be found in folk culture itself. A timeworn marriage tradition comes to mind: something old, something new, something borrowed and something blue(sy).
Of course, the best way to understand the variety found within it is to go and experience it live.
Santa Fe as a city typifies the kind of cross-pollination that results in such a varied genre, so it’s no surprise that the music can be heard here almost any night of the week.
Hearne recommends the Cowgirl, Second Street Brewery and Sol Santa Fe for larger touring acts. These venues often feature a brand of cowboy-heavy Americana that can only exist in this crossroads where South meets West.