Local music boosters will remind you — ad infinitum, at times — of the many bona fides that St. Louis can claim as a musical city. We are the birthplace of the blues, of course, and home to everyone from Miles Davis to John Hartford. And while the city is too far west from Nashville and too far north of Texas to be considered much of a hotbed for country music, St. Louis can claim a pretty big stake of what became termed alt-country, thanks primarily to a Belleville-based trio called Uncle Tupelo.
As a term, alt-country had a brief but powerful run in the early and mid-'90s, but these days the preferred nomenclature for twangy, roots-indebted sounds is Americana. Like all genre tags, it has its limits and an inherent vagueness, but it remains, for now, an aegis under which to gather artists with an ear toward blues and country roots and an eye for expanding those borders.
Adam Donald, who organizes the now-annual Americana Festival, sees St. Louis as a crucial but under-represented community of musicians who play in that vein. So, for the fest's second year, he is expanding both the lineup and the stylistic reach, taking over the Atomic Cowboy grounds on Saturday, July 7, with a locals-focused lineup that includes Beth Bombara, Ryan Koenig, Roland Johnson, the Hillary Fitz Band and Old Capital.
Over a bucket of Busch beer at the Clifton Heights haunt Babe's, Donald and Scotti Iman, who both play in the Cara Louise Band (also performing at the festival), talk about programming the event and its growth from last year, as well of the difficulty in pinning down the term "Americana."
"It's a broad term — that's why I love it so much, because it is broad," says Donald. "Yet, when people hear it, they have an image in their head of what it is to them. To some people, it's bluegrass. To some people, it's Woody Guthrie. To some people, it's Ryan Adams or modern country-rock dudes.
"I want to cover that whole broad spectrum," Donald continues, "but I also don't want people to think that, 'Oh, this is all just country music,' because Americana can be blues, it can be soul, it can be R&B."
"You don't have to have a fiddle in the band to play Americana," says Iman, refuting, slightly, Alabama's dictum about playing music in the state of Texas.
Donald says that the festival aims to highlight the city and region's contribution to a slippery genre. Iman notes that "it's not Lucinda Williams that's the draw; it's Rum Drum Ramblers, because they've been here forever and they have a fan base, and it's a great representation of what comes out of this city."
This year's highlights include Ryan Koenig, who will also perform as part of Rum Drum Ramblers and whose solo album from 2017 points to the breadth of his musical interests and facility. Erica Blinn, who hails from Nashville, is one of the few non-regional acts on the bill; Donald describes her sound as "Rolling Stones-sounding, swamp-rock sort of vibe." Neoga Blacksmith from Champaign, Illinois, holds down the cosmic country element, while Cape Girardeau's Big Idea offers an acoustic interpolation of rock and bluegrass.
A key local highlight is Roland Johnson, a veteran soul singer who had primarily been an ace interpreter of R&B music until he started writing his own songs, which were captured on 2016's Imagine This. Booking Johnson was a big step forward for the festival, Donald says. "I don't wanna pick favorites, but he's definitely gotta be my favorite act of the showcase."
This year, the festival takes over three stages in and around the Atomic Cowboy complex: the venue's outdoor stage, its indoor venue, the Bootleg, and the beer garden of next-door neighbor Firecracker Pizza. By shutting down the adjoining street, patrons will be able to float between the locations and experience bands in different settings.
Iman says that since the initial Americana Festival took place solely at the Bootleg, this year's model offers more of a "festival experience" — albeit with better bathrooms.
Donald and Iman will be pulling double duty at Americana Festival as organizers and performers in the Cara Louise Band. They plan on performing some as-yet-unreleased material at the fest.
"I think Cara has been writing more personal songs as well," says Donald. "A lot more sad songs — minor-key, downbeat sort of stuff. It's sort of a departure from happy, strumming, shuffle-beat type of stuff."
Donald, who is engaged to bandleader Cara Louise Wegener, notes with a laugh that those new sad songs are probably about him: "If you listen to them intently, you'll know about all the bad things I've ever done."