Americana’s Year Of Reckoning

Can the genre evolve fast enough to catch up to today’s American realities?

We didn’t see this year coming, but we heard it from all sides. In Signal & Noise 2016, you’ll find the way we made sense out of all of that sound.

I. “Oh, don’t be looking at me acting all surprised.”

Adia Victoria does not care if you come hither. Not that the singer-songwriter’s haunting, saucer eyes don’t wail as powerfully as her pliant voice, but she’s not here for your desire. When she stares us down in the video for punkabilly jitterbomb “Dead Eyes,” from her blues-lashed album, Beyond the Bloodhounds, a host of emotions and meanings stir. Initially, she’s alone, lost in the woods, an escapee from some institutional facility, wearing a white hospital gown and being yoked up by two figures in black hoods and robes. But she thrashes free, fleeing as the hooded figures multiply and the bloodhounds of the album’s title appear. Unrestrained for a moment, she slows to a stroll, moving through the underbrush, bowing her head, but fixing us with those eyes — the ones the “he” in the song claims are “dead.” Yet she’s so alive and amped to play, lit from within by a pugnacious curiosity, coming into her voice, bearing witness.

At James Baldwin’s funeral, Amiri Baraka described the luminescent eyes of his fiery, fellow man of letters as “two television tubes sticking out of his head.” Victoria’s dark orbs beam with a similar intensity.

Victoria, who released her debut album at age 30, has done her time as a novitiate. Shuffled around South Carolina due to her parents’ divorce, then moving on her own to Paris, New York, Tucson, and Atlanta, she felt like she was on the run – from family, school, authority figures, the South. She’d sung in church (a mostly white Seventh Day Adventist congregation) and studied modern dance, but nothing deeply resonated until she heard the pitilessly frank, salty, devastated, witty characters of the blues. She discovered a history she’d never been taught (by teachers or family), one in which she recognized her life as a “poor black girl,” sans magic. There was singer-songwriter-pianist “Queen” Victoria Spivey, who wrenched her nasal moan from abjection to destruction, stalking the borders of Jim Crow–era violence, death, and disease, warning men to grind her right. Or Skip James, whose elegant, spectral, untranslatable phrasing on guitar and piano accompanied a voice that keened like a broken bird brought low in the dirt. With such haunted, truth-spitting oracles as heroes, it’s no surprise that Victoria’s music has been tagged “Southern gothic.”

But Beyond the Bloodhounds is no gloomy slog. Besides “Dead Eyes,” there’s the volcanic lament “Stuck in the South,” the steely travelogue “Sea of Sand,” the delicately terrifying “Invisible Hands,” and the ominous wooze of “Horrible Weather” (with its video meditation on the disruption and displacement of black families by gentrification in Nashville, her current home). The album shades Victoria’s blues with her teen love of ’90s alt-rockers Fiona Apple and Nirvana, while sprinkling echoes of country, R&B, and jazz. One of the year’s most revelatory records, it shares a spirit with other self-directed artists who made music this year that flourished in its own unclassifiable world – Solange, Kaytranada, Angel Olsen, Blood Orange, Frank Ocean, Laura Mvula, Mitski, Noname, Jamila Woods.

Of course, these were also records from pop’s margins, created and released on their own schedules and not targeted to any one type of listener. “If I can’t make my music the way I want to make it,” says Victoria firmly, “I’m not going to sell myself out for a genre or whore myself out for a label to get people to buy what I’m doing more efficiently. My greatest role models are Nina Simone and Fiona Apple, maybe throw some Lauryn Hill in there. I’m drawn to difficult women who are extremely talented and could break the bank or shoot for the moon and stars if they wanted to, but they understood that there were more important things in life than pleasing people and making money; for them, their peace of mind was paramount.”

She continues apace: “The music business is so fucking desperate now, and everything they do is underscored with fear. They have this phrase that they always use if they really want to get you to do something. They’ll say, ‘You should do it, it’ll be a good look.’ I hate that phrase. I’ll be like, ‘To whom? A good look to whom? Who’s lookin’? Whose eyes are we talking about? Whose gaze are we bringing into this conversation?’ I’m just a human being, I’m just an artist, I’m not trying to be famous or a celebrity. It’d be nice if I could make a happy living, but if I can’t do it without compromising my values, then I won’t do it. I’ll work here in Nashville, like I do now. I have a day job washing dishes when I’m off tour, because it’s honest money and it’s mine and it helps supplement and fill in the holes.”

Still, living in Music Row’s shadow with a roots-showing style, Victoria seems like a natural fit for a certain, recently prospering style and format – “Americana,” which exists to emphasize the roots of country that get trampled or ignored by its Nashville pop-radio iteration. After years of gradual growth boosted by the Americana Music Association (a collection of artists, managers, label execs, club owners, radio and digital media players, etc.), the genre earned a Grammy designation in 2009, while the AMA’s annual festival and awards show, held in Nashville around a month before the CMAs, has become a destination event. Americana also has provided a crucial star-making base – via networks set in motion by the AMA – for crossovers Mumford & Sons, The Lumineers, Alabama Shakes, Kacey Musgraves, and Chris Stapleton. Then, last year, Jason Isbell’s deft, soberly empathetic country-rock record, Something More Than Free, startled even his devotees by debuting atop the Billboard rock, country, and folk charts; it also won Grammys earlier this year for Best Americana Album and Best American Roots Song.

What’s more, one could envision Victoria as exactly the type of nuanced, adept artist who could inhabit the portal opened up by Beyoncé and the Dixie Chicks when they ripped through Bey’s “Daddy Lessons” at the CMAs last month, boldly manifesting the multicultural roots of country and pop. Of course, one would have to believe that someone – especially a young black woman – would want to inhabit this space, considering the online race war that broke out before, during, and after the CMAs.

“I watched. I’m on Facebook like everyone else, I saw everything,” Victoria says. “It didn’t surprise me. Nashville and country music fans were upset because they view country music as belonging particularly to white people. You know, white tastes, white preferences, whiteness catering to whiteness. It was pretty interesting to see the immediate backlash to her very presence there. It’s part of a larger narrative around race that we’ve been having in the country. Whiteness views blackness as a threat, as something that has to be regulated, policed, managed. So when you’ve got a high point for white culture in America – which is what the CMAs are – Beyoncé showing up must’ve seemed pretty blasphemous to them.”

II. God Bless Americana or God Damn Americana?

The scholarly sounding Americana Music Association was created in 1999 by a concerned group of outsider industry vets who realized that the major-label “alt-country” gambit – led by genuinely compelling career artists like Wilco and Son Volt (both ex–Uncle Tupelo), The Jayhawks, Whiskeytown, and Old 97’s – was going to be neither revolutionary nor televised. Building off a little-known, radio-driven format already called “Americana,” which hawked underdog country, blues, folk, bluegrass, and rootsy rock artists of all ages who didn’t fit anywhere else, the crew of about 40 retreated with a “facilitator” to hash out an organizational identity.

“We didn’t want to call it Americana,” says founding member Traci Thomas, who is now an artist manager with Thirty Tigers, guiding the careers of Jason Isbell; commandingly gifted, dark-hearted singer-songwriter John Moreland; and hard-touring soul act St. Paul & the Broken Bones. “But this facilitator – she helps small companies with their in-house thought processes – led us through a series of questions like, ‘What does this thing really mean to you?’ And we just kept coming back to the same name.”

With the genre’s business plan now ka-chinging, Americana has evolved from hopeful underdog to astute operator. In 2016, the genre’s commercial muscle was flexed by Sturgill Simpson’s A Sailor’s Guide to Earth, which debuted at No. 1 on the Country chart, No. 3 overall, and just earned a Grammy nomination for Album of the Year (alongside Adele, Beyoncé, Drake, and Justin Bieber). But more importantly, on an artistic level, A Sailor’s Guide is a fiercely brooding detour distinguished by an elegantly yearning version of Nirvana’s “In Bloom” and the album-closing, horn-blasted firefight “Call to Arms,” which rails against the War on Terror and Americans’ narcissistic, consumer-crazed ignorance of its effects. And Margo Price’s Midwest Farmer’s Daughter rode one exquisitely hard-bitten opus, “Hands of Time,” and some brash retro honky-tonk charm into the Country top 10 (a first for a female solo artist with no previously charting country singles, which is some kind of insane in 2016!).

Critical cause célèbre Brandy Clark released her major-label debut, Big Day in a Small Town, which boasted her usual crafty turns of phrase and melody and earned two Grammy nominations; but its spiffed-up production and occasional concession to cliché yielded roughly zilch sales-wise. Drive-By Truckers, who gave Isbell his first break and supplied crucial early support to Alabama Shakes, released their bracingly reflective American Band – the cover features a cover photo with the flag at half-mast – which addressed racism, state violence, immigration, and white Southern Christian hypocrisy. Roaring album opener “Ramon Casiano” spotlights Harlon Carter, a real-life Texas teenager who killed the Latino teen of the title in 1931, then joined the Border Patrol, then directed a section of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, and eventually led the National Rifle Association’s descent into a bloodlusting political lobby. Singer-guitarist Mike Cooley writes that, for Carter, “Ramon still ain’t dead enough.”

Lucinda Williams and Alejandro Escovedo – two of Americana’s formative demigods, now in their sixties – released solo albums rife with scarred wisdom, no-fucks swerves, and cutting facility. Williams’s double album, The Ghosts of Highway 20, relentlessly meditates on death and romance, her voice both ravaged and comforting. Escovedo, meanwhile, sounds possessed by the punky spirit of his ’80s alt-roots band True Believers, working with R.E.M.’s Peter Buck and Sleater-Kinney’s Corin Tucker, among others. Burn Something Beautiful is no shock, but it’s startling anytime you hear such a masterfully conceived, passionately performed “rock and roll party on a wrestling mat,” as Escovedo quips.

Also eminently worthy: Lydia Loveless’s acrid Tom Petty–ish moans and howls on Real; the expansive country-soul tension wire strung up by Mike Taylor’s Hiss Golden Messenger (featuring members of Megafaun) on Heart Like a Levee; the mesmerizing harmonies of Neko Case, k.d. lang, and Laura Veirs on case/lang/veirs; the country-folk spells of solo strummers Joan Shelley, Julia Jacklin, and Aldous Harding; Daniel Romano’s orchestral-pop fables; the plainspoken, heartsick saunter of Margaret Glaspy; Nikki Lane’s eerie, leering, thrift-shop pose; and the panoramic, so-called “cosmic” historical dramas and dreamy sketches of instrumentalists William Tyler, Steve Gunn, and Ryley Walker.

Some of these musicians, or somebody close to them, have probably said, at one point or another: “If we could just get a boost, we’d be so much bigger.” Yeah, well, let’s put it this way: Americana’s role as a mainstream farm team is, by far, its weakest aspect. Isbell and Simpson have bad-mouthed the industry and the genre clearly markets itself more as a self-sufficient, artist-friendly alternative to Nashville proper (though if you don’t write your own songs, play an acoustic instrument, or sing on key without Auto-Tune, don’t expect a cookie). There’s little fealty to stuffy conservative dictates; in fact, the general demographic profile is politically left-leaning and artisanally curated. Clearly, the standards for women and older artists are less brutally restrictive than elsewhere. But one egregious absence remains: Aside from a smattering of soul legends taking late-career victory laps (Mavis Staples, William Bell, Booker T., the late Allen Toussaint), fewer artists of color have been enthusiastically received in the “Americana” subdivision during the 2000s than in mainstream country of the 1970s. For example, there is no clear Charley Pride of Americana, or even an O.B. McClinton (of “Don’t Let the Green Grass Fool You” fame). No Darius Rucker, either.

Further, the fan base is overwhelmingly white. Considering Americana’s implicit mission to move music culture forward by acknowledging and respecting the past in a dynamic way that appeals to current listeners, this is a seriously dissonant chord. As a longtime stan of Drive-By Truckers, who are getting backslaps for how American Band acknowledges the horrific realities of black and immigrant life in 2016, I can’t help but mutter, “When are the rest of y’all gonna get your liberal heads out of your asses?” (Save your whitesplaining about long-suffering, righteous cranks like Todd Snider and James McMurtry.) Since Nashville crassly sexes up nostalgic, rural clichés by superficially nodding to hip-hop and polyglot pop – welcome, white millennials! – it’d be nice if the Americana caucus was less full of shit on this issue, especially as we enter the Trump epoch.

Of course, the most-played record on the Americana radio format this year was True Sadness by North Carolina’s Avett Brothers, who notoriously played the 2013 inauguration of reactionary, just-deposed N.C. governor Pat McCrory, but would not say whether or not they supported McCrory’s agenda. They also refused to oppose the governor’s most shameful and universally condemned act, the discriminatory House Bill 2. Bandleader Seth Avett weakly argued in an interview with the North Carolina–based alt-weekly Indy Week that he thought of his band as “all-inclusive,” but felt that if “I made statements politically, I'd be toying around with becoming a politician. I don't have what that takes.”

This overall situation has not escaped Victoria’s notice. Early on in her career – she put the remarkable “Stuck in the South” online in 2014 without any label – Team Americana showed interest. “The people I was working with were trying to nudge me into that world, because we’re in Nashville; connections are there to be made,” she says. “It’s easy to grab a business lunch with a who’s who of Americana. But I vehemently refused.”

Why wouldn’t she at least explore the possibility? “I explicitly said, ‘This is not what I do, these are not the people that I create music for.’ I’m not interested in engaging with people through a commodified genre where it’s savvily packaged as a lifestyle that people buy into. It’s not about the music; it’s how you feel about yourself – you’re more open, progressive. You like country music, but not that country music, blah blah blah. It’s a badge they wear, an ornament on their tree, something white people consume to feel better about themselves.”

Then she flips around our exchange. “So, my question for you is – why did you want to interview me for an article about Americana? My record is not an Americana record. I’m not an Americana artist. I have no interest in being appropriated by that genre. If you wanna talk about it from a sociological point of view, I’m game, but I’m not gonna comment on why my record wasn’t approved by them, or why I’m not bigger in their world, because, honestly, I don’t give a shit, if I can be frank.” She pauses, then suddenly starts laughing, as if tickled by her own statement of conviction.

III. The Love That Won’t Speak Its Name

“Play it pretty for America tonight.”

Lynyrd Skynyrd singer Johnny “Little Brother of Ronnie” Van Zant is conjuring ghosts again. A spotlight splashes on a gold eagle statue placed on a grand piano, which has an American flag painted on the side. The pianist, who most definitely isn’t legendary Skynyrd keyboardist Billy Powell and looks like he’s wearing a “Southern Rocker” Halloween costume that a roadie picked up at Target, pounds out hammy, ominously faux-classical chords embellished with tinkly, melodramatic runs. As the infamous three-guitar army mobilizes, a huge bald eagle is projected on an American flag on two jumbo screens behind the band. Guitarist Gary Rossington, the only original member of Skynyrd still performing, makes his Gibson Les Paul emit those iconic chirps, while Van Zant drapes an American flag around his mic stand, puts on a military cap that’s been tossed onstage, and salutes.

Welcome to the Quadrennial “Free Bird” Heritage Not Hate & Support Our Troops Concert Experience, a.k.a. Cleveland Rocks 2016 at Jacobs Pavilion, which is supposedly unaffiliated with the Republican National Committee or Convention, but is most definitely brought to you by Ford, Toyota, Mazda, General Motors, Mercedes, Volkswagen, Amway, the Arizona Republican Party, Blue Cross Blue Shield, Radian, Verizon, Emerson, AmerisourceBergen, Aflac, Biotech Innovations, America Online, Farmers Insurance, Bank of America, Interdigital, White Castle, Michigan Republicans, Microsoft, Fiat Chrysler, TE Connectivity, Monsanto, Arkansas Truckers, and the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians, among others. Note: The names and logos of the above were projected on the jumbo screens for what seemed like an eternity after Robert Randolph and His Family Band, the largest group of African-Americans present at the show, ended their opening set.

“Free Bird” has been both the South’s unofficial white national anthem and a running joke for my adult life (in the 1980s, the practice of screaming the song’s title during any band’s encore became commonplace). In their original, early-’70s incarnation as rebellious North Florida buttheads, Skynyrd used a Confederate battle flag for a backdrop and took the stage to a tape of “Dixie,” then the unofficial white-national anthem of the South and a relic of 1850s blackface minstrelsy (coincidentally rumored to have been composed by an Ohio man). As much as the song is a sweepingly melodic, ferociously virtuosic, blues-bombing spectacle, “Free Bird” is also a symbol that’s inextricable from Southern nostalgia for a Jim Crow and/or antebellum system that oppressed African-Americans for centuries.

What’s more, the song seamlessly fits into the RNC’s 2016 cultural platform, as does much of current Nashville pop (remember, the Dixie Chicks basically had their mainstream country career revoked because they spoke out against the Iraq War and President George W. Bush in 2003). Americana’s liberal headasses look a heckuva lot more progressive when you’re standing in the Cleveland Rocks crowd as Johnny Van Zant holds up a red Solo cup and hoots, “I do believe that Mr. Donald Trump will unite us all again. He says what everybody thinks. God bless America!”

“Free Bird” was written in an economically disastrous era post–civil rights victories, post–Vietnam failures, and amid second-wave feminism that had a lot of white Southern dudes wondering why the rules of the game no longer privileged them and now seemed rigged for others. (Sound familiar?) Plus, there was the resentment from coastal elites looking down on the South as backward or barbaric. On this point, they had an argument, in that the region may have been violently racist, sexist, and xenophobic, but so was the rest of the godforsaken country. The character that Skynyrd singer-songwriter Ronnie Van Zant played in “Free Bird” was a guy who felt inexorably driven toward freedom-flying wanderlust by changes around him, a fairly universal viewpoint. Though the character blames himself at one point, the song’s tell was this po-faced sentiment: “Lord knows, I can’t change.”

Since first emerging, Southern rock and Skynyrd have engaged in a hustle of triangulation, co-opting elements of both political sides to avoid charges of racism, a racism which lies near the heart of the bands’ lasting appeal. Created by Phil Walden and his team at Macon, Georgia’s Capricorn Records as a way to give their acts (Allman Brothers, Marshall Tucker Band) a stronger, more exotic identity to attract a national audience, Southern rock as a marketed genre meant images of long-haired hippies who lived wild and free, but weren’t smarty-pants liberal know-it-alls. They were from the South, after all, where folks were a tad eccentric, but deep down valued aw-shucks hard work, God, and guns. This was all mythic nonsense, of course; when you look at the actual Southern Rock™ advertising produced during the ’70s, it brashly deployed Confederate flags and South’s-gonna-do-it-again rhetoric with a purpose. It was more than a harmless wink.

Skynyrd’s appearance at an RNC-related event again this year was particularly interesting because President-elect Donald Trump was openly using Southern rock’s Marketing Racism for Dummies cultural strategy. The Trump campaign was dog whistling “Dixie” throughout the primaries, demonizing Mexicans, Muslims, and African-Americans. Here in Cleveland in July, most of the bands even got in on the triangulation, refusing to officially show their faces at the convention or endorse Trump, but happily scarfing up money from “third-party groups” to play often-private gigs, at often-unannounced locations – we’re looking at you, Journey, The Band Perry, Rick Springfield, Martina McBride, and Mike Love’s Beach Boys. Even Skynyrd, who for months had agreed to an interview for this story, went mute at the last minute. (There was a lot of down South jukin’ ...)

If you’re wondering what all this has to do with Americana, I’ll make it explicit. No matter the genre’s origin story, its smartly marketed roots clearly lead back to Southern rock, which celebrated the tangle of African-American styles that constituted rock and roll – blues, gospel, jazz, R&B, boogie-woogie, and country – while being almost exclusively peopled by white musicians. The Drive-By Truckers’ 2001 double album Southern Rock Opera lunged at this legacy, but few others in their genre have gone there. Which is a shame, because Southern rock produced truckloads of stunning music along with its rowdy denial, and it’s a pity that jam-band blowhards are left to pick through it for scraps.

Bluntly, since this should be self-evident: Revering black music as a white musician does not cleanse you of racism or racist conditioning or excuse the benefits you’ve derived from a privileged system of hateful laws and policies (economic, housing, educational, etc.). I’ve heard Skynyrd repeatedly defend themselves as not racist by saying that they love the music of Ray Charles, James Brown, Wilson Pickett, etc., which is obvious from their songs, but beside the point. More substantially, when Skynyrd fans revolted after Gary Rossington denounced the Confederate flag as a racist symbol on CNN in 2012, the band lamely caved, recanting the condemnation. Now they mostly display the American flag, since post-9/11 it’s become (again) as much a weapon of aggression aimed at nonwhites as a symbol of freedom.

Earlier, when Traci Thomas told me that “Americana” just fit best as a word to represent their genre and organization, I wondered if it perhaps stuck for the wrong reasons, or for a reason that the promoters of the genre might resist. In the 19th century, “Americana” emerged as a catchall term for artifacts that (subjectively speaking) had a “peculiar” quality endemic to the U.S. The word’s meaning has evolved, but I can’t help but be reminded of another 19th-century phrase – “our peculiar institution” – which was an infamous euphemism for the U.S. system of legal chattel slavery.

Before and after the presidential election in November, there’s been a towering pile of journalism by writers seeking to understand a supposedly mysterious creature in the wild – the rural poor or working-class white person who voted enthusiastically for Donald Trump, despite Trump’s unfamiliarity with or interest in their daily plight. On this subject, I tend to avoid the pile and return to the words of Ronnie Van Zant, who once famously asked, “Does your conscience bother you?”

Of course, that’s from 1974’s politically charged manifesto “Sweet Home Alabama,” a reply to Neil Young’s scaldingly righteous hippie anthem “Southern Man.” Van Zant, a Neil Young fan, was actually using President Nixon’s Watergate scandal as a straw man – that trickster sumbitch! – but the untold meanings were evident to anyone really listening.

For aghast white Hillary Clinton voters who want to blame white Trump supporters for ruining their country on November 8, but who fail to honestly check how their own life choices were also responsible, the answer to Van Zant’s question is obvious. And it’s not peculiar at all.

Next in MTV News's Year in Music 2016: Eric Torres on Mitski, the healer.