Americana music in the spotlight

The term Americana was coined in the early 1990s in an effort to give folkies, singer/songwriters and other roots-based musicians a higher cultural profile. Its wide-ranging format can include bluegrass, old-time country, gospel, blues, zydeco and more.

It’s easier to say what it isn’t than what it is, and while musicians who embrace the genre are decidedly out of the mainstream, they keep the American musical culture vital.

Salinas native Bill Wence started out in the music biz as Bobby Bare’s piano player. He’s written mainstream country hits, but as Nashville got more conservative, he helped found the Americana Music Association. On his latest album, “Songs From the Rocky Fork Tavern” (615 Records), he’s backed up by A-list talents such as The Jordanaires, Charlie McCoy and Becky Hobbs, but the music has a down-home sound. “Old Rock and Roller” sounds like a mellower Bob Seger, while “I Knew It All” looks at youth through the eyes of a sadder but wiser man.

The six young men in o’death, who take their name from a Doc Boggs song, show how vital and exciting folk-based music can be. Their second album, “Head Home” (Earnest Jenning Record Company), is a stunning concoction of weird roots music.

The shrieking punk-rock bluegrass of “Allie May Reynolds” collides with the acoustic moan of “Face Mask” before careening off into the country gospel of “Jesus Look Down.” Every track opens an unexpected door into an eclectic mash of styles thrilling in its audacity.

Lee Bob Watson has been out on the road for more than a decade, and his weather-worn voice gives his songs the stamp of weary authenticity. On “Aficionado” (GrassRoots) he blends country, rock and blues into wry little vignettes that look at life through jaundiced colored glasses. “Let’s Start a Band” is a sardonic, Dylanesque take on the music biz and “1958” is a tremolo-drenched walk down memory lane.

The roots of American roots music can be found on most any Smithsonian Folkways album, but “Down Home Saturday Night” is particularly satisfying. It includes jug-band music by John Sebastian and Geoff Muldaur, lightning-fast bluegrass by Earl Taylor and the Stoney Mountain Boys, old-time country by The New Lost City Ramblers, conjunto music from Mingo Saldívar y sus Tremendos Cuatro Espadas and gutbucket blues from the psychedelic soul pioneers The Chambers Brothers.

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