The Monochromatic State of Americana

The Nashville-based Americana Music Association, who has taken up the mantel of preserving traditional music, making it known, and propelling it forward, defines “Americana,” in the musical sense, this way:

“Americana is contemporary music that incorporates elements of various American roots music styles, including country, roots-rock, folk, bluegrass, R&B, and blues, resulting in a distinctive root-oriented sound that lives in a world apart from the pure forms of the genres upon which it may draw. While acoustic instruments are often present and vital, Americana also often uses a full electric band.”

With a genre that encompasses such a rich and colorful melting-pot of what makes our country the uniquely wild beast that it is, why is the landscape of Americana music so monochrome? “Don’t get me started on the Americana ‘movement,’” laughs Nashville soul music fixture Jason Eskridge, who, for the last 18 years, has made a name for himself as a go-to session and touring vocalist with heavyweights in all genres. After several years touring with gospel singer Nicole C. Mullen, Eskridge joined Lyle Lovett’s band, toured with bluesman Jonny Lang, and spent the last couple of years providing backup for Zac Brown (whom Eskridge affectionately calls “the Jay-Z of country music”).

“Where I grew up, we only had one radio station, and it played country music,” he continues. “I’ve always been a classic country and bluegrass fan, and my [forthcoming] album has some interesting turns on it, soul music with pedal steel and banjo. I got very discouraged during AmericanaFest this year; it’s not about ‘why didn’t you call me,’ it’s all about ‘why didn’t you call any of us?’” he adds. “It feels like, to me, the only African American voices that Americana wants to hear are old ones—Negro spirituals, our voice from back then, not our voice from right now. I was bummed out.”

Eskridge wasn’t the only one disappointed by the lack of diversity at AmericanaFest. This writer attended a panel which promised an “engaging conversation around the intersection of identities and marginalized perspectives of Americana artists”; those chosen to participate included two African-American roots artists, one of which has been on the front lines of protest amidst the explosive racial tension in areas like Ferguson and Charlottesville, one artist from the LGBTQ community, and one prominent white artist. My hopes were dashed when the only voice that dominated the conversation was that of the white artist, who filled the time with stories of how he has combatted racism in his work and treated us to several performances of protest songs he has written. With no intention to downplay his contribution to the narrative, I, along with others, felt deprived of what could have been an powerful, eye-opening exchange of ideas. One might assume that the lineup would at least reflect our country’s racial diversity—the 2010 census reported that our population is 27.6 percent non-white, and the population of Nashville is 34.8 percent non-white. At last count, of the 289 official AmericanaFest showcase artists, people of color comprised approximately five percent of that total.

“Most of the people I know in that world are liberal-thinking people, who aren’t choosing to not be inclusive, they might just not know how to go about it,” Eskridge continues. “I’d love to create a little diversity committee for the Americana Music Association. it would be so powerful. Nashville has one of the most diverse and densely populated music communities in the world, but it’s kind of segregated. If everyone came together, the music would be otherworldly. There’s so much good that could come from it.” In the past, Eskridge also hoped to perform at Music City Roots, Nashville’s acclaimed roots and Americana variety show; “I’ve reached out to Music City Roots, I’ve played it before as a sideman, but was turned down to perform solo,” he reveals. Eskridge was prompted to create a space where diversity was celebrated, and almost four years ago, created bimonthly showcase Sunday Night Soul, hosted at local venue the 5 Spot. “One of the things that made me want to start Sunday Night Soul was the lack of a diverse movement of music here. I want everyone to feel welcome. After approaching Music City Roots, we just decided we’d do our own thing,” he says. “It’s unfortunate, it sucks to have to recreate a wheel that’s already there. It’s not a matter of taking from, it’s a matter of adding to. Even with Sunday Night Soul, I’ve been very intentional about being diverse,” he continues. “It’s not just black people that do soul music, there are all kinds of people who do it. It felt really weird to see a whole week, which, in its purest form, is supposed to celebrate the history American music, not have American music fully represented,” he adds of his AmericanaFest experience. “Don’t get me started on the history of the banjo.”

“We’ve got to find ways to diversify. It would be cool to see it happen intentionally,” he says. “The idea isn’t to create something ‘other,’ but to be ‘included in.’ We don’t want to create this thing that’s way over here, or be separate. My focus with music on a smaller level, is first, to be doing this together. I could very easily call up The 5 Spot and ask to do a Sunday Night Soul Presents showcase during AmericanaFest, but I think the power of the movement comes when the powers that be say they want to incorporate music like soul music, music associated with the culture and history of America. It would be so cool to see the organization expand their views without it feeling token-ish. Now, it almost feels like an appeasement to people who may be frustrated, like ‘if we invite one, you can’t say we didn’t,’” he laughs. “We have to find a place where we all value what the other person has to say, not just in music, but the culture as a whole. We have to get to a place where we can say, ‘I may not agree with what you’re saying, but I can still find value in it.’ When you’re not afforded a seat at the table, if you will, the perception of that from the person who isn’t being included at the table is that you don’t care whether that person gets to eat, you don’t care whether or not that person has anything good to bring to the table,” he levels. “I don’t think that the Americana Music Association is like that, but they need to know that’s the perception. There’s so much beauty in Nashville that gets missed because of groupism and segregation,” he adds. “We could do something really special if we could get past that.”

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