Music

Grammy Preview: Tired of 'Bro'? Try Americana

Randy Lewis
Los Angeles Times (TNS)

Americana fans seem to be an album-based audience, which translates into greater sales if somebody is going to buy a record.

When the 2017 Grammy Award nominations were unveiled in December, a lot of fans had one question after perusing the names in the album-of-the-year field: Beyonce, Adele, Drake, Justin Bieber and Sturgill Simpson.

Sturgill who?

The nod to the latest work from the Kentucky-born singer and songwriter is just the most recent manifestation of the rising tide for the broadly defined category of Americana music, a corner of pop inhabited by such critically acclaimed acts as Simpson, Chris Stapleton, Mumford & Sons, the Avett Brothers, Emmylou Harris, Rhiannon Giddens, the Lumineers, Rodney Crowell, John Hiatt and Alison Krauss.

And no one was as surprised at the high-profile nomination as Simpson himself.

“I can’t believe I’m mentioned in the same breath with Adele, Beyonce and all these huge pop artists,” Simpson told The Times on the day the nomination for his album “A Sailor’s Guide to Earth” was announced. “‘Mentally humbled’ is probably the best way to put it.”

Although party-minded sing-along hits from Florida Georgia Line, Luke Bryan, Jason Aldean and other so-called bro-country performers have dominated the airwaves of mainstream country radio in recent years, the more sophisticated songwriting that’s a hallmark of Americana has been seizing a larger and larger audience along the way.

“I don’t think it’s going to be erasing bro-country,” said Stacy Vee, director of festival talent for the L.A.-based concert promoter Goldenvoice.

“I think there are still a lot of people who want to have a good time and who love those guys. But I think what is happening is that Nashville is diversifying a little bit. With all the different ways you can get music now — with Spotify and all the streaming services — people are playing around a lot more with what the listen to.”

Stapleton’s record “Traveller” was the seventh-bestselling album of 2016, with total equivalent sales of 1.4 million copies, a figure that includes physical sales and streaming numbers. That left Stapleton behind only such pop, rock and R&B superstars as Drake, Adele, Beyonce, Rihanna, Twenty-One Pilots and Bieber.

That was one factor in Billboard magazine renaming its folk album sales chart in May as Americana/folk.

The reason? To “spotlight the middle ground bridging country and rock: organic, roots and acoustic-based groups and solo singer-songwriters,” magazine officials said.

“The change recognizes the growth of Americana music and the prominent rise of the term Americana overall, both within the industry and in widespread music coverage,” Billboard noted. “Among acts likely to continue to be a presence on the retooled Americana/folk albums chart include the Lumineers, Sturgill Simpson, James Bay, Margo Price and Jason Isbell.”

“It seems like Americana is growing,” said Ken Levitan, whose Vector Management firm represents a number of such acts, including Harris, Hiatt, T Bone Burnett, Richard Thompson, Buddy Miller and the Civil Wars’ John Paul White.

“I think part of it is that it’s real music, in a sense — not that other genres are not real music,” Levitan said. “But the Americana fans — as opposed to being a singles-based audience — seem to be an album-based audience, which translates into greater sales if somebody is going to buy a record.

“Chris Stapleton, who really is an Americana act, had one of the biggest-selling records of the year. When one of those types of acts works, they work in a big way.”

Voting members of the Recording Academy, who determine the Grammy Awards each year, have historically leaned toward the more progressive artists than the voters who dole out trophies from the Country Music Association and the Academy of Country Music.

In the new millennium, Grammys have been awarded to Stapleton, the Civil Wars, Kacey Musgraves, Alison Krauss & Union Station, Alabama Shakes and the Dixie Chicks. The overall album of the year Grammy has gone to Americana-linked acts including Mumford & Sons, Robert Plant & Alison Krauss and to the soundtrack of “O Brother, Where Art Thou?”

This year’s Americana album nominees are the Avett Brothers, William Bell, Kris Kristofferson, Lori McKenna and the Time Jumpers.

The “Americana” term has been in play since emerging in the early 1990s as an umbrella for roots music including one or more elements of country, folk, gospel, soul, blues and R&B.

Most rock historians trace that amalgam back to the freewheeling, border-blind music Bob Dylan made in 1967 with musicians soon to be known as the Band — later dubbed “The Basement Tapes.”

The genre has built considerable critical mass in recent years, much of it sparked since the 2009 arrival of British roots-rock group Mumford & Sons, whose debut, “Sigh No More,” and its even more commercially successful 2012 follow-up, “Babel,” helped inject banjos, mandolins, accordions and other folk instruments into the indie-rock world.

Boosting the importance of Americana as a genre of its own, the term was added to the Merriam-Webster dictionary in 2015, which defines it as “a genre of American music having roots in early folk and country music.”

And for those whose business is working with the artists, there’s considerable enthusiasm.

“I think the mood is there’s an abundance of excellent Americana artists out there right now,” Vee said.

Vee books the 60 to 70 acts that perform each year at Goldenvoice’s Stagecoach Country Music Festival, a three-day gathering of talent in Indio, Calif., that spans contemporary and traditional country, folk, bluegrass, Americana and even some indie-rock and classic-rock acts.

Music festivals have played an important role in the burgeoning of Americana, because many such as Stagecoach, Coachella, Outside Lands, Bonnaroo and Lollapalooza will include genre-pushing acts, exposing them to audiences that might not otherwise hear their music.

“What’s happening is the increased exposure these artists are getting,” Vee said. “The typically country audience is loving Chris Stapleton and Sturgill Simpson and all these guys. There’s also the indie-rock and alternative-rock folks who are dipping their toes into the country waters for the first time … . It has piqued a lot of people’s curiosity.”

Billboard reported in its Oct. 22 chart issue that four Americana records had placed in the top 10 of the overall top 200 albums, which combines streaming, sales and airplay: Bon Iver’s “22, A Million,” Bob Weir’s “Blue Mountain,” Van Morrison’s “Keep Me Singing” and Drive-By Truckers’ “American Band.”

“Americana albums outsold R&B/hip-hop, dance and, most notably, country among the top album sales chart’s top 10,” Billboard wrote, adding that “it’s the first time the genre has bested country sales among weekly top 10 sellers since Billboard rebranded the folk albums chart as Americana/folk albums.”

That could have been a fluke — a coincidence of common release dates in the always-busy fourth quarter, said David Bakula, senior vice president of industry insights for the Nielsen Music sales tracking service on which Billboard bases its charts.

More revealing is the long view of year-over-year results. Bakula confirmed that total sales for albums on the folk (and subsequently, Americana/folk) chart had increased about 14 percent in 2016 over the previous year, at a time when overall album sales continued to erode.

“It’s an increase in share, and it’s a significant piece,” Bakula said.

How significant is tricky to determine because of the relatively amorphous definition of Americana, which leads some artists to be classified as indie rock, alternative rock, country or Americana/folk.

There’s no single reason for the growth of Americana, said John Allen, president of New West Records and a member of the Americana Music Association’s board of directors.

“I guess you’re seeing a perfect storm with organizations like ours supporting Americana, more festivals booking stuff like this, more streaming playlists — on YouTube, on Spotify, on Amazon,” Allen said. “You’re seeing more avenues of discovery that are not solely based on the stranglehold on country music that terrestrial radio has. And I think a lot of artists are making a lot of great records right now.”

Musicians, however, often rankle at being labeled.

“This whole labeling thing — I’m tired of being called an ‘Americana’ artist — either that or ‘country alternative,’” said singer-songwriter Lucinda Williams, whose music of the late 1980s and early 1990s was a key part of the emerging Americana community of artists.

“I’ve been in almost every (Grammy) category,” she said, referencing her wins for country song, contemporary folk album and female rock vocal, along with nominations in the Americana category, introduced in 2006 as contemporary folk/Americana, then shortened to Americana in 2009.

“I very rarely talk about this stuff. It’s all very mysterious.”

In Americana music the present is female. Two-thirds of our year-end list is comprised of albums by women. Here, then, are the women (and a few men) who represented the best in Americana in 2017.

If a single moment best illustrates the current divide between Americana music and mainstream country music, it was Sturgill Simpson busking in the street outside the CMA Awards in Nashville. While Simpson played his guitar and sang in a sort of renegade-outsider protest, Garth Brooks was onstage lip-syncindg his way to Entertainer of the Year. Americana music is, of course, a sprawling range of roots genres that incorporates traditional aspects of country, blues, soul, bluegrass, etc., but often represents an amalgamation or reconstitution of those styles. But one common aspect of the music that Simpson appeared to be championing during his bit of street theater is the independence, artistic purity, and authenticity at the heart of Americana music. Clearly, that spirit is alive and well in the hundreds of releases each year that could be filed under Americana's vast umbrella.

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Features

The Best Country Music of 2017

still from Midland "Drinkin' Problem" video

There are many fine country musicians making music that is relevant and affecting in these troubled times. Here are ten of our favorites.

Year to year, country music as a genre sometimes seems to roll on without paying that much attention to what's going on in the world (with the exception of bro-country singers trying to adopt the latest hip-hop slang). That can feel like a problem in a year when 58 people are killed and 546 are injured by gun violence at a country-music concert – a public-relations issue for a genre that sees many of its stars outright celebrating the NRA. Then again, these days mainstream country stars don't seem to do all that well when they try to pivot quickly to comment on current events – take Keith Urban's muddled-at-best 2017 single "Female", as but one easy example.

Nonetheless, there are many fine country musicians making music that is relevant and affecting in these troubled times. There are singers tackling deep, universal matters of the heart and mind. Artists continuing to mess around with a genre that can sometimes seem fixed, but never really is. Musicians and singers have been experimenting within the genre forever, and continue to. As Charlie Worsham sings, "let's try something new / for old time's sake." - Dave Heaton

10. Lillie Mae – Forever and Then Some (Third Man)

The first two songs on Lillie Mae's debut album are titled "Over the Hill and Through the Woods" and "Honky Tonks and Taverns". The music splits the difference between those settings, or rather bears the marks of both. Growing up in a musical family, playing fiddle in a sibling bluegrass act that once had a country radio hit, Lillie Mae roots her songs in musical traditions without relying on them as a gimmick or costume. The music feels both in touch with the past and very current. Her voice and perspective shine, carrying a singular sort of deep melancholy. This is sad, beautiful music that captures the points of view of people carrying weighty burdens and trying to find home. - Dave Heaton



9. Sunny Sweeney – Trophy (Aunt Daddy)

Sunny Sweeney is on her fourth album; each one has felt like it didn't get the attention it deserved. She's a careful singer and has a capacity for combining humor and likability with old-fashioned portrayal of deep sadness. Beginning in a bar and ending at a cemetery, Trophy projects deep sorrow more thoroughly than her past releases, as good as they were. In between, there are pills, bad ideas, heartbreak, and a clever, true-tearjerker ballad voicing a woman's longing to have children. -- Dave Heaton



8. Kip Moore – Slowheart (MCA Nashville)

The bro-country label never sat easy with Kip Moore. The man who gave us "Somethin' 'Bout a Truck" has spent the last few years trying to distance himself from the beer and tailgate crowd. Mission accomplished on the outstanding Slowheart, an album stuffed with perfectly produced hooks packaged in smoldering, synthy Risky Business guitars and a rugged vocal rasp that sheds most of the drawl from his delivery. Moore sounds determined to help redefine contemporary country music with hard nods toward both classic rock history and contemporary pop flavors. With its swirling guitar textures, meticulously catchy songcraft, and Moore's career-best performances (see the spare album-closing "Guitar Man"), Slowheart raises the bar for every would-be bro out there. -- Steve Leftridge



7. Chris Stapleton – From a Room: Volume 1 (Mercury Nashville)

If Chris Stapleton didn't really exist, we would have to invent him—a burly country singer with hair down to his nipples and a chainsaw of a soul-slinging voice who writes terrific throwback outlaw-indebted country songs and who wholesale rejects modern country trends. Stapleton's recent rise to festival headliner status is one of the biggest country music surprises in recent years, but his fans were relieved this year that his success didn't find him straying from his traditional wheelhouse. The first installment of From a Room once again finds Stapleton singing the hell out of his sturdy original songs. A Willie Nelson cover is not unwelcome either, as he unearths a semi-obscure one. The rest is made up of first-rate tales of commonality: Whether he's singing about hard-hurtin' breakups or resorting to smoking them stems, we've all been there. -- Steve Leftridge



6. Carly Pearce – Every Little Thing (Big Machine)

Many of the exciting young emerging artists in country music these days are women, yet the industry on the whole is still unwelcoming and unforgiving towards them. Look at who's getting the most radio play, for one. Carly Pearce had a radio hit with "Every Little Thing", a heartbreaking ballad about moments in time that in its pace itself tries to stop time. Every Little Thing the album is the sort of debut that deserves full attention. From start to finish it's a thoroughly riveting, rewarding work by a singer with presence and personality. There's a lot of humor, lust, blues, betrayal, beauty and sentimentality, in proper proportions. One of the best songs is a call for a lover to make her "feel something", even if it's anger or hatred. Indeed, the album doesn't shy away from a variety of emotions. Even when she treads into common tropes of mainstream country love songs, there's room for revelations and surprises. – Dave Heaton

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.


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