When compiling my ‘Top Ten Ever’ list I spent surprisingly little time ruminating how and what to include. Instead, I just came up with ten albums that for various reasons have made a deep impression on me that I would offer anyone, whether music obsessive or newcomer, as good examples of americana. For ’21st Century’ I’ve done the same again. Despite some very sensible restrictions introduced by my fellow writers for their second time round I have applied none to my selection. So big name or small, whether they appeared previously or not, all were eligible. If there is a guiding light then it is my fascination with the origins of the music and how they have developed from so many sources.
Perhaps I have swung too far towards singer/songwriters at the expense of big names. But this is not an attempt to agonise over some definitive top ten, it is all too personal for that and if my homework gets thrown back at me with a “rubbish, do it again” no doubt the ten albums will be completely different. In the spirit of the exercise the list is in ascending order.
Number 10: Roseanne Reid ‘Trails’ (2019)
With a stripped back style musically and lyrically, Roseanne Reid emphatically demonstrates how less is more. Throughout her debut album ‘Trails’, in a voice that evokes East Tennessee rather than Scotland’s east coast, Reid delves widely into the human condition without a surplus word or note. Teddy Thompson’s production honed this sparseness with the result that you could be sitting on her porch just listening to song after song.
‘Sweet Annie’ is the only song on the record with another voice, Steve Earle. Reid attended one of his Camp Copperhead songwriting workshops where he rated her highly. Against a mournful bow across strings they duet as if they’ve been a double-act for years.
Number 9: Rod Picott ‘Out Past The Wires’ (2018)
To call Rod Picott a ‘singer/songwriter’ would hardly scratch the surface of the man’s creativity. Picott is far more than that. He is a poet who squeezes every last drop of meaning and emotion through his writing. He takes the listener deep into the lives of working people; mostly of hardship, often heartbreak but with a defiance that brings some small victories. There is a dignity to the people Picott describes with such an eye for the little bits of detail that brings everything alive. As a former construction worker himself, he knows the life he writes and sings about. There lies this album’s greatest quality; authenticity.
A double album is perhaps an unlikely choice for such small selection of albums but get drawn into Picott’s world and each song forms another chapter in an engrossing trade. His world is a tough life as ‘Take Home Pay’, ’Holding On’, ‘Falling Down’, ‘Bottom of The Well’ and ‘We All Live On’ will testify. Though on the same lines let’s go for the upbeat tempo of ‘On the Way Down’.
Number 8: Robert Plant and Band of Joy ‘Band of Joy’ (2010)
Robert Plant’s passion for americana tends to be seen purely through his two excellent collaborations with Alison Krauss, particularly ‘Raising Sand’. But less well recognised these days is his collaboration with Patty Griffin, Buddy Miller and Darrell Scott who along with Bekka Bramlett, Marco Giovino and Byron House made up Band of Joy. Named after a pre-Zeppelin band he formed with John Bonham, Band of Joy v.2 released only one album, eponymous, and overflowing with blues, country, rock, bluegrass and gospel enough of the influences that define americana to fill several more. Plant’s vocals come from Led Zep’s more mystical wanderings which blended with Griffin and Scott’s country roots and Miller’s country blues, made for an epic live show too.
Band of Joy also create a southern Gothic feel in the record with original material and covers of Richard Thompson, Townes Van Zandt, Hildago and Perez from Los Lobos, the Babineaux brothers and a couple of traditional songs. Putting that band to such a range is what makes Band of Joy live up to its name. Let’s stick with the traditional, menacing ‘Satan Your Kingdom Must Come Down’.
Number 7: The Carolina Chocolate Drops ‘Genuine Negro Jig’ (2010)
A close call. ‘Tomorrow Is My Turn’ by Rhiannon Giddens sprung quickly to mind but digging deeper here she is five years earlier in The Carolina Chocolate Drops. With Dom Flemons, Súle Greg Wilson and various other contributors she made ‘Genuine Negro Jig’ to celebrate the string band music of the Piedmont region of the Carolinas and the influence of African-Americans on this style. So many strands emerge but rather than itemise each one Giddens should summarise, “Tradition is a guide, not a jailer. We play in an older tradition but we are modern musicians”.
These influences are not restricted to the US. Many will be familiar with ‘Reynardine’ sung by Sandy Denny on Fairport Convention’s ‘Liege & Lief’, an album widely credited with starting UK folk rock. Giddens’s version is further proof that roots music knows no boundaries. But for the selected track here is a superb example of such an important constituent of americana and for far too long, just plain ignored. ‘Genuine Negro Jig’ won a 2010 Grammy Award in the best traditional folk album category. We owe The Carolina Chocolate Drops a great deal for giving this music the prominence it deserves.
Number 6: Dean Owens ‘Southern Wind’ (2018)
In many ways roots music is defined by collaboration. Scottish singer/songwriter Dean Owens has made a deserved name for himself on either side of the Atlantic, most recently with Calexico on ‘Sinner’s Shrine’. But for this selection I’m going back a few years to ‘Southern Wind’, a collaboration with Will Kimbrough, with whom Owens wrote most of the songs, the The Southern Swamp Orchestra and Neilson Hubbard who produced, recorded and mixed the rich sound that swirls throughout the record.
Owens plies his trade under the banner, “Celtic Spirit, Country Sound”. The title track lies behind the whole project. Owens is from the north and Kimbrough from the south. Nashville, the capital of country is somewhere in the middle, not just physically but metaphorically. It is there that big skies and vistas of the southwest meet the gritty landscape of Leith, the part of Edinburgh that is home to Owens. ‘Southern Wind’ won ‘UK Song of the Year’ at the Americana Music Association UK Awards 2019.
Number 5: Donna The Buffalo ‘Positive Friction’ (2000)
Yes, they are back, just give me a list or classic album and you’ll find DTB somewhere. a roots jam band DTB play anything from country and rock ‘n’ roll, bluegrass and old-time fiddle, cajun and zydeco and even reggae. DTB is a lifestyle, americana’s answer to the Grateful Dead. Multi-instrumentalist Tara Nevins and guitarist Jeb Puryear founded the band in 1989 and amid many line-up changes, have been constants ever since.
Live is the best way to appreciate DTB, among their loyal following ‘the Herd’. Album-wise they were probably at their peak inspiration with their four releases in the 1990’s but scraping into this century comes part of that flow of roots jamband joy ‘Positive Friction’. From that comes ‘Family Picture’ with its exuberant beat taking you dancing off to a better place.
Number 4: I’m With Her ‘See You Around’ (2018)
I’m With Her are Sara Watkins, Sarah Jarosz and Aoife O’Donovan. All have released solo albums to widespread acclaim. I’m With Her began with an impromptu set at the Telluride Festival in 2013. Being dubbed an americana ‘super group’ might seem a heavy burden but having blended their individual vocal and instrumental expertise so perfectly these three bear such a load lightly. From strong folk and bluegrass origins this is music making stripped to its bare essentials. Most memorable are the perfect harmonies as three voices ebb and flow into one without a superfluous word or note.
‘Overland’ is a heart wrenching tale of Depression adversity. Watkins takes the lead and if americana needs a definition, this is a hot contender.
Number 3: Darlingside ‘Fish Pond Fish’ (2020)
Darlingside are all about four-part harmonies around a swirl of string arrangements. Whether studio album or performing live that is how they have honed their unique sound described as “baroque folk”. If that sounds rather abstract then blend early Crosby, Stills & Nash with Fleet Foxes. As the four Boston based musicians were tying up their their third album the pandemic struck sending them home to finish by virtual collaboration. The result is ‘Fish Pond Fish’, a magnificent work that takes their mix of sonic exploration and harmonies to a completely new level.
The brief and perfectly titled ‘Woolgathering’ sets up the album and leads into the mysterious ‘Crystal Caving’. An intense rhythm gives way to harmonies that are pure CSN. Together they meld voice and strings into a crescendo where “everything’s golden”.
Number 2: John Moreland ‘High on Tulsa Heat’ (2015)
John Moreland entered the 21st century as a punk but striking out on his own wrote prolifically, heavily based on his Oklahoma roots and influences such as Steve Earle, Guy Clark and Townes Van Zandt. It shows. Moreland recorded ‘High on Tulsa Heat’ at his parents’ home while they were on holiday. His songs have an almost uniform bleakness, verging on hopelessness. But that’s to miss the point; most of the time Moreland is not fighting against anything or taking sides. Instead, in his rueful manner he shrugs and tells it as it is. He is deeply personal, talking about lost love, what might have been and above all, acceptance. He is confessional but there is no sense of having wiped the slate to start afresh. ‘American Flag in Black and White’ meets all of the above.
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. Yet some of 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 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 to the bluegrass of Carter Stanley, Happy Traum and The Grateful Dead. The greatest contribution came from Dylan’s sideman Larry Campbell. ‘Electric Dirt’ won the first ever Grammy Award for ‘Best Americana Album’. Here is 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”.