Three quick tips for next week's Americana Music Festival. First: Do not utter the phrase "alt-country." You will be waterboarded in the underground chambers of the Station Inn. Second: Do not even think of saying something like, "My, this 'No Depression' music certainly is rootsy!" Shortly thereafter, you will find mandolin pegs under your fingernails and a capo on your windpipe. The term is "Americana." Memorize it the way you would "Where's the bathroom?" in another language.
"OK, fine, I get that it's called Americana," you say, "but what the hell is it?" Rather than tell you, as in the old days, what the genre isn't — not just country-rock, not just folkie-blues, not just bands featuring either Jeff Tweedy or Jay Farrar — we've compiled a list of 15 artists playing throughout next week's Americana Music Festival who can tell you at a glance what it is. Want a crash course in contemporary roots music? Here's your syllabus.
The Avett Brothers (appearing at Americana Honors and Awards show, 8 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 9, Ryman Auditorium) The act with the potential to be the first certified-Americana superstars, the North Carolina punk-folk ensemble played to a thunderous reception at this year's Bonnaroo. Their massive crowd — encompassing everyone from aging hippies and headbangers to rap aficionados and bluegrass lovers — hinted that the genre's broadly scattered base of appeal may actually be a trump card, not a liability. For further proof, check out their sold-out two-night Ryman stand in October.
Ryan Bingham (appearing at Americana Music Awards, 8 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 9, Ryman Auditorium) The movie Crazy Heart is a little like viewing the world of country music through Americana goggles: Jeff Bridges' Bad Blake is country's sidelined unruly past, while Colin Farrell's chart-topping lightweight Tommy Sweet comes straight outta 16th Avenue South. Lucky for Bridges, he had Texas honky-tonk phenom Bingham in his corner with a first-rate old-school weeper, "The Weary Kind" (which won co-writer Bingham an Oscar).
Paul Burch & the WPA Ballclub (9 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 11, Station Inn) Burch was at the epicenter of the mid-'90s honky-tonk renaissance on Lower Broadway, where a generation of Nashvillians discovered something amazing — the old country music they'd spent their lives trying to escape was a drop-jawed wonder live. While adding different musical shades to the mix, he's spread that gospel ever since — even if (like his former bandmates in Lambchop) he's been embraced much more overseas. He's also playing an early evening show at 7 p.m. Thursday at East Nashville's Family Wash, where we hear he'll be joined by Exene Cervenka and Jon Langford (see below).
Peter Case (11 p.m. Friday, Sept. 10, The Basement) His self-titled 1986 solo album — in which the former Plimsoul left new-wave pop behind, took a walk in the woods and never came back — was an Americana touchstone before the term had occurred to anyone, even before his producer T-Bone Burnett (the Keyser Soze of roots music) became a brand name behind the console. Don't miss Case's new album Wig!, earthy, jangly and urgent in a way that makes "A Million Miles Away" sound once again close at hand.
Exene Cervenka (11 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 9, The Basement) Two things essentially made it safe for early-'80s punks to embrace country music as cool: Elvis Costello's Nashville-recorded tribute LP Almost Blue, and Exene snarling George Jones and Jerry Lee Lewis covers over X's surging squall. The band's 1985 punks-play-folk side project The Knitters was at least a decade ahead of its time.
Guy Clark (11 p.m. Wednesday, Sept. 8, Station Inn) One of the many Texas exiles who made their way to Nashville in the 1970s, forming a kind of bohemian counterpart to the Outlaws, Clark (like Steve Earle and Rodney Crowell) managed to succeed as a commercial craftsman without losing his hard edge or point of view. Word has it Clark's song "Hemingway's Whiskey" will be the title track on Kenny Chesney's new album later this month. Viva Americana!
Rip This Joint! A Tribute to Exile on Main St. (10:30 p.m. Wednesday, Sept. 8, Cannery Ballroom) The strung-out morning-after rejoinder to The Byrds' lilting country-rock experiment Sweetheart of the Rodeo — with beautiful-loser country catalyst Gram Parsons also in the background — the Stones' 1972 double LP held up a coke-streaked mirror to American roots music, leaving a reflection that's druggy, addled, pulsing with bad vibes and seething energy ... and totally hypnotic. What rocker, then or now, wouldn't want to peer into that mirror and see Mick Jagger glaring back? No wonder the AMA corralled a sizzling lineup to re-create the album in its entirety — including Dan Baird, Grace Potter, Mike Farris & the McCrary Sisters, Chuck Mead, Ray Wylie Hubbard, Michael Des Barres, and two performers from the original LP, sax man Bobby Keys and steel-guitar great Al Perkins.
The Fairfield Four (8 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 11, Cannery Ballroom) One of Americana's most appealing traits is a refusal to segregate blues, gospel and R&B from folk, rock and country. What this means for you, the novice, is the chance to hear one of the most joyous noises on earth — the hard-swinging, legendary Nashville gospel outfit that will celebrate its astounding 90th anniversary next year.
Wanda Jackson (11 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 9, Mercy Lounge) A spitfire in a sea of poodle skirts, Jackson was the rockabilly hellcat who compared her loving to nuclear devastation (in 1957's unforgettable "Fujiyama Mama") — and blazed a pathway for feminine rebellion followed by everyone from Cervenka to Those Darlins and Miranda Lambert. Honored this year by the AMA for lifetime achievement, she's arguably the original country alternative.
Jon Langford (midnight Thursday, Sept. 9, The Basement) The point on the Americana graph where first-generation Britpunk meets brawny blue-collar country, Langford (of the seminal punk group Mekons and the Waco Brothers) reveres honky-tonk's rascally tradition while brandishing the sign of the cross at Music Row. Ever wondered what The Clash would sound like playing upstairs at Tootsie's? See Langford.
Jim Lauderdale (10 p.m. Friday, Sept. 10, Mercy Lounge) Who once put out nearly simultaneous CDs of pop and country? Jim Lauderdale. Who does Elvis Costello call for a rootsy Nashville session, a tour and a countrified Everly-esque duet of "Everyday I Write the Book?" Jim Lauderdale. Who makes Grammy-winning bluegrass albums and records with jam bands? Jim Lauderdale. Who seems more likely to surprise with a sudden left turn than most anyone on this list? Guess.
Charlie Louvin (10 p.m. Friday, Sept.10, The Rutledge) In recent years, Louvin, now 83, has found a new following among rock-club denizens a quarter his age. In part, that's a testament to the Louvin Brothers' classic 1950s murder ballads, lovesick singles and Pentecostal plaints, whose enduring beauty and strangeness Americana artists have attempted to recapture ever since.
John Mellencamp (appearing at Americana Music Awards show, 6:30 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 9, Ryman Auditorium) "I think I invented that whole 'No Depression' thing with the Scarecrow album, though I don't get the credit," Mellencamp said in 2008 — and while that might make some folks this weekend spit-take their lattes, he's kinda got a point. Today, a quarter-century after Scarecrow, where are the Mellencamps (and Springsteens, Costellos and Plants) more welcome — sandwiched between Ke$ha and Katy Perry on Top 40 radio, or on the modern-day equivalent of the Louisiana Hayride? Mellencamp goes boldly forward into the past: Recorded (in mono!) with (who else?) T-Bone Burnett, his sterling new album No Better Than This sounds utterly resistant to time. He'll be headlining Nov. 3 at The Ryman.
David Olney (10 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 9, The Rutledge) Only the most expansive of genres could contain a sui generis talent like Olney, a riveting live performer who cut his teeth as a new-wave rocker in the early '80s. He then morphed into a singer-songwriter who slips in and out of blues, country and folk as effortlessly as he switches among his subjects' vantage points — be they train robbers, surly apostles, or even a donkey.
The SteelDrivers (8:40 p.m. Wednesday, Sept. 8, Music City Roots) The bleaker the subject matter, the more Americana fans raised on punk/rock tend to enjoy their roots music (e.g., Johnny Cash singing Nine Inch Nails). These rising stars of bluegrass — led by guitarist-vocalist Chris Stapleton, whose wail could blast the mortar off brick — more than fit the bill. As Michael McCall wrote in these pages, "As with many old folk songs, women often meet a violent end. Unlike many old folk songs, the murderers don't dwell on remorse and regret."