It was kind of cute, at first — young guys playing old-man country. It was subversive, like trucker caps. Then, in the wake of the Soggy Bottom Boys and O Brother, Where Art Thou?, it became a thing.
People in Brooklyn started doing it. It was an infestation.
Even now, five years after No Depression pulled the plug on its print edition, music blogs are still wallpapered with 20-somethings with scraggly beards and earnest eyes pretending to play the banjo and attempting four-part harmonies with widely varying levels of success. Or, in the electrified version, plaintively warbling over substandard takes on the Band, Neil Young and Johnny Cash. Even the bands that do justice to the style get lost like Waldo in a sea of red and white stripes.
"Every time I see a beardo band, I know what to expect. A beard is like plaid shirts in the '90s," says Southern Culture on the Skids guitarist Rick Miller. "Pretty soon, we're going to see fraternity guys with beards. I can't wait to see Justin Bieber with a beard."
One might've figured the Americana boomlet would have been ticketed and towed by now. It's been a dozen years since O Brother's release, and the meter's surely expiring.
By Canadian alt-country artist Fred Eaglesmith's reckoning, it's only Americana's hair and fingernails that are still growing.
"The perception is that Americana continues, right?" Eaglesmith asks. "To me, it's already done. There's just nothing new to take its place. I promise you if there were somewhere else to go, these guys would jump like flies. I know because I saw them jump out of punk onto Americana. They say Americana was their one true love, but I saw them date other genres before this."
Perhaps one reason for the staying power of this stylistic tic is its connection to simpler times. (As if a time without dishwashers, online dating and pizza delivery could truly be considered "simpler.")
Let's ask Jay Farrar, who helped kick off the Americana renaissance in the late 1980s and early '90s with Uncle Tupelo, who eventually subdivided into Jeff Tweedy's Wilco and Farrar's Son Volt.
"Anybody can buy a computer for a couple hundred bucks," says Farrar, "which is great, it allows people to make music. But it can also make everything perfect in a way that wasn't available to them years ago. Perhaps the pendulum does swing back to music that does seem more authentic and has a few mistakes and emotion in it."
The sepia-toned flavor of the music can lend a hand lyrically, as well. Propped on its weathered shelves, what might come across as trite, hoary clichés are transformed into timeless sentiments; a misanthropic narcissist with bad dating habits can become the Marlboro Man with a tumbleweed heart. Yet just because it sounds like a murder ballad doesn't make it poignant, any more than vamping some gospel makes it inspirational.
But with no Next Big Thing in sight, Americana may yet live to see another day — even if one of its early architects admits it all felt a little fresher a while ago.
"That kind of music was not really fashionable at all; that's also what made it ultimately inspirational," says Farrar, who stops short of Eaglesmith's hard-line. "If I was just getting started now, I'm not sure if I'd share that perspective or not.
"I still feel there's plenty of room for people to do whatever they do."