Well how about that! Barely had time to stretch my feet out under the AUK’s staff writers desk and certainly before I’ve earned any stripes and here I am entrusted with the job of compiling my list for the Top 10 Americana Albums of the last 20 years. Have to admit to being incredibly honoured and just a little terrified, still learning my craft so to speak, and having seen some of the albums chosen by my colleagues over the previous week, still a lot I need to listen to.
So, where to start! This wonderful music we call americana has over time taken on so many fantastic different shapes and sounds that would be impossible to represent with just ten albums. So instead maybe I should aim for a best of list or possibly the opportunity to promote some of my favourite albums that were overlooked in the past? Should I follow my heart or my head?
On a different day of the week the list below could have looked very different, taken up with the likes of Wilco, Drive-By Truckers, Bill Callahan, Midlake, Hiss Golden Messenger and Jonathan Wilson. It could have an undiscovered classic such as Rachel Harrington’s ‘The Bootlegger’s Daughter‘, and somebody from this side of the pond, maybe James Elkington and his ‘Ever – Roving Eye‘.
Alas it has none of those. In fact, it has a look of the usual suspects about it, with few if any surprises. I guess I followed my head, but for now I’m happy to stand by my decision.
So with the utmost apologies to Lucinda Williams, Rodney Crowell, Rosanne Cash, Buddy Miller, Patty Griffin, Todd Snider, Gillian Welch, and James McMurtry, who should all be in this list, the pint still won’t fit into the half-pint pot, here is my top ten.
Number 10: Levon Helm ‘Dirt Farmer’ (2007)
Through his work with The Band, Levon Helm’s position in americana folklore has long been secured, but his solo work over the following years had been sparse to say the least, largely due to being diagnosed with throat cancer in the late 1990’s. After successful, though arduous radiation treatment had severely damaged his vocal chords, it seemed one of the greatest voices of our time had sung his final note.
However, the voice recovered enough, that by 2007, Helm was well enough to go back into the studio and record ‘Dirt Farmer‘, under the close full watch of his daughter Amy, and Larry Campbell, who’s sympathetic, minimalistic, production using just acoustic instruments allowed the whole album to breath. The songs were a mix of traditional tunes that Helm had known from his youth along with work from contemporary artists such as Steve Earle and Buddy Miller. In fact, if Earle’s only contribution to the americana cause had to be to write “The Mountain” for Helm to sing, it would have been enough.
Before his sad passing in 2012, Helm recorded one more album, the equally admired ‘Electric Dirt‘, but to these ears the overall production and song selection just gives the first album the edge. Even in his twilight years Helm didn’t just sing, he inhabited every syllable.
Number 9: ‘Genuine Negro Jig’ (2010)
In hindsight it’s not surprising that a band comprising of Dom Flemons, Rhiannon Giddens, and Justin Robinson could create an album of such creative intensity and subtle beauty, nor that the individual talent on show would eventually travel their separate ways and follow their own musical paths.
As one of the few African-American string bands around they drew on a mix of traditional folk and bluegrass music as well as current songwriters such as Tom Waits, all embodied with a raw energy quite unlike anything around at the time. It was also a timely reminder of the role black musicians have on traditional american music, past and present, helping to push the door open for others to follow, such as Valerie June, Allison Russell and Amythyst Kiah.
Number 8: Sturgill Simpson ‘A Sailor’s Guide to Earth’ (2016)
Sturgill Simpson’s first two independently released albums, produced by Dave Cobb, garnered enough positive interest from the major labels that his third album ‘A Sailor’s Guide to Earth‘ would be released on Atlantic Records. Boldly choosing to produce the album himself, dedicated to his newly born son, Simpson enlisted the help of The funk and soul band The Dap Kings, to add a joyous horn section, alongside the more traditional sound of the pedal steel guitar and fiddle. But, in truth it is Simpson’s vocals that take this album in to the upper echelons of country music, with a range and depth reminiscent of the great Merle Haggard or Waylon Jennings. The album would win Best Country Album at the Grammys, with Simpson writing all the tracks bar one, a cover of Nirvana’s ‘In Bloom‘. An outlaw country album for the 21st century.
Number 7: Simone Felice ‘Strangers’ (2014)
Simone Felice’s previous work with his brothers and with the band he formed in 2009, The Duke & The King, had always suggested there was a masterpiece in him just waiting to happen. It would take until his second solo album ‘Strangers’, in 2014, to all come together, but it was worth the wait. There is such a magical poetic beauty that emminates through every heartbeat of every song that leaves the listener transfixed, transported to another place, hardly daring to breath, in fear of breaking the spell.
Everything about this album is right. From the glorious harmonies to the tasteful and subtle accompaniment, all wrapped in Felice’s honey dripped vocals and heart felt poetry.
Number 6: Emmylou Harris ‘Red Dirt Girl’ (2000)
Emmylou Harris’s contribution to the americana cause is almost unequalled, from her work with Gram Parsons in the seventies, then leading her band, The Hot Band, which proved such a platform for new talent, before recording the genre defining ‘Wrecking Ball’ in 1995 under the guidance of Daniel Lanois. However her first attempt at songwriting with ‘The Ballad of Sally Rose’, had failed critically and commercially some ten years earlier.
Encouraged by the success of ‘Wrecking Ball‘ it was time to try again, and on ‘Red Dirt Girl‘, Harris would write or co-write all bar one of the twelve tracks. An incredibly personal album, with a support cast to die for that included, Buddy & Julie Miller, Patti Scialfa, Bruce Springsteen, Patty Griffin and Kate McGarrigle, Harris, by now in her fifth decade, delivers a vocal performance of the greatest depth and maturity.
After forty years of fighting the cause and championing others, Harris had finally found her true voice, her own sound, her true identity. ‘Red Dirt Girl’, is a fitting testament to one of the greatest, and most important artist of her generation.
Number 5: Dave Alvin ‘Eleven Eleven’ (2011)
The proceeding years to the release of ‘Eleven Eleven‘, were difficult for Alvin. Not only did he lose one his closest friends in accordionist Chris Gaffney to liver cancer, but also fiddle player Amy Farris, member of the Guilty Woman, who took her own life in 2009. The resulting impact of this loss resonates through this album, especially on tracks such as ‘Run Conejo Run‘, and ‘No Worries Mija’, the latter written by Gaffney, while ‘Black Rose of Texas‘ is a song in memory of Farris.
Written mostly while on tour the previous year, the tragedies suffered, seemed to give Alvin’s work a sharper focus and intensity, his story telling more lyrical, his voice more world wise. Alvin had been one of the finest songwriters of the previous thirty years, but on ‘Eleven Eleven’, it all came together, with tracks like, ‘Johnny Ace is Dead‘, and ‘Murrietta’s Head‘, wonderfully demonstrating his songcraft.
Number 4: Mary Gauthier ‘The Foundling’ (2010)
Mary Gauthier was already thirty five before she recorded her first album, ‘Dixie Kitchen‘(1997), in which time life had already been full of extreme highs and lows, successes and failures, so wonderfully told in her recent autobiography ‘Save by a Song‘. By 2008 she had established herself as one of the finest songwriters of the previous ten years, with albums such as ‘Drag Queens in Limousines’, and songs ‘Mercy Now‘ and ‘I Drink‘, being covered by numerous well known artists. Yet despite this success, the demons still remained.
Gauthier was given up at birth and for her first year was cared for at an infants asylum before being adopted by an Italian Catholic couple. ‘The Foundling’, recounts her journey from those earliest memories up to the reconnecting with her birth mother, albeit a solitary phone call, all done with a depth of understanding that only first hand experience can bring. Gauthier’s skill is in sharing her experience, letting the listener feel a part of the journey.
Many of the characters in Gauthier’s previous songs were often thinly disguised representations of herself, on ‘The Foundling‘, there was no such hiding place. The stark honesty of the lyrics and the minimalistic arrangement, create a unique insight into one of our finest writers quest for understanding and a wish to belong.
Number 3: Tom Russell ‘The Rose of Roscrae’ (2015)
The final part of a trilogy that started with ‘The Man From God Knows Where‘ in 1999, followed by ‘Hotwalker‘ in 2005, ‘The Rose of Roscrae‘ is a sprawling, audacious, western folk opera, containing fifty two tracks, some spoken, mostly sung, that tells the story of a fictitious Irishman by the name of Johnny Dutton who sets sail for America to become a cowboy back in the 1880’s. To help tell this tale and give the narrative such depth, Russell calls on the most impressive cast of players from americana’s past and present, such as Johnny Cash, Lead Belly, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Joe Ely, Eliza Gilkyson, Gretchen Peters, A.L.Lloyd, and Jimmy Lafave, while the selected material includes many traditional tunes alongside Russell’s newly penned, and back catalogue.
In many ways, such an ambitious project, spanning a double CD, would seem destined to fail, but on the contrary, Russell manages to maintain the focus of the story as it gallops across the western landscape, carrying the listener along in their very own stagecoach.
In recent years Rolling Stone magazine described Russell, “As the finest writer of our time”, a lofty accolade, but one few would argue with. One thing is for sure, once you’ve heard ‘The Rose of Roscrae‘ you’ll not forget it, nor likely hear anything quite like it again.
Number 2: Jason Isbell ‘Southeastern’ (2013)
For over a decade Isbell had shown glimpses that something extra special lived within his songwriting, from his time with the mighty Drive-By Truckers, on to his solo work and with The 400 Unit. However, it required him to finally sober up to produce his masterpiece.
The unflinching honesty to which Isbell lyrics address the subject matter here, which includes, living with cancer, sexual abuse, and murder, draws even the most reluctant listener in, and his voice, which now oozes with a new self confidence, is ably supported by his new wife Amanda Shires, and Kim Richey, all delicately wrapped up by Dave Cobb’s excellent production.
In over fifty years of being entranced by the art of the singer-songwriter, there has been but a handful of albums that have stopped me in my tracks the way ‘Southeastern’ did. And not just on the first listen, but over and over again.
In 2020 Rolling Stone would rank ‘Southeastern’ in its top 500 Albums of all time.
Number 1: Gretchen Peters ‘Blackbirds’ (2015)
In all fairness Gretchen Peters 2012 album, ‘Hello Cruel World’ should be in this top 10, such is its strength and quality. So to think that she could better it with her 2015 release ‘Blackbirds’ seemed an almost impossible task, but better it she did. Ably supported in the writing department by Ben Glover, Matraca Berg and Suzy Bogguss, with guest appearances from the likes of Jason Isbell, Jimmy Lafave and Kim Richey, the albums subject matter took on a darker, more haunted feel than its predecessor with mortality being a common theme. Here Peters voice delivers with a greater toughness and defiance, while Doug Lancio provides some wonderful guitar playing and Barry Walsh some sumptuous keys.
If the true art in the craft of songwriting lies in not what is said, but rather what is not said, where the space between the lines encourages the listener to actively inhabit the void then Peters has the gift most others can only dream of.
Peters was inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame the previous year, and this album would go on to win International Album of the Year by the UK Americana Association.