I have always believed it is the great songwriting that sets our beloved americana apart. In my own humble offering I would like to think that my selections reflect that particular aspect of the genre at its finest.
Number 10: Gretchen Peters ‘Hello Cruel World’ (2012)
Selecting one album to highlight when an artist has a back catalogue that stretches back over four decades isn’t easy. Gretchen Peters produces albums of such a relentlessly high calibre that this proved an almost impossible task but, after much dithering, the fence panel was eventually removed from this writer’s derriere and ‘Hello Cruel World’ was the winner by a nose.
Number 9: The Westies ‘West Side Stories’ (2015)
Michael McDermott’s voice is a ringer for Springsteen at his downbeat best and, in this guise, he taps into that angst of urban struggle in songs of loss and regret and the sheer bloody hard work of surviving against the odds. The songs are sparse and haunting and include songs titled ‘Hell’s Kitchen’, ‘Death’ and ‘Devil’. Picture Bogart and Cagney, Angels with Dirty Faces.
Number 8: Holly Williams ‘The Highway’ (2013)
A triumph, and highly regarded at the time of its release, the lack of any subsequent release may be attributed to the fact that Williams is also a ‘retail entrepreneur’ owning and running two of Nashville’s best known retail shops. The album is a masterclass in songwriting and William’s vocals appear constantly on the verge of breaking down such is the intensity and feeling with which she delivers each story of loss, loneliness and heartache. If only all country was this good.
Number 7: Patty Griffin ‘Impossible Dream’ (2004)
There are other, more celebrated Patty Griffin albums including her 1996 debut ‘Living With Ghosts’ but, in a career studded with highlights, this reveals, if I may be so bold to declare, Patty at her absolute pinnacle. This is Patty Griffin at her most affecting and intense, a voice quivering with emotion on an album full of brilliantly crafted songs.
Number 6: Ruston Kelly ‘Shape & Destroy’ 2020
Debut album ‘Dying Star’ garnered some great reviews on its release in 2018 including topping many an end of year ‘best of’ list on this website. That release set a high bar that this follow-up album managed to match and then some. ‘Shape & Destroy’ cemented the feeling garnered from that debut that here was a songwriter to be reckoned with. The album fizzes with memorable tracks that fully justified the review’s summary conclusion that here was an artist enhancing his credentials to be a major voice in americana.
Number 5: Lori McKenna ‘The Bird & The Rifle’ 2016
Ok, so anybody who has the wit to use this website will know that when it comes to the country music coming out of Nashville there exists, within the tsunami of dross, a number of artists who, although lumbered with the country moniker, have both feet firmly in the americana camp. Lori McKenna, much in the manner of her contemporary Kacey Musgraves, has used her songwriting skills to make every song tell a story and to make it feel personal. The album includes ‘Humble & Kind’, initially released by Tim McGraw, it garnered awards galore across the American music spectrum and says everything about why McKenna is held in such high regard.
Number 4: Israel Nash ‘Lifted’ 2018
The cover on Israel Nash’s ‘Lifted’ states the album should be filed under ‘Hippie Spiritual’. Nash’s stated intention was to “make a record that exposed my soul and expressed the peace and beauty that exists in all things and in all layers, regardless of outcome. May this record, at best, offer a musical and lyrical space for your own solace, reflections and experiences.” And the album is a thing of beauty. Nash’s production swims with atmosphere with big, bold echoing vocals, soaring choruses and long musical outros that give many of the tracks an epic feel.
Number 3: The Delines ‘Colfax’ 2014
Having firmly establishing himself as a darling of americana with Richmond Fontaine, Willy Vlautin turned his attention to the downbeat minutiae of small town America with The Delines. Fronted by the amazing vocals of Amy Boone, The Delines delve deep into the underbelly of the nation and the reality of a family dealing with a veteran’s PTSD, or a lonely, unhappy wife of an oil rig worker who, in a complete reversal of convention never once wishes her man was home. It is gentle, it is melancholic and, in the wrong hands, could be downright depressing. In these hands it is a revelation.
Number 2: The Honeycutters ‘Me Oh My’ 2015
I can’t remember how I first came across Amanda Platt & The Honeycutters as they are now known but what I can vividly recall is that it triggered a love affair that remains undimmed to this day. Platt’s marvellous voice has its roots in country as does the twang that permeates much of the record. The songs rattle and jangle along and if there is a blueprint for making any subject matter sound joyful and uplifting then this band has it in spades. ‘Me Oh My’ was album number 3 and, after its two none too shabby predecessors, was the album that really propelled the band into this reviewer’s premier league.
NUMBER 1: Jason Isbell ‘Southeastern’ (2013)
Back around the time this album was released Jason Isbell was happily playing alongside wife Amanda Shires in a tiny Dorset pub as she toured her ‘Down Fell The Doves’ album. Graciously, Amanda allowed hubby to play one track from his new album and so it was that about 35 locals heard Jason sing ‘Travelling Alone’, most of us completely unaware that we were witnessing Mr Isbell’s launch into the americana stratosphere.