What Makes Music Americana? It’s More Than Banjos and Suspenders

Sep 22, 2016

This week in Nashville the Americana Music Association is holding its annual festival and conference.

Americana is a wide ranging roots music genre. But sometimes it gets narrowly defined by those who buy into an emerging stereotype - the hipster musician wearing suspenders, clutching a banjo.

“I have nothing against suspenders, they keep your pants up," says Grant Lee Phillips, the former leader of the band Grant Lee Buffalo. "I have nothing against the banjo. The only thing I have against suspenders is my banjo. Let’s put it that way.”  

Phillips moved from California to Nashville a few years ago and made a new album called The Narrows. It’s been labeled Americana and he has no problem with that. He considers the label a useful shorthand and compares it to driving directions — like saying some place is west of Little Rock — it gets you in the general, musical vicinity.

Phillips does admit he can see how some musicians might fall into the notion that the stylistic trappings of a scene — banjos and suspenders, let's say — are what make the music.

Kim Buie, who is in charge of signing artists at the Nashville-based New West records, says she’s wary of people who try to fabricate who they are.

"I’ve seen the posers, I’ve seen the fakers and I’ve seen the real thing," Bui says, "and you always want to see something that feels true and honest.”

Buie recalls coming across that kind of honesty the first time she saw Grammy winner Ryan Bingham perform. “Probably the first three or four songs, I was like, yeah ok, I’ve seen this before," she recalls. "And then all of a sudden by the fifth song, I’m like ahh crap, this is true. This is real!" 

Fans of Americana will be searching out their own a-aha moment of authenticity among all the artists playing at little clubs and big concerts in Nashville this weekend.