When the 2017 Grammy Award nominations were unveiled in December, a lot of fans had one question after perusing the names in the album-of-the-year field: Beyonce, Adele, Drake, Justin Bieber and Sturgill Simpson.
The nod to the latest work from the Kentucky-born singer and songwriter is just the most recent manifestation of the rising tide for the broadly defined category of Americana music, a corner of pop inhabited by such critically acclaimed acts as Simpson, Chris Stapleton, Mumford & Sons, the Avett Brothers, Emmylou Harris, Rhiannon Giddens, the Lumineers, Rodney Crowell, John Hiatt and Alison Krauss.
And no one was as surprised at the high-profile nomination as Simpson himself.
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“I can’t believe I’m mentioned in the same breath with Adele, Beyonce and all these huge pop artists,” Simpson told The Times. “’Mentally humbled’ is probably the best way to put it.”
Although party-minded sing-along hits from Florida Georgia Line, Luke Bryan, Jason Aldean and other so-called bro-country performers have dominated the airwaves of mainstream country radio in recent years, the more sophisticated songwriting that’s a hallmark of Americana has been seizing a larger and larger audience along the way.
“I don’t think it’s going to be erasing bro-country,” said Stacy Vee, director of festival talent for the L.A.-based concert promoter Goldenvoice. “But I think what is happening is that Nashville is diversifying a little bit. With all the different ways you can get music now — with Spotify and all the streaming services — people are playing around a lot more with what the listen to.”
Stapleton’s record “Traveller” was the seventh-bestselling album of 2016, with total equivalent sales of 1.4 million copies, a figure that includes physical sales and streaming numbers. That left Stapleton behind only such pop, rock and R&B superstars as Drake, Adele, Beyonce, Rihanna, Twenty-One Pilots and Bieber.
That was one factor in Billboard magazine renaming its folk album sales chart in May as Americana/folk.
The reason? To “spotlight the middle ground bridging country and rock: organic, roots and acoustic-based groups and solo singer-songwriters,” magazine officials said.
“The change recognizes the growth of Americana music and the prominent rise of the term Americana overall, both within the industry and in widespread music coverage,” Billboard noted. “Among acts likely to continue to be a presence on the retooled Americana/folk albums chart include the Lumineers, Sturgill Simpson, James Bay, Margo Price and Jason Isbell.”
“It seems like Americana is growing,” said Ken Levitan, whose Vector Management firm represents a number of such acts, including Harris, Hiatt, T Bone Burnett, Richard Thompson, Buddy Miller and the Civil Wars’ John Paul White.
“I think part of it is that it’s real music, in a sense — not that other genres are not real music,” Levitan said. “But the Americana fans — as opposed to being a singles-based audience — seem to be an album-based audience, which translates into greater sales if somebody is going to buy a record.
This year’s Americana album nominees are the Avett Brothers, William Bell, Kris Kristofferson, Lori McKenna and the Time Jumpers.
The “Americana” term has been in play since emerging in the early 1990s as an umbrella for roots music including one or more elements of country, folk, gospel, soul, blues and R&B.
Most rock historians trace that amalgam back to the freewheeling, border-blind music Bob Dylan made in 1967 with musicians soon to be known as the Band — later dubbed “The Basement Tapes.”
Musicians, however, often rankle at being labeled.
“This whole labeling thing — I’m tired of being called an ‘Americana’ artist — either that or ‘country alternative,’” said singer-songwriter Lucinda Williams, whose music of the late 1980s and early 1990s was a key part of the emerging Americana community of artists.
“I’ve been in almost every (Grammy) category,” she said, referencing her wins for country song, contemporary folk album and female rock vocal, along with nominations in the Americana category, introduced in 2006 as contemporary folk/Americana, then shortened to Americana in 2009.
“I very rarely talk about this stuff. It’s all very mysterious.”