Print media needs labels. Like stereotypes, they save time and, importantly for print, space. Isthmus is no exception. Among the services Madison’s local weekly provides is a list of where and when to find live music. At editorial discretion, performers are chosen for noteworthiness and given top billing on the listing for a particular day, where they are often presented with a picture and a quick descriptive paragraph. The less noteworthy performers are listed in alphabetical order by club, and often with a label identifying their musical genre.
Labels can be useful, they may even be necessary, but what happens when a label is misapplied, or worse, is so inherently slippery that its utility as a label becomes dubious?
Once upon a time, The Midwesterners Trio found it expedient to accept the “Americana” descriptor. As previously pointed out here, Big Wes Turner’s Trio follows in Midwesterners’ footsteps, and Isthmus continues to slap the label on our listings. But lately we've been having a long think about what the heck “Americana” means. Grandpappy’s Britannica has no entries in between “American War of 1812” and “Americus,” but Webster’s Seventh New Collegiate offers that “Americana” refers to any materials or collections of materials concerning or characteristic of America, its civilization, or culture. Now, music may not be material (ask a physicist) but American music can certainly concern itself with or characterize Americanness. So, Aaron Copland, right?
Maybe not. As it turns out, there’s an outfit called the Americana Music Association (AMA) and they’ve come up with a definition that suggests 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 roots-oriented sound that lives in a world apart from the pure forms of the genres upon which it may draw.”
Big Wes could be a real stickler for straight talk, and we expect he never considered himself in a world apart from the country and western, rock and roll, and rhythm and blues that he loved and emulated since way back when he was still Little Wes. And where Wes has gone, so follows his Trio. Except that if you look at the list of “Americana” artists included in the Wikipedia entry, you will find young and old, great and small, household names and laborers of obscurity. It’s a big, inclusive world of sounds and styles and its apartness from the pure forms of its drawn-upon genres seems likely to be more a matter of time passed than artistic intention.
In his last interview, Big Wes was asked what kind of music his Trio played. After a thoughtful pause he replied, “Hell, them boys play all kind of shit.” Couldn't have said it any better. You’re all invited to come and hear some. We’re playing somewhere in America real soon.