The Bigotry Toward Americana


Last year Giovanni Russonello took to the Atlantic magazine to draw a narrow line from Bob Dylan’s “Americanarama Festival of Music” showcase and the lack of diversity in the genre overall (Why Is a Music Genre Called ‘Americana’ So Overwhelmingly White and Male?)

I called bullshit in that story and I call it on the recent Wall Street Journal’s “Americana Music Awards Nominees Are Mostly Folky, And White.

In the piece Eric R. Danton takes stock of the current crop of Americana Music Award nominees and concludes that they “…skew largely folky, and largely white, with few artists of color among the awards contenders..”

The WSJ is hardly a bastion of political correctness, but there it is. The conclusion drawn from both of these articles is plain to see. Americana is a hotbed of bigotry and should be ashamed.

There appears to be a trend to cast Americana as a bastion of white (presumably straight) males. Much of the stereotypes typically reserved for Music Row guards like Toby Keith appears to be blowing back on it’s rootier cousin.

I’ve been covering this music for almost 8 years and been to over 100 Americana and roots music concerts and festivals. i’ve also been to 6 Americana Conference and Festivals, where the Americana Awards are presented. I see the artists appearing at concerts, festivals and accepting those awards I am also see the many emerging artists that contact me hoping to join those ranks of working musicians.

Males outnumber female performers and yes, there are more white folks than people of color. So what? Is the conclusion that there’s some Americana gatekeeper keeping woman and people of color out of the field? The lazy answer is that they are being kept out, right? Where’s the outrage? Where’s the Americana occupation?

Or perhaps the answer of more pedestrian, there are fewer women and people of color in Americana because they don’t want to be there. Just as hip-hop has few white men and women and pop music has fewer men some music styles appeal to segments of society. This isn’t societal bigotry, it’s diversity in taste.

And with diversity there is the freedom for some to choose another direction.

I have been a past of the community and a tireless advocate for a long time. I’ve met hundreds of fans, musicians and industry folks that love and advocate for this great music. And save for the occasional GRAMMY-nominee (right Linda Chorney?) there is less racial, gender or sexual bias than any other genre (except for perhaps EDM.)

There is, however, a bias in musicianship. The music draws from folk and county, as well as blues, tejano and zydeco, from the expanse of this country. Other genres have emerged to allow a rich market of styles that appeal to people that self-identify.

But if more blacks self-identify with hip-hop or women self-identify with pop, no one sounds the alarm of racism or gender bias on those genres. It’s just seen as the way of progress and choice.

So a casual survey of Americana might lead you to believe it’s chock full of white boys So what? Is their choice less worthy? More suspect? If there’s something about the music that allows males of the caucasian variety to self-identify with it who’s hurt?

Of course America is not lily white. It’s an open community that draws from our rich cultural past, all of it, while forging a future of brave creativity.

Drawing bias from preferences debases the instances of actual bias that corrodes our world. Painting those of a any group – black, brown, gay or, yes, even white, as racist or sexist because of a gravitation toward cultural definition is bigotry cloaked in righteousness.

Of course in America everyone is entitled to their opinion, no matter how misguided. But I am a member of a great and compassionate community and i take this as a personal affront. I know these fans, I know these musicians.

In practicality, “There is no such thing as bad publicity” the phrase most often attributed to that master of self-promotion, Phineas T. Barnum, applies here. If Americana and roots music wasn’t thriving and growing in influence it wouldn’t be a target for this nonsense. So there’s that.

But personally I believe that those that dare condemn the genre, and by extension the people, can stick their kinder and gentler bigotry where the sun don’t shine.

EDIT: A few days have passed and after some back and forth on the topic I’ve come to realize that the bias against Americana is an extension of a bias of the souther. Sure the contemporary variety of the music comes from all over the world but the form it takes distinctively southern and American (sorry Billy Bragg.)

The style is not only suspect regionally. it’s also so historically. much of Americana draws from the styles from the Antebellum to the early 20th century. We can agree that these were a cultural dark ages past the Mason-Dixon. But it also provided a fertile for folk, country, the blues, jazz, bluegrass, rock and, yes, Americana.

But some folks can’t appreciate a regional style without saddling it with cultural bigotry.

This is the stuff of the culture war that’s been waged since since the signing of the The Civil Rights in 1964. It’s a shame that politicians fan those flames for their own professional gain. But when it’s done against innocent people trying to enjoy some beauty in this rough world, well, there’s just no reason than hate and ignorance.

5 Replies to “The Bigotry Toward Americana”

  1. Agree 100%. I was stunned when I saw Jim Fusili pass that WSJ blog on as if it were headline news. I’m not sure what the hip-hop equivalent for awards is, but I am damn sure you will never see a headline “hip hop awards – mostly black, mostly rap”.

  2. Funny, that WSJ article wasn’t really about Americana being racist, despite their sensationalized title. The author even pointed out the various places where diversity lies. It’s the internet – people want to see a sensational headline.

    That said, just because people self-select into different cultural groups doesn’t mean that diversity can’t happen, or ceases to be important. I live in a town where the white and black populations self-segregate and I think it’s so completely unfortunate. There is so much we can learn and do together, including bringing new life to the kinds of music we love. Pop critics raise questions about racism and sexism all the time (read Ann Powers now and then, for example). This is not a designation that only gets thrown at Americana, by a long stretch. I totally get what you’re saying, and I don’t completely disagree with you. But, for lack of a better phrase, I just don’t think it’s so black and white.

    And I think it’s easy for anyone who doesn’t know about something to discredit what it appears to be.

  3. Kim, I took the writers examples of “diversity” within Americana, Valerie June and Hurray for the Riff Raff’s Alynda Lee Segarra, as exceptions to a already decided conclusion of the piece. I’m all for asking questions. Americana fans ask them ad nauseum, mostly to try and figure the boundaries and definition of the genre. But when hammers are looking for nails it’s hard to see variety.

  4. Everyone wants to focus on the South’s dark past but all of America has a dark past. Arrogant folks want to differ the darkness to the south to take the eyes off their own darkness and skeletons in their closets. As Dick Gregory said, “California is one of the most Racist states in the Union because California hides it’s racism. Everyone talks about Mississippi Burnin’ but Mississippi has never burnt. How many times has Los Angeles burnt? Four or five times.”

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