They are the most traditional and yet the most radical of today's country artists, bad-ass finger pickers who have chosen a course that is at once all about Nashville while having nothing to do with it.
When the young dudes with the big hats and buff looks began taking over country radio in the early 1990s, this new breed of more traditional artists began cropping up outside of the same Nashville, Tenn., establishment that had once given birth to their sound.
As mainstream country got slicker and poppier, this burgeoning "No Depression" movement -- taken from the name of an Uncle Tupelo song -- rediscovered the power of old-time picking and songwriting. And as the new/old country movement spread, its artists and fans created a demand for an outlet for the music.
So was born Americana.
What began as a catch-all collection of radio stations with quirky playlists has turned into the fastest-growing format in the country, featuring everyone from the legendary Johnny Cash to the hard-rocking sounds of Steve Earle, according to Chris Marino, Americana editor for the Gavin Report, the weekly trade magazine that covers the radio business.
A look at a recent Americana chart in Gavin shows a remarkable range of music, from Uncle Tupelo's edgy, country-based rock to the cry-in-your-beer songs of the Derailers and the traditional sound of Ricky Skaggs' bluegrass album. "The artists all hearken back to when country radio really embraced a good deal of artists, where Willie Nelson could be heard with Donna Fargo and Ray Price," Marino said. "But they all share a certain integrity and roots that are country, bottom line."
That would include artists such as Jim Lauderdale, a 40-year-old Nashville songwriter who has penned hits for Patty Loveless and George Strait but whose latest release, Whisper, was deemed "too country" for traditional country stations (the record is currently in the Top 10 on Gavin's Americana chart). Describing Americana as country radio's "outlaw format," Lauderdale said, "The mainstream has gotten pretty vanilla. [Americana] is a format for singer/songwriters and people who don't quite fit the mold."
Eric Zappa, director of marketing for Watermelon Records (home of the Derailers), said the Americana format satisfies the tastes of people looking for an alternative to "corporate" music, both country and rock. "When the Derailers tour, they play rock clubs, and the same people who go to a Derailers show go to a Son Volt show or a Squirrel Nut Zippers show," Zappa said. "It's rock fans who are looking for something different, and it's people who are really fed up with the bland, cookie-cutter stuff that comes out of Nashville."
Despite the rate at which the Americana format is growing -- 78 stations now report to the Americana chart, and Marino said there will be more than 80 by the end of April -- Zappa and other record label reps are hesitant to give sole credit for the music's success to the radio format.
"It gives us a little more of an edge in cities where there's an Americana station, but that's about it," said Nan Warshaw, co-owner of Bloodshot Records, a Chicago-based label that's home to the Waco Brothers and Robbie Fulks, artists considered on the most extreme edge of the music. "What we're doing has a really strong grass-roots base, expanded mainly through fans of the music and labels like ours behind those bands helping them promote their music."
Gavin's Marino disagrees, arguing that when a band such as the Derailers finds chart success, the sales potential expands for the more extreme artists.
Either way, the Americana scene seems relatively free of the kind of "us vs. them" mentality that existed between mainstream rock radio and indie rockers in the '80s. Lauderdale partially credited that to Americana's lack of a singles chart (something that Marino acknowledges might be on the way).
Lauderdale said the bands who want to break into the format aren't "out to kill, just to zoom up the charts. Everybody just seems so grateful to have some chart form and radio format that will support them."
The format also embraces older country artists -- such as George Jones, Dolly Parton and the legendary Cash -- who almost never get airplay on country stations. In fact, American Records (Cash's current label) recently ran an ad in Billboard featuring an old photo of the Man in Black flipping the bird, with accompanying text thanking the "Nashville establishment" for its support.
"It's just a shame that country radio has shunned these older acts," Lauderdale said, offering up a sentiment borne in the music of just about all of the acts that you'll hear on Americana. "If it wasn't for these guys, there wouldn't be any of the younger artists who are successful right now."
Whether it's because of country's old guard or its insurgent upstarts, Lauderdale summed up why Americana has become so successful. "It's just so good to have the choice," he said. "It's like when you're hungry, you don't want to eat at a [chain restaurant such as] Shoney's all the time."