Americana fans: touch of punk, touch of gray


You could say Americana, that indefinable roots music, is the new punk rock. But the punks in question are older and make a lot of money.

Last week, during my alleged vacation, I visited the seventh annual Americana Music Assn. conference in Nashville. Some 1,200 registrants converged at the Nashville Convention Center, logging record attendance. The three-day event climaxed Friday with the trade group's awards show at the Ryman Auditorium, historic former home of the Grand Ole Opry.

Although the awards gig is a high-profile event and major labels such as Lost Highway and Capitol were on hand, the AMA show at most times had the feel of a guerrilla event. The Americana community, a loose-knit brotherhood if ever there was one, consists mainly of independent constituents -- indie labels, community and specialty-show radio programmers (like yours truly), niche publicists and promoters and acts whose resumes in many cases include only self-released albums covering the spectrum of folk, blues, country and roots-rock.

It was an oddball incursion into Music City, whose big-name country acts have accounted for the year's top-selling releases. Some Americana names -- Bob Dylan, the late Johnny Cash and Dixie Chicks (whose original country radio supporters deserted the trio in the wake of Natalie Maines' 2003 anti-Bush outburst) -- have notched commercial hits this year. But in the main, Americana talent isn't rising to the top of the charts: Such performers as Carrie Rodriguez, Guy Clark and Ray Wylie Hubbard have scored specialty airplay tracked by the AMA, but try finding them high on the Billboard 200.

Although most AMA attendees wouldn't consider themselves reactionaries, their sound and style -- born of traditonalist styles light years away from the slick pop-country manufactured in Nashville these days -- seems very much a reaction to what's going on in the mainstream. In many ways, this ragtag group of roots freaks reminded me of the punk rockers I encountered in Los Angeles in the late '70s; like those rebellious souls, today's determined Americana types are very much on the outside looking in.

Which is surprising, when one takes into consideration some figures from a study prepared for the AMA by the research firm the Media Audit and released at the conference. The average Americana listener is no kid; he or she is 44.5 years old. Among the respondents, nearly 60% have a bachelor's degree or above. More than 10% make $100,000-$150,000 a year; another 16% make $75,000-$100,000. Nearly 75% own their own home.

Although the Americana audience would appear to be well-educated and affluent, it's difficult to make easy red-state/blue-state generalizations. True, outspoken lefty James McMurtry won album and song of the year at the AMA Awards this year, while Neil Young, author of the scathing "Living With War," was named artist of the year. But the Spirit of Americana Free Speech Award went to none other than Charlie Daniels, whose flag-waving sentiments are a far cry from the views espoused by such intransigent previous honorees as Steve Earle and Kris Kristofferson.

It's hard to draw easy conclusions about the music, its diverse and divergent practitioners and its audience. But -- judging from performances I caught by artists as diverse as McMurtry, Marty Stuart, Alejandro Escovedo, Dave Alvin, Amy LaVere, the Hacienda Brothers, Sarah Borges and any number of local L.A. acts -- it's mighty lively out on the American fringe, even if life is never easy under the radar.
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