Categorizing music has never been easy. There's no perfect way to explain the difference between a raucous bluegrass hoedown and a whiskey-soaked Irish reel to someone who's never heard either. But musical taxonomy, though imperfect, is essential.
After seeing so many of his favorite bands fall into the cracks between traditional genres, Zale Schoenborn, organizer of the Pickathon music festival in northern Oregon, felt the need to coin a new term.
"'Indie roots' is what we came up with to brand this world of musicians with punk-rock sensibilities who are influenced by all kinds of music," Schoenborn says. "They're not neat and clean, so they don't fit into any other category." Pickathon, he says, is in its ninth year as the standard- bearer for the sound.
It seems that a genre that includes bluegrass, rock, zydeco, jazz, and country bands loses its meaning as it expands, which is perhaps why Schoenborn admits the characteristics of indie roots are subjective. "Indie roots describes bands like the Avett Brothers and the Handsome Family who are throwing all these influences at you at once," he says. There are common elements: willingness to experiment, sincerity instead of polish, openness to influence, and a healthy disregard for boundaries. In addition, most of these bands evince affection for Appalachia, the open road, acoustic instruments, vintage cowboy shirts, and liquor.
There's some dissension, though, even among the artists who are part of the burgeoning "scene." Langhorne Slim, a fiery, sincere folk singer influenced by Otis Redding as much as Woody Guthrie, sees problems with the label.
"I don't know if we need it," he says. "When I first moved to New York, we would do shows with hardcore bands—and we all appreciated the things each other were doing." The juxtaposition of styles and sounds enlivened the shows, he says, and no one minded not knowing what was coming next.
"Labels are funny because you have to have one," Schoenborn insists. "We tried to avoid it, but it was hard to describe what we were doing. Indie roots was just the best term we could come up with."
Says Slim, "I get it that you're trying to market something, but that's not where we're coming from in our hearts."
Dale Watson is a Texas troubadour and advocate of classic country. He agrees with Schoenborn on the need for a name. "I, for one, love categories," he says. "It's much better to be able to focus your search, especially in music. Original music, especially made with indie spirit, needs to find some way to distance itself from the mainstream crap. So yes, I think branding a new genre is healthy for everyone."
How about a qualifier then? The heretofore-unclassifiable Avett Brothers seem a good test of the indie roots moniker. They've been called bluegrass, old-time, indie, and punk, but none of those encompasses the manic energy, tuneful songcraft, and heartfelt caterwauling of the North Carolina trio. Like Watson, Scott Avett buys into the label.
"The common denominator seems to be acoustic instruments and growing up listening to a lot of different kinds of music—indie rock, definitely, but also punk, metal, bluegrass," he says. "We all have one foot in something and one in another thing." Avett is convincing. The way he describes it, indie roots seems democratic, nonjudgmental, open to experimentation in an exciting way.
Schoenborn insists there's no devious plot to market indie roots to the mainstream. He doesn't expect every artist to identify with the genre, but he understands that putting together a festival requires getting the word out and being open-minded.
"It's hard to put your finger on what ties these artists together," he says, "but we try to make it all related."
Avett points out that there's marketing involved in every form of art. "You can't control everything," he says, "but you're obligated to do what you can to make it work. To make it accessible to as many people as possible."
He's right. Over time, genres grow, change, and die, as the music they describe also evolves.
Indie roots makes sense right now. The label rehabilitates the words "indie" (co-opted by corporate rock) and "roots" (so amorphous as to be meaningless). But then it goes further, melding them into something else altogether—a heartfelt music marked by the deep thrum of an upright bass, the keen of a steel guitar, and the steady rhythm of a thousand fingers picking a thousand different strings.