- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 21, 2003

It's got fiddles and acoustic guitars. It twangs and it hollers. But don't call it country music it's Americana. This "y'all-ternative" is not played on Top 40 country stations, but is gaining fans all across the nation and even the world. Americana is, as its name suggests, deeply American, and its roots are certainly nothing new. It is an amalgamation of musical styles, including bluegrass, newgrass, rock 'n' roll and even punk.
Alternately described as a rejection of pop-country or a return to roots, the slides and twangs coming from these independent artists resonate with fundamentally American traditions. But it's not just a broad genre of music it's something of a movement.
"When you say 'Americana,' people don't know what you mean," says Billy Cerveny, a musician based in Nashville, Tenn. "Alt-country is just country gone to college."
"It's essentially roots-rock," said Meredith Ochs, music critic for NPR's "All Things Considered" and frontwoman for the Hoboken, N.J.-based Americana band the Damn Lovelys.
In 1998, Americana leaders began meeting to decide if they needed to create a trade association to promote the industry. Out of that came the Americana Music Association. The first thing they debated was whether to officially define Americana.
They decided against it, opting instead to let the music speak for itself.
"I like to say it's really a combination of styles and influences, but not necessarily limited to just the roots aspect of it, which to me implies it's looking backward and rehashing," said J.D. May, the director of the AMA. "It's really a combo of all those, with the hopes that it's doing something new."
Bloodshot Records is a successful Chicago-based independent label that coined the term "insurgent country." Their motto is "Cash meets Clash."
"[Bloodshot Records] was formed by these three old punk rockers who, when they heard the old, old country music, it just hit them the same way that the Clash did, the Dead Kennedys did," Miss Ochs said. "It had that same emotional directness."
"When you think about it, Hank Williams was the most punk-rock guy who ever lived," Miss Ochs said. "He was wild. He died in his car. Same with Johnny Cash. Johnny Cash is punk. I mean, he's [thumbed his nose at] the music industry and @ authoritarianism."
Miss Ochs said a lot of Americana music is a nod to Elvis Presley.
"He married country and rock in the '50s, and in the '60s, the Byrds did it, and Gram Parsons did it. There's this very long history of roots rock that is essentially musicians who are playing country mixed with rock."
Americana-movement fans are adamant their music is not the formulaic, commercialized version of country music they say is coming from major record labels.
"Music radio for the most part is dead for anybody who cares about music," said Bob Boilen, the producer of NPR's "All Songs Considered."
"That is the unifying principle behind this music," Mr. Boilen said. "Americana is home to rockers and pickers, but they share a disdain for 'big country.' They are closer to the music."
"It's about tradition, and that's what I think appeals to people," Miss Ochs said. "It's something old, it's something that feels American, it's something that hits them on a different level than a pop song that's disposable."
Tom Catmull, a singer-songwriter in Missoula, Mont., said the Americana movement is in part a reaction to mainstream music.
"Pop country has gotten so bad now that there's this huge market of people who need to listen to something good."
Uncle Tupelo, considered by many as one of the first Americana bands, released a landmark album in 1990 called "No Depression."
"This whole movement cropped up around [the album], including a magazine, record labels and tons of fans all over the world," Miss Ochs said.
Later, the wildly successful soundtrack to the motion picture "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" gave new momentum to the popularity of Americana.
"People are responding to an honesty in the music that they heard in 'O Brother,'" Mr. Boilen said.
Miss Ochs agreed and said there is a "huge groundswell" for Americana.
"During an era when pop proliferates, like the last few years the teen pop, the big country pop a lot of people go looking for something else."
Fans can sound like they are splitting hairs.
"Most of what you find that's refreshing about Americana is that it's born, not created," Mr. Cerveny said. "It's not created on a spreadsheet. The artists write their own stuff."
And they are not shy about bashing big country.
"Nashville's so incestuous you've got the same guys playing on the same records, the same songwriters writing the same artists," says Mr. Cerveny. "You can't inbreed that much without some sort of deformity in the long run. It's become soulless, man, and it mystifies me."
Sales and airplay data compiled by the AMA show the rising popularity of Americana. As of last October, the California-based bluegrass band Nickel Creek hardly mainstream country put out a second album, "This Side," which sold 191,397 copies in its first eight weeks.
Americana often gets lumped into the "country" category, which, as Mr. Catmull says, "is a four-letter word" to people trying to make a distinction. This disdain may stem from a generation who grew up "listening to punk rock," as Miss Ochs said, and, therefore, did not like the association between "pure," rootsy hard rock and softer, pop country music.
John Floridis, another Missoula-based musician finishing his fourth album, brings classical influences to the genre.
"I got juiced on music around the time I got turned on to Jimmie Hendrix, a black blues-rock legend, and Andres Segovia, the romantic Spanish classical guitarist."
He said he doesn't mind being lumped into the Americana mold. "To me even though Segovia is a Spanish man, to me it's a real American thing to be influenced by such diverse things."

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