Ask Amythyst Kiah to label her amalgam of blues, old-time music, country, singer-songwriter pop, folk and indie rock and she comes up with a word that somehow both covers the breadth of the music but, at the same time, doesn’t really pinpoint what she’s doing.
“I still use the term Americana and it is frustrating because of how vague it is,” Kiah says. “But it also is a perfect description because of how they get it from a marketing perspective, I feel like Americana is kind of where everybody falls in [when] they don't fit anywhere else. It's where all the misfits that didn't fit in with pop, country or they didn't quite fit in with blues or they didn't quite fit in with like, rock.”
Anytime she says Americana, she follows it up with “blues rock country folk,” she points out. “It's never just as simple as, ‘I'm a country singer.’ There is a small paragraph that comes with describing my music,” she says. “I used to come up with all these little different names like all country blues, and Southern Gothic folk. Now I read back and I cringe. That’s so pretentious.”
Kiah had to start making up those names as she broke through to widespread attention with her 2021 album “Wary + Strange” and its Grammy-nominated song “Black Myself.” That song, live and on record, and the traditional “Trouble So Hard,” often her show closer, showcase Kiah’s unforgettable, deep and powerful, soulful vocals that sound like they had to have come from church. Or did they?
“I've had people ask me if I grew up singing in the church and I didn't,” she says. “But we wouldn't have popular vocals the way we have today if it wasn't for the Pentecostal gospel church.
She notes that all the people she listened to when really young, such as Michael Jackson, Whitney Houston, Mariah Carey, “all of those huge voices, like Patti LaBelle, they all sang in church ... Little Richard, Sister Rosetta Tharpe [who owned a home in Richmond] sang in the church. That essentially became part of it, became part of rock-and-roll and throughout American music.”
That’s the kind of observation that comes from a musicologist, who’s been absorbing American musical styles for two decades.
From bluegrass to old-time
Kiah, who grew up in Chattanooga, Tenn. and got a guitar from her dad at 13, studied classical guitar and developed her fingerstyle playing as a teenager. She later enrolled at East Tennessee State University in the Johnson City to study guitar in the music department. But the academic study of classical guitar didn’t take with Kiah, who then saw a listing for a bluegrass guitar class. “The only image I could conjure in my mind about bluegrass was the Beverly Hillbillies. That was literally all of my knowledge,” Kiah says from her Johnson City home.
She took the class anyway, expanding her fingerstyle range and, eventually, adding a layer to her musical orientation. “It led me to playing old-time music, which is the bedrock of, really, all American music,” she explains. “It was before bluegrass. It was before electric blues. So it was really the precursor because it's a mix of European and African traditions and cultures.”
Old-time music, and the banjo she picked up as she learned it, brought Kiah together with Rhiannon Giddens, Leyla McCalla and Allison Russell on the 2019 album “Songs of Our Native Daughters,” which contained the first, Grammy-nominated version of “Black Myself.”
But Kiah, who was a punk-rock skateboarder in high school, couldn’t confine herself to old-time music, bluegrass or country. As she demonstrates during her shows, she’s an indie-rocker as well who can bust out an uptempo, guitar-rocking version of Tori Amos’ “Sugar” if she feels like it.
As for the singer-songwriter elements, those can be heard in “Black Myself,” her anthem of enslaved people, both literal and figurative, as well as her often dark songs, grappling with the personal, such as her mother’s suicide, and the societal, such as the struggle of Black and queer Americans.
Kiah’s now making a new album. Having written a bunch of songs over the last year and-a-half, Kiah and her band have since been in the studio and she hopes to have the album out by year’s end. Those songs, which she’s starting to play in her shows, continue her distinctive musical mixture. They’re far from predictable.
“When I write music, all of those different influences kind of come together in a way that I never really know exactly what to expect, which is the most fun about it,’ she explains. “It’s cool … I play American music, and it's got a little bit of a twist to it because I'm from east Tennessee and I have an accent and sometimes it shows up in more places than others.” “That’s what happens when you hear a bunch of different music and you are a nerd and whatever, it's kind of challenging,” Kiah says. “It’s been a challenge for me to really forge a solid identity sometimes when it comes to music.”
Which is why Kiah, for better or worse, calls her music Americana.
Amythyst Kiah performs on Sunday, Aug. 27 during the Iron Blossom Music Festival at Bon Secours Training Center. For more info, visit the festival website.