In 1984 I discovered Elvis Costello. I quickly sought out his back catalogue. However, there was a problem. I couldn’t get my head around ‘Almost Blue’, his 1981 album of country covers. Aptly enough the album cover had a sticker on it proclaiming: “WARNING: This album contains country & western music and may cause offense to narrow minded listeners”. Although the record didn’t offend me, my narrow mindedness did mean that it laid unplayed for several years. That is until, for some forgotten reason, I dug it out one day and the needle dropped on Costello’s version of ‘How Much I Lied’, which I started to play incessantly. The lifting of the scales from my eyes coincided with the reissue of Gram Parson’s ‘GP’ and ‘Grievous Angel’ on a single CD in 1990, and has led me, 32 years later, to compiling my top 10 favourite Americana albums of the 21st century.
Number 10: Jenny Lewis And The Watson Twins ‘Rabbit Fur Coat‘ (2006)
Lewis has had an interesting life, coming to prominence as a child actor firstly in adverts before graduating to television and films as a teenager and then pursuing a career in music with the indie band Rilo Kiley. In 2005, with the band dormant, her friend Conor Oberst convinced her to make a solo album for his new label. Roping in the Watson Twins on backing vocal, the result was the country influenced ‘Rabbit Fur Coat’. Lewis’s interplay with the gospelesque Watson Twins comes to the fore on ’Rise Up With Fists’. There’s also a sparkling cover version of the Traveling Wilburys’ ‘Handle With Care’. Lewis has released a further six studio albums in various guises since 2006, all of which have considerable merits, but do not top her debut solo outing.
Number 9: Aimee Mann ‘Mental Illness‘ (2017)
I recall a reviewer describing Mann’s ninth studio album as “elegant chamber folk”, which is a fitting portrayal. The gorgeous string arrangements on the songs, which are immaculately produced, are often home to heart wrenching lyrics. ‘You Never Loved Me’ tells the tale of a friend who travels 3,000 miles only to be stood up on her wedding day. The album starts with the single ‘Goose Snow Cone’. Inspired by a friend’s cat called Goose, it explores loneliness, as well as the homesickness Mann experienced whilst on tour. This delicate and elegant record is right up there with Mann’s best.
Number 8: Steve Earle ‘Jerusalem‘ (2002)
This album found Steve Earle in admirable form, eloquently articulating his anger at the world. It includes ‘John Walker’s Blues’ which was written from the perspective of John Walker Lindh, a young American who’d converted to Islam, and ended up fighting for the Taliban in Afghanistan. It was brave song to write as it caused a reasonable amount of controversy at the time, although the aim of the song was not to condone, but to humanise how a young person could end up in Lindh’s situation. The album ends with the rousing ‘Jerusalem’, which provides the listener with some hope: ‘And I believe that on that day all the children of Abraham, Will lay down their swords forever in Jerusalem’.
Number 7: Rosanne Cash ‘The River And The Thread‘ (2013)
Inspired by a trip to the South, this is in many ways a reflective album. ‘Sunken Land’ muses on Johnny Cash’s boyhood home in Dyess, Arkansas. The Dyess Colony was set up as part of Roosevelt’s New Deal and his former house has now been restored and is open to visitors. ‘Etta’s Song’ reflects on Etta Grant, who was the wife of Johnny Cash’s original bass player Marshall Grant, and a lifelong family friend. They were married for 65 years and every day Marshall would wake up and ask Etta the opening line of the song, ‘What’s the temperature darling?’ Cash wrote ‘When The Master Calls The Roll’ with both her current spouse (John B Leventhal) and ex-husband (Rodney Crowell). It’s an American Civil War love story, based loosely on two of Cash’s ancestors. The song, in its original form, was intended for Emmylou Harris but having passed on it, Cash re-wrote the lyrics and a masterpiece was born.
Number 6: Laura Cantrell ‘When The Roses Bloom Again’ (2002)
Cantrell’s second album, ‘When The Roses Bloom Again’, found her angelic voice tackling songs composed by herself, as well as Amy Rigby, Joe Flood and Ray Pennington to name just a few. The title track, ‘When The Roses Bloom Again’, which relates an ill-fated tale of love and war, is the centrepiece of the album. It’s a Carter Family tune that was recorded by Jeff Tweedy and Billy Bragg for their ‘Mermaid Avenue’ albums, in the mistaken belief that it was a Woody Guthrie original. Cantrell’s version of the song was released before Tweedy’s and is the better of the two. It’s a great shame that since this album came out, Cantrell’s only released a further three full length studio albums in the past 20 years. Here’s hoping a new record’s just around the corner.
Number 5: Courtney Marie Andrews ‘Old Flowers‘ (2020)
This album, which was borne out of heartbreak but not out of bitterness, is a thing of grace. The title track muses on love that is gone, ‘you can’t water old flowers’. The songs are meditative and intimate. They are helped in this regard by the relatively sparse instrumentation provided by Andrews, Matthew Davidson, who plays everything from bass to pedal steel, and Big Thief’s James Krivchenia on drums. The album ends fittingly with ‘Ships In The Nights’, a tender song saying good bye to a lover: ‘Hope you ease up on the drinking, Hope you laugh, hope you care, Hope your days are even better than the ones that we shared’.
Number 4: Wesley Stace ‘Self Titled‘ (2013)
Having been signed by Seymour Stein to Sire in 1989, found success in the US in the early 1990s and released some 18 albums under the alias John Wesley Harding, Stace reverted to his given name, releasing an autobiographical record reflecting on past and current relationships. ‘We Will Always Have New York’ recalls an amble around the city’s landmarks whilst ruminating on a previous love. It features a beautiful string quartet. ‘Self Titled’ is an album filled with love, humour, tenderness, honesty and a dash of heartbreak.
Number 3: Jason Isbell ‘Southeastern‘ (2013)
‘Southeastern’ comprises stories of characters facing day-to-day conflict; whether it’s the person in ‘Elephant’ agonising how to best console a friend dying of cancer or ‘Live Oak’ about a murderer looking for redemption with a forgiving woman, a tale which doesn’t end well. Isbell’s previous struggles with drugs and alcohol must have given him more than enough material to write numerous autobiographical songs for this album. It’s to Isbell’s immense credit that he chose to inhabit and empathise with so many different characters in the stories he tells here.
Number 2: Gillian Welch ‘Soul Journey‘ (2003)
Welch’s fourth album was somewhat of a departure from her previous releases featuring more electric instruments. It has tales of washed up beauty queens, ‘Miss Ohio’, devotional songs such has ‘I Had A Real Good Mother And Father’ and the autobiographical ‘Wrecking Ball’. However, it’s not just the strength of the songs which make this album stand out, it’s the interplay between Welch and David Rawlings’ pure guitar playing which make this record a thing of beauty.
Number 1: Calexico ‘Feast Of Wire‘ (2003)
An eclectic album with a range of genres from the opening ¾ time of ‘Sunken Waltz’ to the cinematic vistas of ‘Black Heart’ and ‘Close Behind’ via the sci-fi influenced ‘Attack! El Robot! Attack!’, the musicianship is superb. This is the album where all Calexico’s strengths came together for the first time. It conjures images of south-western American frontier towns and the tensions that borders create, with the Mariachi driven ‘Across The Wire’ articulating the hopes and fears of two brothers trying to get into to the US to make better lives for themselves. In short, this is a true Americana classic.