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Americana stands on the threshold

By Jeffrey B. Remz, December 2000

Pop goes the country, and that may have opened the door for the growth of Americana music.

That's the kind of music - played by folks like Steve Earle, Charlie Robison and Allison Moorer - mainstream country stations would not touch with a 10-foot pole or longer.

But now thanks to factors including what's played on country radio and the recent formation of an association pushing the format, the time may be ripe for the growth of Americana.

The growth has not exactly been meteoric, but those close to Americana are confident the music will continue to attract an audience. It may not be the "next big thing" like alt.-country was considered about five years ago (and except for the likes of Son Volt and Wilco never really took off), perhaps just as well say some supporters.

Americana is, in some respects, a marked contrast and response to the increasing pop sound heard in recent years on country radio, according to Mattson Reiner, program director at KNBT in New Braunfels, Tex.

"It seems as though most formats have split - you have your classic rock, your alternative," says Reiner. "Each format has various different styles. Country is the only one's that never done that. I think what we're seeing is a split between pop new country and the more traditional country or Americana."

Jessi Scott, formerly the Gavin Americana editor, said, "I really believe that landscape is about to change in a variety of ways, and I don't see it not growing. I don't see the potential stars waiting in the wings - Allison Moorer, Kasey Chambers - stopping."

Some see Americana as the home of not only up-and-coming artists, but also folks like Merle Haggard and Johnny Cash, who are staples of both Americana stations and stations playing classic country.

Listeners are generally considered well-educated with some bucks to spend. Americana is not the kind of music likely to appeal to the flavor-of-the-month or pop leaning country crowd weaned on the Shania Twains of the world.

Sony/Lucky Dog artist Charlie Robison says the format "has been great for me. I always hate to explain what I'm trying to do...The Americana stations have been great to me forever. The cooler country stations have gotten a hold of it as well. I feel I've gotten the best of both worlds."

"They're the crowd that wants to listen to the coolest about country music," says Robison in a telephone interview from his San Antonio area home of Americana listeners.

"The Americana stations played my record for a year before country even came on board," he says. "Americana definitely got the groundswell happening."

With a bottom-line oriented industry at play here, Scott, now working for XM Satellite radio in Washington, foresees a chance for the format to be a money maker.

"It's the tip of the iceberg," says Scott of what has gone on thus far. "Who knows how large this might be? This could be tantamount to the outlaws in the mid-'70's."

Americana music suffered a blow in October when Gavin decided to give up on its Americana music chart. Gavin had about 90 radio stations reporting their airplay from which the company compiled a chart.

Under Gavin, there were growth spurts in the numbers of stations adhering to the format, but a huge increase never materialized.

Scott indicated Americana was too much of a niche market for Gavin.

"Actually, I think it's turned out be a blessing in disguise," said John Grimson of Counterpoint Music Group, a Nashville-based music promoter, of the Gavin decision to give up the chart.

"Obviously, the immediate impact was not good, but once people learned why - Gavin had major restructuring reasons. It didn't have anything to do with Americana in and of itself. They dropped the rap chart at the same time. It would have been different if it was Americana and if everything else stayed the same."

But into the void stepped the recently created Americana Music Association. The group staged its first conference in November in Nashville, drawing almost 400 people and a very enthusiastic crowd.

Grimson says he thinks the Gavin decision became a "rallying point" for Americana supporters. "It ended up kind of solidifying and strengthening" the AMA, according to Grimson.

One of the meeting goals was to find a place for the chart, and that appears to be at hand. The group also is trying to get a Grammy nomination for Americana.

But that does not necessarily translate into some sort of growth spike for Americana.

Those interviewed - and all are tied in with Americana - did foresee positive growth signs.

Rounder Vice President of Promotion Brad Paul says, "Currently, there are very healthy life signs out there when you look at the number of touring artists, festivals that are programming this music that are thriving...These are all healthy signs. You look at all the radio stations are programming the format. I think with few exceptions, they are all operating in the black. They are all seeing a healthy growth of listenership."

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