We’ve heard a lot about “light at the end of the tunnel” recently. For 20 years AUK has been vaccinating readers against the harmful effects of cheesy music by injecting a large dose of cool americana into their lives. Now we are seeking coolest of the coolest as we attempt to bring you the top 10 americana albums ever. Already we have accumulated a veritable deep freeze cramped to bursting with cool sounds. With just a handful of writers left to find a space for their own particular delicacies, we will soon begin the process of whittling down the contents to a shortlist. From this shortlist we will then decide the ultimate top 10. This week’s selections are from Kimberly Bright, the first of our two US based writers.
I grew up around all variations of americana music, to the point where it permeated my surroundings, and I hardly noticed it. I watched clips of Grand Ole Opry performances on PBS (non-commercial TV), re-runs of ‘The Johnny Cash Show,’ episodes of ‘Hee Haw,’ a Saturday evening country comedic variety show with the recurring Opry characters like Minnie Pearl, hosted by Roy Clark and Buck Owens, and even ‘Barbara Mandrell and the Mandrell Sisters’ TV show. I couldn’t go past a bus stop bench without seeing an advertisement for a local country radio station with silly quotes from country songs. The first song I learned to sing as a toddler was ‘Delta Dawn,’ and the first ones I learned to play were public domain folk songs.
Watson is the undisputed king of country guitar, and his shredding flat picking, bordering on Paganini speed, on this straightforward, no-frills debut is awe-inspiring. Although it only had one original Watson tune (‘Doc’s Guitar’) it includes songs that were closely associated with him, like ‘Black Mountain Rag.’
Rucker’s Post-Hootie & the Blowfish solo work has been rather happy, angst-free roots-rock (non-bro) country, which took a lot of people by surprise. His sturdy, mellow, melodic voice is probably underused but still well-suited to these songs, especially ‘Alright’, ‘Don’t Think I Don’t Think About It’, and ‘Drinkin’ and Dialin’. This album is a gentle reminder that it’s OK to be happy sometimes.
Spedding’s post-RAK Records output started down the road to americana early on, which was fitting since he based his first two early ’70s Harvest albums on a distinct Band-like sound. At the encouragement of producer Philippe Rault, he jumped into the genre wholeheartedly on this release. His original ‘Dollar of My Pain’ is worthy of being covered as often as J.J. Cale’s back catalogue, whose ‘Cajun Moon’ is also included here. He also does stellar versions of ‘I Wouldn’t Treat A Dog’ and the Stones’ ‘No Expectations.’
Mahalia Jackson is, to me, the most gifted and most powerful gospel singer of all time. I want to assign all wispy, tremulous, whispery singers one month of listening to all of Mahalia’s albums and nothing else. I wish this live set had included her booming renditions of ‘We Shall Overcome’ and ‘Go Tell It On the Mountain,’ which rattles the bones of even the most agnostic person, but it has her heartfelt ‘Didn’t It Rain’ and ‘Joshua Fit the Battle of Jericho,’ which the audience went nuts over – in the rain.
Parker was a fan of American soul and R&B while growing up in England, and his time as an on-again off-again expat in upstate New York gave him plenty of time to further absorb American roots music. He turned his considerable talents to americana as a one-off hat-tip with ‘Your Country’. His cover of The Grateful Dead’s ‘Sugaree’ is amazing, as are his own ‘Things I’ve Never Said’ and ‘Cruel Lips’ (with Lucinda Williams). I’d love for him to record another album just like it.
This somewhat overlooked Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers album came between ‘Hard Promises’ and ‘Southern Accents’ and you can hear how Petty’s sound started to slowly change into what his solo work later became. The big hit from the album was ‘You Got Lucky’ but for me the best tracks are the sneering ‘One Story Town’, which perfectly describes my hometown at the time, the jangly ’60s-sounding ‘Deliver Me’ and the introspective ‘Straight Into Darkness.’
Williams’ rootsy, literate, wryly witty songwriting craft has made her responsible for a lot of alt-country converts who might never have peeked at the genre otherwise. I debated for weeks whether to include this album or her breakthrough ‘Car Wheels on a Gravel Road,’ but finally chose this one because of my all-time favorite Williams song, the bluesy ‘Changed the Locks.’
It took a long time for these brilliant but busy women to get together in the studio for this incredible collaboration and its follow-up. Their descriptions of writing and working together sounds like an incredible amount of fun. The simplest arrangements where Parton, Harris, and Ronstadt’s gorgeous voices are allowed to not just shine but positively blaze are wonderful, like on Kate McGarrigle’s ‘I’ve Had Enough’ and Parton’s ‘Wildflowers.’
When Mellencamp declared publicly that he was “done being a rock star” in 2009 he’d already gone a long way toward hanging up that particular hat, starting with 1989’s mature ‘Big Daddy.’ ‘Life Death Love and Freedom’ was his first album with producer T. Bone Burnett, who helped him achieve the dark, soulful, gospel-tinged folk sound. The socially and politically astute lyrics of these songs as well as those on ‘Freedom Road’ are even more meaningful these days. Karen Fairchild from Little Big Town provides that feminine lift that Mellencamp always thrives on.