Americana has racked up plenty of buzz, chart success and accolades lately, but there’s one thing the genre’s stewards believe its fast-rising artists could use a lot more of: places to play live.
So the Americana Music Association is rolling out a new tool to help artists book tours along the East Coast from New England to southern Florida. The Americana Tour Blueprint connects the association’s member-artists on appropriate venues in cities with radio stations, retailers, and local press that are friendly to roots music.
Americana Association executive director, Jed Hilly, told Billboard the Blueprint is a resource for developing artists who want to gain traction in the market. “As an artist advocacy group, our mission is to support the authentic voice of American roots music. But as a trade association, we are mindful of working with the industry to not only support legends but also to work for the next generation of rising stars.” About 20 venues have agreed to receive pitches from Americana Association artists through the Blueprint, according to Hilly. The Blueprint also provides information for almost 80 other clubs along the circuit.
Caitlin Canty and the Oshima Brothers will be the first two artists to route a tour using the Blueprint. The pair’s brief outing starts on January 4th, 2019 at the Rockwood Music Hall in New York and runs to Analog at the Hutton Hotel in Nashville on January 19th. The circuit mostly hugs the East Coast but veers west to Nashville, the unofficial home of Americana music and base for many managers, agents, and labels. Canty’s agent, Mark Lourie of Skyline Artists Agency, booked the tour’s shows.
What would become the Blueprint started two years ago. Hilly took a map of the United States to the association’s office and placed pushpins in each city with a radio station that supports Americana music. A piece of string run through each pin would create a jagged line that roughly followed Interstate 95. Large cities on the route are Boston; New York; Philadelphia; Washington D.C.; Richmond, VA; Savannah, GA; Jacksonville, FL, and Miami. Along the way, artists can veer off I-65 for gigs in Raleigh, NC, and Columbia, SC. Atlanta, Charlotte, and Asheville, NC, aren’t far off course. Seeing the locations of friendly markets planted a seed that would take two years to germinate. The Americana Music Association does remarkably well on a staff budget under $300,000, but Hilly had to put the Blueprint in a holding pattern. “When asked for advice by new artists I’m always saying be prepared to get on the road and share your music,” said Hilly. “But unfortunately, we have never really had the resources to outline a path until now.”
The timing couldn’t have been better. Some artists that fall under the broad canopy of Americana music — the category defies definition except to say it encompasses country, folk, rock, and blues — are heading toward mainstream popularity and can raise the genre’s profile. “What we know in the marketplace is that more bands are seeing success. Grassroots efforts have created rising stars like Brandi Carlile, Nathaniel Rateliff, and Lukas Nelson,” said Hilly, a former Sony Music executive in New York who became the Americana Music Association executive director in 2007. “I mean, did you see Lukas [Nelson] in A Star is Born? Talk about Americana hitting the mainstream!”
Americana is having a moment: Lukas Nelson, son of country legend Willie Nelson, co-wrote the music performed by Bradley Cooper’s lead character in A Star is Born, a roots rock singer from Arizona who would fit well in Austin’s gritty, singer-songwriter community. The movie’s musical focal point, “Shallow,” peaked at No. 5 and has spent five weeks on the Hot 100 singles chart while being one of two rock songs without a drum machine (Weezer’s “Africa” is the other). The 17-song soundtrack has topped the Billboard 200 album chart for two weeks. Meanwhile, Nelson, who records and performs as Lukas Nelson & Promise of the Real, has received widespread media attention from the likes of CNN, The Wall Street Journal, Esquire and Town & Country. At the same time, Google searches for Lukas Nelson have increased almost three-fold in the last two months.
But even prior to its current Hollywood spotlight, Americana had been mustering a slow, steady rise in popularity and recognition. The Grammys launched a Best Americana Album category in 2009; often, winners are roots musicians who have passed their commercial prime but have continued the careers: former drummer of The Band, Levon Helm; R&B legend Mavis Staples; blues pioneer Bonnie Raitt; and country icons Roseann Cash, Rodney Crowell, and Emmylou Harris. In 2016, Billboard renamed its folk album chart to Americana/Folk Albums, giving visibility to music that probably wouldn’t make the country or rock charts.
A handful of artists are the genre’s current torchbearers. Sturgill Simpson’s 2014 album, Metamodern Sounds in Country Music, was an underground sensation that led to his departure for Atlantic Records — the New York label, not a Nashville imprint. With his 2016 album A Sailor’s Guide to Earth, Simpson beat out mainstream country stars Keith Urban and Maren Morris for the Grammy for Best Country Album the following year. Jason Isbell with his backing band, the 400 Unit, has won two Best Americana Album awards (2016 and 2018) and plays large theaters and festivals around the country. Margo Price, a throwback in the style of Loretta Lynn who gets more attention on NPR than CMT, has gained some prominence with two successful albums on Jack White’s Third Man Records.
But sustained success boils down to touring, said Hilly. “I think The Avett Brothers found the model. It’s not brain surgery, but it’s a critically important artist development process that has become overlooked in the mainstream of the music business: building your audience, one fan at a time. I remember catching their show at the small [Nashville bluegrass venue] The Station Inn more than a decade ago. I watched them grow to 500- and 1000-capacity rooms in the next couple of years. Finally, I took in amazement as they played the main stage at Bonaroo in front of more than 60,000 adoring fans who all knew the words to their songs. That’s artist development.”
Glenn Peoples is a communications consultant and a former editorial analyst for Billboard.