Book Review: Mandi Bates Bailey “The Downhome Sound; Diversity and Politics in Americana Music”

LSU Press, 2023

As the title might suggest, this is quite an academic approach to Americana music, but that’s understandable given that the author, Mandi Bates Bailey, is a professor of political science, Africana studies, and women’s and gender studies at Valdosta State University in Georgia. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that this combination will mean a dry, purely intellectual discourse because, although the author has used a very academic mixed-methods approach to this study, she is also quite clearly a fan of the music and this is a book with a great deal of personality.

Mandi Bates Bailey has talked to musicians, journalists, and concert promoters, she has also analyzed lyrics and talked to music fans about their understanding of songs and what artists are trying to say. In this way, she has built up a comprehensive picture of the politics of americana music and how it is being used to broadly encourage diversity and promote more liberal thinking. That might sound like an unusual way to assess roots American music, but the more you read this quite fascinating book, the more the strands of the argument pull together. Yes, ‘Americana’ music, as it is labelled, really started out as a Marketing exercise in shifting recordings and promoting concerts but, unlike other cynical marketing ploys of the past, americana has gone on to unite a broad church of people who see the values in roots music and the sort of inclusion it often brings about. This author is quite expansive in her definition of americana music; she describes it, in the introduction to her book, as being difficult to define (a view echoed by the majority of AUK writers) but goes on to say that “Constituent genres include – but aren’t limited to – folk, bluegrass, country, blues, southern rock, rock and roll, jazz and cowpunk. Americana has become a blanket term to cover music that fits comfortably within these genres or incorporates elements from a combination of them”. So ‘Americana’ has become a bit of a catch-all genre, a ‘something for everyone’ approach that makes a lot of sense when you look at how its popularity has grown outside the U.S. It has a rare inclusivity because it draws on music that itself is drawn from many cultures.

After the book’s introduction, which includes a sort of ‘potted history’ of American roots music that makes some nice connections between the subgenres of folk, country, etc, and the themes they explore in their songs, the author goes on to divide her book up into five main chapters. ‘The First Verse’, broadly speaking, sees the author look at subject matters in americana music and the main themes writers address, seeking to establish the stereotypical views both from and to the artist. ‘The Music’ assesses the constituent genres that go to make up Americana and stresses the importance of the singer-songwriter in most of these genres. More importantly in this chapter, the author sets out to establish her own definition of americana music before taking an in-depth look at the lyrical content of americana songs. Third chapter, ‘The Artists’ sees the author talking to a variety of artists active in Americana music and closely associated genres getting their views on the value of diversity and inclusivity. ‘The Community’ sees Bates Bailey turn her spotlight on the audience. Who attends americana gigs? For all the inclusivity talked about in americana circles, an audience emerges that is overwhelmingly white, heterosexual, and male. Is this an accurate assessment?

The final chapter, ‘The Impact’, along with its lengthy conclusion, ‘The Last Verse’, attempts to round up all the information the author has gathered through her research and looks to assemble a coherent image of the Americana community. Interestingly, the book does come down on the side of Americana being as much about community as about the music and a picture emerges of an appreciative audience built around progressive political views and valid attempts to be widely inclusive, even if the attempts aren’t always successful.

That is, of course, a very simple overview of a very complex book, one that raises many interesting points and poses many interesting questions, especially about inclusivity and the gap between wanting to encourage diversity and achieving that aim. This is a very academic book and it won’t appeal to everyone simply because of that dispassionate academic approach to what is, for many, a much more emotive matter, but this is a book that offers americana music fans a real deep dive into the politics (with a small p) behind the music and it is a fascinating dissection of the americana community as a whole. The range of artists Bates Bailey has talked to is particularly impressive and includes the likes of John Paul White, Patterson Hood, Eliza Gilkyson, Rod Picott, Rodney Crowell, and many more, often including artists that we might see as more marginal and representing examples of diversity within Americana, including Asian American BettySoo and educator, activist and troubadour Reggie Harris but, as Bates Bailey points out, they are the exception rather than the rule and is Americana doing enough to encourage the exceptions into the community?

“The Downhome Sound” is a very American take on the state of americana music. That’s understandable, given that americana is an amalgam of American music forms and the book is written by an American for an American publisher but, where the book would seem to be lacking, is in not acknowledging the wider spread of americana music outside the U.S, especially as many of the artists emerging in other countries help to address the gender balance, if not the one of race. Some acknowledgement of the wider spread of the music, and the culture that goes with it, would seem to be appropriate, though it could also undermine the points the author is trying to make in terms of possible political implications for American society. While inclusivity and diversity are two major themes within this book, they are far from the only themes covered and this book does identify americana music as a source of liberalism, within American society, for a wide range of political issues. As Guy Davis says in his short, but very pertinent, foreward for the book, “This book describes the artists, the music, the community, and teaches that Americana is more than a soundtrack, but mostly it generates important questions that aren’t easy to answer.” This is echoed, to some degree, by the author herself in her closing chapter. “This research clearly illustrates the ability of music within the Americana culture to impact unfamiliar audiences and stimulate more positive evaluations of minority  group members. However, determining how to disseminate the music widely without compromising artists’ intent in order to have a more sizeable impact is beyond the scope of this research”. It’s all about questions that aren’t easy to answer.

It may seem strange, to some, to see something as emotive as music discussed in such clinical terms but Bates Bailey’s book does raise interesting questions about americana and what its future might be and it does that largely because it is able to take a dispassionate, analysis based perspective. She raises the point that americana is still seen by many, especially in the U.S., as a relatively small and niche market. We know that, outside the U.S., it has been growing steadily in recent years, throughout much of continental Europe and beyond. What will this do to the music in the long term and will it change what we perceive as americana music? Will non-American americana music take on a different identity of its own (if it hasn’t already done so)?

Mandi Bates Bailey’s book asks a lot of very searching questions about americana; wisely, perhaps, it offers very few answers. This is likely to be an important historical document for americana music and is well worth investigating.

‘The Downhome Sound’ is available in the UK through most online booksellers.

About Rick Bayles 354 Articles
Now living the life of a political émigré in rural France and dreaming of the day I'll be able to sing those Cajun lyrics with an authentic accent!
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