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The Tufts Daily
Where you read it first | Monday, April 15, 2024

Americana music deserves its dues

The Americana genre is a diverse country music alternative that combines influence from rock, folk, country and blues with artists whose values are more aligned with the average Tufts student.

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Americana artist Luke Combs is pictured at the Country Music Awards on Nov. 9, 2017.

Morgan Wallen was caught on video saying a racial slur. Oliver Anthony’s song “Rich Men North of Richmond” (2023) became a conservative anthem for right-wing politicians. Jason Aldean’s music video for “Try That in a Small Town” (2023) drew clear references to lynchings. For a genre called “country music,” it certainly does not live up to its name. Rather than being representative of our country, country music seems to be a stronghold of racists, misogynists and right-wing ideals. These ideals scare off prospective listeners — especially for students at our Mass. liberal arts school. For those listeners who want a gritty, authentic and uniquely American sound, I offer an alternative that doesn’t maintain ties to these scandals. Fittingly, it’s called Americana music.

Americana music originally emerged as a reactionary movement within country music. In the 1990s, when country music experienced a boom in popularity, a desire for more traditional country music increased. In country music, traditional tales of heartbreak, love and loss were being replaced with songs about beer, trucks and women. The Americana genre was created in response.

A quick glance at the Wikipedia listing of Americana artists reveals artists such as Zach Bryan, Lana Del Rey, The Lumineers, Johnny Cash, Bob Dylan, Grateful Dead and Tom Petty — artists that many liberal college students already listen to. Yet one needs to look at a larger collective recognition of Americana music, as these artists barely scratch the surface of what the genre offers.

To me, music is more than just the simple composition of chords and rhythms. It requires storytelling. It’s not enough to simply assemble the most popular progressions, slickly produce it and release it to radio. As an admitted fan of country music, I believe that the genre has the unique ability to create trust and authenticity with the listener. Something about an unapologetic acoustic guitar, soulful vocals and a simple production style, that thrives in moderation, makes me that much more likely to believe whatever story the artist is telling. In recent years, it's clear that the genre has moved away from its original gritty, authentic style, but I can still find some remnants in Americana music.

If anything, the core of the Americana genre is about music that tells a story with authenticity. Artists like Bryan, whose rise to fame was kickstarted by a viral cellphone video of him playing guitar and singing a song he wrote, embody this authenticity. Despite his meteoric rise to success, Bryan has not allowed his increased industry credibility to undermine the core of his music — his new album was entirely self-produced.

Colter Wall is another example of the gritty ‘country-esque’ authenticity present in Americana music. One of his most popular videos is him simultaneously playing acoustic guitar, singing and working a kick drum, creating a beautiful solo performance. Wall sings with the voice of a grizzled cowboy and lives the lifestyle too. Instead of massive stadium tours, Wall, who grew up in rural Canada, can be found ranching across the West.

Americana artists are also diverse in their political beliefs. Bryan spoke out in support of transgender rights and continued to support Bud Light after the Dylan Mulvaney controversy — a sponsorship deal with a transgender influencer that tanked Bud Light sales. Luke Combs covered “Fast Car,” which was originally sung in 1988 by Tracy Chapman, a Black singer-songwriter and Tufts alumna. Tyler Childers featured two gay leads in a music video for his love song “In Your Love” (2023). The Americana genre provides the country aesthetic in a manner that is palatable to college liberals disillusioned with country music’s lack of diversity.

If you’re interested in getting a head start into your Americana journey, I would recommend listening to mainstream contemporary artists, such as Lana Del Rey, The Lumineers or Bryan for a smooth transition into the genre. If you’re willing to take a more adventurous plunge, you can’t go wrong with rising star The Red Clay Strays or Americana legend Jason Isbell.

Americana is so much more than ‘country without the scandals.’ Just like America today, the Americana genre is diverse and draws influence from a multitude of genres, including rock, folk, country and blues. It’s time we give Americana the respect it deserves as a legitimate and influential musical genre.