All About Americana Music

Lucinda Williams on stage in front of AMA poster.
Lucinda Williams performing at the Americana Music Awards. Terry Wyatt / Getty Images

Americana music pulls from traditional and contemporary folk, bluegrass, country, alt-country, soul, gospel, and rock--basically all the styles that conspired to form rock and roll. It's been defined by the Americana Music Association (AMA) as:

"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 roots-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."

While this may sound a bit vague or confluent, Americana artists and fans are content to say they know it when they hear it. The best way to learn what defines Americana music is to listen to it (and debate at length with other fans, as has become a tradition among Americana critics).

Americana Music Artists and Recommended Listening

Some of the most popular and influential Americana artists include:

  • Buddy Miller
  • Jim Lauderdale
  • Lucinda Williams
  • The Civil Wars
  • Hayes Carll
  • Alejandro Escovedo
  • Eilen Jewell
  • Ryan Adams
  • Drive-By Truckers
  • Emmylou Harris
  • Johnny Cash
  • Rosanne Cash

...and many more

If you're interested in listening to Americana, we recommend starting with these albums:

  • Lucinda Williams - Happy Woman Blues (Smithsonian Folkways)
  • Gillian Welch - Time (The Revelator) (Acony)
  • Johnny Cash - America (USA)
  • Avett Brothers - Emotionalism (Ramseur Records)

Americana Music Instruments of Choice

Americana musicians, like those in so many other areas of folk music, tend to build their bands around acoustic and electric guitars. However, considering the wide range of styles amalgamated by Americana artists, it's not rare to see a full rock line-up and the use of other instruments like piano, melodica, vibraphones, and other instruments.

Americana Music Labels

Several indie labels are reliably releasing great Americana music these days, including Red House Records, Ramseur Records, Rounder Records, Anti- Records, Bloodshot Records, Signature Sounds, and many others.

History of Americana Music

Americana music has been loosely defined through the years to include the fundamentals of American roots music based in classic-style country, but including all the influences that converged to give birth to early rock and roll. Though it has emerged more definitively over the past several years (through the organization of the Americana Music Association and its influence in the industry), the definition of what constitutes "Americana" continues to confuse many artists and fans.

In 2010, the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences (NARAS--those responsible for the Grammy Awards) added a category for Best Americana Album, awarding the first trophy in the category to Levon Helm. It was a landmark moment for the Americana world--and the Americana Music Association--as it indicated the larger music industry was beginning to recognize Americana music as a legitimate style all its own.

Since then, Americana has become one of the biggest buzz genres, pulling the spotlight away from a somewhat burgeoning indie folk movement during the early 2000s. With the onslaught of popularity achieved by Americana bands like Mumford & Sons, the Lumineers, and other up-and-comers, Americana has become a vogue genre among young hipsters. Long-time Americana artists like Buddy Miller and Jim Lauderdale continue to churn out much beloved albums within the genre.

One thing is certain. Perhaps in thanks to the internet and increased accessibility to numerous genres, more and more artists are richly influenced by a wide range of quintessentially American musical styles--from R&B and soul, to classic country and modern rock--and are, through making their own music, slowly defining and evolving the Americana genre.

Americana began as a radio format in the 1990s, which wasn't the beginning of the style of music but rather a benchmark in the definition and discussion of the style--a discussion which has been kept vibrant by the Americana Music Association and publications like No Depression and various blogs such as,,

With more than a decade under its belt, the Americana Music Association continues to hold an annual conference and festival in Nashville to discuss its evolution and present awards to its members.