Americana's Global Reach

  • The Band
    Photo: R. Gates/Getty Images
  • Neil Young
    Photo: Lester Cohen/WireImage.com
  • Lindi Ortega
    Photo: Timothy Hiatt/Getty Images
  • Mumford & Sons
    Photo: Jason Merritt/Getty Images

What is Americana music? According to Merriam-Webster, Americana is a "genre of American music having roots in early folk and country music." As general as the definition may be, the name itself has clearly formal linguistic ties to geography. But contrary to conventional wisdom, the music it describes does not share the same boundaries.

Like its geographic namesake, Americana is a cultural quilt pieced together through an evolution of varied sounds, from European folk tunes and sea shanties fused with African instrumentation and rhythms, to 19th and 20th century American musical genres such as gospel, blues, folk, and country. This cultural elasticity makes creating Americana music compelling and accommodating for many artists around the world.

Showing the breadth of what America really means, the genre would arguably not exist if it weren't for the influence of Canadians. This is evidenced by the Band, the partially Canadian group that backed Bob Dylan (with the late GRAMMY winner Levon Helm being the lone American). Canada native and Americana pioneer Neil Young has been instrumental in laying a foundation for the genre, and in doing so has inspired contemporary Canadian performers such as Blue Rodeo, k.d. lang, Corb Lund, Fred Eaglesmith, Kendel Carson, and Lindi Ortega, among others. There are also artists who have fused Americana with rock, Tex-Mex, country, folk, R&B, and blues, such as Los Lobos, Calexico and Giant Sand.

In the UK, "Whispering" Bob Harris, legendary host of BBC Radio 2 program "The Old Grey Whistle Test," has spent more than 40 years introducing fans to stars such as current GRAMMY nominees Mumford & Sons and up-and-coming artists such as My Darling Clementine, both of whom take their own regional folk source code of Americana and make it their own. Ireland offers Ben Glover from Belfast, and the Dublin "newgrass" band I Draw Slow. In Germany there is the talented Markus Rill practicing his brand of singer/songwriter craft that would fit comfortably at any Texas roadhouse. And in Spain there are the dusty roadhouse serenades of Arizona Baby and Los Widow Makers.

Is this worldwide appeal of the Americana genre a sign of American cultural dominance? Not exactly. Americana appeals to audiences spanning generations, miles and cultures because it speaks of universal truths of the human condition in an increasingly connected yet fragmented world. In the end, we often revert to music that reflects who we are and who we want to be. Or, as the late Johnny Cash put it, "Singing seems to help a troubled soul."

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