Americana, where art thou? 

Is Americana gearing up for a new Gold rush, or just waiting at the crossroads to make a deal with the devil?

An attendee at last month's Americana Music Association conference in Nashville asked veteran performer Delbert McClinton in which record-store bin -- country, rock or R&B -- fans usually find his eclectic, roots-inspired collections. Instantly, he replied, "In the cut-out bin."

Though his answer speaks to a larger truth about enduring artists, the facts of McClinton's recent career belie his snappy retort. The emergence of Americana as a format, he said, lets him "color outside the lines." And that freedom has produced new discs compelling enough to have sold hundreds of thousands of copies, placing him at the top of the Americana charts for months at a time.

Established a few years back as an alternative for listeners turned off by the often pop-softened sounds of recent country hits, the Americana radio format marries alt-country bands, edgy Texas-style singer/songwriters and a dollop of bluegrass on some 90 stations across the U.S. Core artists include Lucinda Williams, Rhonda Vincent, Jay Farrar and the Derailers, even former country hitmakers such as Steve Earle and Rodney Crowell.

Crowell, whose recent CD The Houston Kid placed him firmly in the vital and slippery world of Americana music, gave the second annual AMA conference's keynote address. "There's an audience out there that likes music for the right reasons, apart from what's played on television and radio. [They like] word-of-mouth music, heart music, adult music. And to play it, I don't have to kiss radio's ass," he said from the podium, addressing the Americana promoters, record producers, artists and, presumably, ass-kissing-immune radio station managers gathered there.

Beyond McClinton's success, there certainly have been other reasons for optimism among Americana's backers. A new 24-hour Americana Music Television network has just started up via satellite TV and cable. Digital cable networks also serve the genre, and several syndicated Americana music shows for commercial radio are also beginning to spread the word -- and more importantly, the tunes.

Meanwhile, the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack has grown into a platinum-selling phenomenon that has introduced old-timey country and mountain music to vast new audiences. Benefiting from the exposure are performers ranging from 74-year-old bluegrass legend Ralph Stanley to young, rising singer Gillian Welch, whose modern lyrical reworking of old stringband traditions has been an Americana chart success.

And bands such as New England's Tarbox Ramblers, Vancouver's the Be-Good Tanyas and revived alt-country stalwarts the Blood Oranges -- who create edgy and modern versions of old-timey music -- now find a friendlier environment for what might be termed new-timey music.

One artist who has clearly benefited from O Brother's success is young Louisiana bluesman Chris Thomas King, whose thrilling turn on the soundtrack cleared the way for the relative success of his solo release, Legend of Tommy Johnson, Act I. The album, which plays off the character King portrayed in O Brother, has found its way onto the Americana charts -- a rare feat for a blues disc. It's part of a larger, increasingly diverse and multi-racial definition of Americana that's moving the format past its common designation as simply "the edge of country."

At the AMA conference, two varying visions for the American format emerged. In the minds of some of its promoters and performers, Americana music stands defiantly as a potential replacement for mainstream country -- maybe even pop -- a potential next-big-thing just waiting for the emergence of a megastar or huge hit single.

Others now suggest Americana raises the availability and acceptance of a variety of vital and enduring roots styles -- usually brought to audiences live and loose, in smaller clubs and halls -- but that the format is unlikely to ever bust out far beyond its niche appeal.

The competing efforts of these two schools wouldn't register at all to Americana's devoted listeners and potential new fans if the genre wasn't standing at a crossroads. And to a large extent, the direction Americana radio decides to take will greatly impact the kind of music its devotees get to hear. Will it use recent successes to broaden its appeal among core fans, or will it veer toward a more commercial sound in search of that big bang?

Tift Merritt, a young North Carolina-based twang/soul singer/songwriter, is some observers' nominee for Americana's first superstar. So far, though, she's taken up more space with media buzz than actual recordings (her first solo album is said to be due next year). Her Lost Highway labelmate Ryan Adams, formerly of the much-admired, highly volatile alt-country band Whiskeytown, is right now the leading contender on that short list. His Gold CD is a rising mass market hit that has earned him a major feature in Rolling Stone and The New York Times Magazine.

"He's learning not to be scared of anything that might sound a little more pop, " Frank Callari, Lost Highway's A&R chief, told the AMA crowd.

Truly, Gold wears its classic folk-rock inspiration on its sleeve. Reiterating a variety of well-tested, semi-rootsy '70s sounds in search of that hit, it's well buffered (too buffered for many Americana fans) from the roots from which these sounds came. In fact, it's a popular mainstream CD. If Gold points to the direction the prolific Adams takes from here, it's also a signal that Americana's search for that next big thing could dull the format's edge.

Gillian Welch's partner, guitar wizard David Rawlings, related a story to the AMA crowd of how he and Welch were left incredulous when radio promoters asked them to shorten "Elvis Presley Blues," a song off Welch's acclaimed CD Time (The Revelator), so it could fit the tidy constraints required for radio play.

But is blanding away Americana in the name of growth inevitable?

It doesn't have to be that way. Further opening the format -- as many stations, labels and performers clearly want to do -- beyond its "revenge on the country chart" stance would be a start. That involves the inclusion of forms as broad as blues, gospel, folk, country and bluegrass, as well as Hispanic, Cajun and other ethnic sounds, as the recent "American Roots Music" PBS series managed to do without pain. And appreciating the grassroots nature of the music -- which relies far more on live shows than radio -- will help to keep playlists connected to the format's core listeners.

Of course, a little less focus on finding that next big thing -- and a little more attention to emulating successes right under our noses -- would do everyone some good.

"O Brother is a big bang," said Americana Entertainment radio promoter John Grimson, at the AMA conference. "It certainly has proven that there is a market for this kind of music without any mainstream radio help. This is music with substance over style, and that's a constant and steady place to be. It will be around a long time."

music@creativeloafing.com

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