By Kara Greskovic
Kara is a music producer and audio engineer based out of Nashville, TN. She has recorded artists across a wide-span of genres and currently works at the largest record studio in Nashville, The Tracking Room.
As the musical tides have shifted, the Americana genre has continued to persevere throughout the years. But what exactly makes a great Americana song? I dived into the hit Americana songs of yesterday and today to see what makes them all so memorable:
A Simple yet Prominent Acoustic Guitar
The top Americana songs are driven by an acoustic guitar melody, one that is fairly simple and repeats as the song progresses. Listen to Jason Isbell’s “If We Were Vampires” as an example. The acoustic is simple finger plucking and remains the sole rhythmic element of the song. If you played that acoustic by itself with no vocals, the song would still be meaningful. Let’s take Iron and Wine’s “Bitter Truth.” Although other rhythmic elements exist, the acoustic is still ever present and drives the song’s emotional element. Still need another example? Listen to “The Bricklayer’s Son” by Eddie Berman. The entire song is acoustic led and yet bleeds emotion.
A Top-Lining Fiddle or Harmonica Melody
This usually happens at the beginning of the song or during interludes. The Brother Brothers’ “Frankie” does an excellent job at this. The song opens with an 8-10 note fiddle masterpiece, grabbing the listeners attention even before the vocals begin. Ruston Kelly’s “Mockingbird” makes an opening burst of a harmonica sound commercial. And finally, my classic example is Bob Dylan’s “Mr. Tambourine Man” in which he plays the song’s melody line as a powerful harmonica solo. If you play that harmonica solo anywhere, people will know it’s a Dylan song.
An Infectious Percussive-Based Beat
If an Americana song is 90 BPM or higher, many times you’ll find yourself clapping or stomping along to it. The beat is filled with bright reverberant claps/snares followed by a dark kick drum on the downbeat. Our own Jill Andrew’s “Tell That Devil” is the prime example of this technique. Another example that is less obvious is I’m With Her’s “Call My Name.” It has slight percussive sounds and snares in the background that give the song that extra push it needs. One more example? “Shake” by the Head and the Heart.
A Song from The Heart
The best Americana music exudes emotion. The words have meaning and so does the instrumentation. If you have all the technically elements in place, they won’t matter if no emotion is felt by the listener. If there’s one thing that all the great Americana artists have in common, it’s that they sing from the heart and play from the soul.