For the first pick of the 2020 Apple Music “Up Next” class, a group of new and emerging artists, the Apple Music team chose someone different from the usual fare of Indie, R&B, and Hip-Hop artists. Instead it was given to a country artist by the name of Orville Peck.
So why does this Orville Peck guy matter? And why does a dude who writes for an indie/underground website seem so interested in this? It’s because Orville Peck isn’t just a normal country artist, and what his sound contains is probably one of the coolest subtleties within alternative rock: americana.
Now americana, or as Wikipedia calls it, alternative country, has been around for longer than Peck or most modern practitioners of the genre. Americana finds its roots in the traditions of celebrated country artists such as Hank Williams and Woody Guthrie. It further grew with the sunny, longhaired and barefooted rock of 1970s bands such as America and the Eagles and raged with the cowpunk movement of the 1980s, featuring bands like the Meat Puppets.
The 1990s brought the fundamental “No Depression” by Uncle Tupelo, which would further inspire bands like Wilco and Drive-By-Truckers into the 2000s. Alongside this, similar genres such as folk punk and indie folk emerged, popularized by bands such as Andrew Jackson Jihad (AJJ) and Fleet Foxes. Today, artists such as Orville Peck, Purple Mountains, Big Thief have incorporated themes and elements of Americana in their own unique ways, from somber sad-boi vibes, to folksy indie vibes, to ranging rambling vibes.
So, it’s cool, but why does americana matter?
After all, the origins of country music weren’t from high-brow writers and executives in Nashville or Hollywood, but from the common people of America. This was a way for them to share their stories and feelings with each other. It wasn’t about trucks, pretty girls, and whisky; it was about storytelling and authenticity, something that has produced the best artists across any genre.
You can see the examples of outsiders and rebels in this sound, whether through Woody Guthrie and his machine that kills fascists, Bob Dylan singing about the answer blowing in the wind, and current artists like Peck, who has fused americana with other alternative subgenres such as shoegaze and goth to create a mysterious and enticing sound that entrances you with visions of sweeping ranges and sparkly starlit nights.
As we have seen in the past 10 years, artists that are willing to combine genres and sounds to create something truly unique are the ones that people want to listen to. Subgenres such as bedroom pop and vaporwave prove so. And in this new era of intergenereality, americana is perfectly suited to bring its heart and honesty to a whole new audience.
One interesting example of the fusing of americana into the further alternative sound is Parquet Court’s “Thawing Dawn” released by frontman Andrew Savage. Savage in this album takes the indie sound of Parquet Courts and applies it to the wide open vistas of the American West, creating this really spacious, yet comfortable sound to explore themes of love and loss. It is particularly noticeable in the title track, which feels like two songs wrapped into one, becoming a composite that creates some of the most unique feelings I can get from a song.
Another really cool example is Bruce Springsteen’s 2019 “Western Stars” album, which just sounds so dusty, almost like the soul of an old, forgotten, ‘60s-era frontier town movie set is singing out. Springsteen uses this setting masterfully to bring his stories of the ordinary people into a cinematic sweep of wild horses, hitchhikers, and long, dusty, roads.
In a town like San Luis Obispo, where students will line-dance on Thursdays and trap on Fridays, and have almost every genre of music on their Spotify and Apple Music playlists, americana represents a crossover sound that encapsulates what makes this town and the university that exists within it interesting and dynamic.
Yet, as a recent panel by the Americana Music Association found, the genre still has much to go in the way of recognizing the form for people of color. Particularly, as it was Black culture, which provided much of the underlying foundations of what modern americana is built on. Black americana artists like Adia Victoria and Our Native Daughters are sadly too few and not recognized in the industry and the music scene in general. Instead of these Black artists being treated like the continuations of the artform, like they should be, they are instead treated as outsiders to a genre that Black culture helped birth.
You can hear it in their music. Adia Victoria’s “Dead Eyes” sounds like a modern take on blues, a genre rooted in the plantations of the Deep South that was later popularized by blues masters like Robert Johnson, Ma Rainey, and Blind Lemon Jefferson. Moreover, one can hear Leyla McCalla’s “Money is King” and think of those old folk singers.
In the end, these black artists have been made the new rebels, the new outsiders. Just as Dylan and Gutherie once challenged the norms of the day with their music, these artists are doing the same by expanding the tradition in an industry hostile to their presence. An industry that has traditionally forbidden access to those of color, and of those of different sexual orientations as well. Yet, as Lil Nas X proved, it is not in the mainstream, but in the margins where the most spectacular things can be created, and truly where the future of americana lies.
Jaxon Silva is a .WAV staff member, he wrote the article. Caroline Seibly is a .WAV staff member, she created the graphic.