Brandi Carlile and the Grammys have a good thing going. The Maple Valley roots rocker has established herself as a perennial contender, earning nominations in at least one of the marquee categories three of the last four years, and perhaps more importantly, getting a coveted performance slot on the star-studded telecast that comes with it. In Carlile, the Recording Academy has a partner in a generation-bridging songwriter and performer who embodies the institution’s musical values, and is helping lead its MusiCares tribute to Joni Mitchell days before Sunday’s 64th Grammy Awards show. As a queer woman, Carlile’s televised performances have also helped make “music’s biggest night” better representative of the industry and the audience it serves after facing criticism in recent years.
But even the best of friends don’t always see eye to eye.
Weeks before this year’s nominations were revealed, Carlile (graciously) made it known she wasn’t exactly thrilled that the academy moved her knee-buckling ballad “Right On Time” out of the American roots category and into the pop field. The lead single off last year’s unflinching “In These Silent Days” album is nominated for best pop solo performance, as well as song and record of the year.
In an October Instagram post, Carlile said that although she was “flattered to be considered ‘pop’ as a 40 year old crooning lesbian mother,” she was “a bit surprised and disappointed” by the decision.
“Americana/American Roots music is more than a genre to me. It represents my community, my family, my friends and my beautiful island of misfits,” Carlile wrote, echoing comments she made in her first Grammy acceptance speech in 2019.
Isolating the song from the context of Carlile’s 17-year recording career, there are reasonable arguments to be made for either classification, though glancing at her fellow pop nominees — Justin Bieber, Billie Eilish, Ariana Grande and Olivia Rodrigo — it’s clear one of these artists isn’t like the others.
Carlile was a bona fide star in the Americana world long before her Grammys success made her a household name. And at a time when her popularity and musical collaborations — like her Alicia Keys team-up “A Beautiful Noise,” also up for song of the year — are transcending genre, Carlile is firmly planting her boot in Americana’s soil.
“The importance of staying and working within Americana is greater than just me,” she wrote in that October Instagram post. “There is not a moment where I don’t view my role as something larger. I feel great responsibility in representing marginalized queer people in rural America who are raised on country and roots music but are repeatedly and systematically rejected by the correlating culture. Every rung I can sling my gay sequined boot up on top of gets queer people a little higher on the ladder to being seen as just a bit more human in the great American roots landscape.”
Born as a refuge for artists spurned by the country music establishment, Americana has grown into a loosely defined big-tent genre that has come to include, in varying degrees, musicians dabbling in folk, country, blues, bluegrass, gospel and rock ‘n’ roll, and artists coloring in the margins. It’s a home for authentic storytelling — stories that weren’t always reflected elsewhere in the landscape of popular American music.
For a genre created as a response to being excluded, Americana hasn’t been without its own inclusivity issues — some of which Carlile and others are helping the community confront. Yet at the same time, the genre with nebulous borders has a way of putting its arms around artists whether or not they were looking for the embrace.
A “vague grouping”
Margo Cilker never thought of herself as an “Americana” artist, per se. Growing up in Silicon Valley didn’t afford the singer-songwriter much country cred, but a steady diet of Steve Earle and “Trio” — the 1987 supergroup album from Dolly Parton, Emmylou Harris and Linda Ronstadt — meant whatever she played was going to have a little twang.
For her breakout debut, last fall’s riveting “Pohorylle,” the rising the folk-country artist worked with Seattle stalwart Sera Cahoone, a Sub Pop alum who, as Cilker puts it, “has a foot in the indie world.” Cilker, who’s currently based in Goldendale, Klickitat County, figured “Pohorylle” might find a similar path, blending Cahoone’s sensibilities with her “old-school country and this very heart-on-your-sleeve songwriting mentality.”
One of the finest records to come out of the Northwest last year, “Pohorylle” brims with evocative songwriting indebted to Western authors like Pam Houston and country music, though not the stuff heard on mainstream country radio these days. Songs like the heart-wrenching “Broken Arm in Oregon” have a way of planting you across the breakfast table while the narrator fights “the urge to ramble, with every three-egg breakfast scramble.”
Unsurprisingly, Americana radio ate it up. And Cilker, who considers herself a singer-songwriter without claiming any one genre in particular, certainly isn’t complaining.
“If the Americana community is championing my record, then I’m gonna say, ‘Thank you, Americana.’ [Laughs.] … If they’re smart enough to honor John Prine, then they must be doing something right,” she says of the late great songwriter, a guiding light in the Americana world.
Still, Cilker — who opens for Hayes Carll at the Tractor Tavern April 21-22 — acknowledges that few artists in her circle would self-identify purely as “Americana,” a “vague grouping” that can be “vexing” in some ways.
(Note: This video contains explicit language.)
While Cilker’s unconcerned with how listeners might classify her, some artists who feel a deep connection with the country music tradition have bristled at the term Americana. Though the flames aren’t as hot as they were five to 10 years ago, some fans, artists and critics have derided the more commercial pop-leaning country that dominates country radio, while artists drawn toward classic country sounds are nudged toward Americana’s sandbox.
Tyler Childers, a bluegrass-informed country artist whose largely instrumental protest album “Long Violent History” is nominated for best folk album, is among them. In 2018, Childers made his feelings known while accepting an emerging artist prize during the Americana Music Association’s annual award show.
“As a man who identifies as a country music singer, I feel Americana ain’t no part of nothing and is a distraction from the issues that we’re facing on a bigger level as country music singers,” he said, according to Rolling Stone. “It kind of feels like purgatory.”
Those comments didn’t sit well with Carlile, who was in attendance, just beginning her awards show tear months after releasing “By the Way, I Forgive You.” Though she doesn’t mention Childers by name, referring to him only as a “handsome, white, extremely talented young fella,” Carlile recalls the incident in her memoir, “Broken Horses.”
“Do you know what that sounded like to the people of color or LGBTQ folks in attendance?” she wrote. “Here’s what I heard from where I sat: ‘I don’t belong here with you. I’m normal. I belong in the bigger room.’ It was upsetting and uncomfortable for me to hear. We have a long way to go in addressing some of the concerns that I can see he had about the industry in retrospect … but damn.”
Changing the landscape
The Americana umbrella genre popped up in the ’90s as a reaction to a shift in country music, says Jed Hilly, executive director of the Americana Music Association. The launch of Nielsen SoundScan in 1991 gave the industry more accurate sales data, which illustrated the commercial power of artists like Garth Brooks and Shania Twain. As Hilly tells it, Nashville shifted its focus (and resources) toward artists with similar commercial appeal, excluding venerable songwriters like Steve Earle, Emmylou Harris and Johnny Cash.
“All of a sudden New York and Los Angeles found out there was a lot going on in between the two coasts and a lot of records were being sold,” he says. “New York was shocked and Nashville followed the money. The problem with that is it left these artists of integrity out in the cold.”
With a mission to “advocate for the authentic voice of American roots music around the world,” the Americana Music Association was founded in 1999. Over the years, the Americana tent has broadened beyond country musicians who don’t aspire to hit singles or fit a certain mold, pulling in artists fusing elements of the blues, gospel and other American-born genres, all of which have roots in Black communities. “What was an Americana album 20 years ago is very different to what an Americana album is today,” Hilly says. “Artists like Brandi, Yola, Allison Russell have really changed the landscape.”
Both Russell and powerhouse vocalist Yola — riding high off last year’s glossy, folk-soul romper “Stand for Myself” — are up for multiple Grammy Awards, including best American roots performance alongside Carlile. Carlile’s nominated for her “Same Devil” duet with fellow Washingtonian Brandy Clark, who’s penned hits for some of Nashville’s biggest stars, but as an artist, never found much traction at country radio (their loss). The song landed on the deluxe edition of Clark’s “Your Life is a Record,” a liberating album adorned with strings and horns, fueled by her “breakup with commercial country,” she said before last year’s Grammys.
As the music industry continues to reckon with systemic racism, both mainstream country and Americana have been criticized in recent years for their lack of diversity. But with its artists and fan base skewing more progressive, the Americana world has been quicker to try to address some of its internal issues and some artists have found the Americana community more welcoming.
After running into racial barriers in the 2000s, last year Michigan country singer Miko Marks released “Our Country,” her first album in 14 years, which was well-received in Americana circles. “It’s more inclusive,” Marks told country music website The Boot. “It’s more accepting of artists — not brands, but artists. It feels like what country music should be. You’re going to hear it all. You’re going to see it all. And that’s what I belong to, personally.”
Hilly acknowledges the association still has a lot of work to do, but credits Carlile — who’s been named the AMA’s artist of the year each of the last two years — with expanding the genre’s reach, both with her music and engagement in the community. Last year Carlile helped the association launch its diversity and inclusion committee to find ways of making the community more welcoming and to “educate on the rich and diverse history of American roots music.”
Equity aside, Americana’s widening scope is more in line with how music is consumed and created. Any art form has its imitators, but as Cilker points out, musicians like Lucinda Williams, who’s “too country for the rock world, too rock for the country world,” aren’t confined to specific lanes. Americana’s strength, she says, is “the sum of its parts.”
“There’s something about the way that there seem to be these artists who are pursuing making music not really having a clear directive from the onset,” Cilker says, referring to Carlile’s “island of misfits” comment. “Like, I am who I am. I am going to move my art forward. You can classify it or not, but either way I’m still going to do it.”
For Tacoma roots rocker and KNKX DJ Stephanie Anne Johnson, it’s part of their musical DNA. Growing up, Johnson’s home was filled with everything from Willie Nelson to The Beatles, Duke Ellington to Aerosmith. When playing with their band, the Hidogs, one of Johnson’s favorite onstage moves is dropping lyrics from seemingly incongruous famous songs into their originals. One year at Ballard’s Freakout Fest, Johnson broke into part of Adina Howard’s “Freak Like Me,” giving their “sad country song,” “2 a.m.,” a ’90s R&B injection and playing with the crowd’s expectations in the process.
“I’m not a pure anything,” Johnson says. “The swirl is the best part about America and I am a mix of the music I have studied and loved, the musical communities and personalities that have reached out and loved me.”
“Enduring and loving community”
Three years and a handful of trophies ago, Brandi Carlile had a choice to make. (Or so she thought.) As Carlile details in her memoir, her Grammys performance rehearsal was slated for roughly the same time they were announcing the American roots awards during a nontelevised ceremony in a smaller hall. She could either be there to accept what became her first three Grammy wins or risk losing arguably the biggest performance of her career.
It seemed inevitable she’d pick up at least one award that day, but Carlile seemed no less stunned when she took the podium to deliver a heartfelt acceptance speech before racing back just in time for her rehearsal.
“Americana music is the island of the misfit toys. I am such a misfit,” she said. “It is this music that has shaped my life and made me who I am, and even given me my family, Tim and Phil [Hanseroth]. I came out of the closet at 15 years old when I was in high school, and I can assure you that I was never invited to any parties and never got to attend a dance. To be embraced by this enduring and loving community has been the dance of a lifetime. Thank you for being my island.”