On the Mark: Diverse Artists Take the Stage (Year in Review)

Columns On The Mark

A belated l’shana tova, and shalom alechem. The Jewish New Year, 5779, began on the evening of Sunday, September 9, and now that I have a few moments, I want to talk a little about the state of Americana, past, present, and future. I want to talk about Americana as a wide, inclusive, and diverse field, a genre that not only reaches across lines of race, gender, and ethnicity, but also beyond the boundaries of nation and culture. This past year has seen welcome developments in Americana music, and I believe the future is full of promise.

Before I discuss the present of Americana music, I want to talk about Americana’s past. The term itself is relatively recent, possibly originating as the descriptor for Mark Humphrey’s Northridge, California radio show on KCSN in 1984, which played a mix of “country, folk, honky tonk, cajun, dawg, blues, and old-time music.” But while the term may not have been around earlier, Americana music certainly was, and it was always broader than even this description could capture. In their own psychedelic way, the Grateful Dead played a kind of Americana. Doug Sahm, through his various projects, was incorporating Tejano influences, if not the Spanish language. Alice Gerrard and Hazel Dickens played neotraditional folk and bluegrass that can be seen in the DNA of artists as diverse as the duo Anna & Elizabeth and Iris DeMent, and Dickens’s legacy of progressive activism lives in on Steve Earle, among many others.

But these are just the usual suspects. Americana has always been a big tent, and if you poke around in it, you might some folks you weren’t expecting. The Clash first hit it big with Sonny Curtis’s “I Fought The Law,” and as Joe Ely recounts, when they toured America, they couldn’t wait to see all the places in Texas referenced in Marty Robbins songs. Going back to the 70s, then, you can find British punk Americana. A few decades later, on Nirvana’s outstanding Unplugged special, Kurt Cobain wailed his way through Lead Belly’s “Where Did You Sleep Last Night?” As well-known as this cover is, I don’t know that anyone has ever made the point that this is damn fine Americana music: grunge Americana.

I make these statements to point out that Americana has always been a diverse, eclectic field. Some of it has “twang,” some doesn’t. I can’t define Americana, and I can’t give you a test to determine what counts as it. But, to paraphrase the famous statement about pornography, I know it reasonably well when I hear it.

This brings me to the present day, and to reflection on 5778. The year 5778 was a banner year for diversity in Americana, because diverse artists made the very best albums of the year. Three of my favorite albums, and three very different albums, were made by women: Neko Case’s Hell-On, Kacey Musgraves’s The Golden Hour, and Gretchen Peters’s Dancing With The Beast. Musgraves’s album, the most commercially mainstream of the three, is Americana by way of ultra-sophisticated country-pop. Peters, one of the finest songwriters working today, holds nothing back in her country-folk vignettes depicting the situations of women who live in a society shaped by sexism and misogyny. Case’s album, the latest swerve in a career that defies classification, is, as I say in my review, both viscerally personal and sublimely universal.

Released at the beginning of 5779, I put Alejandro Escovedo’s The Crossing on a par with these albums. Escovedo, the Mexican-American son of immigrants, gives us a brilliant concept album that is by turns personal, political, and narrative. No Depression correctly praised Escovedo for creating a whole world; I noted in my review that the album is as much about the subtle craftsmanship of small details as it is about the big flourishes.

While the diversity here is noteworthy, what is important is that it came about organically. No one needed to campaign for these albums to be acknowledged as part of an initiative to recognize diversity. While we in the media are filling our review plates with a broader, more inclusive selection of titles, we can’t manufacture quality. The fact that an artist from a traditionally underrepresented group made an album does not make the album better. What makes the album better is the artist channeling new sounds, ideas, insights, and perspectives, to enlighten, challenge, and entertain her audience. The albums I have discussed each do this in their own way.

I am no fortune-teller, and I have no information that is not publicly available about upcoming releases and tours. My ability to make any predictions about the coming year is very limited. I am almost certain that the biggest thing in Americana a year from now will be something we’re not seeing coming now, just as I didn’t foresee this year’s trends.

My friends, I wish you a safe and happy new year. Remember to support the artists we love and show respect and appreciation at their shows, and make sure to visit Americana Highways for reviews, premieres, interviews, and more!

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