Americana’s Annual Gathering Has Brandi Carlile and Others Posing the Question: Is It a Musical Style, or an Ideology?

Every year at the Americana Honors & Awards program in Nashville, Jim Lauderdale will exclaim, as a running joke, “Now, that’s Americana!” — usually right after someone has given a rousing performance in a style that most people wouldn’t reflexively classify as Americana. The fact that it’s said both enthusiastically and slightly facetiously does beg the obvious, perennial question: What’s Americana… all kidding aside?

Standing outside the Ryman Auditorium, where the 22nd annual edition of the awards show was about to go down, Brandi Carlile had an answer. And since she is the closest thing to an offical mascot the genre has had since the passing of John Prine, when Carlile talks about Americana, people listen.

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“We need to elevate this and make a home here,” Carlile said. “I’m aware that there’s a certain amount of mystery around the concept of what Americana is. We’ve all joked around about it; we’ve all said it’s country music for liberals. It’s not that. And it doesn’t really come down to instrumentation or tempo, or even really subject matter. It’s starting to feel more and more, to me, like it’s based on an ideology of inclusion.

“It’s similar to the concept of what alternative is and why it formed itself as a way to sort of not be walled in by something,” she continued. “There’s so many things that I love about Americana. My favorite thing about it is that I can hardly even maintain eye contact, because I can’t count the number of people whose neck I want to hug. And that’s where I want to be. I don’t want to call myself anything else. Even if there’s money there, or bigger gigs, or a stronger franchise, I would still rather be with people that I can stand behind and be proud to stand next to. As I age, that just becomes more and more important.”

If Americana is based in ideology — even as loose of one as Carlile’s “ideology of inclusion” — it’s hard to think of many other genres where that might be said to be true … except for Christian music. But is there an extent to which it’s increasingly assumed to be true of country, on the other end of things? Carlile addressed the moves her friend and Highwomen bandmate, Maren Morris, recently made to distance herself from the mainstream country fray, after becoming a target for conservatives who have devoted a lot of their time on social media to trying to wish her out of that genre.

“I really understand what Maren’s doing,” Carlile said, “I think it’s really, really brave, especially as a Texas girl who’s got country radiating out of her pores, to decide that there are things that people are doing that she can’t throw her weight behind, in good conscience. And she’s not even a moralist, you know? We don’t go out for a beer and talk politics. We go out for a beer and we talk shit. We have a hot gossip, we share a cocktail, we talk about the kids, we zoom in on pictures, just like normal people do. But Maren is making a decision to set something aside that is very comfortable for her. And I will always respect the hell out of her for doing it, and I’ve got her back. I’m behind her wherever she goes.”

The irony that Morris chose to make her statement about her frayed relationship with country in the form of a couple of really country-sounding songs is not lost on her fellow Highwoman. “’Get the Hell Out of Here’ is one of my favorite country songs in the last 20 years,” Carlile said.

(For the record, sources in Morris’ camp say she has not actually “quit” country music, as some headlines indicated, but just resigned from what she sees as the toxic aspects of the genre at present.)

It was not difficult to find many artists at the awards or the surrounding weeklong conference, AmericanaFest, that are as proud as Carlile is to wave the Americana flag… along with some whose feelings are more conflicted.

“Americana is a refuge,” said Seth Avett of the Avett Brothers, as the trio accepted a lifetime achievement award from the Americana Association. “It’s a community. … I was thinking about how it would be so natural or feel so natural when you’re put into a musical category to want to get out. So if someone calls you rock ‘n’ roll, ‘I’m not just that.’ I can call you country — ‘Well, yeah, that’s me, but that’s not only me. I have other things as well.’ It seems like there are so many labels that would be put upon you that you would be struggling to free yourselves of that first opportunity given? But every question about genre leads me back to the reality that we were so lucky to be called that. And it’s such a beautiful thing, and we don’t ever want out.”

Bob Crawford, Scott Avett and Seth Avett of The Avett Brothers and Brandi Carlile at The Americana Music Association 22nd Annual Honors & Awards Show on September 20, 2023 at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville, Tennessee.
Bob Crawford, Scott Avett and Seth Avett of The Avett Brothers and Brandi Carlile at the Americana Music Association’s 22nd Annual Honors & Awards Show on September 20, 2023 at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville, Tennessee.

Bonnie Raitt, who won the award for song of the year for “Just Like That” (repeating her Grammy success from earlier this year), is grateful to have fallen under the banner, even though the term didn’t really come into favor until a quarter-century into her career. “Roots music has never been more popular. But there were a bunch of us that straddle lots of different genres that really were thinking we couldn’t get airplay,” she said on the red carpet. “Now we have a way to be… not to be ‘legit,’ but we really have our own world here.”

If anyone is lined up to follow Carlile as the poster woman for Americana, it’s Allison Russell, who in a few short years has become practically the face representing a genre that not long ago was considered a bastion of straight white men playing alt-country, even though she is Black, identifies as queer, hails from Montreal and doesn’t remotely sound like anyone’s idea of a country artist. “It feels like a family reunion,” she said on the red carpet, reaffirming her position as one of the genre’s most exuberant personalities. This was shortly before tearing into an onstage rendition of a no-quarter-taking song about white supremacy called “Eve Was Black.”

The evening also found Russell accepting a freedom-of-speech award for her activisim in protest of Tennessee’s anti-drag laws and other causes, presented by “the Tennessee three,” Democratic state representatives Justin Pearson, Justin Jones and Gloria Johnson (the first two expelled from the legislature, the latter nearly so, during a gun reform debate). On the red carpet, Jones sang Russell’s praises, as he later would on the Ryman stage.

Said the recently reelected and reinstalled state lawmaker, “A lot of these musicians — Allison, Margo Price — have been on the front lines of the Capitol during the protests, and our movement would be nothing without music. So we’re here to celebrate them…  Allison has been somebody who has continued to show up when they were passing laws attacking the LGBTQ community and has been a key figure for social justice… Allison is just such a bright light, and her newest album (‘The Returner’) has been, personally for me, something that has helped sustain me in that crazy building while I’m working in the legislature,” Jones added. “It’s something that has been very grounding and just a reminder of hope to remember that vision of why we’re doing this.”

Some of the basic stats about the Americana Awards speak to the strides the genre has made in representing a wider America. Out of 30 nominations for the awards’ six categories, just over half — 16 — went to female artists or bands with a female frontperson, a gender parity matched by few if any other music awards shows. Nine of the 30 nods went to artists of color. At least five nominations were clocked by artists who identify as queer, including emerging artist of the year winner S.G. Goodman. Straight white men accounted for fewer than a third of the nominations. This is not a completely fresh blip; representation has been on the rise for several years now… ever since 2018, when there was some grumbling over Carlile being snubbed in the winners’ circle.

So does all that inclusiveness mean Americana is one big, happy, chosen family? Not entirely — there are fissures, as members of some communities made it clear they believe this growth in representation still hasn’t landed them proper seats at the table.

There were a number of showcases or panels either oriented toward or exclusively devoted to LGBTQ+ artists and issues. But some involved contended the attention amounted to lip service, and that straight men exerted an undue amount of control over the events. On a panel of trans performers, Mya Byrne, who turned in a strong, fiery set the night before at the Vinyl Lounge, said it was unacceptable that she was the sole trans female artist booked for any of the nightly showcases. (Byrne half-joked that, counting the two backing members of her trio, the festival got “three for the price of one.”) Adeem the Artist was one of the busier artists of the festival, between an emerging artist nomination and awards-show performance, additional performances at official and off-site events, inclusion on a panel about activism, and being the cover subject for the Nashville Scene’s AmericanaFest issue. Yet Adeem also ended up being one of the loudest voices speaking out about what they considered problematic about the conference, from low pay for performers to alleged indifference to input from gay or non-binary voices to the allegation that they were subject to homophobic remarks by a legendary performer backstage at the awards. (None of the parties involved in the altercation or who were witness to it would go on record to discuss it.)

Then there’s the “country music for liberals” tag mentioned by Carlile, which leaves out the fact that Americana also encompasses folk, blues, roots-rock, singer-songwriters and other genres. But it does still speak to the eternal question of whether it’s marginalizing for artists who are definably country — like this year’s multiple nominee Charley Crockett — to wind up here instead of finding a place in country’s mainstream. Tyler Childers famously groused, when he accepted the 2018 Americana Award for emerging artist, that for him Americana serves mainly as a “distraction” from his being mostly ignored by the country music industry, as if the alternative genre’s embrace helped enable the mainstream’s indifference. (Childers is so beloved in the Americana community that voters haven’t held these opinions about the genre against him; he won yet again this year, for album of the year.)

The same issue came up when Adeem the Artist came to this year’s ceremony wearing a Colonel Sanders suit that, tellingly, had been lent to them for the occasion by… Childers. Asked on the carpet if they consider themselves country at the core, as opposed to identifying with the host genre, Adeem answered, “If somebody’s gonna give me an award, I’ll show up to take an award. But, no, I’m not (Americana). I’m a country music artist.”

Twenty-two years into an awards show and conference, it’s not surprising that questions and even slapbacks persist, as they may well for 22 more, as those who have been historically marginalized by other genres wonder if Americana’s seemingly open arms will really do them any better. It’s also not surprising that those who have felt welcomed on what Carlile often calls an “island of misfit toys” cotton to the idea of having a family, even one with its own fractures.

The day after the awards, the hottest event was the second annual songwriters’ showcase held by Carlile and Tracy Gershon, her partner in Northern Lights Publishing. The two-and-a-half-hour guitar pull at City Winery featured a lineup that happened to be mostly LGBTQ+, although things have gotten to the point in Americana where that might occur only as an afterthought to many viewers or participants. Carlile was joined in the stage rotation by a pair of recent production clients, Brandy Clark and 17-year-old Tish Melton; SistaStrings (a sibling duo that won the instrumentalist of the year award the night before), auxiliary members of Carlile’s band soon set to go into the studio with her as producer; Phil and Tim Hanseroth, who previewed a song from a side-project album they’re doing on their own, apart from the host; and several other remarkable singer-songwriters, including Katie Pruitt, Fancy Hagood, Sean McConnell and Kate York.

The evolutionary leaps Carlile wants to see in Americana aren’t just ideological. Can neo-classical music fall under the banner, too? Talking about SistaStrings — who did one epic instrumental that sounded like it belonged over at the Schermerhorn Symphony Center, followed by two more pop-based vocal numbers — Carlile said, “I can’t imagine a month in my life that’s going to be more fun than” producing the duo’s next album. “It must be what it must have been like to witness when artists like Elton John and Queen and David Bowie and the Rolling Stones, along with (producer-arrangers) like George Martin and Paul Buckmaster, brought strings into rock ‘n’ roll and into modern consciousness, out of this kind of classical, esoteric space into what people were hearing on the radio. I think that the next thing that has the power to do that is SistaStrings, legitimately.”

And then there’s the arguably bigger task of turning Americana into a youth movement instead of the province of dad-rock. Carlile took her 17-yar-old protégé Melton down the red carpet with her at the Americana Awards. (Actually, this being Americana, the carpet wasn’t red, or even a carpet, but a series of floor rugs.) Together they just released the single “Michelle,” one of five songs Carlile produced for an EP by Melton. The producer described herself as “more on fire, more actively involved in every note, every element, every texture of this production than I have with anyone else. And I think whenever you’re in your 40s and you’re going to go and work with somebody who’s 17 years old, you go in with this mentor mentality, like, I’m going to teach this person things, you know? And I just wound up learning the whole time, just like I do with my kids — learning things about myself. I think it was a really profound experience for me. And the music is just plain fucking great.”

Turning to Melton, Carlile asked, “How does that interface with school? How are you going to manage this? How does this feel to you before we decide where, when, and how we’re going to do an album, right? What do you think?

“I don’t know,” said Melton. “Someone asked me on TikTok yesterday, ‘How do you manage school and songwriting and all that?’ I was like, ‘Not well, so far.’ But if you get a call to go on a plane, you just do your homework on the plane. It’s very important to me that school comes first. I would like music to come first, but I’ve just got one more year to go until I graduate. And then we see what happens.”

“Her moms are making a huge mistake, letting her hang out with a high school dropout,” Carlile cracked. “I’m already trying to talk her out of skipping school in a couple days to do Pink with me.” (Carlile was set to skip out on AmericanaFest later in the week to play a local stadium show with Pink. Melton’s moms, by the way, are Glennon Doyle and stepmom Abby Wombach.)

Other highlights during the week of Americana in Nashville included the taping of a Bruce Springsteen/“Nebraska” tribute special for PBS, hosted and narrated by Warren Zanes, reading from his recent book “Deliver Me From Nowhere: The Making of Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska.” Singing two songs apiece from the celebrated album were Emmylou Harris, Lyle Lovett, the Lumineers and Noah Kahan. Two additional performers popped up to sing transitional numbers culled from “Nebraska’s” unlikely twin and followup, “Born in the USA”: Lucinda Williams, performing that album’s title song, and surprise guest Eric Church, doing a sedate, solo-acoustic “Dancing in the Dark” to round out the taping.

Perhaps the busiest guy of the week, apart from Carlile or Adeem, was Rufus Wainwright. He did a conference-eve gig with the Nashville Symphony, participated in a daytime Q&A with Emmylou Harris, paid tribute to Tom Waits with a 50th anniversary reading of “Ol’ 55” at the awards show, did a joint Bluebird Café gig with his friend Teddy Thompson, and last but not least made his Grand Ole Opry debut. Wainwright is supporting his new album “Folkocracy.” “I’ve returned to the fray of folk and Americana, which is where I came from originally,” he said. “With a little bit of Canadiana in there as well.”

Margo Price had a pair of reasons to be on hand for the festival. She sat in at a late-night showcase by ‘70s “outlaw country” veteran Jessi Colter, for whom she’s produced an imminent album. And she’s still promoting her album from earlier this year, “Strays,” which is getting a serialized sequel in the form of several sequentially released digital EPs of bonus material that will eventually be released as a single vinyl LP.

“We’ve been planning this since the very beginning,” Price said. “We were like, ‘We’re going to put out “Strays” and then maybe a year later we can just drop the rest of the tracks and keep it going and keep ourselves creatively fulfilled.’ Because if you don’t get those things out, then you get constipated. We’re trying to get people like the Grammys and these people here to give an award for Part Twos. It’s better to get an award for the smallest genre, you know?”

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