Old-time Music has a modern equivalent in Americana music. It’s an umbrella term that encompasses various traditional styles, such as folk, country, bluegrass, blues, gospel, singer-songwriter, and roots music. These styles emerged from small towns and rural regions during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, deriving from the early American folk music tradition.
Americana is not a single genre but a collection of genres that evolved over time and span multiple geographic locations. The history of Americana music includes American folk music, which originated from folk traditions of England, Scotland, and Ireland and spread across the country with white settlement expansion in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. By the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, influences abounded from rural recordings by John and Alan Lomax, which were cataloged at the Library of Congress and released as recordings to the public. During the twentieth century, it experienced a resurgence with acoustic acts like Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, Josh White, the Weavers, the Kingston Trio, the Limelighters and others rising to popularity. In the 1960s, singer-songwriter-oriented folk music with social commentary appeared as a natural consequence of all that came before.
Blues music is another cornerstone of Americana music (think Keb ‘Mo and Robert Randolph). Blues music originated in the fields of the American South, where Black slaves and sharecroppers adapted spiritual melodies as work songs. It developed regional styles in the southern states, and artists like Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith were among the first to be recorded singing the blues in the 1920s and 1930s.
Country and bluegrass music are also major influences on Americana. Country and bluegrass developed in early twentieth-century Appalachia, with immigrants bringing diverse instruments like banjos, guitars, fiddles, and harmonicas. Country music borrows elements from folk and blues, while bluegrass has its roots in the Appalachian region. Both genres have vibrant scenes in various locations. Today, artists who have absorbed those traditions, like Billy Strings, Gillian Welch and Chris Stapleton dominate the Americana charts.
Modern Americana often features singer-songwriters in the country-folk tradition (such as Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell). The genre is characterized by acoustic instrumentation, a reverence for the past, and narrative and symbolic lyrics, reflecting its diverse influences. Stalwarts of the genre include John Prine, Jason Isbell, Brandi Carlile and Lucinda Williams. Notable acoustic guitarists in the Americana genre include David Rawlings (Gillian Welch’s longtime collaborator), Dan Tyminksi (Alison Krauss) and Kenneth Pattengale (The Milk Carton Kids). The genre is not limited to acoustic instruments, nor is it limited to artists born or residing in America. Foreign dignitaries include Robert Plant, Billy Bragg, Richard Thompson and Mumford & Sons.
The Americana Music Association, based in Nashville, hosts an annual conference to highlight trends and distinguished artists within the genre.