Americana Conference Highlights Its Place In A Divided Musical Era

Erika Goldring/Getty Images for Americana Music Association
Rosanne Cash accepts an award onstage during the 2018 Americana Music Honors and Awards at Ryman Auditorium on Sept. 12, 2018 in Nashville, Tenn. 

If a casual observer wanted to understand the widening gap between mainstream country music and left-of-center Americana, visits to the Country Radio Seminar and the Americana Music Conference -- held in Nashville Sept. 11-14 -- would provide a strong overview.

CRS panels have focused on growing sales, integrating digital tools and showcasing mostly glossy, feel-good music that celebrates a cultural segment. The Americana event had plenty of nuts-and-bolts business education, but multiple panels addressed music's role in difficult times, and the awards show on Sept. 12 was steeped in the kind of sociopolitical statements that most mainstream artists and outlets avoid. Among those key moments:

• Rosanne Cash defiantly spoke up for women's rights and against military-style assault weapons as she accepted the Spirit of Americana Free Speech Award during the Americana Honors & Awards on the 15th anniversary of father Johnny's death.

• Triple-winner Jason Isbell sang "White Me," in which a Caucasian male examines the freedoms he's granted strictly because of his race, then noted that it was "the first time we've played that song and nobody has gone to the bathroom."

• The panel "Country Soul: Making Music and Making Race in the American South" explored the uneasy integration and simultaneous separation between black and white musicians and genres that were built while targeting the same economic class.

• The Jack Emerson Lifetime Achievement for Executive Award was presented to Cris Williamson and Judy Dlugacz, who founded the first all-female label, Olivia Records, in the 1970s, catering to lesbians and progressive women in a male-dominated industry.

One of the Americana panels previewed the 16-hour Ken Burns documentary Country Music -- coming to PBS in September 2019 -- and hinted that it will explore, in part, the divide between mainstream country and Americana, a split that's partially defined by the ill-fitting relationship of art and commerce.

"The thing about Nashville [is] not that they're squashing your creativity," says the late Guy Clark in a clip from Country Music's seventh episode. "But they will to make a buck. The point is that they're in business. They're here to make money, not to support your artistic bent."

One of the conference's final panels, "The '68 Comeback Special: Revisiting the Classic Recordings of 1968," put an exclamation point on the commercial country/Americana divide. It examined five key recordings from 1968 -- including Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison and The Byrds' seminal country-rock LP, Sweetheart of the Rodeo -- and cast them as a reflection of a brutally difficult period in U.S. history.

Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum senior director/producer/writer Peter Cooper ran through a list of important country hits from '68 that grappled with the hard truths of those times. They included several prison-themed tracks -- Cash's "Folsom Prison Blues" and the Merle Haggard singles "Mama Tried" and "Sing Me Back Home," plus Henson Cargill's moral scorecard, "Skip a Rope"; Tammy Wynette's domestic tragedy, "D-I-V-O-R-C-E"; Loretta Lynn's spitfire feminine anthem, "Fist City"; and Jeannie C. Riley's "Harper Valley P.T.A.," a Tom T. Hall composition that dares speak public truth to small-town power.

Those kinds of songs still exist in mainstream country -- Chris Janson's "Drunk Girl" is in the top 10 of Billboard's Country Airplay chart, Luke Bryan's "Most People Are Good" hit No. 1 and Carrie Underwood debuts on the Sept. 22 chart at No. 34 with the social commentary of "Love Wins" -- but they're more difficult to find and usually focused on elevating the light instead of bringing attention to the darkness.

Rosanne Cash, in accepting her award, was frank in addressing tough topics, making the kinds of statements that have mostly vanished from mainstream awards shows. She insisted that artists should not be viewed as outcasts for speaking up in "dark and divisive times," earned a standing ovation for her stance on gender inequality ("Women are not small, inferior versions of men") and took aim at the gun lobby, insisting that innocent students "should not be collateral damage for the Second Amendment."

As serious as that discussion was, the Americana event was still presented in good humor. Built with a reverence for the roots of multiple genres, the idiom remains difficult for many to identify, making its definition a target of laughs at the awards ceremony.

"Forget the pop charts, you ain't on 'em/You need Americana," hosts The Milk Carton Kids sang while lampooning the genre.

Explicit country singer Wheeler Walker Jr. deadpanned during an introduction that Americana, "as far as I can tell, is just country music that nobody listens to."

Americana, in some ways, is maintaining some of the subgenres that mainstream country has abandoned. Marty Stuart recalls in the Country Music doc how he performed as a teen member of Lester Flatt's bluegrass band in the 1970s at a Michigan State concert that featured country-rock headliners the Eagles and former Byrds member Gram Parsons, who leaned toward traditional country during a brief solo career that had Emmylou Harris in his group.

Stuart looked at the diversity in that lineup and surmised that "they all can exist under the umbrella of country music."

The current mainstream does cover a wide musical range -- Chris Stapleton and Miranda Lambert's music overlaps with Americana, while Florida Georgia Line and Thomas Rhett have used programmed sounds to connect the genre with pop -- but Americana is the natural evolution of the intense marketing of the modern U.S. experience. Fox News and MSNBC speak to very divided audiences, Walmart and Nike latch on to different ideals to brand their products, and radio stations strive to identify segments of the public and, in turn, fragment music into small formats to suit them.

As a result, modern country and the alt-country music now enveloped by Americana went separate ways a long time ago. This year's Americana conference drove home the differences, just as Clark did when he assessed Rodney Crowell's future.

"You could be a star, or you could be an artist," says Crowell in Country Music, recalling a line of Clark's. "Pick one. They're both worthwhile pursuits."