Country music traditionalists were practically frothing at the recent news that, for the first time ever, the Americana category outsold every other genre except rock music on the Billboard 200. In some respects, Americana’s big week represents a trend that many (yours truly included) have observed throughout the past three years or so — after its massive swell of success, the reaper has finally come for mainstream pop-country.
It’s an optimistic view, one that presents us with a future where one could actually hear a legitimate country song on the radio. It’s a future in which the machismo and mediocrity of the past decade are but a painful old memory, one we won’t talk about when it’s gone. But the reality is, as always, much more complicated. Americana may be taking up a bigger piece of the pie than ever, but this news may not be quite the bellwether we all hoped.
It is first important to consider that by any genre’s standards, Americana’s sales were boosted by some pretty major releases this week. Much-anticipated albums from the Drive-By Truckers, Bon Iver, Van Morrison and jam band god Bob Weir all landed in the week’s highest-selling records of any genre, a feat that Americana may ultimately never be able to reproduce. As excited as we all are that fans are sticking it to mainstream country and buying albums that actually reflect traditional American music, this could all just end up being a fluke.
But let’s go with the assumption that Americana can sustain these numbers in a meaningful way. That we’ll soon start to see Americana outsell country regularly. There’s certainly evidence to prove that point, like Chris Stapleton’s continued presence at the top of the Billboard Country Albums chart and unprecedented, independent successes like Aaron Watson’s aptly titled 2015 release The Underdog. If this prediction does turn out to be true, it surely indicates that mainstream country music has been unable to keep up with the changing tastes of an audience it evidently doesn’t understand.
At this point, there are precious few country fans out there who haven’t chosen sides — there are no undecided voters. You’re either into Luke Bryan or you’re into the Drive-By Truckers, and there’s not a whole lot of middle ground in between. The battle lines have been drawn, and there’s a growing contingent of country fans who are looking outside of the genre to find their music, and most important, spend their money.
Where there is a lot of crossover, though, is Americana. Folks who buy Bon Iver records are much more likely to pick up the new Shovels & Rope album than they are anything released by Jason Aldean. Thanks to both its design and its infancy — let us not forget that the Americana chart has only existed for a few short months — Americana seems like the perfect umbrella under which jilted country fans and folk enthusiasts can enjoy (and buy) a whole lot of music together.
And dollars are the only thing that moves the needle with business types. Labels want to release music that sells, which may be the strongest argument for this possible future where Americana reigns. Based on stunts like the “Forever Country” video produced ahead of the 50th annual Country Music Association Awards and the coronation of Chris Stapleton, country music’s lone traditionalist on the charts, it’s clear that Nashville is at least occasionally willing to appease those of us who have relentlessly criticized the genre as it has declined.
The crucial mistake that mainstream country made, and which may very well accelerate its demise, is in narrowly defining what it means to be a successful country album. Outside of a few major exceptions, longevity on the country charts has been an impossible nut to crack for artists who don’t quite fit this absurdly specific “celebutainer” mold. Go talk to Dwight Yoakam and Randy Rogers about that.
We’re already seeing the consequences of this fatal error. If you pay attention to up-and-coming acts, you’ll notice that more artists than ever are defining their sound as “Americana” even with a heavy country influence. Other artists outright refuse to associate with the genre, and for good reason — guys like Jason Isbell and Sturgill Simpson have proven that you can sell a bunch of country records without ever taking on the burdens and assumptions that come along with identifying oneself as such.
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As unintentional and inadvertent as it may have been, mainstream country is essentially responsible for the success of Americana. When label executives made the decision to bet the farm on artists who were, for the most part, all image and little substance, they fomented a pre-existing angry cynicism within the genre while cultivating a demand for lyrical depth and a traditional sound.
Let us not forget that Americana is a genre (at least in the radio sense) that was created in response to mainstream country music. It has always been, at its core, a rebellion from the mainstream born out of grassroots demand for artists who didn’t comfortably fit into existing radio formats and genres. That it is rising to prominence at a time when country music fans are deeply angered at the state of their genre should really come as no surprise.
And there are surely some downsides to throwing Americana and country music into the same “Americana/Folk” bucket. Some of these records are arguably more country than they are folk, but that’s a debate for music nerds to settle. Maybe Bon Iver and John Prine shouldn’t actually be on the same chart, though. And maybe, just maybe, country fans are justified in demanding that radio stations that label themselves as “country” play actual country music.
But that is a battle that is likely lost, and fortunately, our new Americana overlords appear to be benevolent. I am reluctant to concede, though, that “country music” is a term that now belongs to a couple of morons like Florida Georgia Line. As exciting as it is to see Americana music on the rise, it’s a real shame that its success had to mean giving up our expectations that country music was ever going to get any better.