Robert Earl Keen will soon launch Americana Podcast: The 51st State, and it’s a given the genre will benefit from Keen’s support. Few can clearly define Americana, but many lay claim to it.
The new podcast comes at a time when listening to podcasts is becoming more popular. Will this new messaging help clear up confusion about this genre that could be loosely a hybrid of country and rock? Maybe. Then again, it seems to me there’s a wide range when it comes to defining Americana music.
The genre can comprise more than a mix of country (or folk) and rock (or blues).
Americana is a blend. The official trade organization representing member musicians who play Americana defines it this way:
“Americana is contemporary music that incorporates elements of various American roots music styles, including country, roots-rock, folk, bluegrass, R&B and blues, resulting in a distinctive roots-oriented sound that lives in a world apart from the pure forms of the genres upon which it may draw. While acoustic instruments are often present and vital, Americana also often uses a full electric band.”
Americana music officially dates to the 1980s when it comes to the brand, but in fact, musicians played it long before that. Learning about this podcast brought back memories of a conversation I had with Rebecca and Jennifer’s dad as they began to perform together. He often described them as country music artists. One day I looked at him and asked, “Are they really country, though?”
We both agreed the label “Americana” fit their style better than any other. This sometimes presents a marketing challenge when it comes to directing messaging to the right audience. When I scroll through the Daysies’ ever-growing catalog, I realize that some of the songs do sound country, to a degree. Most of them defy the formula Nashville expects of those classified as pure country, though.
“Medicine Bag” is a great example. If you follow that link, you can hear part of the song for free. It has a nuanced twang, partly due to the way it was recorded, making Rebecca’s voice brighter (in my opinion), but the lyrics are radical. I often told the girls stories about root doctors in the South. Then news began to bristle with stories of opioid abuse. I’m not sure how Rebecca went from those root doctor tales to creating a speaker who sounds like a dealer, but she did.
Most of the girls’ current and new music is a blend—blues, country, rock—that’s all acoustic.
When Rebecca met with a Nashville insider, he explained the formulaic landscape, and she realized that wasn’t where her music was going.
Ironically it doesn’t matter to people who come out to hear them. And those folks are just as likely to describe them as country artists.
So can the new podcast help better define a genre that, like our country, is a melting pot?
I think it can. Keen is a top shelf brand to those who are serious about music. He’s performed all of his adult life and he seemed early on to realize the restraints the music industry could put on creativity. Keen’s bio explains how he got his first album in the hands of fans:
“…Keen took the road less travelled, self-financing and producing 1984’s No Kinda Dancer and leasing it to the independent label Rounder Records, which issued it on its Philo imprint. “It was difficult, because I didn’t know what I was doing … I literally opened up the phonebook and looked for studios,” Keen recalls. “I basically put it all together through brute force and ignorance, but I was shocked with how well it worked out and very happy with it.”
Once that album came out, Keen had no problem getting labels to do his music, and his songs have been covered by legends like George Strait.
Keen is smart to see the opportunity presented by podcasting to get information out about Americana music. One study found that the majority of Americans have listened to podcasts, and the form is becoming more and more popular.
Americana music, having come into its own through musicians like Bob Dylan, Alison Krauss, and Chris Stapleton, will surely continue to expand in influence. Country has often blended with pop and rap is frequently blended with everything. Americana, in a country like the US, is an evolution that could easily be anticipated.
Americana Podcast: The 51st State debuts April 30.
In remarks widely reported by media on the date celebrated as William Shakespeare’s birthday, Keen said:
“Let’s make Americana, as SHAKESPEARE said, ‘familiar in his mouth as household words.’ That is our mission. That is our goal.“
Sounds worthy to me.
You can keep up with Robert Earl Keen on his Facebook page.
(Kay B. Day/April 26, 2019)