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!