Well we have finally arrived at the finishing post and here it is, our choice as Number 1 in the AUK quest to find the greatest americana album ever. At the bottom of the page you will see the full top 20 and the number of votes that they each received. Whilst perusing that list you may be nodding your approval or raging at our folly – either way we hope that you have enjoyed the series and next week it’s your turn as we ask our wonderful readers have their say. But before that, the final word comes from Martin Johnson, who placed our overall winner top of his own personal list, and now offers a compelling vindication of his and our choice.
The greatest americana album as voted for by the Americana UK writers is a heavy load for any album to carry and such a distinguished title can, in itself, be off-putting to some listeners. This is particularly the case with the ‘The Band’ by The Band as it is now over 50 years old, surely there must have been better albums released in the years since 1969, even if the men with grey beards don’t think so? The iconography of The Band as a group and the cover photography of Elliot Landry for the album ‘The Band’ supported this view of music from an earlier age, played by musicians who did look like they had been transported from that earlier age and yes, beards are in evidence. The fact it is also referred to as simply ‘The Brown Album’ is just part of this continuum. Hang on though, this view ignores the quality of the songs and the performances, and completely overlooks just how innovative the album was at the time of its release and how those innovations still chime with today’s americana music scene.
The album is really a concept album by a bunch of Canadians about the American South, with the support of an actual American southerner, Levon Helm, who was born and raised in Arkansas. Though they didn’t realise it at the time, the Band’s debut ‘Music From Big Pink’ was probably the first americana album with its mix of country, blues, soul, rock, folk, classical and R&B and the added value of three former boss Bob Dylan’s then-unreleased songs from the Basement Tape sessions. When it came to recording that all-important second album, they settled on going for the Woodstock “clubhouse feel” of the first album by installing a studio in the pool house of a Hollywood mansion once owned by Sammy Davis Jnr. Guitarist Robbie Robertson took more control of the album writing or co-writing every track on the album and taking more interest in the overall sound, which was an early indicator of his later soundtrack work. However, this is not a Robbie Robertson solo album backed by his bandmates in Ronnie Hawkins’ Hawks, because while Robertson may have written most of the material, the sound and delivery of the individual songs reflects the telepathic interplay the musicians had developed, and while everyone plays for the song, their individual musical characters are given full reign and can be heard for all to enjoy.
With the odd exception, ‘The Band’ could function as The Band’s greatest hits with no filler tracks and it includes their greatest songs including ‘Across The Great Divide’, ‘Rag Mama Rag, ‘The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down’, ‘The Unfaithful Servant’ and ‘King Harvest Has Surely Come’. The songs are largely about the American South of the 19th century and the music is a mix of American roots music, in fact, potential early names for the album had been ‘America’ and ‘Harvest’, later used by follow Canadian Neil Young a few years later. The earthiness was maintained with the album’s subsequent nickname, ‘The Brown Album’. The Band was blessed with three lead vocalists in Richard Manual, Levon Helm and Rick Danko who provided near-perfect vocals for the roots-based music. Additionally, all members ensured the music breathed and blended to a single whole, despite featuring mandolins, fiddle, acoustic and Curtis Mayfield inspired lead electric guitar, various keyboard and horn sounds, and one of the finest rhythm sections to drive a funky country soul beat.
Why was ‘The Band’ so innovative despite invoking a bygone timeless age? The first answer is that it is not real but a construct, produced by ex-patriot Canadians, with an American southerner to add extra seasoning, and this meant that from now on you didn’t have to be born in the South to play authentic music inspired by the South. While the music invoked that of an earlier time, it mixed and matched snatches of genres in one song in a way that hadn’t really been heard before. Some of the sounds were also new, Garth Hudson used his clavinet with a wah-wah pedal to produce the sound of a Jews harp on ‘Up On Cripple Creek’ and this instrument configuration was picked up by subsequent ‘70s funk musicians to become a ubiquitous sound of the decade. The biggest innovation was that ‘The Band’, and in particular the track ‘The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down’, presented an alternative and more complex view of the South at the end of the ‘60s that challenged the view that it was solely populated by redneck racists and members of the Klu Klux Klan. This meant that the music and culture of the South could be explored and enjoyed by people without the fear of supporting and propagating the racist legacy of the American Civil War. It is this final point that is the essence of why ‘The Band’ aka ‘The Brown Album’ can stake its claim to being the greatest americana album of all-time.
Each AUK writer was able to vote for five albums in order. Their number 1 choice got 5 points, Number 2 got 4 points etc
The Top 20 with votes
1. The Band – ‘The Band’ (1969) 59
2. Neil Young – ‘After The Goldrush’ (1970) 46
3. Lucinda Williams – ‘Car Wheels on a Gravel Road’ (1998) 39
4= Gene Clark – ‘No Other’ (1974) 35
4= Jason Isbell – ‘Southeastern’ (2013) 35
6. Bob Dylan – ‘Blonde on Blonde’ (1966) 34
7. Johnny Cash – ‘American Recordings’ (1994) 31
8. Uncle Tupelo – ‘No Depression’ (1990) 25
9. Townes Van Zandt – ‘Live at The Old Quarter, Houston, Texas’ (1977) 24
10. Wilco – ‘Yankee Hotel Foxtrot’ (2001) 23
11. Joni Mitchell – ‘Blue’ (1971) 22
12. Cowboy Junkies – ‘The Trinity Session’ (1988) 21
13. Grateful Dead – ‘American Beauty’ (1970) 20
14. The Flying Burrito Brothers – ‘The Gilded Palace of Sin’ (1969) 18
15. Dwight Yoakam – ‘Guitars, Cadillacs, Etc Etc’ (1986) 17
16. Gram Parsons – ‘Grievous Angel’ (1973) 16
17. The Civil Wars – ‘Barton Hollow’ (2011) 15
18. Laura Cantrell – ‘Not The Tremblin’ Kind’ (2000) 14
19. Paul Kelly – ‘Gossip’ (1986) 12
20. Emmylou Harris – ‘Roses in the Snow’ (1980) 9