Americanafest: The Milk Carton Kids Ask, “What Even Is Americana?”

The Curmudgeon on location in Nashville.

Music Features Americanafest
Americanafest: The Milk Carton Kids Ask, “What Even Is Americana?”

The Americana Music Association’s Americanafest returned to Nashville from September 11 through 16, and as every year before, the organization was still wrestling with its very identity. How, people kept asking, is Americana music different from other genres?

You’d think that the inability to answer such a basic question would be a crucial weakness, but in fact, it’s an essential strength. To keep posing the problem implies that there’s something at stake here beyond mere moneymaking. And to argue over the solution keeps everyone honest. As a direct result of that intellectual give-and-take, the AMA has evolved from a narrowly defined alt-country music into a broader roots-music community that now embraces a greater diversity not only in ethnicity and gender but also in styles.

Jim Lauderdale (Photo by Geoffrey Himes)
The AMA’s 17th annual Honors & Awards show at the Ryman Auditorium on September 12. For the past 15 years, Jim Lauderdale was the show’s master of ceremonies, and he turned the identity question into a vaudeville routine. The gifted singer/songwriter had that Bill Murray knack for impersonating a relentlessly cheerful if cheesy emcee—both comically exaggerated and yet entertaining in an old-school way.

Wearing a different rhinestone cowboy suit each year, Lauderdale addressed the organization’s perennial identity crisis by affirming in his chipper voice, whenever someone won an award, “That’s Americana!” It could be the British folk-rocker Richard Thompson or the Memphis soul singer William Bell, Tex-Mex accordionist Flaco Jimenez or bluegrass dobroist Jerry Douglas, Lauderdale’s response was the same: “That’s Americana!”

And it worked. By reinforcing the idea that these varied characters deserved lifetime achievement awards as much as the expected country and folk singers, the AMA pushed the boundaries of Americana outward. The group’s showcasing of older African-Americans and Latinos was often criticized as tokenism, but it expanded the movement’s self-concept and opened the door for many more young performers of color this year.

Milk Carton Kids (Kenneth Pattengale and Joey Ryan, photo by Geoffrey Himes)
This year the emcee duties at the awards show were taken over by the Milk Carton Kids, whose sense of humor is droller and cooler than Lauderdale’s but has the same effect of puncturing pretension. Joey Ryan, the taller of the two Kids, wrote a song called “What Even Is Americana?” that he and duomate Kenneth Pattengale performed early in the show.

“A country song that’s a little too political,” Ryan sang, “a feminist anthem that’s a bit too literal, your lyrics are biblical, your twitter feed liberal,… a folk song with no discernible chorus, bluegrass waltzes and Civil War stories, zydeco, Tejano, original, traditional, old-time string-band clothing is conditional, an R&B cover with pedal steel on it, I guess that’s Americana.”

Like the best jokes, this song was a comic exaggeration built upon a kernel of truth. Yes, there are a lot of Americana acts who undersell their chorus hooks and oversell their personal experiences and who dress up old songs in new instruments and young performers in old clothes. But the Americana umbrella can cover them all: geniuses and the talentless, old traditions and new fusions, regional specialties and universal anthems.

Some people just throw up their hands and say, “I can’t define it; I just play it.” It’s not that hard to define, however. As I wrote in 2016: “Americana music is any music clearly based on the way working-class musicians from the Greater American South between 1925 and 1965 handled the traditions imported from the British Isles, West Africa, northern France and northern Mexico.” That covers almost every situation.

Tyler Childers (Photo by Jason Davis/Getty)
Some artists who clearly fall within the scope of that definition resist the label, however. Tyler Childers, the terrific young singer-songwriter from Kentucky, was voted Best Emerging Artist at this year’s awards show. In his jittery acceptance speech, however, he complained, “As a man who identifies as a country-music singer, I feel Americana ain’t no part of nothing. It is a distraction from the issues that we are facing on a bigger level as country music singers.” He seemed to compare Americana to the title of his breakthrough album, Purgatory, a halfway house preventing performers from getting to the heaven of country radio play and CMA Awards.

In this, he seemed to echo the oft-repeated canard that “Americana is country music that doesn’t sell.” That theory was shattered when Americana artists such as Jason Isbell (a former Drive-By Trucker), Chris Stapleton (a former bluegrass singer) and Sturgill Simpson (a psychedelic cowboy) all topped Billboard’s country album charts with their recent albums while making little impact on the singles chart, which is based on radio, not sales. The truth of the matter is that the biggest Americana acts now often sell more records than the biggest Hot Country acts, whose Soundscan sales are embarrassingly low. Maybe the saying should be, “Hot Country is country music that doesn’t sell.”

If Childers thinks his association with Americana is keeping his songs of cocaine, bitterness and poverty off a country-radio format devoted to beer-swilling, conspicuous-consumption party songs, he’s kidding himself. He should be happy that his brilliantly crafted songs have found an audience that has embraced them. When Childers, sporting a bushy red beard and ponytail with a blue-plaid flannel shirt, led his band through a set at the Cannery Ballroom later that night, he introduced some new material that was even stronger than the songs on the Simpson-produced Purgatory, less focused on chemical intoxication and more interested in coping with relationships in the wake of separation and death.

Shemekia Copeland had no such qualms about embracing the Americana label. The daughter of Texas blues legend Johnny Copeland, she has built a solid career on her R&B-flavored blues songs. Her last two albums, however, were produced by the Wood Brothers’ Oliver Wood (2015’s Outskirts of Love) and Emmylou Harris’s Will Kimbrough (this year’s America’s Child) with songwriting by such American stalwarts as Mary Gauthier, Kevin Gordon and John Prine. Copeland realized that she doesn’t have to choose between blues and country, because Americana claims both. She can keep her old blues audience, add a country audience and give these great songs a new African-American twist.

The afternoon after the awards show, she sat atop a black barstool at the Sound Stage on Music Row for a taping of Ron Reinhart’s Acoustic Café radio show. Accompanied only by guitarist Arthur Nelson, Copeland tempered her big voice to bring out the details of songs such as Kimbrough’s “Would You Take My Blood” and Gauthier’s “Smoked Ham and Peaches,” both co-written with Copeland’s manager John Hahn.

“I think of Joni Mitchell and Aretha Franklin as aliens from different planets,” she told Reinhart. “I thought I could never do this. But Oliver Wood got me to do it, and I learned that I could move people without all that blues hollering.”

At another Acoustic Café taping, the War and Treaty reprised the songs on their breakthrough album produced by Buddy Miller. The married couple of Michael and Tanya Trotter drew from the deep well of African-American church music, but they translated it into a secular roots music that celebrated families and community. “When energies connect,” Michael told Reinhart, “religion goes out the window.”

Brandi Carlile, Irma Thomas and Courtney Marie Andrews (photo by Erika Goldring/Getty)
In many ways, the argument over the future of Americana music is disguised as an argument over its past. By giving lifetime achievement awards this year to Chicago bluesman Buddy Guy and New Orleans singer Irma Thomas, the AMA implies that younger blues guitarists and R&B vocalists should be part of Americana as well. By giving lifetime achievement awards to such high-profile lesbians as k.d. lang and the co-founders of Olivia Records (Cris Williamson and Judy Dlugacz), the organization is also welcoming younger LBGTQ performers.

The Country Music Hall of Fame, which partners with the AMA during Americanafest, is all about using the past to illuminate the future. The Hall’s new exhibit, Outlaws and Armadillos, celebrates the way Outlaw Country sprang from the dance halls, ballrooms and folk clubs of Texas to profoundly change country music in the early ’70s. The artifacts range from Kris Kristofferson’s hand-written lyrics for “Me and Bobby McGee” and Willie Nelson’s hat with a Lone Star Beer headband to Joe Ely’s Ringling Brothers circus uniform and the actual weapon that inspired Guy Clark’s “Randall Knife.”

Two key figures from the exhibit were on hand to talk about those days and to illustrate their points with unplugged performances. Ray Benson of Asleep at the Wheel (winner of the AMA’s 2009 Lifetime Achievement Award for Performance) talked about how a Jewish kid from the Philadelphia suburbs could channel his love for jazz into Texas swing music. Jazz, he implied, can be a useful ingredient in Americana today as well.

Billy Joe Shaver (photo by Geoffrey Himes)
Billy Joe Shaver (winner of the AMA’s 2002 Lifetime Achievement Award for Songwriting) talked about how an eighth-grade dropout could channel his love of language into writing songs for Waylon Jennings and Elvis Presley. Shaver, one of America’s great monologists, turned each question into a 10-minute answer that included everything from a recreation of his battles with Jennings to a graphic description of his circumcision.

The Hall of Fame also hosted a concert by Michael Nesmith & the First National Band. Nesmith may be best known as one of the Monkees, but he also released one of the first country-rock albums, 1970’s Magnetic South, which yielded the modest hit single, “Joanne.” Recovering from recent heart surgery, Nesmith missed some notes and forgot some lyrics, but he turned those flaws to his advantage with his jokes. His band included two of his sons and the great steel player Pete Finney; they played no Monkees songs and focused instead on an overlooked part of Americana history.

Americanafest shined a light on another slice of the past when Linda Gail Lewis teamed up with Robbie Fulks to play rockabilly songs from their remarkable new album, Wild! Wild! Wild! Jerry Lee Lewis’s younger sister is an impressive boogie-woogie pianist and singer herself and a reminder that there’s a shadow history of women making powerful roots music behind the better-known men. Fulks has written her some wonderful new songs, and accompanied by Fulks and Merle Haggard’s former guitarist Redd Volkaert, she belted them out with conviction in the backyard of a record store in East Nashville.

The Earls of Leicester (Johnny Warren, Jeff White, Jerry Douglas and Shawn Camp, photo by Geoffrey Himes)
There were more stand-out sets by Kevin Gordon, Lucero, Alejandro Escovedo, Jamey Johnson, John Hiatt & the Goners, Sam Lewis, the Earls of Leicester, the Bottle Rockets, Mandy Barnett, Charley Crockett and Courtney Marie Andrews. But the Americana movement has never been lacking in quality music. What it desperately needs instead is a breakout act that can translate that quality into a large, loyal audience. And a prime candidate for that act was on display during the Americanafest.

The Old Crow Medicine Show, which has placed its last five albums in the top 20 on Billboard’s country charts, not only sold out the Ryman on Friday night but also whipped that mostly young crowd into a frenzy that reminded one of a Bruce Springsteen concert. Most members of the sextet played at least three string-band instruments, which they traded back and forth as the set list moved from old-time stompers to country ballads to folk story songs.

But the point is neither versatility nor virtuosity; the point is making these old instruments and old themes as accessible and stimulating as the latest pop singles. They succeeded—thanks in no small part to their charismatic front man Ketch Secor—and by the time they played their best known songs, “I Hear Them All” and “Wagon Wheel,” the audience was on its feet, dancing and singing along, as if Springsteen were playing “Born To Run.”

CMT is set to broadcast a special featuring performance highlights from the awards show on Wednesday, November 28, at 8:00 PM CST, followed by a special broadcast by Austin City Limits on PBS in February 2019.

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