Welcome once more to AUK’s quest to identify the top 10 americana albums ever. Looking back it is quite striking to see not only the diversity of the selections so far but also the consistent quality of them. It has been fascinating to see how each writer has interpreted this task. We have been captivated by reading so many impassioned explanations, justifications and reasonings behind the selections. Some have been personal, some a nod to the pioneers and the legends, some an advocation of a modern generation of musicians. This week, to add to our stockpile, we present another awesome denary of albums selected by AUK writer Lyndon Bolton.
No sooner had I started a list of possible candidates my inner nerd took over and in no time the list was heading resolutely towards its half century. Though that works out to only one album per year of listening, before going any further two questions needed clarifying. First, how am I defining this thing called ‘americana’ (a term that hadn’t emerged until well into that period anyway) and secondly, is there too much emphasis on what “should” be included?
In response I ceased agonising over the definition. Country, blues, folk and all stops in between with a large measure of rock has served me well up to now so that’s the first one dealt with. Second, while “top ten ever” isn’t the same as all-time favourite records there is no denying the selection remains very personal. What comes next are ten albums that I would offer anyone, whether music obsessive or newcomer, as complete examples of americana. Of course, there are many others but these all hit the button for me.
Number 10: Rosanne Cash ‘The List’ (2009)
As will become evident throughout this top ten, a common theme is history. Where does the song, artist, genre come from? Things get properly interesting for me when ‘americana’ becomes ‘roots’. So let’s start with ‘The List’ and go back to when Johnny Cash gave his 18 year old daughter a list of 100 essential country songs. What a gift! Rosanne put her own interpretation on 12 of these songs for her 13th studio album that, with husband John Leventhal and guests such as Springsteen, Jeff Tweedy and Elvis Costello, give these classics a contemporary americana feel. In so doing Cash plays her part in a long musical heritage. AP Carter’s ‘Bury Me Under The Weeping Willow’ is a fine example of the storytelling tradition being handed down the generations. Johnny’s second wife June Carter’s mother Maybelle was AP’s sister-in-law. The purity of Cash’s voice ties a tight bond back to the origins of this whole americana thing.
Number 9: Manassas ‘Manassas’ (1972)
Summing up this underrated and short-lived project Stephen Stills formed in 1971 his studio engineer Howard Albert said, “Manassas could play anything”. On a solo tour after CSNY’s first split Stills bumped into his old buddy Chris Hillman. Their jam session with Hillman’s Burrito Brothers, Al Perkins and Byron Berline added West Coast country rock to Stills’s touring band led to this incredibly diverse double album. It’s a shame americana hadn’t been invented as this was it, a side each of rock, country, bluegrass and folk. ‘Fallen Eagle’ combines trademark CSNY harmonies with bluegrass. “This country isn’t safe anymore/that’s for sure” suggests the lyrics remain pertinent 49 years on!
Number 8: Donna The Buffalo ‘Rockin’ In The Weary Land’ (1998)
Seeking as many of my americana components in one band plus community, equality and an urge to make the world a better place I reach for Donna The Buffalo. Founded by Tara Nevins and Jeb Puryear in 1989 DTB have a following who call themselves “The Herd”, and like the Dead, DTB is a lifestyle. They are a roots jamband playing anything from country and rock ‘n’ roll, to bluegrass and old-time fiddle, as well as Cajun and Zydeco. ‘Tides of Time’ was my introduction to DTB. To a surging Zydeco accordion, “Some day I might figure it/ Right now I’m just livin’ it” Nevins sets out The Herd’s ideal mission statement.
Number 7: Uncle Tupelo ‘No Depression’ (1990)
To country and bluegrass add the power of indie and the aggression of punk and you have Uncle Tupelo, whose first album ‘No Depression’ encapsulates what alt-country was all about. It remains one of the most complete examples of the genre right from the off with the blistering ‘Graveyard Shift’ that takes us back again to AP Carter. Uncle Tupelo spawned a genre of garage bands with a bit of country thrown in. Authenticity, effort, heart and energy makes ‘No Depression’ a shoo-in for a top ten. I’ll still go for the title track though.
Number 6: Rhiannon Giddens ‘Tomorrow is My Turn’ (2015)
Can a record released “only” five years ago be included in a list of top albums which starts 53 years ago? Of course it can when the breadth of material covers just about every point on the americana globe sung with a voice of equal enormity. Compared to others in this line-up Rhiannon Giddens is a relative newcomer. But on her debut album produced by T Bone Burnett with a crack group of musicians she applies her amazing voice to folk, blues, jazz, country and gospel with a modern freshness yet the deepest feeling for where the music comes from.
The country of Dolly Parton’s ‘Don’t Let It Trouble Your Mind’ and Hank Cochran’s ‘She’s Got You’, a hit for Patsy Cline, came as a slight (definitely welcome) surprise but when Giddens gets into the gospel of Sister Rosetta Tharp’s ‘Up Above My Head’ she is properly in her stride. Turning to folk Giddens gives Elizabeth Cotten’s ‘Shake Sugaree’ a deft and light touch but best of all is her take on traditional ‘Black Is The Color’.
Giddens is electrifying live, and representing the wealth of new americana music being made now she confirms there’s a lot to look forward to.
Number 5: Steve Earle ‘Exit 0’ (1987)
Steve Earle has featured on several of these lists and rightly so but mostly for his later work. I’ve gone for his second album because, and I said this was personal, I bought the album in Nashville not long after its release. I loved, and still do, classic country but Music City was going through a stale phase. The guy in the record store talked of something called alt-country and sent me on my way with Steve Earle. As with Earle’s better known debut ‘Guitar Town’, ‘Exit 0’ combines snappy honky-tonk country with his soulful ballads. But there is a bite to ‘Exit 0’ that almost makes it feel like the debut, not the usually suspect second album. A prime example is ’Nowhere Road’, true road trip material, my mission then, and a perfect example of Earle’s San Antonio roots with the finest old school twang revved up to guaranteed speed ticket territory. “There’s a road in Oklahoma/ Straighter than a preacher/ Longer than a memory”.
Number 4: Ozark Mountain Daredevils ‘Ozark Mountain Daredevils’ (1973)
Best known over here for their 1974 hit ‘Jackie Blue’ the Ozark Mountain Daredevils repertoire contains far more than 1970s country-pop. For the real Daredevils go back a year to their debut, eponymously titled, album. “The Quilt Album”, as it became known, is classic americana because it takes country-rock as in The Byrds and the Flying Burrito Brothers not to Nashville but deep into to the real roots of their Missouri home.
“The Quilt Album” is not just a classic americana album, it has been my constant companion for over 45 years. Opener ‘Country Girl’, a song of pure joy, says it all. Downhome lyrics and Steve Cash’s harp blends the Daredevils’ signature country-rock and electric bluegrass with harmonies to create a sound as uplifting as the sun rising over those Ozark mountains.
Number 3: Cowboy Junkies ‘The Trinity Session’ (1988)
That americana owes a great deal to Canada is a given, just where to start? The Cowboy Junkies debut ‘The Trinity Session’ takes some beating. A church was an ideal location to record the ethereal voice of Margo Timmins who with the band stood around a single mic. Careful mixing afterwards added further layers but the effect through is spare without a surplus word or note anywhere. The album has a wide span from traditional, ‘Mining For Gold’ through the most ghostly version of ‘I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry’ to Lou Reed’s ‘Sweet Jane’. Throughout swirls Timmins to create one of the most atmospheric albums ever, let alone americana! The haunting cadences of ‘To Love Is To Bury’ gets the nomination for track of the album.
Number 2: Bob Dylan & The Band ‘The Basement Tapes’ (1975)
There is no question that Dylan and the Band both deserve a place in this pantheon but space is tight so what better than to make them budge up and share the same seat? The Band’s debut ‘Music From Big Pink’ would probably be their entry and for His Bobness ‘Highway 61’. But together on ‘The Basement Tapes’ Dylan and The Band explore their love and knowledge of American traditional music. During 1967’s summer of love while the world was tuning in, turning on and dropping out, in a basement in upstate New York, Dylan and The Band were digging deep into the roots of American traditional music, both recording old songs and blending that history into something new. The sound is simple, the production is minimal but the result is total absorption into something completely timeless from the singalong of ‘Apple Suckling Tree’ to ‘Tears of Rage’, Dylan’s anguish at the way Vietnam was ripping America apart. Here’s ‘Long Distance Operator’ with the much underrated Richard Manuel on vocals. The bluesy swagger is just another dimension to this encyclopaedia of American music.
Number 1: Levon Helm ‘Electric Dirt’ (2009)
If The Band were the first truly americana group, it was Levon Helm who contributed so many of those traditional influences. Despite their legendary farewell show ‘The Last Waltz’ in 1976, they carried on in various line-ups amid deep acrimony for another 20 years. After that, Helm’s music revolved around his ‘Midnight Ramble’ jams with a huge variety of musicians at his studio/barn. Yet his finest work was to come. With his rich tenor gone as a result of surgery for throat cancer he still managed two more albums. Both ‘Dirt Farmer’ and ‘Electric Dirt’ are worthy candidates for ‘top ten americana albums ever’ but the latter, a more eclectic sweep of americana edges its acoustic predecessor.
Miraculously Helm’s voice had recovered nearly all its elasticity as he applied himself to this glorious tour of covers with his own first composition for thirty years. ‘Electric Dirt’ completely recreates the essence of Helm’s ‘Midnight Ramble’ as he switches between Muddy Waters ‘Stuff You Gotta Watch’ to the bluegrass of Carter Stanley’s ‘White Dove’, Greenwich Village folk stalwart Happy Traum’s ‘Golden Bird’ and Garcia/Hunter’s ‘Tennessee Jed’. Helm’s daughter Amy features on both albums, her own superb music carries on the family americana traditions. The greatest contribution came from Dylan’s sideman Larry Campbell. ‘Electric Dirt’ won the first ever Grammy Award for ‘Best Americana Album’. Here’s the one Helm wrote with Campbell ‘Growin’ Trade’ about an ageing farmer who grows marijuana because “this land is my legacy, I got nowhere to turn”.