Feb 13, 2017

Austin’s ‘Ameripolitan’ Awards: Don’t Call Them Country

Reporting Texas

AUSTIN — When musician Dale Watson staged the first Ameripolitan Music Awards here in 2014, he intended to gather a couple hundred people to honor artists he felt were being overlooked by the mainstream country music business.

This Wednesday’s awards will draw a capacity 1,200-person crowd to Austin’s Paramount Theatre. Wednesday’s awards cover 16 categories. Fans nominate and vote online to determine winners, who must have written their own music.

Watson, a Texan whose twangy baritone and honky-tonk tunes have made him an eminent performer, spent time in Nashville and Los Angeles, but in the 1990s he returned to Austin, where he said he doesn’t have to play by industry rules. These days, Watson’s band plays a Monday night residency at the Continental Club.

Watson, 54, said in an interview that he coined the term “Ameripolitan” as a combination of Americana and “countrypolitan” music, encompassing honky-tonk, outlaw, rockabilly, Western swing and other genres out of step with the Nashville country mainstream.

“Just don’t call me country,” Watson said. “I’m not — not by today’s definition … What I’ve found in Austin, as well as in Ameripolitan, is that we celebrate individuality, whereas in Nashville and L.A., they suppress it — they don’t want it.”

Last year’s winner in the honky-tonk female category, Margo Price, 33, recently performed on “Saturday Night Live,” and her debut album “Midwest Farmer’s Daughter” landed in Rolling Stone and NPR’s top 20 albums of 2016.

Bonnie Montgomery, 37, won the outlaw female category last year and will be back at this year’s awards as a presenter and performer. The Arkansas-based singer is on the road more often than she is home these days, and will play at least six shows while she’s in Austin on the days surrounding the awards.

Montgomery said in an interview she attributes much of Ameripolitan’s growth to Nashville’s homogeneity, which causes fans to look elsewhere for new music.

“I feel like, when I was just getting started, it was so novel to have a cowgirl outfit and a really tight band and all of that stuff that classic country naturally had,” Montgomery said. “Now it’s everywhere. … It’s not mainstream country, but in the bars and that scene I think it’s grown a lot.”

At 31, honky-tonk male nominee Jake Penrod is one of this year’s younger honorees. An East Texan who grew up listening to artists like Hank Williams, he said he likes to “look sharp” when he performs, donning a suit, tie, boots and Stetson hat.

“When somebody will ask me, ‘What type of music do you play,’ it’s gotten so difficult to say country because they automatically think Jason Aldean or Tim McGraw,” Penrod said in a telephone interview. “Here in the last year or so, I’ve been making it a point to explain, well, I play Ameripolitan music, and that actually starts the conversation.”

Jason Mellard, a history professor who studies country music at Texas State University, said in a telephone interview that ever since country music centralized in Nashville, there has been a tension between mainstream country and artists outside of Music Row.

Mellard said Austin has played an important role in the history of Ameripolitan music, beginning with artists like Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings, who moved to Austin in the 1970s to join the “outlaw” music movement, and continues to do so today.

“I think that, as Texas changes and evolves, people often use music as a way to keep in touch with or signify something distinct about this place that can be heard or felt through music,” he said.

Today, the awards draw fans and industry veterans from across the U.S. and abroad. Watson said he hopes to keep expanding by launching an online Ameripolitan chart in the next year. For years, he said, Nashville has dismissed music with historical roots as “retro.”

“Just because I use an old hammer that belonged to my great-granddad to build a house doesn’t make it an old house,” he said. “I’m just using an old way of doing things.”