Does Americana Have a Diversity Problem? AMA Chief Jed Hilly Comes to Genre's Defense

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Many inside the inner workings of Americana have insisted for years that there isn't a representation issue within the genre. After the 18th Annual AmericanaFest -- a six-day marathon of conferences, music and awards that takes place in Nashville every year -- that point of view will be even harder to defend.

Long held as an umbrella term for musical genres that developed during the early parts of the 20th century, Americana has served as a welcome career boost to many artists whose commercial viability had lessened right alongside their given class of music. Those artists must now ask themselves if the Nashville-based community for the format is willing to illustrate the importance of each member of its musical family, or if it's fast becoming the same good old boy's club that it railed against at its inception.

Jed Hilly has worked tirelessly as an ambassador of the genre in order to fight that label. Serving as the executive director of the Americana Music Association since 2007, Hilly has fought to raise roots music's profile within the mainstream, getting Rolling Stone magazine to print the Americana Music Airplay chart and leading the charge to have the Recording Academy add an Americana category to its list of Grammy Awards in 2010. He acknowledges that at first glance his organization's list of winners from the past few annual awards showcases may seem lacking in representation of artists outside of Nashville area code, but he points out the group's Americana Awards & Honors ceremony is one in which it should truly be considered an honor to be asked to take part in.

"Membership is membership, and there's not much I can do -- or choose to do -- to change how people vote," Hilly says, when asked about this year's list of winners and their friendly relations within the Nashville music community. "That would be an impropriety. All of the nominees are winners, to be frank. I had Joe Henry from Los Angeles [a nominee with partner Billy Bragg this year for Duo/Group of the Year] tell me that they had actually forgotten that it was an awards show, because everything was at a caliber that it was an honor just to be in the room."

He continues, "I hate that our society demands merit achievement, demands winners. We've had conversations about getting rid of the notion of winners, but then you have that issue of dealing with how to get those four or five people in each category onto the stage to perform."

Multiple news outlets, including Rolling Stone Country and MTV News, began pointing out the representation issues that the Americana Music Association had on its hands. Among the roughly 300 performers who took over Nashville venues for AmericanaFest showcases, less than 10 percent were acts that weren't made up of exclusively white members.

That percentage held for the annual Americana Awards & Honors show as well, where only two of the 21 separate nominees stretched across six voter-influenced categories weren't white. Rhiannon Giddens and Hurray for the Riff Raff, both nominated for Album of the Year, were the sole representations for people of color among nominees. Notably, not only has Album of the Year never gone to a person of color during the 18 years that the award has been given out, but only twice in the history of the Awards & Honors event has an act led by an artist of color won a voter-decided award: Alabama Shakes in 2012 for Emerging Artist of the Year and The Mavericks in 2015 for Best Duo/Group of the Year.

"How membership votes, I think that's a question that afflicts every [music industry awards ceremony]; I mean, good golly, take a look at the CMA Awards," Hilly says, pointedly mentioning his organization's more commercial counterpart. "I think it's funny that people are asking me these questions, when I think we're one of the most diverse industry awards shows in the business.

"I can say from an organizational point of view, we have demonstrated our philosophy in the bigger picture through the honorees for Lifetime Achievement. I'm very proud of the gender, racial and geographical diversity that we continue to highlight. I was very proud to honor the Hi Rhythm Section this year," Hilly says, mentioning the Memphis-based house band for Hi Records in the 1970s, this year's recipients of the Lifetime Achievement for Instrumentalist, "as in my mind they rank right up there with [Los Angeles-based] The Wrecking Crew and [celebrated Muscle Shoals rhythm section] The Swampers. I'm proud to have honored Iris DeMent [recipient of the Lifetime Achievement Trailblazer Award] this year. I'm proud to have honored Van Morrison and Graham Nash [Lifetime Achievement for Songwriter, and Spirit of Americana / Free Speech in Music honorees], both from the other side of the pond."

And while some of the association's detractors have also pointed toward the lack of female winners in voter-generated categories this year, with Amanda Shires -- the fiddle player took home Emerging Artist of the Year -- being the lone representative, Hilly also points out one more difference between Americana and its more popular musical cousin.

"After that whole 'tomatoes in the salad' conversation," he states, referencing the controversial comments about women in country music made by mainstream country radio consultant Keith Hill in 2015, "our research showed that we have more females participating in our events -- it was around a 45 percent male to female ratio -- than any other major musical event in the country, including Coachella, Bonnaroo, or CMA Fest. That is something that we are proud of. We're cognizant of those areas and we just do the best we can based on the people that want to be here."

The next 12 months may become what defines Americana for the immediate future. Whether those within the Americana Music Association see the events of the past week as something to celebrate, or a sign that a course correction may be called for, is their call to make. A representative at a Nashville-based Americana record label, who would only speak under the condition of anonymity, says that many of the issues the AMA is facing are inherent within any voting bloc with few actual voters.

"These awards are voted by the membership [of the Americana Music Association]," this person said. "Most people [within the industry] don't join or vote. The people who do join are too small a sample to be truly reflective of the community and it's audience, [so] they vote for who they like, and that can always end up a popularity contest... It's a self-fulfilling prophecy, because the more the awards are considered an insiders club, the less people want to join."

The full list of winners at the 16th Americana Honors & Awards:
Album of the Year: A Sailor's Guide to Earth, Sturgill Simpson, Produced by Sturgill Simpson
Artist of the Year: John Prine
Group/Duo of the Year: Marty Stuart & His Fabulous Superlatives
Song of the Year: "It Ain't Over Yet," Rodney Crowell (feat. Rosanne Cash & John Paul White), Written by Rodney Crowell
Emerging Artist of the Year: Amanda Shires
Instrumentalist of the Year: Charlie Sexton
Spirit of Americana/Free Speech in Music Award co-presented by the Americana Music Association and the First Amendment Center: Graham Nash
Lifetime Achievement Award, Trailblazer: Iris DeMent
Lifetime Achievement Award, Songwriting: Van Morrison
Lifetime Achievement Award, Performance: Robert Cray
Lifetime Achievement Award, Instrumentalist: Hi Rhythm Section
Lifetime Achievement Award, Executive: Larry Sloven and Bruce Bromberg