From Western Swing to Americana: Keeping Music’s Past Roots Alive In the Present

When The Orchard released a new Asleep at the Wheel collaboration with Lyle Lovett, “There You Go Again,” on Sept. 16, it nimbly balanced two different eras.

The lyrics, penned by Wheel founder Ray Benson, casually drop a reference to Venmo, an app that’s less than 10 years old.

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But the song’s musical components — including a spacious midtempo beat and muted trumpets — are pure western swing, a genre that achieved its commercial peak in the 1940s and 1950s. With that juxtaposition, Benson is carrying out a mission statement he wrote for the band in 1970: to “bring the roots of American pop music into the present.”

The Wheel, which releases its anniversary album Half a Hundred Years on Oct. 1, is hardly alone in that endeavor. Elektra issued Home in This World: Woody Guthrie’s Dust Bowl Ballads on Sept. 10, with Lee Ann Womack, Chris Thile and others offering new versions of songs from an 81-year-old album centered on the effects of a climate-related crisis. Riders in the Sky played the Grand Ole Opry on Sept. 21, using tongue-in-cheek comedy to keep the western portion of a genre formerly called “country & western” alive. The Americana Music Association opens its annual conference on Sept. 22, promoting a current idiom with distinct ties to the roots of American music. And the International Bluegrass Music Association will begin a four-day convention on Sept. 28 in Raleigh, N.C., with a progressive wing finding new audiences for an older genre.

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The balance is tricky. There’s a place for nostalgia, but the music has to work in the present to keep attracting fresh listeners. If those fans get excited, a portion of them are likely to investigate the genre’s backstory, renewing appreciation for its founders.

“I don’t want to be a museum piece,” says Benson. “I just want to be able to entertain people with the music, and that way they won’t know they’re getting educated. They’ll just know they’re enjoying it.”

That’s how it seems to be working for The Infamous Stringdusters, a progressive bluegrass band set to host the IBMA Awards on Sept. 30. The quintet employs bluegrass instrumentation and harmonies with a jam-band visual image and concert presentation. It’s apt to cover The Cure and The Grateful Dead, thereby attracting a youth audience. But the group’s latest album, A Tribute to Bill Monroe, pays homage to the father of the genre, who died 25 years ago in September. In a way, they’ve been paying homage since they broke out in 2006.

“The reality is Bill Monroe was incredibly experimental throughout his career,” says Dusters banjoist Chris Pandolfi. “He had all manner of different instruments that he tried in his band, from accordion to drums — which, ironically, if you showed up with an accordion in a more traditional realm, you’d get pushed out of the picture really, really quickly. But Bill Monroe tried all of this stuff.”

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Artists don’t necessarily know if any of their songs, let alone their entire body of work, will last. But the songs that do endure trigger emotions and/or explore issues that transcend generations, as Guthrie’s Dust Bowl album did. Producer Randall Poster (music supervisor for Country Strong, Boardwalk Empire and Tiger King) tackled the project because Guthrie’s Depression-era stories still resonate in a time of West Coast drought and East Coast flooding.

“It’s letting people sort of think about how to act rather than telling them how to act,” says Poster, “and encouraging them to open their eyes and ears because it’s happening around us.”

The album has been released in partnership with Kiss the Ground, a nonprofit devoted to regenerative agriculture. It’s literally an attempt to preserve the planet at the same time that Poster is preserving Guthrie’s music by exposing it through new artists.

“He’s giving you a history lesson,” says Poster, recognizing the album’s reflection of a previous generation, but also its impact on music history. “It’s so original, and, in his plain talk, you can see where he inspired Bob Dylan or Ramblin’ Jack Elliot.”

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Not every bit of heritage music needs to be preserved, though determining what has long-term value is up for fierce debate. It’s left to a democratic process, run informally by the people who directly follow the pioneers.

“So much of it comes from artists,” says Americana Association executive director Jed Hilly. “Like the Woody Guthrie project, Dust Bowl Ballads is not the only Woody Guthrie tribute album to come out in the last 50 years.”

Benson’s Venmo reference helps understand why heritage music has perhaps a greater chance at being salvaged now than at any other time in history. The platform that spawned it is the gateway to nearly any historic recording, be it western swing icon Bob Wills or blues figure Robert Johnson.

“We have at our disposal 100 years-plus of recorded music available on your iPhone,” says Benson. “The classics were preserved because they were written down. You could get Mozart, Bach, Beethoven, et cetera, because it’s all written down. Now everything that was ever done by anybody is recorded and available to learn, listen to, interpret, so we’re dealing with a different thing.”

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Both the IBMA and Americana conferences support the sort of change that the Venmo lyric represents. Panel topics include social media, queer art, racial diversity, streaming algorithms and podcast marketing — none of which would, or could, have been discussed when Hank Williams was laying down his foundational works. Allowing the best of the past to find its place within modern realities is, in the end, the best way to bring new life to heritage music.

“The way that the world, and particularly the business, changes almost requires you as a musician to find ways to continue to evolve,” says Pandolfi, “and to avoid that appearance of being an anachronism.”

This article first appeared in the Billboard Country Update newsletter, which features the latest airplay, sales and streaming charts along with compelling analysis of market trends and conditions. All for free. Click here to subscribe.