God and Country Music: What It Sounds Like and the Weird Categories of Americana/Folk Grammys

Each week in God and Country Music, Nick Rynerson gives country music a chance and examines the world of Americana, folk, alt-country, and popular country music.

Americana/Folk has always been a fluid, hard-to-define genre. It’s almost best defined as the-genre-for-music-with-guitars-that-can’t-fit-nicely-into-any-other-genre. And maybe that’s the way it should be for a genre significantly less touched by commercialism than other headline-Grammy-nomination-genres.

Recent redefinitions of Grammy award categories hasn’t helped us know the difference between Americana and Folk. For example, “Best Americana Album” is a new award only in its fourth year (which went twice to the late, great Levon Helm and once to Mavis Staples), splitting off from the decades old “Best Americana/Folk Album” award. Some liked the award split; the Americana Music Association called it “a big step for the genre,” but all it really did was muddy up the Americana waters by trying to define the genre in concrete terms.

The Grammys split the traditional “Folk/Americana Award” into, as they said, acoustic vs. electric dominant instrumentation. Now the “Best Folk Album” goes to an acoustic album and “Best Americana Album” goes to an electric album. Or at least that is how it’s supposed to work in theory.

However, this categorization is awkward at best and misleading at worst. The albums nominated for best Americana album this year (with maybe the exception of Bonnie Raitt’s kind of weird 2012 album) aren’t by nature completely plugged in…and the folk nominations don’t meet 1964 Newport Folk Festival Standards for “acoustic music” either.

Now, see if you can guess which ones are nominated under the “folk” category and which the “Americana”:

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The Grammys, by establishing psudeo-regulations for two nearly indistinguishable genres of music, have proven again that man needs categories to neatly define life, even when the categories are incoherent. The top contenders for the “Americana” Grammy are Mumford & Sons, a British “neo-folk-pop” group and The Avett Brothers, an American acoustic hodgepodge of brilliance. And the kicker: both albums are 90% acoustic!

Americana/Folk is simply way too broad to separate based on acoustic and electric. People have been trying to get a handle on what exactly “Americana” is for a long time and this categorization doesn’t seem to hit the nail on the head. Trying so hard to categorize and systematize it makes it even more elusive.

No Depression Magazine does it right: they know that you can’t describe No Depression without playing a couple tracks. So instead of defining their little sub-genre of heavy, twangy Americana that was obviously influenced by Uncle Tupelo (hence the name “No Depression” after Uncle Tupelo’s incredible album No Depression), they put out regular compilations called “What It Sounds Like” and shrug their shoulders.

It really is a good thing that Americana is gaining more and more recognition, especially in mainstream channels. However, when we over-categorize things of substance, we reduce the potential impact they can have. By dividing Folk and Americana, the Grammys have succeeded in splitting hairs and no one is exactly sure what the difference is. In what may be a starker parallel than is necessary, this is what Christian tribalism can be; simple over labeling. When the theological or musical genre is more important than the invisible thread that unites the ideas of all of the sub-genres, then we have to step back and wonder if we have lost something.

And while it may just be harmless Grammy-award-genre shenanigans in this case, when this is a go-to reaction of the human heart, in more critical situations, this tendency can hurt, isolate, and alienate as we try to systematize things that are not easily systematized.

It removes the mystery and beauty by forcing the substance into easily computable terms. I use the terms “Americana” and “Folk” interchangeably because essentially, Americana is American roots music and Folk is American roots music…get it? It’s all one big vast, diverse, interrelated, odd, unified body of spiritual, cultural, and musical significance. And before we split hairs about what albums are “Americana” and what albums are “Folk,” let us wonder at the vast musical narrative tapestry that has been spun from this genre for the past century or more. And like the great big, wonderful, diverse, odd, unified body of spiritual, cultural, historical, and musical significance that is the Church of Jesus, let us stand in awe of His spiritual tapestry before we divide off into our camps of choice. We may learn something in the process. The Church and the Grammys could take a lesson from No Depression’s “What It Sounds Like” compilations and let the substance define the categorization; not vice versa.

About Nick Rynerson

Nick Rynerson lives in Normal, Illinois (no, seriously). In his free time, He writes, attempts to play mandolin, reads and hangs out with his groovy wife. Nick has a soft spot for any song with a banjo and thinks Bruce Campbell is the best actor on earth. However, he is a terrible golfer and has particular distaste internet controversy . Nick is passionate about the Church, (lower case) orthodoxy and whatever he's been reading about recently.

Follow Nick on Twitter: @Nick_Rynerson
or at his website: nickrynerson.com


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