AUK’s top 10 americana albums ever: Gordon Sharpe

This week Gordon Sharpe provides the twentieth contribution to AUK’s continuing quest to find the top ten americana albums ever. As always it is a fascinating and educative experience as Gordon delves into the back catalogue of this thing we call americana. We are now turning into the home straight with this, but there are still many writers waiting to share their wisdom and suffering with you. Once they have finally all contributed we will have our shortlist from which the final collective AUK writers’ top ten will be chosen. Take it away Gordon….

I was always told that defining your terms is a good thing so let me use some wisdom from colleague Paul Kerr:

“Americana is just the latest name for American music, not necessarily played by Americans, which has its roots in folk, blues, country and informed by the latest trends in rock and pop”

Seems good to me!

Writing this article has been a real struggle and I can’t help but think of the people I have left out, so let me explain the logic I have applied:
1) If we consistently hear performers referring back to artists of another time then we have to take that seriously and acknowledge them.  If we hear references to particular types of music then we can’t ignore them. Whatever americana is, it has roots and they should be acknowledged.
2) It takes time to really appreciate certain albums or collections and therefore I am unlikely to include a recent release in my top ten.
3) I’m not sure that I necessarily like everything I’ve posted here but what I am trying to acknowledge is their importance – they are certainly not all my desert island discs.
4) I have no idea when americana began, alt-country disappeared, Bounty bars got smaller or Coronation Street stopped being funny.
Finally, I really hope that there are innumerable albums out there that will turn this list upside down – and that I can have some fun finding them in the future.  So here we go:

Number 10: Woody Guthrie ‘Dust Bowl Ballads’ (1940)
Every track on this album has a lesson to heed and, ‘Vigilante Man’ seems as relevant today as it did when it was written.  Ry Cooder’s version seems miles ahead in terms of YouTube viewings and whilst Guthrie seems to be referenced regularly, I wonder how many people actually listen to him?  He still remains the mother-lode as far as I am concerned and the excellent ‘Mermaid Avenue’ recordings by Wilco and Billy Bragg show just how timeless and relevant his music remains.  Some part of Bruce Springsteen seems to be slowly morphing into Woody Guthrie, who was both admirably prolific and possessed of a great attitude to his own music.
This song is copyrighted in U.S., under Seal of Copyright #154085, for a period of 28 years, and anybody caught singin’ it without our permission, will be mighty good friends of ourn, cause we don’t give a dern. Publish it. Write it. Sing it. Swing to it. Yodel it. We wrote it, that’s all we wanted to do”. Sounds just like a socialist!

Number 9: Pete Seeger American Industrial Ballads’ (1956)
I could not say that Seeger is a favourite artist and I like him in small doses but it seems to me that as a keeper of a particular flame he was vital.  These songs tell the lives of miners, farmers and textile workers, and Seeger was fundamental to the folk revival / Greenwich Village scene which in itself spawned so much more.  Seeger was po-faced and worthy in equal measure but his conflicts with the dark forces of the late ’50s, when he was institutionally hounded and pilloried show the mettle of the man. He may or may not have tried to pull the plug on Dylan at Newport but he is to his own generation as Alan Lomax was to his – indispensable in keeping something important alive.

Number 8: Paul Butterfield Blues Band The Paul Butterfield Blues Band’ (1965)
This to me represents white boy blues at its best – in fact even more remarkably, Jewish white boy blues at its best. Bloomfield dots all the I’s and crosses all the T’s for electric blues guitar with the sheer drive and attack of some of his playing, ‘Our Love is Drifting’ for instance.  He plays electric rather than amplified guitar – you just couldn’t convincingly play this stuff in the same way on an acoustic guitar. Bloomfield is ably supported by the best white harmonica player ever (sorry Mr Adler) Paul Butterfield, as well as a rhythm section borrowed from Howlin’ Wolf. Not a man to have a cheery pint with but when Butterfield trades licks with Bloomfield it’s magic. Neither of them came to particularly happy endings and Bloomfield led something of an unhappy life dogged by illness.  However every time you hear an electric guitar think of this Dylan-approved genius who opened so many doors.

Number 7: Simon and Garfunkel Greatest Hits’ (1972)
Having spent a year sharing a room with someone whose only decent tape was this one, it may be that I have been indoctrinated. It is a mystery to me that Simon doesn’t get the credit he deserves – he is as good a songwriter as there is, yet seems to get little credit. Good as he is, why does Springsteen seem to get all the plaudits – his range of subject matter is pretty limited (there’s a lot of cars in there) – I can’t see him writing, ‘So Long Frank Lloyd Wright’, or, ‘El Condor Pasa’. Yes, ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water’, is ubiquitous (and here it is again if you care to play it), but it is a superb take on the idea of friendship and yet another of those songs to which the duo bring an anthemic quality. ‘The Boxer’, ‘Homeward Bound’, ‘I Am a Rock’, ‘America’ – every one utterly memorable – Simon is a touchstone for any aspiring songwriter!

Number 6: The Rolling Stones Exile On Main Street’ (1972)
There’s a certain louche (I like that word) quality in a lot of americana that might just stem directly from this album, Richards certainly cuts a figure, though its hard to know whether to be impressed by his adherence to the Rock and Roll image – or just laugh.  Derided by many at first hearing – I distinctly remember Jagger’s vocals criticised as being particularly affected – this album has come to be seen as the gem it is.  The vocals sound fine to me.  The story of Nellcote is much repeated, the drugs, the damp, the swastikas, Gram Parsons apparently banished because of his behaviour and Jagger reportedly doing much, ‘poncing around’, whilst distracted by events in his wife’s homeland and the birth of his first child.  How did it ever get made?  It did and was the culmination of a run of exceptional albums – ‘Beggars Banquet’ (1968), ‘Let It Bleed’,(1969) and Sticky Fingers (1971).  The Stones were always greater than the sum of the parts and whilst the only true virtuoso was Mick Taylor you can’t quibble with the quality of the songwriting.

Number 5: Randy Newman: Good Old Boys’ (1974)
Sometimes I really wonder how he got away with it – but maybe in different times there was a realisation that Newman was writing about characters he created rather than himself or his own views; not sure he would get away with it these days though.  Then by even more sleight of hand, he becomes part of the Toy Story franchise – you can’t blame him, someone has to write those songs and Newman has the pedigree. For me, there was a golden patch somewhere between 1970 and 1977 with four albums, ‘12 Songs’, ‘Sail Away’, ‘Good Old Boys’, and ‘Little Criminals’. Try as I might his later serious work never has the same resonance or quality. Newman can seem snide and as a line from one of his own songs would say, “smart-ass”, however, in much of his work from this period there is an ability to identify with the underdog or the common man and an intensity of feeling in his love-songs that seems neither smart-ass nor snide.  He manages to write about the South with what often seems like sympathy and a keen eye – see Gillian Welch below.

Number 4: Whiskeytown ‘Strangers Almanac’ (1997)
I have more reason than most for wanting to poke Ryan Adams in the eye having wasted time and money going to see him in Manchester when he was clearly off his head. Walking out was only alleviated by the sight of my normally passive friend’s fulminating indignation. Yet the man has talent – even if it could be said that he spreads it mighty thin at times – more is not always better Ryan! The three Whiskeytown albums were my entry to what might be deemed the modern iteration of americana (though a good few free magazine CDs also helped). Just great performances all round really. I pick, ‘Strangers Almanac’, on the basis of, ‘Inn Town, and ’Excuse Me While I Break My Own Heart. But it’s all good. A classic example of don’t judge the art by the man!

Number 3: Gillian Welch Soul Journey’ (2003)
On first hearing, I was so taken with Welch that I bought nearly everything she had made. I was amazed to discover that despite her background she had the ability to sound as though she had been steeped in a barrel of Jack Daniels for 20 years. Of course, there has been much debate about authenticity in the work of a city girl drawing on the roots of music and a community of which she has no real experience (see Randy Newman above). You could go right back to The Band, the Beach Boys (never really part of the surf culture) and beyond to find plenty of similar scope for debate. That word timeless springs to mind again and Welch is ably supported by her partner in music and life Dave Rawlings. My choice of ‘Soul Journey’ marks a slightly different approach from the sparse acoustic nature of earlier records, but they are all contenders.

Number 2: K.D. Lang ‘Hymns of the 49th Parallel’ (2004)
What makes this album stand out? The singer and the songs basically. Lang, now seemingly less than enamoured with music, has the most marvellous voice and stands as a yardstick for any female vocalist. Whereas after her beginnings with producer Owen Bradley she veered off toward a blander choice of music this album highlights Canada’s best, Cohen, Mitchell, Young, Jane Siberry, Ron Sexsmith and Bruce Cockburn – we don’t often hear about them as a group – with Gordon Lightfoot, The Band and The Cowboy Junkies hopefully waiting in the wings. Interpretive singing, perfectly acceptable in jazz circles, sometimes gets a poor press on the basis that they ‘don’t write their own songs’, which of course is nonsense. Lang’s version of Young’s ‘Helpless’, with some wonderful bass playing courtesy of David Piltch is spine-tingling in a way that Young could never achieve – good as he is.

Number 1: James McMurtry ‘Childish Things’ (2005)
McMurtry is another lyricist supreme, socially conscious, observational, political, whimsical and downright funny at times. Not possessed of a great voice, though it seems wholly apt for his music, and if sometimes musically a little stolid all is forgiven for the power of the songwriting. It may well be in the genes. McMurtry is not as cynical as Randy Newman but has a way with economic use of the language that is just wonderful. Check out his recent AUK interview here.

There are a number of albums I might choose but my introduction to McMurtry was 2005’s ‘Childish Things’, so I will plump for that – which as much as anything shows the range of his writing. The childlike view of ‘See the Elephant’ and the retrospective ‘Childish Things’, the award-winning take on the times that is ‘We Can’t Make It Here’, the hidden nightmares of ‘Holiday’, the domestic puzzle of ‘Bad Enough’, and the humour of ‘Slew Foot’- its all there.

I can’t help but feel that I have missed some vital genres – rural blues, something from Appalachia, no Texas influence. DAMMIT, I want to start again!

Author: Clint West

From buying my first record aged 10 and attending my first gig at 14, music has been a lifelong obsession. A proud native of Suffolk, I have lived in and around Manchester for the best part of 30 years. My idea of a perfect day would be a new record arriving in the post in the morning, watching Ipswich Town win in the afternoon followed by a gig and a pint with my mates at night,

15 thoughts on “AUK’s top 10 americana albums ever: Gordon Sharpe”

  1. Being one of those (many) people who like a good list, I’ve been perusing these contributions with interest, and they have even caused me to abuse my wallet on occasion (curse you musos!). However, I have had a growing feeling that, aside from the rare (token?) exception, they have all been a bit… white. Especially if your definition of ‘Americana’ is as inclusive as Paul Kerr’s quoted above (as opposed to those who claim it starts with Drive-By Truckers and/or others of their time/ilk), then surely it is absolutely behoven to include any number (above one) of black musicians? I would have thought that the current BLM awareness drive might have permeated thinking here, but apparently not. As for my writing this now, I guess the final straw was seeing the blues represented by Paul Butterfield and the Stones. Over Robert Johnson / Howling Wolf / John Hurt / Muddy Waters? Not to mention soul music — where Sam Cooke / Otis Redding / James Brown / George Clinton? Being kind, I’m sure this exclusion is unintentional, but really, can we not do better? [Having said that, after crying buckets at kd lang’s performance of ‘Helpless’ at the Lighthouse in Poole, one of my last concerts before covid, I can have no argument with her inclusion here.]

    1. Very fair comment Pat though I do clearly say right at the end that I wished I had included some rural / country blues but to be honest it’s not someting I know a lot about. I did pick out a compilation album on Xtra released in 1965 called ‘The Rural Blues’ but pondered whether I was just being obscure for the sake of it – perhaps I should have had the strength of my convictions. Equallly with soul music I know even less though Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye could potentially qualify. It would seem wrong to tout the virtues of something about which I know little. I would be interested to see the connection made between soul music and americana – I see it as much more tenuous than that of any form of the blues. Very few of the artists I review or speak to claim it as an influence – which is not a defining consideration but something to consider.

      As I have read this series I have pondered whether ’10 best americana albums’ has become in some cases, ‘My favourite americana albums’. There is a clear difference, a thought to which I give some recognition to in my opening comments – these are not all my desert Island discs.

      Among the writers here we had a similar debate about the inclusion of female artists and where we stood on that as a group – should it be based on merit or gender. In terms of her influence it would be hard to exclude Joni Mitchell but to be honest try as I might I just never get her music. Maybe theres a future feature there dedicated to female artists?

      If americana starts with the Drive by Truckers then there is not much black music there as far as I can see – I’ve tried to go further than that but maybe not far enough?

      I dont think that I have put forward the Stones as any kind of representative of the blues but I stand by my comments on Mike Bloomfield nobody black or white does it any better.

      Above all these lists seem to me a bit of fun and essentially subjective and its nice when people repond thoughtfully as you have to what are ultimately conversation starters (which we love as a group) and just as with yourself I find myself regularly drawn to them – often to be disappointed because they seem to be the same old same old. I still keep looking though and if reading them has prompted you to explore / purchase some new music that that seems a good outcome.

      Actually I expected the challenges to be about Simon and Garfunkel !

      1. I saw Simon & Garfunkel at the Royal Albert Hall shortly after the release of Bridge Over Troubled Water and they were awesome — no dissent from me there!

  2. When you listen to music you don’t see a colour – Love were one of the first bands to have black players in the band including main man Arthur Lee – this black discussion is reaching ludicrous levels .

    1. Wow, say what??? “Love were one of the first bands to have black players in the band…” — do you not see what a ludicrous statement that is?

      1. Wow, same day as the BBC admitted ‘Countryfile’ is racist seemed to make sense to me – ludicrous but true like many things we are listening to these days.

    2. This comment is so wrong and missing the point, it’s hard to know where to start… but how about here… black music reflecting black experience, ie the experience of colour? As an important element in the development of music history? Telling different stories, or different takes on universal stories. How can you listen to Marvin Gayes What’s Going On or Gil Scott Herons Johannesburg or Billie Holidays Strange Fruit without ”seeing colour”? I never cease to be amazed how much willful ignorance exists…
      and as for the reference to Love as one of the first bands to have black players in… really, no words.
      And agree totally with Paul Kerrs analysis, but ”non-white” doesn’t only mean black… think Alejandro Escavedo, Los Lobos, Lindi Ortega and more, whose music is also rooted in Hispanic experience and musical traditions.

  3. Americana is a broad church but essentially it has its roots in country music, which was borne out of largely white rural folk traditions. So to ask why haven’t you included more black musicians is slightly disingenuous. My own top 10 included no black artists However, if we took the word ‘americana’ out of the title of the series then Lightning Hopkins, Marvin Gaye, Curtis Mayfield, Gil Scott-Heron, Gregory Isaacs, Miles Davis and many other black artists would all have come into my thinking. However, this site and this series cover americana music, which is essentially white music. The absence of black music does not represent some kind of latent racism amongst contributors, it simply reflects the genre.To argue otherwise is a bit like complaining that there are no Manchester City players in an all-time greatest Manchester United XI.

    1. Hmm. Well, if you’re defining Americana as “essentially white music” then that’s just self-serving. But if you’re talking about its roots, then ignoring the contribution of black artists is simply whitewashing. Country music may have been born out of “largely white rural folk traditions” but that does not mean that the black contribution is insignificant, indeed many of those early white performers spent their formative years sneaking into segregated clubs where black performers were playing. Bill Monroe credits two musicians as his major influences: one, of course, his uncle Pen Vandiver, the other a black guitarist named Arnold Schultz, with whom Monroe played his first gigs. And again, in Tamara Saviano’s biography of Guy Clark, we learn that his favourite folk artist was Lead Belly, and “the first records [he] bought were by jazz trumpeter Louis Armstrong”. The Grateful Dead were as influenced by John Coltrane, Revd Gary Davis, Elizabeth Cotton and Cannon’s Jug Stompers as by any white acts. And you seem to be forgetting the role of Chuck Berry, Fats Domino, Louis Jordan et al. in the birth of rock’n’roll. I could go on. The absence of black music on these lists may not “represent some kind of latent racism amongst contributors”, but it does point to the way black music and musicians have been sidelined by the, almost exclusively white, music industry, and how black people and black culture have been systematically written out of American history. Clint, reread your sentence “if we took the word ‘americana’ [American] out of the title of the series then … black artists would … have come into my thinking” — does that not make you cringe?

      1. It all boils down to how you interpret the word ‘americana’. If you take the view, as you seem to, that it covers all American music, then I would be with you 100%. But I think that for most people who visit this site it has a more specific meaning which is folk/country based. I don’t think that visitors to the site expect to read about soul, funk, jazz, blues etc. all of which are clearly American music. In this context I see absolutely no reason to cringe. I was simply making the point that if we were choosing the best albums ever from all genres, I personally would have include black artists. But that is not what the series seeks to do. It is specifically about ‘americana’ which is a single, if loosely defined genre. Just as it would be churlish to complain about the lack of white representation on a soul website, notwithstanding many decent white soul artists, it is a black genre. I would expect most of the coverage to reflect this and certainly any consideration of its greatest albums. The AUK top 10 selections so far are merely a reflection of the fact that ‘americana’ music is largely played by white musicians and listened to by white audiences. There is nothing sinister going on here. That does not ignore the historical roots of the genre and the influence that black music has had on americana and I totally agree that black artists have historically been marginalised and sidelined. I would go further even, black music has been stolen and marketed to white audiences, Elvis Presley being a prime example. I think that we probably agree on a great deal here Pat, but I would still maintain that white artists being selected as the finest examples of a largely white musical genre is not in any way surprising or offensive.

  4. I’m sure, like many readers, each time I see one of the new “Top Tens” I start compiling my own, in my head. But I rarely get past my own number 1, which is also “Childish Things” as above, and would also be represented by the same track as you’ve chosen Gordon… can I start voting yet ?!

  5. Americana, no matter how you define it, is primarily these days played by white folk but recently there has been more of a thrust to recognise it’s roots in black music, witness the likes of Riannon Giddens and especially the band she created with Songs Of Her Native Daughters. I’m sure, as time goes on, that this will become more pronounced. I’d note the work of Taj Mahal in the sixties and seventies as essential (even though it was Ry Cooder who got the plaudits). Not to say one is better than the other but I’m sure that white musicians had an easier ride to the recording studios. It’s a similar situation to that of female artists, historically they lost out in terms of opportunities.

    1. It’s a debate that is limitless really and to some extent one reason why I didnt approach this task wholly joyfully – again I would highlight the difference between ‘favourite’ and ‘best’ – you can’t really challenge someones favourites – but best is always open to scrutiny and potential challenge.

      Pat, I have discussed this elsewhere and wonder whether you would, in these pages, be interested in giving us your own top ten, with your logic. There would be two reasons – you might enjoy it and the rest of us would be able to ponder a different point of view.

  6. Hopefully we have agreement on this point. Pat is right about the black influence on country music. The founding fathers of Jimmie Rodgers, Bill Monroe Bob Wills and Hank Williams all acknowledged the black influence on their own music.. things started diverging with the branding of country music in the ’40s and ’50s by the Opry radio show in the attempt to sell insurance. You can’t sell insurance to subsistence customers only aspirational ones and therefore country lost its hillbilly image, apart from comedy artists, and black artists were denied the opportunity to record country. The influences continued to flow though as many of the country soul sides out of Muscle Shoals in ’60s by Joe Tex and Arthur Alexandre could have been marketed as country if the climate was different. The banjo is an African instrument that is key to country which shows the clear link. Unfortunately all this influence has not resulted in many tracks by black artists that could be described as americana . Paul has picked up the exceptions and hopefully there will be more in the future. However, there is one album that I think would merit an entry in a Top 10 americana list, though I didn’t include it in mine, and that is Ray Charles’s Modern Sounds In Country and Western.

Leave a comment..

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.