When Tyler Childers won the Emerging Artist of the Year prize at the 2018 Americana Music Honors & Awards, he proclaimed the following from the podium:
As a man who identifies as a country music singer, I feel Americana ain’t no part of nothin. It is a distraction from the issues that we are facing on a bigger level as country music singers. It kind of feels like ‘Purgatory’
One can certainly relate a bit to the frustration; the fact that the award was given at the Ryman Auditorium (the Mother Church of country music) probably didn’t help matters.
Childers identifies as a country singer. Period. Yet, you’d be hard-pressed to find him on country Top 40 radio.
What’s in a name (and how many sub-genres)?
I decided to look up Country Music on Wikipedia to get a sense of a solid definition. It would seem (at the time of writing, Wikipedia is constantly in flux) that it defined music focusing on the working class and blue-collar life, simple forms, folk lyrics (or storytelling) and rooted in American folk music.
When I was growing up, our wonderful babysitter Nita Carswell would constantly have the country station going on in the car. I was fed a pretty steady diet of Kenny Rogers, Dolly Parton, Randy Travis, George Strait, Reba McIntyre and many of their contemporaries. Much of this would fall under what later became known as Neotraditionalist Country, which emphasized traditional country instrumentation, stylings and dress.
But for all I knew, that was country music. It also wasn’t far off from my later discoveries of Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash and their contemporaries in the Outlaw Country movement.
Later on, it was 1990’s Country Rock, which kept a good foot in tradition while adding some more modern elements. Brooks & Dunn, Garth Brooks, Alan Jackson and their contemporaries, and even going as far back as the Allman Brothers and The Eagles. You would hear the traditional country influence with the rock elements added. Later, Shania Twain hit the scene and really turned the genre on its head with then-husband “Mutt” Lange’s production style (from The Man Who Brought You Back in Black and Hysteria). Things weren’t going to be the same.
Since then, at least for this humble author, it’s been a jumble of many things. Taylor Swift was poised to be the next big thing in Country Music until she went 100% pop on the 2014 album1989 (though the progression to that started on the previous couple of albums) and has now pretty much taken over the world.
Now, it’s Bro-Country that has taken the world by storm, with lyrics about pickup trucks, solo cups, and girls in Daisy Dukes. It’s more pop than country also at this point, with genre lines becoming extremely blurred and so many modern elements (hip-hop, neo-soul, hard rock, etc.) added that what traditionally made Country Music “Country Music” (pedal steel, fiddles, hometown/blue-collar stories) is a rarity. It’s just cowboy hats and bad rapping. It’s also ridiculously popular, along with the music of Morgan Wallen, Jason Aldean, and their contemporaries.
Thankfully there are outliers like Chris Stapleton and Zach Bryan who are still incorporating traditional forms and feelings that make up “traditional” country music, providing a reprieve from the rest.
And that’s just the tip of the iceberg that is “modern” country music!
The “purgatory” that is Americana
The Americana Music Association defines the genre as:
...contemporary music that incorporates elements of various American roots music styles, including country, roots-rock, folk, bluegrass, R&B and blues, resulting in a distinctive roots-oriented sound that lives in a world apart from the pure forms of the genres upon which it may draw.
The genre itself seems to have its roots (no pun intended) in American Folk Music (Bob Dylan, Emmylou Harris, etc.) as well as the Alt-Country movement that gave us artists such as Steve Earle. Add a little punk-rock-DIY ethos and you have the makings of the genre. What’s funny is that on Wikipedia’s list of “Americana” artists, you will find Johnny Cash and Willie Nelson, who most would consider country before anything else. Then again, if you look at elements of their music, it sort of fits the definition. It also seems to be the one where Tyler Childers fits the most (probably to his chagrin).
You can however argue that Tyler Childers is way more “country” than the majority of Country artists on Top 40 radio. Songs from his album Purgatory sound like they belong in the same set as Hank Williams and George Strait, rather than Florida Georgia Line and Jellyroll. To my ears, what Childers is doing is Country Music in its most traditional and identifiable forms.
So why are we not hearing this on country radio? As Rolling Stone Magazine put it best in 2017:
"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.
So basically, they needed a genre for those who no longer “fit” in the genre. Weird, isn’t it?
One can certainly understand Childers frustrations with the whole thing. He double-downed on his 2018 position during an interview on World Cafe (from Whisky Cafe):
It was at the Ryman which is the Mother Church of Country Music and they’re holding the Americana Awards which I feel is a big hindrance in maintaining more true-to-roots country music.
And everybody always talks about the state of country music and puts down commercial country and says ‘somethings gotta be done’ and ‘we need to be elevating artists that are doing more traditional country’ but then were not calling those artists country artists, they’re getting put into this Americana thing.
It is what it is, and I don’t really know how to define what Americana is. We’re our own thing, it’s a new time, and I don’t know what it’s called but I’ve been calling it country, you know? I think a lot of times it’s kind of become just a costume.”
He’s not wrong either. While Top 40 Country Radio is being dominated by the likes of Morgan Wallen, Jason Aldean, Kelly Musgraves and Jellyroll, it's a shame that artists like Childers, who still make music more indicative of what traditional country is and was, are not getting heard on the same stations.
When you look at some of these Americana artists (Childers, Brandi Carlile, Jason Isbell, Brent Cobb, Yola, and I could go on), many of these could easily fit in the country genre as far as instrumentation, lyrics, song structure, etc. There’s nothing there too far off the beaten paths of most country subgenres. Yet, radio ain’t calling.
Understandably, radio stations need to make a profit, so they’ll play what the people want to hear, which will be, in most cases, modern artists singing about pickups and solo cups to an 808 beat. I would argue that what people want to hear is different than what people need to hear. For every “Cruise” that plays on the radio, there should be an “All Yours’n” along with it.
So, for now, many of these artists will be outliers, which is a shame. Thankfully there are loyal fans who will continue to listen and share. Hopefully enough to a point that the mainstream will pay attention. While country music is as popular as ever, it does need a reminder of where it came from.
By Kevin Daoust - instagram.com/kevindaoust.gtr
Kevin Daoust is a guitarist, guitar educator and writer based in Gatineau, Quebec, Canada. When not tracking guitars for artists around the world, or writing music-related articles around the internet, he can be seen on stage with Accordion-Funk legends Hey, Wow, the acoustic duo Chanté et Kev, as well as a hired gun guitarist around Quebec and Ontario. He holds a Bachelor of Music in Guitar Performance from Carleton University in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada.