March 23, 2010: This is the hardest thing on this site to write, which is probably why I hadn't done it until now. I will try to improve on it, but here's a few early thoughts.
If anyone in the world can actually define this music successfully, they deserve a big reward. As with any style of music, the edges are extremely fuzzy and plenty of other genres creep in. But since this is my site and so the decision is basically mine, here's the way I see it:
Americana was a genre created to gain airplay on U.S. radio rather than to define some undefined style of music, so it's not surprising that it's hard to categorise. It lives somewhere in the nether world between country and folk and rock. What makes it stand out, for me at least, is that it has an edge. Sometimes – often, perhaps – it's a political edge; sometimes it's about making music without worrying about the rough edges; sometimes it's about really, really great songwriting with a message. It's certainly a home for solo singer-songwriters who don't immediately find a home elsewhere. And, just to be clear, you don't have to be American to sing Americana!
A lot of Americana acts gravitate towards Austin, Texas, but by no means all of them. There's another community living on the grittier, eastern side of Nashville, and then there are lots of artists just living in their own home towns. Not to mention all the Canadians, the Brits, the Scandinavians, Dutch, Germans and Australians also making this sort of music.
Alt-country is probably even harder to define. According to the title, you do pretty much have to define it by what it isn't: it isn't the pop country of mainstream Nashville and as a result it usually isn't commercial. To be more positive about it, it's rougher, has more attitude, and it's where the "western" part of the original "country and western" is hiding.
By "roots" I am thinking of some of the other traditional styles of music that don't really have another place to go. That's primarily bluegrass but also old-time music, cajun, tex-mex and a load of other American-influenced styles. I understand that the term also covers many other things – such as absolutely all folk music the world over, probably – but not for the purposes of this website.
Here are some of the things that overlap with the music covered here and will certainly occasionally appear on this site but aren't its focus: "mainstream" country music; traditional British or Irish folk music; blues; rock 'n' roll; indie pop. All are valid musical forms with many great artists working in them, and all are well covered by other websites. I hope that makes sense.
I'd be happy to hear some other fans' views on this, and on the many things I've no doubt left out. Do leave a comment here, or for a more private conversation drop me an e-mail.