Americana music

From Wikipedia the free encyclopedia

Americana (also known as American roots music)[1] is an amalgam of American music formed by the confluence of the shared and varied traditions that make up the musical ethos of the United States of America, with particular emphasis on music historically developed in the American South.


The term "Americana music" was defined by the Americana Music Association (AMA) in 2020 as "…the rich threads of country, folk, blues, soul, bluegrass, gospel, and rock in our tapestry."[2] A previous 2016 AMA definition of the genre included rhythm and blues, with additional comments that Americana music results "in a distinctive roots-oriented sound that lives in a world apart from the pure forms of the genres upon which it may draw. While acoustic instruments are often present and vital, Americana also often uses a full electric band."[3]


Prehistory: Roots music[edit]

The origins of Americana music can be traced back to the early 20th century, when rural American musicians began incorporating elements of folk, blues, and country music into their songs.[4] Americana musicians often played acoustic instruments such as the guitar, banjo, fiddle, and upright bass, and their songs typically told stories about the struggles and hardships of everyday life.[5]

1948: Folk music revival[edit]

Pete Seeger in 1955

The American folk music revival began during the 1940s and peaked in popularity in the mid-1960s. The folk revival in New York City was rooted in the resurgent interest in square dancing and folk dancing there in the 1940s as espoused by instructors such as Margot Mayo, which gave musicians such as Pete Seeger popular exposure.[6][7][8] The folk revival more generally as a popular and commercial phenomenon begins with the career of The Weavers, formed in November 1948 by Pete Seeger, Lee Hays, Fred Hellerman, and Ronnie Gilbert of People's Songs, of which Seeger had been president and Hays executive secretary.

The Kingston Trio, a group originating on the West Coast, were directly inspired by the Weavers in their style and presentation and covered some of the Weavers' material, which was predominantly traditional.The Kingston Trio's popularity would be followed by that of Joan Baez, whose debut album Joan Baez reached the top ten in late 1960 and remained on the Billboard charts for over two years.It was not long before the folk-music category came to include less traditional material and more personal and poetic creations by individual performers, who called themselves "singer-songwriters". As a result of the financial success of high-profile commercial folk artists, record companies began to produce and distribute records by a new generation of folk revival and singer-songwriters—Phil Ochs, Tom Paxton, Eric von Schmidt, Buffy Sainte-Marie, Dave Van Ronk, Judy Collins, Tom Rush, Fred Neil, Gordon Lightfoot, Billy Ed Wheeler, John Denver, John Stewart, Arlo Guthrie, Harry Chapin, and John Hartford, among others.

Some of this wave had emerged from family singing and playing traditions, and some had not. These singers frequently prided themselves on performing traditional material in imitations of the style of the source singers whom they had discovered, frequently by listening to Harry Smith's celebrated LP compilation of forgotten or obscure commercial 78rpm "race" and "hillbilly" recordings of the 1920s and 30s, the Folkways Anthology of American Folk Music (1951). A number of the artists who had made these old recordings were still very much alive and had been "rediscovered" and brought to the 1963 and 64 Newport Folk Festivals. For example, traditionalist Clarence Ashley introduced folk revivalists to the music of friends of his who still actively played the older music, such as Doc Watson and The Stanley Brothers.

1965: Emergence of folk rock[edit]

In the 1950s and 1960s, folk revival music began to evolve and incorporate elements of rock and roll and other popular music styles. Artists such as Bob Dylan and the Byrds began blending traditional folk and country music with electric guitars and drums, creating a new sound that came to be known as folk rock.[4]

Joan Baez and Bob Dylan in 1963

On January 20, 1965, the Byrds entered Columbia Studios in Hollywood to record Bob Dylan's acoustic tune "Mr. Tambourine Man" for release as their debut single on Columbia. The full, electric rock band treatment that the Byrds and producer Terry Melcher had given the song effectively created the template for the musical subgenre of folk rock.[9][10] McGuinn's melodic, jangling 12-string Rickenbacker guitar playing—which was heavily compressed to produce an extremely bright and sustained tone—was immediately influential and has remained so to the present day. The single also featured another major characteristic of the band's sound: their clear harmony singing, which usually featured McGuinn and Clark in unison, with Crosby providing the high harmony.[11] Additionally, Richie Unterberger has stated that the song's abstract lyrics took rock and pop songwriting to new heights; never before had such intellectual and literary wordplay been combined with rock instrumentation by a popular music group.[12]

Within three months "Mr. Tambourine Man" had become the first folk rock smash hit,[13] reaching number one on both the U.S. Billboard Hot 100 chart and the UK Singles Chart.[14][15] The single's success initiated the folk rock boom of 1965 and 1966, during which a number of Byrds-influenced acts had hits on the American and British charts.[12] The term "folk rock" was itself coined by the American music press to describe the band's sound in June 1965, at roughly the same time as "Mr. Tambourine Man" peaked at number 1 in the U.S.[16][17]

The commercial success of the Byrds' cover version of Dylan's "Mr. Tambourine Man" and their debut album of the same name, along with Dylan's own recordings with rock instrumentation—on the albums Bringing It All Back Home (1965), Highway 61 Revisited (1965), and Blonde on Blonde (1966)—encouraged other folk acts, such as Simon & Garfunkel, to use electric backing on their records and new groups, such as Buffalo Springfield, to form. Dylan's controversial appearance at the Newport Folk Festival on July 25, 1965, where he was backed by an electric band, was also a pivotal moment in the development of the genre.

1982: Emergence of alternative country[edit]

Exene Cervenka and John Doe during an X concert in 1983

In the 1990s the term alternative country, paralleling alternative rock, began to be used to describe a diverse group of musicians and singers operating outside the traditions and industry of mainstream country music. Many eschewed the increasingly polished production values and pop sensibilities of the Nashville-dominated industry for a more lo-fi sound, frequently infused with a strong punk and rock and roll aesthetic. Alternative country drew on traditional American country music, the music of working people, preserved and celebrated by practitioners such as Woody Guthrie, Hank Williams, and The Carter Family, often cited as major influences.[18] Another major influence was country rock, the result of fusing country music with a rock & roll sound. The artist most commonly thought to have originated country rock is Gram Parsons (who referred to his sound as "Cosmic American Music"), although Michael Nesmith, Steve Earle[19] and Gene Clark are frequently identified as important innovators.[20] The third factor was punk rock, which supplied an energy and DIY attitude.[19]

Attempts to combine punk and country had been pioneered by Nashville's Jason and the Scorchers, and in the 1980s Southern Californian cowpunk scene with bands like the Long Ryders[21] and X,[22] and the Minneapolis-based band the Jayhawks. X signed with major label Elektra in 1982 and released Under the Big Black Sun, which marked a departure from their trademark sound. While still fast and loud, with raw punk guitars, the album displayed evolving country leanings. The Scorchers released their debut, D.I.Y. EP, Reckless Country Soul, in 1982 on the independent Praxis label. But these styles merged fully in Uncle Tupelo's 1990 LP No Depression, which is widely credited as being the first "alt-country" album, and gave its name to the online notice board and eventually magazine that underpinned the movement.

1999: Formation of Americana Music Association[edit]

In the 1990s and 2000s, Americana music underwent a resurgence in popularity, as a new generation of artists began incorporating elements of traditional American music into their songs. Artists such as Wilco, Lucinda Williams, and Gillian Welch helped to popularise a new style of Americana music that blended elements of rock, folk, country, and blues.[23][24]

Rolling Stone notes that

"Americana" first came to fashion as a descriptive musical phrase in the mid-Nineties, when a group of radio promoters and industry outsiders dispersed throughout Nashville, California and Texas sought to carve out a distinct marketplace for a wave of traditionally minded songwriters like Guy Clark, Darrell Scott and Jim Lauderdale, artists whose work was no longer being served by a country music industry riding high on Garth Brooks and Shania Twain.[25]

This new style of music reflected a renewed interest in traditional American music forms, and it helped to establish Americana music as a distinct and important genre in its own right.

The Americana Music Association, a not-for-profit trade organization advocating for American Roots Music around the world, was formed in 1999.[26] It is a network for Americana artists, radio stations, record labels, publishers, and others with the goal of developing an infrastructure that will boost visibility and economic viability.

The Lumineers performing in 2023

The 2010s saw several musical groups connected with Americana music finding their way on to the Billboard charts. Bands like Mumford and Sons, The Lumineers and The Avett Brothers helped bring contemporary Americana to more people than ever before. Their popularity as artists took the genre (which was somewhat of a niche, in the shadow of country and rock) and made it mainstream.[27]

In 2011, the genre was officially inducted into the Merriam-Webster dictionary.[28]

2014: Expansion of definition[edit]

In modern times, Americana music continues to evolve and expand, as new generations of artists continue to draw inspiration from the rich history and cultural traditions of the United States. The instrumentation of Americana music continues to be characterized by acoustic guitars, fiddles, banjos, mandolins, and harmonicas, as well as electric guitars and drums. The genre remains deeply rooted in the cultural and social landscape of the United States, and it continues to reflect the diverse experiences and perspectives of the American people.

In recent years, the genre has incorporated more influences from blues, R&B, and soul, in addition to the country and folk elements that have always been prominent. In 2017 Rolling Stone published an article claiming that Americana was having an "identity crisis," which focused on changing definitions and efforts to promote ethnic diversity in the genre.

In 2014, traditional country musician Dale Watson formed the Ameripolitan Music Awards, focused on the genres of honky tonk, outlaw, Western swing, and rockabilly, on the premise that these genres can no longer be properly categorized as country or Americana, thus necessitating the creation of a new term, "Ameripolitan".

Notable Americana musicians[edit]

Radio format[edit]

The radio station laying the best claim to the Americana radio format origins is KFAT in Gilroy, California, active from mid-1975 to January 1983, as described in the book Fat Chance,[29] authored by Gilbert Klein in 2016 and published by KFAT was succeeded by KHIP in Hollister CA, KPIG in Freedom CA, and Fat 99 KPHT-LP in Laytonville CA. Though some[who?] say Americana as a radio format had its origins in 1984 on KCSN in Northridge, California, but that did not happen until after KFAT, Gilroy went off the air when it was sold and the format changed.

Mark Humphrey, a contributor to country/folk Frets magazine, hosted a weekly radio show called "Honky Tonk Amnesia" which played "country, folk, honky tonk, cajun, dawg, blues, and old-time music", a combination that the country music station KCSN advertised as "Americana".[30] The format came into its own in the mid-1990s as a descriptive phrase used by radio promoters and music industry figures for traditionally-oriented songwriters and performers.

Americana type radio shows can be heard on a variety of non commercial radio stations.


The acoustic guitar is perhaps the most essential instrument in Americana music. It is often used to provide the rhythmic foundation of a song, as well as to accompany vocals and other instruments.[31] In Americana music, the acoustic guitar is often played fingerstyle, which produces a warm and organic sound that is perfect for the genre's earthy, rootsy feel.[32]

The banjo is a distinctive and essential instrument in Americana music.[33] Its bright, twangy sound is instantly recognizable and often associated with Appalachian and bluegrass music also. Banjos are often played using a technique called clawhammer, which involves striking the strings with the back of the fingernail.[34] The banjo adds a unique texture to Americana music, and its intricate, fast-paced playing can create a driving rhythm that propels a song forward.

The mandolin is a small, stringed instrument that is commonly used in folk and bluegrass music. Its bright, high-pitched sound adds a distinctive flavor to Americana music, and its fast, intricate playing can create a lively and upbeat feel. Mandolins are often played using a technique called tremolo, which involves rapidly picking the strings to create a sustained, shimmering sound.[35]

The fiddle is a traditional stringed instrument that is often used in Americana music.[36] Its versatile sound can create both slow, mournful melodies and fast, lively rhythms. Fiddles are often played using a technique called "sawing," which involves rapidly moving the bow back and forth across the strings to create a driving rhythm.[37] Fiddles can add a haunting quality to Americana music and can create a sense of nostalgia and longing.

Use in Canada[edit]

Despite the genre's most common name, it is not practiced solely by artists from the United States, as numerous artists from Canada are also prominent in the genre.[38] Canadian bands in the genre will sometimes be referred to as Canadiana rather than Americana in Canadian media,[39] although this is not a widely recognized synonym elsewhere. A Norwegian scene is often referred to as Nordicana.[40]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Widner, Ellis (July 16, 2017). "Bramletts gave root to Americana". Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. Archived from the original on January 25, 2021. Retrieved July 17, 2019.
  2. ^ Americana Music Association: Foundation. Archived from the original on June 8, 2020.
  3. ^ "What Is Americana". Americana Music Association. March 21, 2016. Archived from the original on December 3, 2021. Retrieved December 3, 2021.
  4. ^ a b Chilton, Martin (May 4, 2022). "Americana: How Country And Roots Music Found A "Brand New Dance"". uDiscoverMusic. Archived from the original on March 4, 2023. Retrieved March 4, 2023.
  5. ^ "Americana Music Guide: A Brief History of Americana". Masterclass. June 8, 2021. Archived from the original on March 4, 2023. Retrieved March 4, 2023.
  6. ^ Szwed, John, Alan Lomax: The Man who Recorded Music, Penguin, 2010. Cf. p.144: "Margot Mayo was a Texan who pioneered folk music in New York and spearheaded the revival of folk dancing and square dancing there in the 1940s"
  7. ^ Cf. Cantwell, Robert, When We Were Good (1996), pp. 110, 253.
  8. ^ "To Hear Your Banjo Play", film short, 1947 with Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie, Sonny Terry, Margot Mayo's American Square Dance Group and others. Written by Alan Lomax and narrated by Pete Seeger.
  9. ^ Hoffmann, Frank. (2004). Encyclopedia of Recorded Sound (2nd ed.). Routledge. p. 148. ISBN 0-415-93835-X.
  10. ^ Unterberger, Richie. "Folk Rock: An Overview". Archived from the original on November 9, 2013. Retrieved March 15, 2010.
  11. ^ Connors, Tim. "Mr. Tambourine Man". ByrdWatcher: A Field Guide to the Byrds of Los Angeles. Archived from the original on January 11, 2010. Retrieved May 31, 2010.
  12. ^ a b Unterberger, Richie. (2002). Turn! Turn! Turn!: The '60s Folk-Rock Revolution. Backbeat Books. p. 107. ISBN 0-87930-703-X.
  13. ^ Dean, Maury. (2003). Rock 'n' Roll Gold Rush: A Singles Un-Cyclopedia. Algora Publishing. p. 200. ISBN 0-87586-207-1.
  14. ^ Whitburn, Joel. (2008). Top Pop Singles 1955–2006. Record Research Inc. p. 130. ISBN 978-0-89820-172-7.
  15. ^ Brown, Tony. (2000). The Complete Book of the British Charts. Omnibus Press. p. 130. ISBN 0-7119-7670-8.
  16. ^ Unterberger, Richie. (2002). Turn! Turn! Turn!: The '60s Folk-Rock Revolution. Backbeat Books. p. 133. ISBN 0-87930-703-X.
  17. ^ Rogan, Johnny. (1998). The Byrds: Timeless Flight Revisited (2nd ed.). Rogan House. pp. 83–87. ISBN 0-9529540-1-X.
  18. ^ G Smith, Singing Australian: a History of Folk and Country Music (Melbourne: Pluto Press Australia, 2005), ISBN 1-86403-241-3, p. 134.
  19. ^ a b K. Wolff and O. Duane, eds, Country Music: the Rough Guide (London: Rough Guides, 2000), ISBN 1-85828-534-8, p. 396.
  20. ^ M. Demming, "Gene Clark: biography", Allmusic, May 3, 2014.
  21. ^ W. C. Malone, Country Music, U.S.A. (Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 2nd edn., 2002), ISBN 0-292-75262-8, p. 451.
  22. ^ Fechik, Mariel (May 7, 2020). "Interview: X's Exene Cervenka on LA Punk Legends' Return & New Album ALPHABETLAND". Atwood Magazine. Retrieved May 8, 2020.
  23. ^ Johnson, Martin (October 11, 2022). "AUK's Top 10 Americana Albums of the 21st Century: Number 9 – Gillian Welch "Time (The Revelator)" (2001)". Americana UK. Archived from the original on March 4, 2023. Retrieved March 4, 2023.
  24. ^ DeVille, Bill (May 1, 2022). "All '90s Americana". The Current. Archived from the original on March 4, 2023. Retrieved March 4, 2023.
  25. ^ "Inside the Americana Genre's Identity Crisis". Rolling Stone. September 13, 2017.
  26. ^ "Americana Board of Directors Revise Mission Statement, Appoint Executive Committee And Set Goals For Future Growth". Archived from the original on August 9, 2013. Retrieved January 16, 2013.
  27. ^ Bernstein, Jonathan (December 20, 2019). "How Americana Went Mainstream in the 2010s". Rolling Stone. Archived from the original on March 4, 2023. Retrieved March 4, 2023.
  28. ^ Andrews, Amanda (August 25, 2011). "Now That's Americana: Merriam Webster adds Americana to Dictionary". Nashville Music Guide. Archived from the original on March 4, 2023. Retrieved March 4, 2023.
  29. ^ Klein, Gilbert (November 2016). Fat Chance. Main Frame Press. ISBN 978-0-9856790-0-2.
  30. ^ "Honky Tonk Amnesia". Frets. Vol. 6. 1984. p. 50.
  31. ^ "The Acoustic Guitar In Country Music". September 26, 2022. Archived from the original on March 4, 2023. Retrieved March 4, 2023.
  32. ^ "History Of American Fingerstyle Guitar and Great Musicians Who Made It Happen". 2017. Archived from the original on March 4, 2023. Retrieved March 4, 2023.
  33. ^ Sabatella, Matthew. "Banjo: A Brief History". Ballad of America. Archived from the original on March 4, 2023. Retrieved March 4, 2023.
  34. ^ Witt, Lawrence (June 29, 2017). "What is Clawhammer Banjo?". Deering. Archived from the original on March 4, 2023. Retrieved March 4, 2023.
  35. ^ "mandolin – musical instrument". Britannica. Archived from the original on March 6, 2023. Retrieved March 4, 2023.
  36. ^ "fiddle – lute". Britannica. Archived from the original on March 4, 2023. Retrieved March 4, 2023.
  37. ^ "Fiddling Techniques – Bowing Down Home". Archived from the original on March 4, 2023. Retrieved March 4, 2023.
  38. ^ Annie Zaleski, "25 Country and Americana artists you might not know are Canadian" Archived March 3, 2020, at the Wayback Machine. The Boot, September 5, 2018.
  39. ^ Lee Zimmerman, Americana Music: Voices, Visionaries, and Pioneers of an Honest Sound, Texas A&M University Press, 2019. ISBN 9781623497019. Chapter 48, "The Sadies Look South".
  40. ^ Martin, Taylor. "Nordicana: The Genre You Wish You Knew". Archived from the original on May 15, 2021. Retrieved January 1, 2021.

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