10 Americana songs with great lyrics

Mark Underwood continues with the fourth in his irregular features on music by great songwriters with great lyrics, this time taking you through classics from the likes of Gretchen Peters, Kathleen Edwards, Bob Dylan and Tom Waits.

Kathleen Edwards ‘One More Song The Radio Won’t Like’
If there was one female singer-songwriter you’d love to see on conclusion of the lockdown, it’s Kathleen Edwards, so what terrific news that after a seven-year hiatus she’s back with a new album (‘Total Freedom’) due to be released in August. There are a number of songs written by other acts about what could be termed “promotion fatigue” – the Stones’ ‘Under Assistant West Coast Promotion Man’ and Tom Petty’s ‘Into the Great Wide Open’ spring to mind – but there’s something in the world-weary tone of Kathleen Edwards’ resignation that wins the day. This is about touring the country, schmoozing radio programmers in the company of cynical pluggers to no avail. It’s got exactly the right air of tiredness and resignation – and its honesty rings out. You’d believe anything Kathleen Edwards told you.

Bob Dylan ‘Blind Willie McTell’
There’s a whole book’s worth of material here in a song under six minutes’ long, or at the very least a film. In five short verses its sweeping panorama recreates the colliding worlds of the monied plantation owners of the Deep South and the slave labour they employed, the same mournful landscape that eventually produced the likes of itinerant blues musicians like McTell who toured the carnies and medicine shows of the 1920s. The lyrics are a complete sensory bombardment, building by the second: in one verse alone he sees the plantation burning and the ghost of slavery ships, smells the sweet magnolia and hears the moaning of the workforce and the cracking of the whips. “Well God is in his heaven and we all want what’s his / But power and greed and corruptible seed seem to be all that there is”.

Smog ‘Dress Sexy At My Funeral’
“Dress sexy at my funeral my good wife / For the first time in your life”.
Bill Callahan clearly feels that his partner’s dress sense was somewhat lacking during their time together, so the least she can do is make up for it at his funeral service. But one thing he couldn’t criticise her for during their time together was her sense of sexual adventure, as Callahan proceeds to recount the various ways in which they were carnally familiar – on the beach (with fireworks above them), on the railroad tracks, in the back of a crowded bar, “And in the very graveyard where my body now rests”.

Joni Mitchell ‘River’
The best Christmas sounding song that isn’t really about Christmas at all. Well, Yuletide may get a mention at its beginning and end – and both the piano intro and its opening melody is ‘Jingle Bells’ in a minor key – but in every other respect it’s a song about escape. Here Joni says she wants to escape it all – the things we all shy away from facing – and skate away on this frozen river. There’s simply no one who can touch her – melodically, harmonically or lyrically. Personal, confidential, honest and real.

David Ackles ‘Down River’
In the late 1960s David Ackles developed something of a reputation for melancholy – making one writer describe him as someone who made Leonard Cohen seem like a stand-up comic. This, his first single, shows off his sombre baritone to great effect. Written as one side of a conversation, it depicts a former jailbird’s meeting with an old flame, Rosie, over whom he’s clearly been pining while imprisoned. As the song progresses it becomes apparent that Rosie has since married another, a mutual friend: “Oh sure, I remember Ben / Why, we all went through school / Is that right? / Well, he ain’t no fool…” after which, our crestfallen narrator draws the encounter to a close with a heartbreaking “Me? I got things to do”. A poignant masterpiece, rendered in achingly bittersweet chord changes that underscore the tragedy.

Courtney Marie Andrews ‘I’ve Hurt Worse’
A perfectly realised tune and one which exemplifies the development in her songwriting talent, Andrews here demonstrating her growing songwriting ability in being confident enough to write a song from a third-person perspective and inhabit the world of a woman in an abusive relationship. Little wonder that there’s so much anticipation about her upcoming album release, ‘Old Flowers’ particularly when songs as strong as ‘Burlap String’ are set to feature on it.

Gretchen Peters ‘Idlewild’
Is there a song that better depicts the gossamer-thin nature of what separates so-called civilisation from the dark underbelly of US society? And one which demonstrates an understanding of how that civilisation is founded on the blood and bones of the third world. “We think we’re special / We think we’re golden / We think we’re walking on the moon but we are dancing in the dark / We shoot our rockets, we shoot our presidents / We shoot the commies and the niggers and the Vietcong / Everything changes, everything stays the same / And the moon hangs over idlewild as the planes touch down”.

Tom Waits ‘Hold On’
One of the most enduring moments in songwriting is an absence in a song. Having perfectly captured a girl with “charcoal eyes and Monroe hips”, Tom Waits concludes the portrait of an affair: “By a 99 cent store, she closed her eyes and started swaying / But it’s so hard to dance that way when it’s cold and there’s no music..” Your ear anticipates “no music playing” but it doesn’t arrive and there’s just a measure of accompaniment instead. But wait for it: because even better is the pay off ending with its resolution: “Well your old hometown’s so far away…/ But inside your head there’s a record that’s playing a song called: hold on”.

John Hiatt ‘Crossing Muddy Waters’
Our protagonist has been abandoned by his lover and left with their baby daughter. From an album that was rightly nominated for a Grammy Award for Best Contemporary Folk album. Sparse guitar accompaniment, heartfelt vocals, rarely bettered.

Sparklehorse ‘Spirit Ditch’
“The owls have been talking to me / But I’m sworn to secrecy”.
Dreamlike, hard to fathom lyrics, cracked vocals that feel like they’re phoned in from another galaxy, the slow build of the song, Mark Linkous’ “spirit ditch” a metaphor for his depression – and a guitar line that builds to a beautiful crescendo. Wonderful.

4 thoughts on “10 Americana songs with great lyrics”

  1. Good to see some David Ackles lyrically I think Waiting for the Moving Van is a stronger piece but I can’t argue with Down River

  2. Great list of songs. I have not heard 4 of the songs, so I’m digging in now. I was thinking how difficult it is to pick just 10. One of my favorite Americana tunes of all time is the haunting ballad “St. John The Gambler” by Townes Van Zandt.

    When she had twenty years, well she turned to her mother
    Saying mother, I know that you’ll grieve
    But I’ve given my soul to st john the gambler
    Tomorrow comes time to leave

    For the hills cannot hold back my sorrow forever
    And dead men lie deep ’round the door
    The only salvation that’s mine for the asking
    So mother, think on me no more

    And winter held high ’round the mountains’ breast
    And the cold of a thousand snows
    Lay heaped upon the forest’s leaf
    But she dressed in calico

    For a gambler likes his women fancy
    Fancy she would be
    And the fire of her longing would keep way the cold
    And her dress was a sight to see

    But the road was long beneath the feet
    She followed her frozen breath
    In search of a certain st john the gambler
    Stumbling to her death

    She heard his laughter right down from the mountains
    And danced with her mother’s tears
    To a funeral drawn of calico
    ‘Neath the cross of twenty years

    To a funeral drawn of calico
    ‘Neath the cross of twenty years

  3. Thank you for remembering David Ackles. Very few have even heard of him.
    “they suffer least, who suffer what they choose”
    “everybody has a story”
    …my favorite lines

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