Is the end nigh for Americana?
Published: May 31, 2012
It was kind of cute, at first – young guys playing old-man country. It was subversive, like trucker caps. Then, in the wake of the Soggy Bottom Boys and O Brother, Where Art Thou?, it became a thing. People in Brooklyn started doing it. Now it's an infestation.
Music blogs are wallpapered with 20-somethings with scraggly beards and earnest eyes pretending to play the banjo and attempting four-part harmonies with widely varying levels of success. Or, in the electrified version, plaintively warbling over substandard takes on the Band, Neil Young and Johnny Cash. Even the bands that do justice to the style get lost like Waldo in a sea of red and white stripes.
“Every time I see a beardo band, I know what to expect. A beard is like plaid shirts in the '90s,” says Southern Culture on the Skids guitarist Rick Miller. “Pretty soon, we're going to see fraternity guys with beards. I can't wait to see Justin Bieber with a beard.”
One might've figured the Americana boomlet would have been ticketed and towed by now. It's been a dozen years since O Brother's release, and the meter's surely expiring. Were the guys in charge of shuffling trends along and out of everyone's way victims of the post-millennial music-biz shakeout? If so, how are we supposed to get the caterwauling kook with the ZZ Top soup-strainer out of the guest room? (Honestly, the bouquet of road BO is wilting our Georgia O'Keeffe art prints.)
Certainly over the last decade there have been a variety of attempts to lure these carpetbaggers out. Since the millennium, electroclash, garage, indietronica (even Ben Gibbard found it too boring to continue), British dance-punks, ska's 928th revival, noise-pop and 2010's pale shut-in music célèbre, chillwave, have all failed to seize the zeitgeist and displace present roots-music fascinations. None survived much longer than a couple of years.
As we survey the underground – and it still looks like the cast of Ice Road Truckers doing their best Hee Haw imitation – we have to wonder, have young musicians run out of new ideas or just gotten lazier? By Canadian alt-country artist Fred Eaglesmith's reckoning, it's only Americana's hair and fingernails that are still growing.
“The perception is that Americana continues, right?” Eaglesmith asks. “To me, it's already done. There's just nothing new to take its place. I promise you if there were somewhere else to go, these guys would jump like flies. I know because I saw them jump out of punk onto Americana. They say Americana was their one true love, but I saw them date other genres before this.”
Perhaps one reason for the staying power of this stylistic tic is its connection to simpler times. (As if a time without dishwashers, online dating and pizza delivery could truly be considered “simpler.”) Some suggest the ascendance of Americana is related not just to nostalgia but a yearning for greater authenticity. That's part of Jay Farrar's take. He helped kick off the Americana renaissance in the late 1980s and early '90s with Uncle Tupelo, before they broke up, spawning Jeff Tweedy's Wilco and Farrar's Son Volt.
> Email Chris Parker