10 Americana songs with great lyrics

Mark Underwood continues with the fifth in his irregular feature on music by great songwriters with great lyrics, this time taking you through classics from the likes of Amy Speace, Alejandro Escovedo, Neil Young and Gretchen Peters.

Amy SpeaceMe and the Ghost of Charlemagne’
Probably the most moving moments at the Americana UK awards in January were Amy Speace’s reaction and speech after being declared winner in the International Song of the Year category for ‘Me and the Ghost of Charlemagne’. Her pleasure was tempered by the emotion she felt at her father’s inability to celebrate her success because he’d died only three months previously. The song itself is a masterwork inspired by Speace’s stay in Aachen while on tour – the town where Charlemagne lived and died. Her sleep in an attic apartment was disturbed by the tolling bells of the cathedral where the bones of Charlemagne are interred – and this proved the inspiration for her to start writing. The song is a wonderful summation of the travails and frustrations of an independent artist on tour – the isolation, the lost family time, the rental cars, the chain hotels and hauling luggage through the rain – “Every day I quit this job / By night I take it back”. Charlemagne was a grand dreamer who attempted many things without managing to accomplish them. But for Speace it’s in the daring – and pursuit of the dream – that is the most important thing.

Neil YoungLike A Hurricane’
Truly deserving of the epithet “epic”, ‘Like A Hurricane’ blows in for a full 11 minutes but is none too long for all that. Lyrically, it’s based on the meteorological fact that there’s no turbulence at the centre of the storm, hence “You are like a hurricane / there’s calm in your eyes”.  And, yes, Neil is “gettin’ blown away”.  Lyrics aside, it’s the guitar solo that’s memorable – at once all gurning, churning glory while simultaneously capable of subtly and tenderness. Like all the best music, it’s capable of picking you and putting you down in a different place – metaphorically speaking, of course.

Randy NewmanI Miss You’
I would take Randy Newman’s compilation ‘Lonely At The Top’ onto a desert island as the lyrics to his songs never fail to deliver, and always throw up new insights. Who else would have the smarts to write about slavery like a recruitment ad (‘Sail Away’). However, the real heartbreaker is ‘I Miss You’ a love song to his ex-wife of 20 years, Roswitha. Sad, confessional, utterly brave and apologetic – “You must be laughing yourself sick up there in Idaho”.

Alejandro EscovedoSuit of Lights’
If there is one song that really opens your mind to the world of Alejandro Escovedo’s writing style, it’s ‘Suit of Lights’ with such piercing lines as “Watched you shower, Watched you bathe / Put everything I have in every kiss we made / Brought you silk, brought you jade / A bucket of blood in every note I played.”

Gretchen Peters Matador’
The suit of lights in Escovedo’s song refers to the traje de luces – the traditional clothing that Spanish bullfighters wear in the bullring. For Gretchen Peters the matador is a metaphor. A song that truly understands the meaning of the word “surrender” – in all its negative connotations. A complex and beautifully constructed number about trying to navigate your way through a relationship with an emotional hungry lover – and what it means to play second fiddle to a great artist.

Townes Van Zandt To Live Is To Fly’
A song that Townes says he wrote in in a dream and which he said was his favourite composition, “if I were forced at knifepoint to choose one”. The phrase “to live is to fly” is etched in granite on his gravestone that stands in a small cemetery in Dido, Texas. Brilliant lyricism and a song of pure yearning, Guy Clark perfectly summed it up when he said that these were “words to live by”: “Days up and down they come / Like rain on a conga drum / Forget most remember some / But don’t turn none away / Everything is not enough / Nothing is too much to bear / Where you been is good and gone / All you keep is the getting there”.

Jesse WinchesterMississippi You’re On My Mind’
A song which is a pure sensory delight, its lyrics magically evoking the sights, smells, and feelings that his home in northern Mississippi indelibly etched into Winchester’s memory. A song of such self-possession that it induces a sense of complete calm and serenity. Little wonder that Bob Dylan said “You can’t talk about the best songwriters and not include him.”

Kenny RobyRather Not Know’
A song informed by the death of his father the year before Kenny Roby released the album of the same title, this is an emotionally complicated number that has a raw, primitive power. Written from the perspective of his mother about her husband, it’s a song which speaks movingly about loss (“I’ve got nothing to go on but a photograph / Of what became a heart attack”) and how nothing but personal experience can ever fully prepare you for the loss of a loved one: “I tell myself that every day people die / Leave lonely husbands and wives / But tell it to the hole in my heart”.

Jim FordHarlan County’
The likes of The Delines are rightly lauded nowadays for their modern-day updating of country-
soul but Jim Ford was mastering the art back in the late 1960s. The song, ‘Harlan County’ is about the coal mining district of Kentucky where Ford came from and is about his upbringing and the appalling way the local miners were treated. It’s an acoustic guitar-led number but has horns on it and you’d be hard-pressed to know from the vocal whether Ford was black or white. Featuring such luminary session players as Dr. John, Jim Keltner, and James Burton it’s a record that deserved to be far more successful than it was. “Born into poverty, bathed in misery / The times I went hungry you can’t count ’em / Where the cold winds blow and the crops don’t grow / A man’s tired of livin’ when he’s twenty”.

Dave AlvinKing of California’
A real cowboy song. Our protagonist is riding back to claim the hand of his soul mate: “Over deserts hot and mountains cold / Travelled the Indian country / Whispering your name under lonesome skies / Memory my only company”. Acoustic guitars and brushed snares gallop along behind a voice that’s as worn and weathered as saddle leather. This is a wonderful, yearning tune that speaks to the deepest corner of the heart. Why do we strive for riches, fame, glory, respect – anything really? Nothing is worth the love of your one, true love.

Photo credit: Neilson Hubbard

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Fiona Winders

Just discovered this series and I’m immensely enjoying going back through all your selections, Mark. Alejandro Escovedo up there among the greats, so many wonderful lyrics to choose from. And so glad to see Handcuffed To A Fence In Mississippi in there. Jim White is a real one off 🙂

Mark Underwood

Many thanks for the kind words Fiona. Glad you’re enjoying the series. I’ve had a lot of fun trying to select them.

Andrew Riggs

Dave Alvin is the King Of California with band or solo untouchable

Stephen Goldsmith

Border Radio is so good, close your eyes and you’re there in the dark with the women in the song.

Martin Johnson

Nice to see the late great Jim Ford get a mention

Barry Cooke

Great article, Mark, thanks. Don’t know a lot of these so looking forward to checking them out.

Tim Martin

Great selection Mark. I always look forward to receiving these and generally agree with most of your choices.