It's right there on paper for all to see — evidence of the wider world recognizing Americana. For one thing, the Grammys handed out the first trophy in the standalone Best Americana Album category last year. And since the confusingly similar Contemporary Folk Album category was one of 31 eliminated in April, that Americana category is bound to be even more important from here on out.
Then there's the fact that among the new additions to Merriam-Webster's Dictionary is a concise definition of Americana as "a genre of American music having roots in early folk and country music." Considering the universality of the source — it is everybody's dictionary, after all — that's a pretty good indication that the music is a topic of interest for regular people who don't have a thing invested in the making and marketing of it.
But nothing says more about the visibility of contemporary American roots music than the real-life success of real-life acts. In a commercial genre — one in which musicians seek to make a living — that is proudly positioned left of center, there's always a balancing act between emphasizing the distinctiveness and authenticity of its aesthetic values and broadening its appeal.
Take a look at the current slate of Americana award nominees, and you'll see a number who've had banner, even breakthrough, years. Aside from Robert Plant — who's turning out vital roots rock with his Band of Joy these days, and who, as nobody's forgotten, once fronted one of the biggest bands in the world — there are singers and songwriters like Elizabeth Cook (up for Album, Artist and Song of the Year), who's never been more popular than she is now, with a well-earned place in Rolling Stone's Top 30 albums of 2010 and a captivating 10-minute interview on Letterman to show for it.
Justin Townes Earle (nominated in the Best Album and Song categories) is fresh from headlining the all-genre SoundLand festival and adding his nervy two cents to a Buddy Holly tribute album (June's Rave On Buddy Holly) that also features Paul McCartney, Patti Smith and Cee Lo Green. Jessica Lea Mayfield (a New/Emerging Artist contender) has been catching the interest not only of NPR — which tends to be favorably disposed toward roots music — but the Los Angeles Times, Rolling Stone and Spin. The latter just tapped her for Newermind, a covers collection dedicated to Nirvana's Nevermind.
Critical and commercial success certainly don't always go hand in hand, but The Civil Wars and Mumford and Sons have been seeing some of both. They're each in the running for New/Emerging Artist and Duo/Group of the Year (The Civil Wars also happen to be the only performers with a simultaneous CMA award nomination), and they've each topped Billboard's digital albums chart and put in good showings on the rock and folk charts, too. As of this writing, the Mumfords' full-length debut, Sigh No More, sits in the Billboard Top 40 — and it was released two years ago. The Avett Brothers (also up for Duo/Group) joined the Mumfords in backing none other than Bob Dylan on the televised Grammys in February, and the Avetts are set to play the rock club-dwarfing Bridgestone Arena later this month.
Says David Mayfield, leader of the David Mayfield Parade (which was slated to play the opening night of the festival), brother of Jessica Lea and frequent tourmate of the Avetts: "It's nuts, because when I first met them, we would go play shows with them and there'd be 80 people there, you know? And last New Year's Eve there were, like, 30,000 people there."
To put all this in perspective, it was 10 years ago that the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack — the T Bone Burnett-produced American trad-folk showcase that received a deluxe reissue on Lost Highway a couple months back — had its big-surprise, millions-selling, Grammy-winning explosion, which gave rise to all sorts of predictions about Americana acts super-sizing their audiences. Other than the likes of Plant and Alison Krauss — who'd herself given a breathtaking performance or two on O Brother — striking a chord across the listening landscape with Raising Sand, a lot of artists didn't see their music penetrating mainstream consciousness as predicted, no matter how good it was. But they're beginning to now, no doubt about it.
Of O Brother's present-day legacy, Jed Hilly, executive director of the Americana Music Association, says, "I mean, if you want to associate that record with Mumford and Sons 10 years later, I think you can make a really good point. I certainly see a connection from Emmylou [Harris] and Alison [Krauss] in particular, both their work on their own and within the body of that incredible soundtrack. I think there's a direct line from them to Dave [Rawlings] and Gillian [Welch] to Old Crow [Medicine Show] to the Avetts to Mumford. What's neat about that is that if you follow the age brackets, it's pretty amazing to see how this music — this genre, as Merriam-Webster defines it — is moving to a broader demographic."
O Brother mined Depression-era sounds, which wasn't the typical mode for such sophisticated, elegant singers as Harris and Krauss. And, you notice, a lot of the stuff that's currently breaking through is hardly strictly traditional — the music feels equal parts old and new. Often there's pre-electric instrumentation involved. On tour, Earle's been relying on his jaunty finger-style guitar playing plus fiddle and upright bass, and The Civil Wars — the duo made up of singer-songwriters Joy Williams and John Paul White — get by just fine with White's guitar.
"We're thankful that we've never heard a complaint from someone coming to a show that it is just the two of us on stage," says Williams lightheartedly.
The Avetts and Mumfords — who, along with Old Crow, are at the leading edge of an acoustic movement with considerable momentum — have built their sounds on a string-band foundation. And whether you're talking about an artist's intentions or what people in the crowd are responding to, the medium really sort of is the message.
"It doesn't ever seem to be leaning toward trying to get your attention," says White. "It's not trying to sell something. I think it's just kind of the world we're living in now, where if you call it a recession or you don't, it's like people are stripping [things] away and trying to have less things in their lives — things that are just more important to them. I think musicians are doing the exact same thing. We're stripping back from the pomp and circumstance of big pop recordings. There's no good or bad or right or wrong about any of it — it's just our mentality seems to be lining up [with] less-is-more."
David Mayfield, who's spent time on the road with the Avetts and the Mumfords, has a similar take on the appeal of going more or less unplugged. "I think it's getting back to somebody writing a song and a group of people getting together and playing it," he says. "All these bands we're talking about could walk into your living room and put on their show. They don't need pre-recorded backing tracks and Auto-Tune live and costume changes and LED screens. They just play."
Well, they don't just play. Earle has a way of winning his audiences over with vaudeville-style showmanship on stage, something he's said he learned from Porter Wagoner and the Opry of yesteryear. Though Williams and White work with the sparest of musical ingredients, and some of their songs could be set generations ago, the tremendous polish of their vocal interplay has a modern feel to it — not unlike the California pop Williams grew up on.
With the Parade, Mayfield makes music inspired by '50s pop and rock 'n' roll and aimed at listeners looking for warmhearted engagement as opposed to irony and aloofness. When pressed to venture his best guess about what's drawing more and more people to his shows — including an energized set at Bonnaroo this year — he says, "I think and I hope that it's the sincerity of our show and the fact that it's completely unpretentious. We just have a lot of fun on stage, and I think that people can relate to that, and they can see how much fun we're having and how we don't take ourselves too seriously. I'm not afraid to be goofy and just really entertain people. Because the bottom line is people today go to a concert to be entertained."