Now, "alt.country" sounds dated, and "Americana" has become the preferred term, but at the Americana Music Association conference in Nashville two weekends ago, the question "What is Americana?" lingered.
For example, what do you call Alison Krauss? She has won numerous Grammy Awards including one in 2003 for Best Bluegrass Band with Union Station, and the untrained ear would likely call her bluegrass as well. At a listening session -- fueled by the inexplicable appearance of miniature bottles of Jack Daniels -- programmers for Americana stations debated if her recent recordings were too polished to be bluegrass or Americana, and that she might have drifted over into contemporary country. Bluegrass passes Americana muster, but country, for the most part, doesn't. Then again, Mindy Smith's "Come to Jesus" is played regularly on country video stations, and she performed at the Americana Music Awards show on the Friday night.
Taxonomic questions are always pesky, and they usually say more about the debaters than they do about the music. A radio programmer said Rodney Crowell's new song, "Don't Get Me Started," "makes you think, makes you feel. I'd play it." In those phrases, he summarized the claim Americana music aficionados make -- that their music is smart and heartfelt, with the often-unspoken opponent being contemporary country music. With a true believer's zeal, the conference had a "defending the good and true" vibe to it.
At the evening showcases, it was hard to argue with that attitude as performances by Dave Alvin and Buddy Miller showed what the musical verities can do. Alvin played a devastatingly powerful mix of blues, country and folk that, when electrified, sounded like rock 'n' roll, albeit rock 'n' roll with chops. Before him, Emmylou Harris sideman Miller performed songs from his new album, Universal House of Prayer, giving folk and blues some gospel soul with sisters Regina and Ann McCrary joining him.
The juxtaposition typified by Miller's rasp and the McCrary's choir voices has become a characteristic of Americana, and whether intentional or not, so has incongruous appearances. In Miller's case, the McCrarys are professionally dressed in their early 30s, while Miller looks like he just got in from a day of fishing, his wiry gray hair sticking out from under a baseball cap pulled low over his eyes. With popular music so image conscious, Americana "keeps it real" to an extreme.
Minnesotan Ben Weaver, for example, kept his eyes closed for most of his performance, and the way he held his head made him almost look blind. In a baseball cap and a work shirt, he looked a lot more like he could explain what's wrong with your carburetor than write a line like, "I've trained myself with a prizefighter's mind" or, "It's no wonder you run away like the dust from the saw."
Then again, while some conference-goers celebrated the genre's acceptance of the marginal, idiosyncratic and untamable -- the outlaw wing -- there were also the traditionalists, in love with the way the genre keeps traditions alive. Artists like Alvin Youngblood Hart, Beth Neilsen Chapman and Michelle Shocked played songs from Beautiful Dreamer: The Songs of Stephen Foster. The awards show ended with the Nashville Bluegrass Band and the show participants -- including Steve Earle, Mavis Staples, Rodney Crowell and Tony Joe White -- singing a tribute to the Carter Family, who are arguably as central to Americana as Parsons. The 81-year-old Janette Carter was helped onstage by June Carter Cash's daughter Carlene, a country singer in her own right, to join the others in singing the Carter Family theme song, "Keep on the Sunny Side." The irony in the Americana stance was that it defined itself in opposition to contemporary country, but most of the models of greatness came from country. The conference was held at the Nashville Convention Center, a long shadow from the Country Music Hall of Fame, with Johnny Cash's persona and career underlying so much of what Americana artists try to produce. Then again, fighting your heroes and the march of time has produced a lot of interesting art throughout the years, and it's producing good records right now.