Almost two decades ago, Mark Whitfield set up the Americana UK website and blog as a university project. And just never stopped. Essentially a bedroom operation, the site has evolved and survived changes in technology, social media and the music industry, becoming one of the UK’s longest-running music websites in the process. Countless artists have enjoyed exposure on Americana UK over the years, benefiting from the connection with a community of writers and fans that continues to grow and grow as Americana becomes an increasingly popular genre. The site received its highest ever number of visitors in January 2020, many of whom return and use Americana UK as their primary source of information about their favourite music. Fresh from winning the Americana Music Association UK Grassroots Award 2020 (and giving the wittiest and most gracious acceptance speech of the evening, by all accounts), Mark spoke about his experiences in running Americana UK: the humble beginnings, the challenges and the acts that continue to inspire him today. Along the way, we learn what the genre means to Mark. It is very clear that the level of devotion and dedication required to maintain Americana UK comes from an absolute love of the music.
Americana music seems to be increasingly popular and yet at the same time increasingly hard to define and pin down what we mean by it. So, I’m going to start with, perhaps, the most difficult question: what does the genre mean to you?
No pressure there! It’s difficult to come up with a single definition. I realise that for many people, and these are some of the discussions that we’ve had on the website in recent weeks and months and for the whole time it’s existed. Stevie Freeman came up with a good definition the other week, something like “roots music that’s fallen through the cracks” which I really liked. For me, I think there was one of those dictionaries, Merriam-Webster, that described it some years ago a ‘a genre of US music that has its roots in early folk and country music’. That’s the starting point for me I guess, but one of the things I’m very keen to still push with the website is the other way that it used to get described, which was alternative country. For me, it was the ‘alternative’ part of that which was really important and sometimes I think gets forgotten a bit these days, particularly in recent years in terms of the way the genre has evolved into a more mainstream thing.
I look back to when I first got into the genre which was the end of the 90s and it was partly through a show called ‘Rebel Country’, which was on CMT when we used to have a country music channel here. To be honest, 90% of CMT was absolutely dreadful but it had that one show that had the likes of Steve Earle and Waylon Jennings on and I loved it. You had those compilations from Uncut, ‘Sounds of the New West’ and also Loose, the label, started doing compilation CDs and I only went back a few days ago to look at the tracklisting on them. They were amazing compilations and they were a lot of what got me into the genre in the first place. Look back at some of the bands on them like The Handsome Family, Scud Mountain Boys, Freakwater, the Silver Jews! What I loved about it, apart from the country underpinnings, was the weirdness of it, the quirkiness of it. I think, for me, that’s been lost in a little way, not completely but to an extent, over the last 20 years.
Which current acts do you think still have that and still represent that aspect of Americana to you?
On crikey, erm… there’s so many. There’s a guy I love called Drew Danburry, who comes from Utah; the music he makes, to me, is almost like the essence of Americana music, beautifully arranged, lovely melodies but again has that quirkiness and lyrical introspection. Also, Willy Vlautin – those stories about people who aren’t in the mainstream, outside of society, those kind of narratives that I’ve always really loved and for me he is one of the big pioneers who keeps that spirit alive. David Berman was and is everything I still love about americana. Oh and a guy called Stephen Adams, who was part of The Broken Family Band, he always really made me laugh.
Who else really stands out for you if you were to recommend bands or artists to somebody who had never listened to Americana?
They’ve been around for a while now but I love The Avett Brothers; I realise their recent album caused some consternation in terms of the approach they took. It was the most political album they’ve done to date but I love their sound and always have. There’s Milk Carton Kids, who I saw last year for the first time – they were just fantastic, some of the best playing that I’ve ever seen. Also, they were really entertaining. I always go back to The Handsome Family, Josh Ritter, Laura Cantrell. I thought Ruston Kelly’s last album ‘Mockingbird’ was just crazily good. The other person who is not from the US but I would extol his virtues to anyone who would listen is Paul Kelly, a singer-songwriter who has been around for decades now. He supported Bob Dylan when he played in Australia; he was big enough to do that over there although people may not have heard of him over here.
Then, in terms of British acts, Peter Bruntnell, who has been around for years now, is great – NME said his songs should be taught in schools and I agree with that. He is an amazing songwriter who never ceases to surprise me. He’s got a very defined sound that is recognisably his own but he changes with every album in terms of what he does with them. Luke Tuchscherer’s stuff is always outstanding, he does this song ‘My Darling England’ which I just love, and Danny Champ too, all his projects are so exciting, you never know what way he’s going to turn next. There is also a band from North Wales called the Goat Roper Rodeo Band, who are some of the nicest people I’ve ever promoted and I love their recent album. Also, and this is not a universally shared belief, but I think Passenger (Mike Rosenberg) is really underestimated within the genre. He put out an Americana album a couple of years ago and it was just one of the best records I’ve heard in a long time. For me, he feels like a poet and one of the best acts within the genre. He doesn’t try to fake the fact he is not from the States; he tells his own stories from his own background, which has more resonance in our everyday lives, living in the UK. However, his music still has that connection, musically, with the genre. I really like that.
I’ve seen him a couple of times and it’s about his character as well, how he interacts with the crowd and how he presents the narratives in his songs that makes him a success.
I completely agree. He’s playing Cambridge this year and I feel it’s difficult to get Passenger without seeing the shows because it so much a part of his music.
I think that’s probably true of a lot of Americana acts. That might be one of its defining features. Thinking about the website itself, there are lots of blogs and websites that promote music of all forms. What is the particular brand identity of Americana UK? What do you want readers and listeners to understand that the site represents?
At a basic level, I want us to be the main source of news and anything connected with Americana for people who live in the UK. Part of the reason the site started in the first place was I was doing a Masters in IT or Computer Science or something in 2001 and we had to create a website. At that time, there had been a big wave of Americana as I mentioned earlier, with things like the Uncut CDs. I remember going into WHSmith’s and seeing posters advertising a free Americana CD with that month’s Uncut. It was mainstream enough that this was something they thought would sell magazines but there wasn’t any web presence at all, not even just in the UK; there didn’t seem to be much of a web presence for Americana or alternative country full stop. So, when I had to produce a website for this Masters course, I chose that as the theme and, having done the work, it seemed a shame not to keep it going or do anything with it.
It evolved almost accidentally from that point. The idea was to have a resource that people from anywhere, but particularly the UK, could tap into where they could read about Americana, including reading reviews of CDs and live shows. What we did have back at the start was a very active forum which was in itself a little community. It was pre-social media and it got very busy. People would fall out from time to time but that was the nature of these things. Then, it moved onto social media and most of the forums that were around closed. There was another really big one called Alt Country Tab. I remember we got an influx of visitors from there when that closed down. It came from a point of just wanting to provide a resource to people because one didn’t exist for those who enjoyed the Americana genre. It’s evolved over the years.
I think the other thing on this goes back to is my strong belief around keeping the ‘alternative’ bit at the forefront. We always did have a political element to the site, in a similar way to Rolling Stone magazine. Not that I’m comparing us with them, delusions of grandeur! We just always had it. It wasn’t a big part of the site and it wasn’t pushed down people’s throats but the roots of the music, such as Woody Guthrie, Johnny Cash or more recently Steve Earle, were people who wrote songs about those who were on the outside of society. That connection for me was really important. A lot of the best Americana for me is about tales of working-class life, working-class in the broadest sense. I always want to keep that there as part of the site’s identity. Unfortunately, it means that it irritates a tiny proportion of the readers but that’s just something I have to live with.
Going back to the definition of Americana and what makes it stand out from other forms of country music, and there is a huge overlap of course, but I think part of it is that narrative and political element to it. The stories behind it are as important as how it sounds, I think.
I completely agree and this is one of the things I’ve noticed as time has gone on. In the last decade, there has been more and more bleeding of Americana and country into each other, and while there’s some fantastic country music out there and americana came from the fringes of country music of course, to me the two genres sometimes sit quite uneasily together these days I think. I can see the overlap, of course. When somebody asks what is the difference is, I would say that one difference is what the lyrics are about, whether it’s faith and family or something else. There was a piece in the Guardian about a decade ago about how British audiences didn’t really buy into mainstream country acts and I said in an interview at the time that I thought the reason for that was people cringed a bit. I think what’s happened over the last ten years is people stopped cringing! It’s meant that the overlap between the two has played into this ‘genericana’. There is an element of that. It’s been somewhat diluted due to its proximity to the mainstream country scene. This is not to criticise any particular artist but for me they sometimes hang uneasily together as two genres.
Going back to the past and what it was like to run the site, are there any particular memories you have of doing this over the years? It’s been running for so long!
I suppose my main memory of when it all started was just that it escalated really quickly, in the sense that it started in 2001 and then within a year you could barely open the front door sometimes because of the number of promos that were being sent. So, one of the big changes over recent years is that we don’t accept submission by CD anymore. That used to be the way that you would submit music. It’s always been a bedroom operation and my early memories are of being completely surrounded by piles of CDs. I’ve always had a terrible filing system and I’ve never been able to find anything, especially because of the amount of paper as well in terms of press releases! Sometimes, press releases were like books that would come with the CDs. I had the messiest office in the world – you wouldn’t believe [laughs]. There was something nice about that. It felt very much like one of those fanzines that have a cult status that comes from disorganisation. That’s how it felt at the time.
Over the years, the main thing that’s changed is that it’s more straightforward in terms of the organisation and keeping on top of things because everything is digital now and I can keep track of things far better than I used to. Also, we’re now busier than we’ve ever been. We have more writers now then we’ve ever had and we also have more traffic than we’ve ever had. That in itself is a good thing although it causes some issues in the sense of things like the volume of emails each day, which is a struggle to keep on top of.
As you’ve mentioned the number of writers and what it’s like now, readers might be interested to know what goes into running the site on a day-to-day basis. How many albums to review to get sent on a regular basis? What’s the organisation of it really like?
The main thing that consumes most of my time is correspondence, mainly by email. In a week, if I’ve been on holiday and come back, there are hundreds and hundreds of emails. Some of them will just be PR. We get sent all sorts of inappropriate links, say to new metal acts, which just go straight to the trash bin, or I sometimes forward them on to my dad. I do try to respond to everyone who makes an effort to email us. So, that is the most time-consuming element of it. In terms of the volume of material we get sent for review, the one thing about having CDs was somebody had to physically make it, put a stamp on it and put it in the post. There was a little bit of human effort. Now, you send an email, which takes a few seconds. So, the ‘submissions’ email box gets very full. I have an admin’ day on Sunday when I spend a few hours going through all the submissions that we’ve been sent. Probably, on an average week, we get sent a couple of hundred. It involves painstakingly going through each of them and at least listening to a little bit of them to see what they’re like genre-wise and to see whether they would appeal to the readers of our website.
The other thing is that we’ve now got about 35 writers and each of them will be submitting material for the site. There will be queries and things have gone slightly awry with, for example, the formatting of an article. With something like that, it’s a case of liaising with writers and trying to fix problems. I spend a lot of time keeping on top of that sort of thing. The other element is the actual infrastructure of the website, ensuring that the plug-ins are kept up-to-date, that we have enough bandwidth, the Mailchimp account is covered in terms of the number of emails we’re sending out each month. Lots of boring admin’ things like that. They’re all time-consuming!
I can imagine! How on earth do you manage that alongside a day job?
Well, I’m lucky that I can manage to fit it in around my day job [laughs].
Managing to fit it around your day job is a triumph in itself. Speaking of triumphs, you’ve got a recent award! In case any readers aren’t aware of it can you tell us a little about that, what led to it and what it means for the site?
The Americana Music Association UK, which is the trade body for Americana in the UK, very kindly awarded me the ‘Grassroots’ award for this year, which is for people or organisations that are basically doing it for the love of the music. You can safely say that’s the reason I’ve done this for the last 18 years. I was absolutely delighted, particularly being based in Liverpool as we are. For a lot of people in London, that is the outer wilds of the UK, it does sometimes feel like a lonely place for the Americana community [laughs]. There are some fantastic Liverpool-based Americana bands like The Southbound Attic Band but you do sometimes feel a bit isolated. So, to receive the award, I was just so made up.
In terms of what it means for the website, I have to say, even though I’m the person who received the award, I view it as not particularly for me but for everyone who has been involved in the site over the years. It wouldn’t exist at all without other people, such as yourself, contributing so much to the site in terms of the volume of content. It’s a real collective effort. For what the award means to the site, my main hope is that there are still people who don’t know us and we’ll reach them. We often get confused with the AMA UK and this will help give us some identity. People often think we’re the same organisation and it would be nice to be seen as distinct, for them too I’m sure! We’re a little website up north that isn’t actually connected with the AMA UK and it might just make people more aware of what we do. Perhaps more people will visit us and come back again.
We’ve gone through the past, the present and what it’s like to run the site. The obvious next question is the future. How do you see both the website itself and the genre evolving in the coming years?
With the website, I feel that we’re almost there in terms of what my vision for the site was all those years ago. The website has evolved into the form that we’ve got now; it’s like a rolling blog in which every writer gets an opportunity to be the top story on the front page. That kind of democracy of content is very important to me. Some of it is down to time, and not having supernatural powers there is not much else I can do timewise. Perhaps, it would be nice to develop a more multimedia approach, for example having interviews that people could actually listen to instead of reading it. Perhaps, there could be more integration with social media so they don’t feel quite so distinct in terms of the two areas of the site at the moment. Sometimes, you get a lot of conversation on social media but nothing on the website or vice versa.
In terms of the genre itself, it is changing and that’s a good thing. One of the things that I enjoy most about the AMA UK conference each year is that they focus on diversity, gender issues and race, which I think is important, particularly for a genre like Americana. You used to go to gigs and it would always be men of a certain age there. It’s important that we have these conversations about how we make the genre more inclusive and I think we are seeing that with artists like Yola and Che Apalache, a band from the States that’s fronted by a gay guy with members from Argentina and Mexico – very positive, broad and diverse. They were Grammy-nominated for best folk album.
Who knows what will happen with the genre? My hope, going back to something I said earlier, is that we get a little bit of that quirkiness back, fewer of the bombastic voices and more of those barely audible, introspective voices. There’s not enough misery in Americana anymore! Artists who are worth their weight in gold are the ones who can do both. We want to get the quirkiness back – we’ll be looking out for those acts. For whatever reason, we get sent less stuff like that these days. There’s a genre called Anti-folk that we used to cover quite extensively on the website but we just don’t get sent that kind of stuff anymore for some reason, people like Adam Green of The Moldy Peaches. Not that it’s everything Americana is but it’s good to have it in the mix. The city of Austin has a tourist slogan: ‘Keep Austin Weird’. So, the slogan for the site going forward could be: ‘Keep Americana Weird’!