Americana Music: The Genre History and Top Musicians
Americana, an authentic genre blending folk, blues, and country, rooted deeply in America's musical heritage.
Music history and industry in the United States both characterize Americana music primarily in relation to country and folk music, a pair of genres that have been around longer and have more popularly recognized terminology and style. Beyond the influence of earlier musical categories, there is a lot of room for uncertainty about what artists, sounds, stories, and ideas are included—or not—as Americana.
Understanding the up-and-comer genre of Americana music involves exploring genre bending and blending, key music organizations’ contributions, and the role of social values. Underlying all of these factors is the question of how this particular cultural category makes a claim to quintessential “Americanness.”
In 2002, three musicians were recognized for lifetime achievement at the first annual awards and honors ceremony held by the then just three-year-old Americana Music Association (AMA). Honorees Emmy Lou Harris, Billy Joe Shaver, and T Bone Burnett were joined by the inaugural Spirit of Americana recipient, Johnny Cash.
That evening, Johnny and June Carter Cash gave their last live performance together after nearly half a decade of musical influence and success. In their lifetimes of artistry, this group of successful singers, songwriters, and producers have been known more commonly as country, folk, and rock musicians. The AMA drew attention to their place also in the more recently recognized genre, through a set of distinctive elements.
Both instruments (primarily stringed) and voice can distinguish Americana music from older American roots music genres—or, in the Recording Academy’s Rules and Guidelines for the 65th Grammys, from “pure forms” of influencing genres, including country, folk, blues, bluegrass, and R&B. The Academy first recognized Americana music as a category in 2006, adding the new name onto its existing contemporary folk category, creating a shared best album award. When Americana Album received standalone Grammy status in 2009, the industry’s advocacy organizations and music critics faced the challenge of articulating how to separate the categories by sounds.
One official distinguishing element is the common use of electric instruments in Americana bands along with acoustic, whereas contemporary folk typically features only the latter. Besides guitar and a rhythm section, folk, traditional country, and Americana music often include a fiddle or two, along with an occasional mandolin.
Music critics also noted the importance of country music’s influence when Americana officially outgrew its dependence on folk at the Grammys. By the 2000’s, country incorporated plenty of electric instruments while maintaining the genre’s distinctive “twang” in its vocals. Americana has had both. Before long, though, Americana’s sound supplemented country’s twang with an earthier or weathered set of voices in harmony, some described as gritty and gnarled, “like tires on a dirt road.” In 2017, as Americana’s identity continued to work itself out, one critic captured the range as “created in the image of folk, but left of pop; grittier than country, more tender than rock.”
Whether the musician’s voice is more “true,” creating clear harmonies with harnessed passion, or “gruff,” layering sounds of effort and intense feeling with strong melody, Americana performance leans toward a sense of unvarnished quality, something organic for the listener to get closer to, sing along, and especially enjoy live. Inaugural AMA honoree Emmylou Harris has received nine Grammy and AMA nominations or wins for her representation of the more delicate-styled voice in Americana. Breakout star with twenty-three related nominations in less than a decade, Brandi Carlile’s powerful voice foregrounds grit and melody. Both artists have been nominated and won major industry awards in a mix of country, pop, folk, rock, and other categories as well Americana.
Traditional country and contemporary folk music are both known for their storytelling lyrics. Sometimes Americana songwriters participate mostly through writing for other performers, and some Americana singers draw mainly from the words of other writers. However, claiming singer-songwriter status can mark an artist’s move from contemporary country, sometimes pop, and even folk music to Americana.
Rodney Crowell, called by NPR one of “the undisputed godparents of the Americana scene,” built success over five decades through writing songs covered by country music—and a few pop rock—stars from the 1970s on. Among the singers giving voice to Crowell’s stories are Crystal Gayle, Waylon Jennings, Bob Seger, Wynona Judd, Johnny and Roseanne Cash, and Crowell’s frequent duet partner, Emmylou Harris. Like many of his musical partners, Crowell has been honored with both country music and Americana awards. When he began to be recognized as an Americana musician, he had tightened his focus on writing for his own song and album performances. Crowell sang with an older voice and wrote more outward-looking stories than those he wrote for big country stars.
Crowell’s lyrics and vocals embody the earnest, authentic character of the genre, through the sound of his enjoyment in performing and the language of hard work, insight earned, and self-conscious good humor. He grew up playing backup for his dad’s part-time band in Houston, working on the docks, and hanging out with men who rode at the rodeo and built roads for pay. Crowell’s early, solidly country lyrics told familiar, bravado-filled stories of the singer’s poorly timed love affairs, drinking, and facing down the law. As he moved on in life and the industry evolved, Crowell, sometimes pairing with Harris, consciously resisted what felt like settling into country music’s increasingly solo star ethos. He might call his later songwriting more mature or “earned.”
Audiences and critics can recognize a shift away from outlaw lyrics such as Crowell wrote for Waylon Jennings’ 1979 country hit “I Ain’t Living Long Like This” (“I’m at the bottom in the jailhouse now”). As Americana has become increasingly established, its singer-songwriters have produced lyrics that tell more complex stories, looking beyond—but not abandoning—the autobiographical or lovesick protagonist. The shift is toward Crowell’s own 2018 performance of “Shame on the Moon Redux,” originally performed by Seger in the 1980’s, now with a more grounded approach (“Tall dark and handsome is not what I am / You’ve either not noticed / or you don’t give a damn”).
The lyrics of Brandi Carlile’s most successful song, “The Joke,” (2018) offer empathy and a sincere promise of a truly better life for two young people who know their worth even as they are coming out of oppressive, mocking circumstances. Lines are precise, visual, and certain. After seeking refuge by crossing a desert with a baby on her back, the woman Carlile sings to is acknowledged for her strength: “I saw your eyes behind your hair / And you’re looking tired, but you don’t look scared. . . Let ’em laugh while they can. . . the joke’s on them.” In “The Mother,” Carlile’s lyrics are explicitly personal, identifying her daughter by name. Yet, they also offer the same acknowledgement and encouragement as in “The Joke.” This time, Carlile writes and sings to an audience who may feel unseen in their conflicted feelings about parenthood (“She broke a thousand heirlooms / I was never meant to keep”).
Jason Isbell is one of the most awarded, most recognized Americana musicians of the 21st century genre. A 2016 GQ article called him King of Americana. Isbell’s biography echoes those of some of the big names of 20th century traditional country music—growing up in a family close to the land and with deep roots in religion, musical influences from older generations, big dreams and an independent spirit. From winning best album, song, and artist for his first solo album at the 2014 AMA awards, through nearly 20 more nominations and wins in industry Americana award categories, Isbell persistently lines up with the genre’s sound and story aesthetics.
His lyrics feature narratives and particular events in his family’s history, his own struggle toward sobriety and marriage, and his characters’ reflections on memory and change. Sometimes the change is uneven between him and his beloved (“There’s a man who walks beside me / He is who I used to be / And I wonder if she sees him / And confuses him with me,” from 2013’s “Live Oak”). Sometimes Isbell emphasizes someone else’s change (“Not for me to understand / Remember him when he was still a proud man,” from “Relatively Easy”).
Described by a Recording Academy staff writer as “luminous” and “profound” a remarkable number of 2023 Grammy nominations were connected with Americana music. Just 25 years before, a few radio programmers and entertainment industry professionals—not so many musicians themselves—began trying out a word which had been associated previously with folk art and objects that fit a certain style, not with a category of popular recorded music.
Americana was rural or vintage, unpolished, earnest artifacts. The aesthetic has been applied to home decor and clothing. People whose job it was to organize music and musicians to fit within a mainstream economic system noticed a trend, which was especially resistant to existing categories. The thread connecting vintage crockery, cross-stitched pillows, “America,” and indie musicians not conforming to genre patterns was not precisely clear. However, the organizers decided American folk are resistors at heart, so they called the non-defined genre Americana.
Picking up on the term and the key concept of resistance in 1999, a group of music industry professionals established the Americana Music Association. Their stated mission is to celebrate and support musicians who—at the turn of the century—were becoming less comfortable and less successful within mainstream country music. AMA promotional material uses terms like “authentic voice” and “freedom to create,” piecing together a genre and community and raising awareness of Americana music, through an annual festival & conference, a weekly airplay chart, and awards honoring well-known personas from country, folk, and rock who stuck out from the crowds in contemporary music.
Growing from the early 1990s, American music industries experienced a schism within the main genres that had dominated from the middle of the century—based out of Los Angeles, New York, Detroit, and especially Nashville. Every form of recorded music faced audio and economic implications of digitization, chaotic celebrity culture, and sharpening political division. Nashville’s country music culture shifted from traditional sounds to pop production aesthetics.This transformation was a catalyst for declaring Americana music its own genre, connecting audiences who didn’t enjoy the shorter stories, loops, and social reins of pop country radio, with musicians whose banjos and rough edges wouldn’t get played on pop country radio.
Through its first decade, Americana music held its ground outside the look and sound—and success-by-numbers—of popular country. In 2010, however, the genre popped into the mainstream, swept along by a British folk rock band and an electro-pop dance diva’s blockbuster movie. A Star Is Born starred Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper as musicians in a fictionalized plot set within American roots music—country, blues, and folk—and pop. Among several musicians who are involved in the AMA community and who contributed to the movie’s soundtrack are Jason Isbell, Lori McKenna, Lucinda Williams, and producer Dave Cobb.
The same year, a quartet of West London musicians featuring banjo, mandolin, guitar, keyboards, rhythm, and earthy vocal harmonies progressed from backing other musicians and playing small U.K. and U.S. venues to gaining overflowing popular attention in the U.S. Mumford & Sons performed the late night TV shows and got wide, lasting radio play, receiving their first Grammy nominations going into 2011. The look and sound of this not-American band highlights the significant overlap between Appalachian and Scots-Irish folk musical influences. In the meantime, another mandolin-featuring contemporary folk group from the U.S.,The Lumineers, broke into mainstream radio and TV coverage in 2011.
The AMA marks a key point in Americana music’s genre at the addition of its—albeit broad—definition in the official 2011 Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary. Etymology for “Americana” includes first known use in the mid-19th century, applied to “materials concerning or characteristic of America, its civilization, or its culture broadly.” The new, third definition simply solidifies the concept in use by the AMA and the Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences: “a genre of American music having roots in early folk and country music.”
In a 2016 interview with the Guardian, the Americana Music Association’s executive director highlighted genre-blurring. Musicians in this largely 21st century identified category could ignore some of the constraints that 20th century radio formats imposed. Today, digital and streaming formats result in audiences considering “album” and even “artist” far less when purchasing or playing music than they did just a few decades ago. Now playlists are programmed by consumers and cater to mood, activity, decade, or concept, such as patriotism, peace, and protest. Similarly, Americana artists need not worry about their songs fitting the mold to be played on only one station—country, R&B, rock, or pop.
The analogy of a melting pot to describe a country of diverse cultural origins’ blended culture is commonly referenced in an attempt to articulate what makes “America” essentially “American.” In recent decades, the idea has gained nuance, shifting from blended to diverse. At its best, the national identity of the United States of America reflects the differences of its people, the consequences of its history, and the ideals of its authenticity. A 2013 Atlantic Monthly critique of Americana music’s claim to authenticity and diversity warned that nostalgia is mostly aesthetic and can give artists, audiences, and industry professionals a false sense of achievement. When a song sounds authentic—and attractive—mostly because it sounds old or traditional, the odds are neither history nor contemporary reality is being sufficiently presented. Specifically, the author expressed concern at the relative absence of Black and other minority stories, voices, and presence.
Ten years after this important critique, the nation itself has new stories, language, consequences, and ideals to work with in creating Americana. Lyrics and music require what the AMA director calls noticeable “dirt in the ears”–imperfection—to tell the stories of parenting, sobriety, autonomy, or anything else in 2020’s America. Both AMA and Grammy awards follow other entertainment industry trends in showcasing and honoring a greater, more holistic group of artists. 2023 AMA nominees, for example, include musicians of First Nation Canadian, African American, Swiss-Ecuadorean, among other histories, sounds, stories, ethnicities, and cultures.
Identifying what is Americana music may not ever be a clear or exact endeavor. The process is an opportunity to explore many elements—aesthetic, social, and organizational.