“Americana” isn’t an easy genre to define. It can be folk, country, rock, bluegrass, blues or jazz—and usually involves a mixture of those genres. At heart, though, it’s simply American roots music, and over the last few years, it’s risen to the top of the Santa Cruz music scene. These days, several of the most popular local bands fall into some variation of this style, whether it’s Steep Ravine, McCoy Tyler, Marty O’Reilly and the Old Soul Orchestra, Coffee Zombie Collective, Blackbird Raum. Roots group the Devil Makes Three got their start in Santa Cruz before finding national success.
Perhaps all this is less surprising when you consider that Americana as a genre kind of got its start in Santa Cruz, thanks to outlaw country station KPIG, which was founded in 1988 and was the spiritual stepchild of famous cosmic cowboy trailblazing station KFAT. The late Laura Ellen Hopper, KPIG’s co-founder and longtime program director, is widely credited with making Americana an official genre recognized by the music industry.
KPIG’s influence as a support system for Americana artists can be seen across the local music scene here. In terms of live entertainment, just about every club in town makes space for bands plucking banjos and strumming acoustic guitars. The Crepe Place and Don Quixote’s host many local and touring Americana bands. The Crepe Place even has a monthly event called Western Wednesdays for country music fanatics.
Clubs that expressly play other genres host these bands, too—there’s a lot of eclecticism in the Santa Cruz music scene. Moe’s Alley, primarily a blues and funk club, brings reggae and roots bands, as well. Jazz club Kuumbwa also hosts Americana shows through outside promoters like Snazzy Productions. And the Catalyst, which tends to host a lot of alternative, punk, rap and metal shows, books plenty of string bands, though usually more in the younger, indie-folk subgenre.
Even the Santa Cruz Blues Festival, one of the longest running blues festivals in the country, recently morphed into a blues, Americana, country festival, now called the Santa Cruz American Music Festival. Other local festivals like Mountain Sol and Do-It-Ourselves Fest also feature roots artists prominently.
But all it really takes to get a feel for Santa Cruz’s love of Americana music is a stroll down Pacific Avenue on a weekend, where there is almost always guaranteed to be a banjo among the buskers.