The running theme, or joke, in the Americana or alt-country genre is that nobody really knows what it is. The subhead for No Depression magazine, the 11-year-old bimonthly that covers the genre used to be "Alt-country; whatever that is." The new subhead is "Surveying the past, present and future of American music," which is potentially even more confusing. According to what's covered by that magazine, which is probably the only official cultural yardstick for Americana and alt-country, this is a genre that can include the traditional bluegrass of Charlie Louvin and the punk blues of the Gun Club; the greasy rhythm and blues at the Ponderosa Stomp and the noodly psychedelia of the Bonnaroo Festival. If I went by what I saw last week in Nashville at the fifth annual Americana Music Association (AMA) conference, Americana would therefore be inclusive of Allen Toussaint, who won a lifetime achievement award for his body of work as a producer; Charlie Daniels, who won an award for promoting freedom of speech; and Vince Gill, who made a rambling and perhaps overly candid speech about his longtime friendship with songwriter Rodney Crowell ("and once, I had to pull the car over and throw up ... and Rodney was such a good friend that he stuck his finger down his throat and threw up with me"). Not a speech that the awards-show standard Gill would be likely to make at the CMAs.
Nashville itself is a strange and interesting company town, where the company is the country music industry itself. I got to meet New Orleans native Jim McCormick, a songwriter with an MFA in creative writing who seems to be living the Nashville dream as a writer for Universal Music Nashville, getting his tracks recorded by Tim McGraw and Ronnie Milsap, among others.
"Tomorrow's not bad," he said at an AMA showcase over beers. "I have one songwriting session at ten, then another at five." When I saw him at the end of the next day, he said he was a little hung over, but managed to write two good songs. The same night, I also saw Marshall Chapman, a veteran Nashville writer whose work has been cut by Jimmy Buffett, among others. During her set, she reminisced about blowout nights at Nashville's Exit/In in the '70s, where Kris Kristofferson and David Allan Coe might be in the audience at any given gig, hopping up onstage to try out a new composition and drinking moonshine in her front yard till sun-up. Country music has come a long way since the '70s' golden age of the singer-songwriter, and even though McCormick's workday sounds enviable, it didn't ring of the rambling outlaw fun that Chapman's stories did -- and neither do the songs coming out of Nashville today. At the Americana showcases, there were Carter family harmonies, mandolins and dobros, threateningly dirty swamp blues and vintage honky-tonk sounds; in top-40 country, you hear polished pop with a token pedal steel track or southern accent, if that.
In the end, the thing that struck me most was the palpable sense of political dissent that ran through the conference. There was no lack of country credibility present in the sound -- as I've said, there was more twang happening at this supposed footnote to the country music industry than there is in all of CMT's top 100. But where mainstream country tends to be full of Toby Keith's jingoistic fist-pumping and flag-waving, the Americana artists gathered in Nashville last weekend were pretty vocal about being as far left as you could expect people in cowboy boots and hats to be. Genres, in the end, are about marketing -- with Americana being so hard to define, it's obviously hard to market, so the crux of it lies somewhere else. The subtext of the awards ceremony was essentially that Americana is blue-state music. When he accepted his freedom-of-speech award, Charlie Daniels performed "Uneasy Rider" -- a goofy talking blues song that makes fun of the '60s conflict between hippies and rednecks, the latter being country's supposed core audience. Neil Young received Artist of the Year accolades for his fiercely anti-war and anti-Bush album Living With War. James McMurtry took home multiple awards for an album full of working-class angst that also indicts the president by name. And the now-ubiquitous team of Elvis Costello and Allen Toussaint were present to perform songs from River In Reverse, their June 2006 release that addressed, in part, disappointment in the government's response to Katrina. As a genre, Americana is hard to brand and sell. With its subtle complexity, it's challenging to define and understand. But country music once served the underdog, and it seems that if Americana has any universal continuity it is in the fact that it continues to do that -- respecting history, questioning authority and staying outlaw. Not a bad thing.
- Reflecting the open definition of alt-country, Elvis Costello was one of the featured artists at the Americana Music Conference.