The long road to 'United States of Americana'

Bill DeVille at the Johnny Cash Museum
Bill DeVille admires the wall of singles at the Johnny Cash Museum in Nashville, Tenn. (Julie Carson for MPR)

The idea for a show like United States of Americana goes back a long way.

When it comes to everything that falls under the Americana umbrella — roots, rockabilly, roots and alt country — I've been into that sort of thing forever. It probably starts with Johnny Cash; I've been a fan of his for as long as I can remember.

Back in the early 1980s, there was a music movement called cowpunk, and it involved bands like Rank and File, the Blasters, X, and then the Knitters, who were an offshoot of X. Cowpunk consisted of bands who just played a trashy-country-meets-punk kind of sound. And later in the '80s, I got into Uncle Tupelo and the Jayhawks, who again, were influenced by the various sounds of Americana.

All this music got me thinking how it would be cool to have a show that fell into that mode of alternative country, old-school country and things like that.

After my time at Cities 97 ended back in the early 2000s, I made it my goal to do this show. In 2004, before The Current was even a dream, I did a demo of the show at KFAI. That station has something called the Wave Project, where anybody can put on a show. Most of them end up being spoken-word programs, but I went in there and cut a demo of a root-music show. I was hoping KFAI might pick it up, but within a year, The Current was on the air and my life changed for the better.

When we started The Current, we were really focused on getting the station on the air and developing the sound of the station and the DJs' sounds. [Former program director] Steve Nelson was understandably working to get the station off the ground. In 2008, with The Current well established, Steve moved to MPR News and Jim McGuinn came in the following January. After some time, we started experimenting with specialty shows, and the United States of Americana went on the air in 2009.

I'll never forget that first show: We had Roseanne Cash on the program, so the US of A came out of the gates strong!

United States of Americana was just an hour at the beginning. When you think about it, that's a pretty short amount of time; if we had an in-studio session, that only leaves room for about six songs after that. So when the show went to two hours in 2011, that was fantastic.

There have been some great discoveries on the program, including people like JD McPherson and the band First Aid Kit. Sometimes these artists end up in The Current's rotation first, sometimes they're on US of A first. It doesn't matter how these artists get on the playlist, just as long as the audience likes them.

And speaking of that, sometimes people question the Sunday-morning time slot, but I think that's kind of the beauty of it. Early on a Sunday, what else is on the radio? We've turned that aspect of the show into a positive, and made it part of a lifestyle. I get so many calls from people who set their alarm clocks for Sunday morning at eight o'clock so that US of A will be the first thing they hear. I get messages from people listening as they're going to church, as they're making breakfast … I'm so happy the show is part of their lives. If people are enjoying it, that's what matters.

It's been a long road to United States of Americana, and now we're celebrating our fifth anniversary. As they say, time flies when you're having fun. Here's to many more years of the rootsier side of The Current.

Come celebrate 5 years of United States of Americana on Thursday, Nov. 6, 2014, at the Turf Club in St. Paul. Bill DeVille will host, and he welcomes musical guests Israel Nash and Frankie Lee. Find all the information here.

Related Stories

  • Bill DeVille's social-media rewind: Americana Music Festival & Conference From Sept. 17 to 21, The Current's Bill DeVille was in Nashville, Tenn., attending the 2014 Americana Music Festival and Conference. Get a sense of the experience through this collection of Bill's Tweets and Facebook posts.
  • Interview: Robert Plant With a successful career spanning more than 45 years, Robert Plant isn't just a talented musician; he's a rock legend. Plant recently caught up with United States of Americana host Bill DeVille to talk about his new album, <em>Lullaby And... The Ceaseless Roar</em>.
  • JD McPherson performs in The Current studio In town to play a couple of gigs at the Turf Club in St. Paul, JD McPherson and his band stop by The Current's studio to chat with Bill DeVille and to play some tunes they're currently road-testing in the run-up to the release of their next album.

comments powered by Disqus