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What is Americana?

I’ve often wondered how “Americana” is distinguished from other genres of American music. The answer seems to be that the powers-that-be have done something at which they are skilled: Rebranded and created a new niche.

Here is the definition of Americana in Wikipedia:

Americana is an amalgam of American music formed by the confluence of the shared and varied traditions that make up the musical ethos of the United States, specifically those sounds that are merged from folkcountrybluesrhythm and bluesrock and rollgospel, and other external influences. Americana, as defined by the Americana Music Association (AMA), is “contemporary music that incorporates elements of various mostly acoustic American roots music styles, including country, roots rock, folk, gospel and bluegrass 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.

The tricky thing is that each of the genres already are deeply influenced by each other. Country and blues music have evolved synergistically. Bluegrass is a part of the broad country music family. Rock is inseparable from blues. So to create a separate category called “Americana” seems to be redundant. Americana seems to be nothing more than another way of saying American music.

It seems that far more music produced in this country would fit under the term than wouldn’t. I guess jazz would be mostly outside the tent as the term currently is used. Classical and pop as well. The point is, however, that those genres are heavily influenced by music that would be inside that tent looking out. Just listen to “Rhapsody in Blue,” “Mood Indigo” and much pop – itself a derivative term – that is on the radio.

All that said, I love the term Americana. Anything that gets people to discover or rediscover all this great music is good. The rest is semantics.

The great site Digital Dream Door offered its take on the the top 100 Americana songs. There is great music up and down the list. I chose two more or less at random. Above is “Tennessee Plates” by John Hiatt and below is “Billy the Kid” by Ry Cooder (playing mandolin).

As if to prove that Americana is a confusing term, Amazon doesn’t appear to carry “Americana” albums. The site offers records with the word in the title performed by a specific band or performer and of course offers lots of American music. But it doesn’t seem to offer classify it a distinct genre. In any case, here is some great music. John Hiatt anthologies are at Amazon and iTunes. Amazon has a Ry Cooder anthology and iTunes offers “Chicken Skin Music,” which is considered one of his best records.

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Here’s What’s Here

The Daily Music Break explores every genre of music, from hip hop to opera. It's simple: Boundaries are dumb. It's all good. Here is more about the site and here is our index:

--A Tribe Called Quest to The Dick Hyman Trio (In other words, A to H)

--Indigo Girls to Queen Ida (I to Q)

--Radiohead to ZZ Top (R to Z)

Reading Music

The stories of the great bands and musicians are fascinating. Musicians as a group are brilliant, but often troubled. The combination of creativity and drama makes for great reading.

Here are some books to check out.

Duke Ellington brought class, sophistication and style to jazz which, until that point, was proudly unpolished and raucous. His story is profound. The author, Terry Teachout, also wrote "Pops," the acclaimed bio of Louis Armstrong. Click here or on the image.

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What else is there to say? Here is the story behind every song written by The Beatles. Click here or on the image.

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The Grateful Dead don't get enough credit for the profound nature of its lyrics. Many of the band's songs are driven by a deep and literate Americana ("I'm Uncle Sam/That's who I am/Been hidin' out/In a rock and roll band" and "Majordomo Billy Bojangles/Sit down and have a drink with me/What's this about Alabama/Keeps comin' back to me?").

David Dodd's exhaustive study tells the story, song by song. Click here or on the image.

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