AUK’s Top 10 Greatest Ever Americana Artists: Andy Davidson


Seesh, what a brief. It’s those two words greatest and ever. I do feel lacking in the evolutionary knowledge required to do this feature justice. Previous contributors have already cited some big heavyweights of the genre such as Prine, Earle and Clark. The Drive by Truckers and Wilco. To me americana is social commentary. But it is not geographically locked. Wherever you are the songs manage to involve you emotionally even spiritually. Listeners are there in the songs. They trigger our own personal memories and make us take stock of our own lives. Songs that evoke empathy. However dark they give us hope. I think these songwriters see the world in the same way as me. Americana is perhaps a musical lens of Democratic blue rather than Republican red. Having immense musical talent helps too.

So, not an obscure or legend-filled list but ten artists who have built up a substantial and consistent catalogue of great music. Artists who don’t disappoint live which surely must be a prerequisite. Artists I continue to play most (or the best) of their material long after the first thrill is gone. Songs I know the words to by heart. I ain’t arguing the toss no more. Basically a personal and totally subjective list.

Number 10: Bruce Springsteen 

I’m no longer follow him religiously but it would be churlish of me to omit him from my list. Springsteen’s experimental ‘The Wild the Innocent and the E Street Shuffle’ (1973) is still my favourite album ever. I’ve been waiting 40 years for its equivalent. I play it on many a Sunday morning from first track to last. Nothing can follow. His New Jersey world was the promised land for me as a teenager growing up in Dundee. I never found any factory girls promising to unsnap their jeans. His music even had room for some soulful piano, accordion, tenor saxophone and even Gary Tallent’s tuba. ‘Wild Billy’s Circus Story’ is pure musical poetry. His fascination with carnivals was revisited on his splendid ‘Tunnel of Love’ album (1987), “Fat man sitting on a little stool takes the money from my hand While his eyes take a walk all over you.” Nobody tells a story better than Springsteen. Coincidentally, on ‘Wild Billy’s Circus Story’ the last line is, “All aboard, Nebraska’s our next stop“. His sixth album ‘Nebraska’ (1982) is much darker and sublime americana. A youthful innocence exhausted by the loss of community and the American Dream. Equally poignant to the state of Scotland at that time. I’ve never owned a new car.

Number 9: Jim White 

I was browsing the shop in the British Film Institute in 2011 and they were playing ‘Searching for The Wrong-Eyed Jesus’. I bought the DVD and have been hooked on Michael Davis Pratt ever since. Singer-songwriter, visual artist and author. No Depression describes him as a cross between a hysterical lunatic and a road-weary sage trying to make sense of reality in all its dazzling weirdness. White manages to question it all with wit and humour. White co-wrote a score for a New York Drama School production based on the works of Sam Shephard. White describes ‘Sounds of the Americans’ (2011) as stories rising and falling behind a roller coaster musical backdrop; a mad preacher speaks of interplanetary mission fields, a lovelorn teen confides her deepest fears to her diary, a proud son relates the tale of how he lovingly refurbished his dad’s derelict car, a zombie choir chants a consumerist catechism, a redneck entrepreneur recounts how his nose got shot off. “It’s a sort of post-modern musical spaghetti western” he says on his site. You get the picture. ‘On Ten Miles to Go On A Nine Mile Road ‘from the album ‘No Such Place’ (2011) White sings, “From the splinter in the hand to the thorn in the heart, To the shotgun to the head, You got no choice but to learn to glean solace from pain, Or you’ll end up cynical or dead.” Contender for the best ever song title: ‘Handcuffed to a Fence in Mississippi’. An acceptance in the next line, “My girlfriend blows a boozy good-bye kiss.”

Number 8: Uncle Tupelo 

The early nineties and punk was hanging out in Illinois. Perhaps the precursor to Jay Farrar and Jeff Tweedy’s individual greatness but they were my way into americana. There’s a wonderful article by Eric R. Danton in Pitchfork (2016) that described the duo’s songwriting as, “romanticising a working class sensibility while trafficking a volatile mix of gnashing punk and Appalachian-style acoustic music, exploring the restless, sometimes hopeless frustration of life in crumbling Rust Belt Towns”. References to dead ends, disillusionment and the kind of solace that beckons from barroom doors. What’s not to like? And they definitely had a social conscious side. I was playing my treasured vinyl copies of ‘Screen Door’, ‘Gun’ and ‘Sauget Wind’ just last weekend. ‘No Depression’ (1990) inspired the roots music magazine of the same name. ‘March 16-20,1992′ was the band openly drawing from the protest folk tradition. 1993s ‘Anodyne’ proved to be their last. Perhaps you can sense the songwriter’s animosity towards each other but it is still a great album. Gone are the  stop-start rhythms. Recorded live, I often wished I could be transported back in time to the Cedar Creek studio in Austin depicted on the album cover. Despite being ground-breakers Uncle Tupelo never had a hit. Their closest brush with fame was playing Late Night with Conan O’Brien on national TV and they didn’t break the Billboard Top 200 until the compilation ‘83/93: An Anthology’ peaked at Number 173 in 2002. Later I chose the Son Volt fork. Farrar’s book ‘Falling Cars and Junkyard Dogs’ is worth a read.

Number 7: Ruston Kelly 

The album ‘Dying Star’ (2018) was perfection. I must admit I didn’t go looking for the album I wrongly assumed was cut from Kacey Musgraves’ coat tails. But this was a songwriter already soaring. Magnificently melancholic and reflecting on his past self destructive behaviour. “I black out in a bar, I get high in my car, I drive round in circles, ‘Till I’m seeing stars, I get so fucked up to forget who you are, I dumb down my head so I cant feel my heart pound, And Black out. “Another line opens the magnificently titled ‘Faceplant ‘with “I took too many pills again”. But his Cool Hand Luke persona means you’re always on his side and the music is great. Kelly is a master of the confessional. Redemption came with ‘Shape and Destroy’ (2020) that was almost as impressive. Yep, he’d cleaned up, confessed his love to Ms Musgraves and was continuing the process of recovery. Still had his dad playing steel too. Sadly, his marriage was to end shortly after the album’s release. I missed the abundance of fiddle and steel on his latest album ‘The Weakness’ (2023) but each word and line was still chosen to perfection. Kelly has taken to calling his music Dirt Emo. He explains, “Dirt Emo basically is confessional songwriting, confessional lyrics, emotional vulnerability to the max with Americana folk instrumentation on the periphery… or it’s just a tweet I did.”  When I get out of my way Better things appear.

Number 6: Sturgill Simpson

Simpson made country cool again. His 2013 self-released debut album ‘High Top Mountain’ captivated listeners with its traditional country sound. Helped of course, by producer Dave Cobb who would return to produce Simpson’s second album a year later called ‘Metamodern Sounds in Country Music’. With some cracking bluegrass infused tunes Simpson told it like it was, ‘Life Ain’t Fair and the World is Mean‘. ‘Turtles all the Way Down‘ is on the second album. Simpson began to set a trend by including covers of other bluegrass artists such as the Stanley Brothers or covering artists in his bluegrass style. Songs such as When in Rome’s ‘The Promise’ or later on Nirvana’s ‘In Bloom’. Never one to be compartmentalised he is still a torch bearer for americana. I even liked ‘Sound and Fury’. And ‘A Sailors Guide to Earth’ should be given to fathers of all newborn babies. Simpson is now a sought after producer in his own right. He’s said an artist has only a finite amount of albums in them. But I think he’ll be back sometime.

Number 5: Steve Earle 

A living legend and activist. So much more than ‘Copperhead Road’. But it must help pay the bills. Earle the sober, elder statesman is not afraid to rattle a few cages. He often expresses his views through his lyrics. He identifies himself as a socialist. But he’s aware that the left has lost touch with the American people. He said it magnificently in 2017: “One of the dangers that we’re in is if people like me keep thinking that everyone who voted for Trump is a racist or an asshole, then we’re fucked, because its simply not true”. And what a life. Married seven times, imprisoned and a reformed drug addict .He even appeared in the television series ‘The Wire’. ‘Amerika v. 6.0 (The Best We Can Do)’, was written over twenty years ago but is still relevant. On that album is the track ‘John Walker’s Blues’ too. “I’m just an American Boy, Raised on MTV, And I’ve seen all the kids in the soda pop ads, But none of ‘em look like me. So I started looking around, For a light out of the dim, And the first thing I heard that made sense, Was the word of Mohammed, peace be upon him”. This was 2002. His books ‘Doghouse Roses’ and ‘I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive’ are pretty cool too. The latter an interesting aside to the Roe versus Wade debate. He seems to be working on tribute album after tribute album to musical legends. The most recent for Jerry Jeff Walker. Hardcore Troubadour.

Number 4: The Patriarchy

The white male does seem to dominate these lists. But for how long? Steve Earle has said most of the best music is now being produced by female artists and I agree. I adore Erin Enderlin. Molly Tuttle’s fantastic. Courtney Marie Andrews’ ascendancy continues. Allison Russell writes beautifully and is also one for the future. Margo Price refuses to be compartmentalised. I constantly play Kaitlin Butt’s, ‘What Else Can She Do’. Miko Marks has found her groove and Adia Victoria is attracting widespread attention. The list of potential greats seems endless. Maybe, hopefully, if this exercise is repeated in years to come there will be a much broader representation within the genre.

Number 3: Jason Isbell

Isbell is the real trailer deal. ‘Outfit‘, ‘God Damn Lonely Love’ and ‘When the Well Runs Dry’ were early classics. ‘Southeastern‘ (2013), produced by David Cobb, was something else. Sober for over a decade and now back to some of his finest lines on ‘Weathervanes‘ (2023). “There’s a warm wind blowing through the laundromat There’s a young man crying in a cowboy hat Got square-toed boots so he ain’t for real Wouldn’t last five minutes on a pedal steel“. Isbell paints moving portraits of troubled masculinity in many of his songs. “I used to want to be a real man, I don’t know what that even means” he sings on ‘Hope the High Road’ (2017). A large proportion of his audience are white, male, blue collar Americans whose lives resemble those in his storytelling. Isbell is aware that in their turmoil many of these men might drift towards the easy answers of the Right. He tells Jefferson Cowie in NPR his stories are floating between fiction and nonfiction, acknowledging people’s lives and their feelings of alienation – but hopefully discouraging the futile pull of tribalist rage. He distances himself from being labelled ‘americana’ (still almost exclusively applied to white acts) and says, “I think of myself as a guy with a rock band“. Rock, he tells NPR has fewer of what he calls the “scary historical connotations” of country. A few contradictions aside, Isbell is a great contemporary artist who writes great songs. Songs that often ask questions about society and the world we live in. It is only a matter of time until he starts turning his hand to writing books don’t you think? Or run for President?

Number 2:  Turnpike Troubadours

And then sometimes, people just want to stomp and holler. Confident in our gentle-manly qualities. Nothing heavier than enjoying some fine music. Labelled ‘Red Dirt Country’, The Turnpike Troubadours have built up a loyal following since 2007. Fans who know the words to most of their songs and sing them right back. ‘Diamonds and Gasoline’ (2010) is an outstanding album. ‘Goodbye Normal Street‘ followed in 2012. Felker and Edwards’ songwriting shaped by location and community but accessible to all. These two albums have spun a few times in my home with me singing along to ‘Whole Damn Town‘, ‘Every Girl‘ or ‘Gin, Smoke and Lies‘. All-Music comparing Felker’s songwriting to Steve Earle no less. But they’re not overtly political… just down right enjoyable. A couple more albums, one self-titled (2015) and ‘A Long Way From Your Heart’ (2017) continued until a self-imposed hiatus in 2019. A fiercely independent band they have just released their long-awaited new album ‘A Cat in the Rain’. Produced by Shooter Jennings. No surprises but yep, very enjoyable. Entertainment Focus describes the album as a tale of reliability, rebirth and redemption. Felker getting sober and the band embarking on a big tour. They should enter the stratosphere… but I’m hoping for Glasgow at least. “She don’t talk about religion she talks about the Stones.”

Number 1: Willy Vlautin 

I started this list describing my love for the soulful piano and playful brass on Springsteen’s E Street album. The Delines are not afraid to use such instrumentation. It gives them an unique americana sound. The man Vlautin just gets better and better. Richmond Fontaine were brilliant. The Delines are off the chart. I cant decide whether he’s the greatest for his songwriting or for his novels. Does it matter? The ending to ‘Don’t Skip out on Me’ just breaks your heart. But there can be humour in his writing too such as on ‘The Lost Duets‘, ‘My Blood Bleeds the Darkest Blue.’ It is an unseasonable ‘Fairytale of New York’. “I saw a prison bus and I thought of you I wished you were sitting in it shackled and dressed in blue.” The response, “I saw a hearse today, it was shinny gold I wished you were in it and I could run it right off the road”. Fellow Oregon writer Lidia Yuknavitch states: “No one anywhere writes as beautifully about people whose stories stay close to the dirt. Willy Vlautin is a secular, and thus real and profoundly useful saint.” He might reside in Portland but Willy Vlautin is americana.

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Keith hargreaves

Correct choice of number 1!

Keith hargreaves

Correct choice of number 1! Great list


A lovely list and number 1 is a good choice.