A happy new year to everyone as we head into the home straight with our quest to identify the top 10 americana albums ever. Only a handful of writers remain to offer their suggestions before we head into drawing up our shortlist from which AUK writers will make their final selections. This week, Peter Tomkins, one of our newest writers offers up a wonderful mix of bypassed gems, classic americana and one or two formative acts that have remarkably not raised their heads until now. Another fabulous example of the great diversity of tastes that exist within our ranks. Here’s Peter….
At heart I remain a child of the punk rock era (although I was only ten when the Pistols appeared with Bill Grundy.) My introduction to the folk world, therefore, was via The Pogues and my introduction to country music was via The Clash who shared stages with Joe Ely. So it is inevitable that my top ten selections come from the rowdier and less subtle end of the americana spectrum. That’s not to say that I don’t appreciate those more polished and intricate records, but what really grabs me by the scruff of the neck and churns me up inside is what has made it here.
I had about a week between being asked to write this top ten and delivering the copy so, as with any top ten list, the choices may completely change next time I am asked. These are the albums which made the cut this week. There were lots of albums that nearly got in: Neko Case’s ‘Furnace Room Lullaby’, Iris Dement, Dwight Yoakam, Cowboy Junkies. The Black’s ‘Dolly Horrorshow’ almost made it to my ‘lost albums’ section. My biggest debate was around Hank 3’s ‘Straight To Hell’ and Bob Wayne’s ‘Outlaw Carnie’: both loud, rowdy and in your face; but rejected as I decided they were more straight-ahead outlaw country and so outside the americana genre (whatever the hell that is.) And maybe we do need music to have a little more subtlety and depth to make the top ten best albums. There should probably be an Austin Lucas album in there, but I couldn’t decide which one.
Ask me next week.
Number 10: Waco Brothers ‘Cowboy In Flames’ (1997)
My initiation into Americana was via The Mekons, the Leeds based punk band who morphed into the greatest country-punk art-rock band of whom no one much has ever heard. In fact, my first pick was The Mekons’ Honky Tonkin’, but I rejected this for inclusion as musically it ran from reggae through folk, punk and art-rock as well as country (and was not The Mekons’ greatest achievement which came a couple of years later with ‘Rock and Roll’.) But following Jon Langford’s move to Chicago he created the Waco Brothers ostensibly to play country songs around the bars and keep him in beer before the band grew a life of its own.
Their first album ‘To The Last Dead Cowboy’ included some great tunes such as the title track and ‘Bad Times (Are Coming Round Again)’, but wasn’t the fully realised article. ‘Cowboy In Flames’ opens with the superb ‘See Willy Fly By’ and announced the Waco Brothers as far more than a side band. The album closes with two covers of Cash and Jones and the outstanding ‘The Death Of Country Music’ which tangentially launched Jon Langford as a visual artist – check out his art at the Yard Dog Gallery. Along the way check out the beautiful country lament ‘Dollar Dress’.
I could just as easily have replaced this with Langford’s ‘Misery Loves Company’ collection of Cash covers with the Pine Valley Cosmonauts. But, however left field and masterful those covers were, nothing touches the Man In Black himself.
Number 9: Johnny Cash ‘American Recordings’ (1994)
It would be hard to say which is the greatest Cash album. It may be sacrilege to say it, but there were problems with quality control throughout his career. For every ‘Hurt’ or ‘Ballad Of Ira Hayes’ there is a ‘Dirty Ol’ Egg-Sucking Dog’. But hell, if you know a thousand songs, they aren’t all going to be classics.
For me ‘American Recordings’ simply stands for the resurgence of a fading career: the re-discovery of the roots of country music in the form of Cash who symbolised the humble origins of country music amid the fight for dignity by the down-trodden and dirt poor. From the cover shot where Cash looks like a cross between a gnarled old rancher and a gunfighter to the simple arrangements of guitar and baritone vocals this was the very essence of Cash: the troubadour of the working man and woman (as long as you weren’t ‘Delia’.) The Cash who could show a whole posse of gangster rappers what it really meant to be bad.
After seeing him at that time playing on both ‘Later with Jools Holland’ and the stage at Glastonbury it was clear we were ready for a few years of greatness from the Man in Black.
Number 8: Sarah Shook & the Disarmers ‘Years’ (2018)
So, what are the great themes of country songs? Heartache? Drink? The contribution of one to the other? These have been the cornerstone of many a country career. In fact, Robbie Fulks skewered this relationship in a song he wrote for Linda Gail Lewis (Jerry Lee’s sister who managed to beat Jerry’s record of seven marriages by one) called ‘I Just Lived a Country Song’.
But these themes have generally been rooted in a very male inadequacy and failure to be faithful. Sarah Shook has re-formed this whole from the perspective of someone who “knew I was genderqueer when I was about 9 (right around the time I developed and had to conceal my first crush) and from that point on I accepted that I never completely identified as a girl.” These are very twenty-first century honky-tonk songs where it is no longer just the man’s role to view their failures through the bottom of a whiskey glass.
And Sarah Shook has a perfectly fractured high lonesome drawl that can twist and melt your heart.
Number 7: The Handsome Family ‘In The Air’ (2000)
Want to see the impact of drinking on a relationship? Then let’s stop by ‘So Much Wine’ where we hear:
“There’s only so much wine,
You can drink in one life,
But it will never be enough,
To save you from the bottom of your glass”
I’m not sure whether the ‘country-noir’ genre actually existed before Brett and Rennie Sparks dropped their drummer and set out as the quintessential husband and wife duo. But I do remember seeing them at a small venue in Leicester during which Brett read the spoken narration from the Louvin Brothers’ ‘Satan is Real’ and Rennie asked if we liked her dress as “my mother was buried in it.” Clearly this was music out of leftfield.
The Handsome Family, however, write songs of stunning intensity and exquisite, oblique beauty that go far beyond any straight concept of the gothic into the deeper emotional recesses of the brain; those deep recesses that we don’t realise exist until art takes us there. On ‘In the Air’ we follow ‘Poor, Poor Lenore’ or ‘The Sad Milkman’ to these inner depths and their inevitable ends. And all this poetry is embellished by a low key, woozy, DIY early country band sound.
Number 6: Steve Earle ‘El Corazon’ (1998)
It must have been 1987. Cardiff University – student digs in Wyeverne Road. My mate Dave says listen to this “it’s a bit like Springsteen” and hands me a copy of Steve Earle & the Dukes’ ‘Exit 0’. It was “a bit like Springsteen”, but so much more than that. I searched out the other albums and then a couple of years later Earle seemed to disappear. Reappearing in the mid-nineties, following his “holiday in the ghetto” and prison, to record an outstanding musical outpouring over the subsequent decade.
I was tempted towards Earle’s album with the Del McCoury Band, which includes the perfect duet ‘I’m Still in Love with You’ with Iris Dement. But ‘El Corazon’ is probably the pick of that fantastic seam of musical creativity. The closing pairing of ‘Here I Am’, with son Justin on guitar, and the Townes Van Zandt tribute ‘Fort Worth Blues’ takes on a real poignancy following Justin Townes Earle’s death in August 2020 as he lost his fight with addiction as his namesake had over twenty years previously.
The breadth of styles covered on ‘El Corazon’ showcases Earle’s versatility from pounding country rockers like ‘N.Y.C.’ through the bluegrass of ‘I Still Carry You Around’ and the classic country of ‘The Other Side of Town’. There is a clear political undertow starting with opening track ‘Christmas In Washington’ that grew on subsequent albums.
Number 5: Lonesome Bob ‘Things Fall Apart’ (1997)
Now to the first of a couple of lost classic albums that never quite made it sees Lonesome Bob (Chaney) shifting the country values of hard work, hard-drinking and heartache from the blue to the white-collar workforce. With a deep baritone voice and songs about human frailty there is a clear thread between Cash, Earle and Chaney. The album also has some backing from great musicians like Tim Carroll and Ken Coomer; as well as backing vocals from a young country singer, Allison Moorer.
Chaney puts a number of modern twists to classic country themes; but ‘The Plans We Made’ is a totally straight murder ballad duet with Moorer where illicit lovers murder their spouses to be together. Elsewhere we cover religion (‘Heaven’s Gate’) and the impossibility of moral absolutes (‘My Mother’s Husband’).
Lonesome Bob made one more album – ‘Things Change’ (2002) – before accepting the widescale indifference of the record-buying public. I’m not sure what it is about this album that speaks so directly to me. I think it is the simplicity and directness: Chaney is not trying to be clever but is chronicling the complexities and uncertainties that characterise all our lives without trying to provide answers. As he outlines in ‘Different Shades of Gray’ life has a tendency not to turn out as we plan:
“Sometimes it all just seems so simple, That is not the way I feel today,
For as much as I want us to stay together, I watch you walk away.”
And sometimes it is the obvious that ends up being the most profound.
Number 4: Grievous Angels ‘Miles on the Rails’ (1998)
The second lost classic in this top ten. Be really careful here as there seem to be a myriad of Americana bands who have nabbed the Grievous Angels tag from Gram Parsons. This is the Grievous Angels, sometimes also called Earl C Whitehead & The Grievous Angels, from Tempe, Arizona. Why is ‘Miles on the Rails’ in the top ten? Simply that this seems to be the distillation of everything that makes americana – or did we call it alt-country back then? – great.
In the nineties many bands followed Ryan Adams’ advice from Whiskeytown’s ‘Faithless Street’:
“So I started this damn country band,
Cause punk rock was too hard to sing”
And ‘Miles on the Rails’ was precisely a punk rock album played in a country style by punk musicians who’d got hold of a pedal steel and a rhythm section that seemed straight out of Nashville. ‘Don’t Think I Will’ chronicles a relationship doomed between co-dependent alcoholics – “I must make a choice between my liver and my heart” – and ‘Help Yourself’ engages some dramatic biblical references to describe a failed romance: “And if an evil pestilence descends upon the land, All the prayer in the world won’t curb the shifting sands.” But all of this is done with an upbeat, high-intensity commitment to the country vibe. Hell, even Tom Waits’ ‘Cold Cold Ground’ sounds like a real foot stomper. Closing track is a cover of Hank Williams’ ‘Long Gone Lonesome Blues’ with some outstanding pedal steel and yodelling.
Another band who gave up due to commercial indifference, although their master of the pedal steel, Jon Rauhouse, remains a major figure in the world of americana.
Number 3: The Dead South: ‘Illusion & Doubt’ (2016)
There needed to be a bluegrass album in this top ten somewhere. It could have been Steve Earle’s ‘The Mountain’, or some classic Bill Monroe maybe, or anything by Peter Rowan. In fact, Dolly Parton’s bluegrass albums either side of the millennium were close to making the cut. But The Dead South have taken bluegrass into new dimensions. I’ve never been entirely sure where we would define the border between string band mountain music and bluegrass per se, but I don’t think The Dead South would really care. They certainly aren’t purists by any measure.
Where to start with ‘Illusion & Doubt’? Well, maybe ‘Deadman’s Isle’ where the first-person narrator seems to be on trial after allowing his dog to drive his car. But this is no Shel Silverstein style comedy riff, but performed dead straight. Or the American Civil War ballad ‘The Good Lord’ where the Confederate soldier debates his part in the war with his pregnant wife, but is she in his imagination? The lyrics could, however, describe any innocent caught up in war:
“Well, I don’t know what I am doing fighting in this stupid war,
I’m not a Yankee or a greyback any more,
I’ve killed so many men just to kill so many more,
Just want to see my baby before I die in this shit storm.”
The scope of the songs’ themes encompasses everything from the drunk husband begging his wife to let him in the house in ‘Time for Crawlin’’ to the epic spaghetti western of ‘The Massacre of El Kuroke’ and the dramatic showdown of ‘Gunslinger’s Glory’. All backed by mandolin, banjo and cello picked with the intensity and attitude of a speed metal band with a pin-prick stare.
Number 2: Uncle Tupelo ‘Still Feel Gone’ (1991)
My introduction to Uncle Tupelo came via their inclusion on the Michelle Shocked album ‘Arkansas Traveller’. After hearing ‘Shaking Hands (Soldier’s Joy)’ I set off to Spinadisc in Northampton and found this album. The first track ‘Gun’ was a great blast of college radio indie, but second track ‘Looking For a Way Out’ was something else. Jay Farrar’s country drawl and a wailing guitar line that takes Springsteen’s feeling of being caged in a small town and cranks it up to something anthemic. A change of mood on ‘Still Be Around’ and Farrar’s vocals introduce a world of religion, drink and claustrophobic intensity. A world from which to try and break free.
The key track is ‘Postcard’ which starts with guitar thrash before Farrar’s vocals lead us through a steel guitar-led country chorus before we are sucked back into the thrash verse. The track brings together the two worlds of indie-rock and country with such clarity that I was left wondering why it had never happened like this before. Although, of course, I knew it had: I had heard Hűsker Dű’s ‘Sorry Somehow’ and REM’s ‘The One I Love’, but none of those precursors were quite this fully realised.
I subsequently discovered their first album ‘No Depression’ and followed their careers. I was always more drawn to Farrar’s voice and less enamoured by bandmate Jeff Tweedy; even now. I could have chosen one of Son Volt’s early albums, although their latest album ‘Union’ is also a great record; but Farrar’s later output could never rekindle that first adrenalin rush again.
Number 1: Old 97’s ‘Wreck Your Life’ (1995)
Some times you find an album which seems so perfect that you measure everything that comes after against it. This is what I discovered in ‘Wreck Your Life’. A paean to love and music. A love-song to the rock and roll lifestyle and to living as an outsider to the straight culture. The amazing thing is that Old 97’s are still singing about the same things twenty-five years later. ‘Longer Than You’ve Been Alive’, from the 2014 album ‘Most Messed Up’, acknowledges Stewart ‘Rhett’ Miller’s equal surprise that they are still allowed to sing these songs after so many years.
The songs on ‘Wreck Your Life’ tell of challenged relationships. There is ‘Doreen’:
“When I first met Doreen she was barely seventeen.
She was drinking whisky sours in a bar.
The way she tossed them back, I would have had a heart-attack.
But as it is I let her drive my car.”
She ends up breaking the singer’s heart whilst he is out of town on tour. Then there is ‘W-I-F-E’:
“I’ve got my wife, the other women and the whisky killing me,
The first two make me see red and the third one makes it so I can’t see.”
But there are also songs about the beauty and joy of love, for instance, the mariachi swing of ‘You Belong to my Heart’ and the bluegrass of ‘My Sweet Blue-Eyed Darlin’. Before we end with the inevitable relationship breakdown in closing track ‘Goin’ Goin’ Gone’:
“Going down to the tracks, I’m going to hide out for a while,
Have me some ranch style beans from a tin-can hobo style,
Forget your face, if that can be done….
And you’ll find yourself a boyfriend and he won’t like my cat,
And you’ll try to pretend that you don’t want me back.”
Behind all these songs is the raw western rock and roll guitar of Ken Bethea, a cross between Scotty Moore and Stevie Ray Vaughan.
To me this is the very essence of americana. Songs charged with the very soul of rock and roll all wrapped in music that takes its cues from the wildness of Jerry Lee Lewis, the heartbreak of Hank Williams and the knowing Western twang of Buck Owens.