SOUNDS LIKE A PIECE OF AMERICANA : ROUGH-EDGED, HOMESPUN MUSIC RISING.
Chris Smither performs alone with a guitar, an amplifier the size of a toaster oven and a thin sheet of plywood that he scuffs with his brown shoes to add percussion to his bittersweet country blues.
Smither is not exactly the type of musician one would envision riding near the top of a weekly top 40 chart of radio's most-played songs. But when the chart is tracking an emerging musical category called Americana, Smither is there (No. 5 this week) - along with acts ranging from veterans such as Johnny Cash and Jerry Jeff Walker to quirky new groups such as the Freight Hoppers and Bad Livers, a punk-bluegrass band.
Americana, roots, alternative country - all of these terms have been applied to a genre that floats between country, folk and rock. Mainly recorded on small independent labels, the sound has been creeping onto the airwaves and into small concert halls.
Many critics praise this rough-edged, homespun music; they are drawn to its emphasis on songwriting in the tradition of Gram Parsons and Townes Van Zandt. But until recently, Americana has been largely irrelevant to the business end of the music world, selling records in the thousands, not the millions, and occupying little more than ``a pimple on the radio landscape,'' in the words of Keith Hill, a consultant who advises 19 commercial country stations on what to play to draw listeners.
Now, though, an audience is slowly building, and it could spark a shift in commercial country music, which recently has suffered sagging sales after a decade of growth and is being derided increasingly as the bubble-gum pop of the '90s.
The category Americana was created two years ago by Rob Bleetstein, an editor at Gavin, a weekly radio industry magazine. He compared contemporary country to rock in the '70s, when sound-alike bands such as Boston dominated. ``These days,'' he said, ``commercial country is basically Boston with a belt buckle.''
In pursuit of fringe acts
Major record labels have begun pursuing the hottest of these fringe acts, hoping that one will break out and do for alternative country what Nirvana and Counting Crows did for alternative rock. Two of the most visible acts are the hard-charging rockabilly band BR5-49 and Junior Brown, who plays a double-necked guitar and emulates Ernest Tubb. Both were among a half-dozen alternative country acts that were among this year's Grammy nominees.
Brown's fans in the entertainment industry include David Letterman, who has had him on his television show three times, and James Hetfield, lead singer of Metallica, who whistled his approval from a front-row table as Brown held forth in a Manhattan club the night before the Grammy Awards.
For the moment, performers in the genre, such as Smither, rely more on concerts than radio to sell records. They typically play 150 to 200 shows a year and sell their CDs out of cardboard boxes at intermission.
During a recent visit to New York City's only Americana station, WFUV at Fordham University in the Bronx, Smither said that having a name for the category on a music chart was helpful.
``The chart has a value from a commercial standpoint because It shows the industry that there are a lot of people listening to this,'' he said as he packed up his blue guitar after taping an interview about his new album, ``Small Revelations.''
Naming the genre has other benefits, he said. ``Before, if someone asked me what I play, I used to say I play the same stuff as Ry Cooder and John Hiatt,'' he said. ``Now I can say Americana. People in this business may not relate to the music, but they know that if you can name something, you can sell it.''
Refuge for former mainstays
The 80-odd radio stations that report the songs they play to Bleetstein - plus the dozens more that do not use the Americana name but play the same rootsy sound - are the only radio refuge these days for former country mainstays such as Cash, Dolly Parton and George Jones. The mainstream country stations are essentially ignoring them in favor of attracting younger ears.
Cash's new rock-oriented album, ``Unchained,'' has sat near or at the top of the Americana chart for weeks. While many albums on the chart have sold fewer than 20,000 copies, the black-clad balladeer's latest effort has sold 99,000 copies since its release in November, according to Soundscan.
At the small-label level, that figure constitutes a raging success, but the sales are dwarfed by those of mainstream country's top stars. Alan Jackson's latest record, for example, was released a month before Cash's and has sold 1.2 million copies, Soundscan reports. In part, those numbers reflect the dominance of commercial country radio. The 2,600 country stations in the United States far outnumber stations playing any other kind of music.
Some large record companies, beginning to gamble that alternative country is ready for a breakthrough, are creating small offshoots to snare talent and test the market.
One of these experiments is Rising Tide Records in Nashville, a label owned by Universal Music Group, formerly MCA. The label, headed by Ken Levitan, is producing albums both by the neglected old guard, including Parton, and by newcomers such as Jack Ingram, 26, a rockabilly singer from Texas.
Levitan said the style of music had been around for more than a decade, as exemplified by acts he managed before becoming a label executive, including Lyle Lovett and Nanci Griffith. But now, he said, having a core of radio stations and a weekly chart of popular songs ``offers a place for these artists who don't fit squarely into parameters of any other format.'' ``It gives them a radio home,'' he said. ``From there, they can explode.''
Levitan's hope is shared by people at shoestring outfits such as 1-800-PrimeCD which is operated by a part-time family doctor, David Seitz, out of a Manhattan loft and saves on advertising with a self-explanatory name.
For labels such as 1-800-PrimeCD, Diesel Only, Flat Earth and Watermelon, frequent airplay on stations such as WFUV can provide a critical boost to sales - albeit a boost of hundreds or thousands of CDs, company executives say. But such labels, like small presses specializing in literary novels, can turn a profit even with that level of business.
Seitz said his main concern was that many radio stations carrying alternative country would quickly shut out the independents, once major labels took an interest and began flooding the stations with CDs and promotional material.
Smither said that small labels already had been pushed out of the radio format called Triple A, or album adult alternative, which was adopted by
hundreds of radio stations four years ago and spawned platinum-selling acts such as Sheryl Crow.
When he had an album pop onto the Triple-A chart four years ago, Smither said, half of the top 50 records were from independent labels. Two years ago, only 10 percent were independents, he said, and now the stations play only major-label albums.
About two-thirds of the stations playing Americana are commercial, and one-third are public radio, Bleetstein said. The ones doing best, he added, have cultivated small, loyal audiences in cities where a few big stations dominate the mainstream.
Station of the year
One recent success is WMLB, a 5,000-watt AM station on the northern fringe of Atlanta that had been playing gospel and conventional country and losing money until it switched to Americana, said Chris Marino, a disc jockey there who has become something of an evangelist for the format. Last month, Gavin, the industry magazine, singled out Marino's station as the Americana station of the year.
``When I was growing up listening to radio, you could just hear anything,'' Marino said. ``That would keep people tuned in more than just playing the same old stuff. We're bringing that back.''
Despite the small success stories, Americana has a long way to go. The power of the status quo was evident last fall when WZPC, one of three FM country stations in country music's capital, Nashville, abandoned a two-year experiment in which it had mixed alternative fare with mass-market acts. Taking on the name Power Country 103, WZPC reverted to the same commercial mix as its competitors.
Dale Jones, the station's operations manager, said that brute economics dictated the decision. ``Familiarity breeds ratings,'' he said, and audiences had drifted away because ``we were not playing enough familiar stuff in that format. Perhaps if we had enough time and endless pockets to channel money into it, then it could take off. But we didn't.''
The sheer quality of the music in the alternative scene probably will ensure that ``it will eventually have its day in the sun,'' Jones said. ``We were probably just ahead of our time.''
Photo: (1) The category Americana was created two years ago by Rob Bleetstein, an editor at a weekly radio industry magazine.
(2) Performers in the Americana genre, such as Chris Smither, at WFUV at Fordham University in the Bronx, rely more on concerts than radio to sell records.
The New York Times