AUK Features Editor Clint West writes: Welcome to a brand-new feature where each week an AUK writer will select their ‘Top 10 Greatest Ever Americana Artists’. We will then aggregate their scores to bring you our overall AUK Top 10. We at AUK are a fairly diverse bunch when it comes to our musical preferences, so expect some lively debate. The first hurdle to get over is to identify what ‘americana’ means. Regular readers of this site will know that we sometimes find that a difficult question to answer. However, should anyone try to slip Pink Floyd or The Damned on to their list, rest assured that it will be cleared quicker than a cabinet minister’s hard drive. What fool would commit to such an undertaking? I hear you ask – let alone go first. The answer is … er… me.
There are literally hundreds of excellent artists within the broad americana genre that I have enjoyed over the years. So how the hell am I going to strip them back to just 10? I’m sure that is a question that will be repeatedly grappled with over the forthcoming weeks and months as my friends and colleagues follow on from this inauspicious start. So rather than pick the finest cuts from the americana beast, I have decided instead to begin by butchering the animal and throwing away large parts of it. The first part to go, is for me the very heart of americana, that is country music. My excuse for this is that country is a very distinct genre on its own. If I had included it there is a very good chance that Johnny Cash would have been my number one, or maybe Hank Williams, who knows? I could easily compile a Top 10 Country Music Artists, and maybe one day I will, but for now I’ve decided to remove country music from the equation.
My next piece of surgery I fully expect to provoke many disapproving tuts. Yes, I am removing what I see as essentially rock acts. I love great songwriting (as my list will show) and greatly admire the likes of Dylan, Springsteen, Waits, Zevon etc. but I have cut them away. Similarly, Neil Young, The Band, CSN, The Byrds etc. have not been considered for the same reasons. Even country-rock which might have been represented by the likes of Gram Parsons, Emmylou Harris or Doug Sahm sadly also fell foul of my butchery.
Cutting those away was not quite the end of it. In its broadest sense americana could easily also incorporate various American folk forms including bluegrass, Tex-Mex and cajun music. Some would even argue for the inclusion of soul and blues. Now I love all those musical styles, but they already have their own unique identities so for the purposes of this list I’ve decided not to class them as americana.
What I’m left with might be a fairly narrow definition of americana, but each of these artists that I have included can and should, in my view, be described as ‘americana’ first and foremost, rather than something else, that happens to also fall within a broader definition of the genre.
Did all of this cutting away make things any simpler for me to choose a Top 10? Well, no not really, there is still far too much to choose from, but here goes.
Number 10: Gillian Welch
To me Gillian Welch is someone who epitomises what americana is all about in that she is able to take traditional forms of American music and weave something new into them. Although not prolific, just six albums in 27 years, all of her work is of the highest quality and has been praised by fans and critics alike. Her 1996 debut ‘Revival’ was produced by T-Bone Burnett. He preserved the sparseness of Welch’s stunning live shows whilst at the same time adding some subtle polish by bringing in such seasoned players as James Burton (guitar), Roy Huskey Jr. (bass) and Jim Keltner (drums). The resulting album was a magnificent piece of work and marked Welch out as a serious new talent. Welch’s 1998 follow-up ‘Hell Among the Yearlings’, once again produced by T-Bone Burnett, continued in the same bare sounding style and tendency towards dark themes.
In 2001 Welch released one of her great masterpieces ‘Time (The Revelator)’ this time produced by her partner David Rawlings. It wasn’t radically different musically, but lyrically it abandoned the mountain ballads of her first two albums in favour of songs about much wider and bigger themes. Welch described them as “rock songs” adding that “in our heads we went electric without changing the instruments”.
‘Soul Journey’ (2003) continued Welch’s movement into new pastures. The songs were noticeably more lyrically upbeat and, in some cases, even happy. The traditional sparse accompaniment was added to with greater instrumentation including bass and drums as well as fiddle and dobro. It seemed like a perfect and natural progression. It was then eight years before Welch’s ‘The Harrow & The Harvest’ was released in 2011. The gap explained both by work on David Rawlings’ 2009 album ‘A Friend of a Friend’ and also some dissatisfaction by Welch with the material that she had been writing. Rawlings took a far greater part in supporting Welch to the point where it is a joint album in all but name. Their persistence paid off with an ultimately well-crafted set of songs with a warmth and depth that goes beyond previous releases. Since then, there has only been an official bootleg release of alternative versions from the ‘Revival’ recording sessions along with eight songs not included on the original release and a Covid era home recording of covers. It would be nice to think that a new album of Welch originals isn’t too far away, let’s hope so.
Number 9: Dave Alvin
I’ll start by admitting that when I first heard The Blasters it was probably Phil Alvin’s voice that caught my attention, rather than Dave’s guitar work and writing. However, as I fell in love with the Californian combo and paid greater attention to them, I came to realise that for all the beauty of Phil’s velvet voice, it was younger sibling Dave that was the real force behind the band. A run of four wonderful albums between 1980 and 1985 not only showed what a great band they were but also increasingly showcased the quality of Dave Alvin’s songwriting. Increasing tensions between the two siblings and Dave’s desire to sing his own songs led to him leaving the band permanently in 1986 but has since returned for the odd live reunion. He also had a brief stint with X during which he played on their 1987 album ‘See How We Are’.
Beginning with his 1987 solo debut ‘Romeo’s Escape’ which was released in the UK under the title ‘Every Night About This Time’, Alvin then embarked on a run of fine solo albums which went through to, arguably the pick of them, 2011’s ‘Eleven Eleven’. During the 24 years between them Alvin’s output achieved a remarkably consistent level of excellence, whilst at the same time exploring different themes and approaches. Amongst the many high-water marks of that period were ‘King of California’ (1994), ‘Blackjack David’ (1998) and ‘Ashgrove’ (2004).
Alvin has been no stranger to collaborations over the years. In 1985 he was a member of the one-off band The Knitters, who made an excellent album titled ‘Poor Little Critter on the Road’, only to get together again twenty years later for the also very good ‘The Modern Sounds of the Knitters’ released in 2005. In 1992 Alvin teamed up with rockabilly legend Sonny Burgess to record ‘Tennessee Border’. After ‘Eleven Eleven’ it was therefore no surprise to see Alvin again working with others. Two albums with brother Phil ‘Common Ground’ and ‘Lost Time’ Were followed up with a collaboration with Jimmie Dale Gilmore, 2018’s ‘Downey to Lubbock’ which was his last release of new material.
Number 8: Wilco
Americana can be quite dull and conservative. I’ve lost count of the number of similar sounding and formulaic singer-songwriters that I’ve come across, the run-of-the-mill country-rock bands that I’ve encountered or the number of sanitised, anaesthetised, and overproduced ‘authentic’ roots performers that I’m told are the ‘real deal’ when demonstrably they are not. All the better then that we have Jeff Tweedy and his band to keep us on our toes.
Whilst Wilco’s 1995 debut ‘A.M.’ was a perfectly good ‘alternative country’ record it was the next three records that really defined what Wilco were about. 1996’s ‘Being There’ was a much more exciting and experimental album. Although some country influences were still tangible it also contained elements of rock and psychedelia. Tweedy’s lyrics are also far more reflective and personal on this record. ‘Summerteeth (1999) was a very introspective album with Tweedy at this time heavily influenced by literature and seemingly resenting being away from his wife and newborn child. Musically, the record was heavily overdubbed with multi-instrumentalist Jay Bennett taking the leading role in adding new sounds and instrumentation. Evoking mixed responses, the album has come to be more favourably viewed with the passage of time, but what it did represent was further evidence that Tweedy was willing to pick up this thing that we call americana and put it down again in a slightly different place. However, in 2001 with ‘Yankee Hotel Foxtrot’ Tweedy not only picked it up, but this time rather than place it down somewhere slightly different, he threw it over the fence and in doing so showed that this genre need have no boundaries. The album was rejected by Reprise as being uncommercial and was later released on Nonesuch.
What ‘Yankee Hotel Foxtrot’ did was to establish Wilco as a band who were not only willing, but were determined, to plough their own furrow. Their resultant subsequent output, by the very nature of the band, is varied in both content and quality. What is guaranteed though is that it won’t be predictable. There have been far more highs than lows and it’s also worth noting that Wilco’s live shows could place them in this list on their own.
Number 7: Lucinda Williams
Lucinda Williams first two albums ‘Ramblin’ on My Mind’ (1979) and ‘Happy Woman Blues’ (1980) were very traditional folk records also encompassing blues and country. Well received at the time, and certainly still very listenable now, they gave very little indication of the huge songwriting and musical talent that lay within. Whilst the first album consisted of cover versions, the second featured Williams’ own compositions, which reflect an artist finding her feet, rather than the quality of her subsequent work.
It wasn’t until the release of her third album, just titled Lucinda Williams’ and released by Rough Trade, that glimpses of her true talent finally emerged. Williams’ ability to right hard-hitting, emotional, and sensitive songs, sometimes all at once, marked her out and the album drew critical acclaim. The success of her song ‘Passionate Kisses’, a massive hit for Mary Chapin Carpenter, also brought her to wider attention. Williams then followed it up with the equally if not more impressive ‘Sweet Old World’ in 1992 by this time having firmly established herself as a songwriter from the very top drawer.
The release in 1998 of ‘Car Wheels on a Gravel Road’ marked not just a creative high, but also her commercial breakthrough. It was her first album to chart and to eventually receive a gold disc. It also won a Grammy for Best Contemporary Folk Album. More importantly though it was a brash, honest and hard-hitting collection of songs reflecting the sometimes-harsh realities of rural life. The album was a powerful statement that elevated Williams to the status of one of America’s great contemporary songwriters.
Since her 1998 landmark record Lucinda Williams has continued to produce high-quality, thoughtful and literate albums. Indeed from ‘Essence’ in 2001 right through to 2023’s ‘Stories from a Rock n Roll Heart’ it’s hard to find fault with any of them. Such is her consistent quality – she has something of a reputation as a perfectionist, that even trying to pick out the best of them is almost impossible. However, if held at gunpoint I would offer up ‘World Without Tears’, ‘The Ghosts of Highway 20’ and ‘Good Souls Better Angel’ to save my skin – but go ahead and pick your own, it would be hard to argue with any choices.
Number 6: John Prine
Songwriters are definitely my thing and John Prine is amongst the best in any genre. A key figure in the Chicago folk scene of the early 1970s, along with Steve Goodman and Bonnie Koloc, Prine came to the attention of Kris Kristofferson who invited him to open his shows. A deal with Atlantic followed and in 1971 Prine released his debut album ‘John Prine’ which led to him being marked out for one of the many ‘new Dylan’ labels being chucked around like confetti during the 1970s. Prine wasn’t a new anything, other than a new and original talent.
With all the buzz surrounding his debut, Prine was expected to go on to greater commercial success. Instead of cashing in on the acclaim for his debut, Prine released ‘Diamonds in the Rough’ (1972) a stripped-down, bluegrass-influenced album that reflected Prine’s musical roots, rather than striving for commercial success. I like him for that alone, let alone the lifetime of brilliant work that was to follow. Two more excellent albums for Atlantic followed: ‘Sweet Revenge’ (1973) and ‘Common Sense’ (1975). By this time Prine had built a loyal following and his last Atlantic album was his first to make the charts.
Moving to Asylum Records, Prine made three albums for them, ‘Bruised Orange’ (1978), Pink Cadillac (1978) and ‘Storm Windows’ (1980). All have their merits, particularly ‘Bruised Orange’, but none would rank amongst his very best works. In 1981 Prine rejected major labels that he viewed as exploitative and formed his own new independent label Oh Boy Records. All of Prine’s subsequent records were released on the label. He also later offered it as a platform for personally chosen new artists to release their music with a current roster that includes Kelsey Waldon, Tre Burt, Arlo McKinley and Emily Scott Robinson. Prine’s first album on the label was ‘Aimless Love’ which marked the start of a remarkably consistent run of high-quality albums that lasted twenty years with ‘The Missing Years’ (1991), ‘Lost Dogs and Mixed Blessings’ (1995) and ‘Fair & Square’ (2005) being my personal picks.
John Prine’s final album, made when he was in deteriorating health, and released in 2018 almost exactly two years before his death was one of his finest. His voice might have gone slightly, but his lifelong ability to turn a phrase, rhyme a line, and evoke both sadness and humour in his songs, most certainly hadn’t.
Number 5: The Jayhawks
The Jayhawks have been a constant ever since I heard ‘Blue Earth’ in 1989. I didn’t get to hear their long unavailable 1986 debut ‘The Jayhawks’ until it was reissued in 2010 but by that time I was totally hooked anyway. Their third album ‘Hollywood Town Hall’ (1992) was the clincher and for me still their career high point. The Gary Louris / Mark Olson songwriting axis is at the height of its powers and their vocal harmonies are just exquisite. The band made one more album ‘Tomorrow the Green Grass’ (1995) before Olson quit the band.
The loss of Olson might have dealt a fatal blow to the band, but Gary Louris stepped up to take over almost all writing and vocal responsibilities on The Sound of Lies’ (1997). The band didn’t sound the same, but crucially they didn’t sound any worse either. The album quickly dispelled any premature predictions of the band’s demise and the follow-up ‘Smile’(2000) further underlined it, although some fans disliked its more poppy sound and the use of electronic instrumentation. ‘Rainy Day Music’ (2003) saw a return to a more acoustic delivery and a return to the band’s country-rock origins.
The band then went through an eight-year hiatus during which band members pursued other projects. Amongst those was a reuniting of Louris with Olson, firstly to tour together and then to record an album ‘Ready for the Flood’ (2009). Olson then rejoined the Jayhawks officially, resulting in the release of ‘Mockingbird Time’ in 2011 and a massive tour schedule. It proved to be a one-off as the relationship between the two men became increasingly fractious.
To date three more albums have been recorded with the Louris-led band. All have their appeal but for me ‘Paging Mr Proust’ (2016) is the pick.
Number 4: Drive-By Truckers
I first saw the Drive-By Truckers on November 30th, 2003 at Manchester Academy 3 and I’ve probably seen them live more times in the following 20 years than any other artist. The band were little known at that particular time and as I recall there were probably no more than around fifty people present. Their last album ‘Southern Rock Opera’ had come out the previous year and ‘Decoration Day’ didn’t come out until the following year. I was absolutely stunned by the sheer energy of the band and my long-term admiration of them had begun. I went out and bought their previous two albums ‘Gangsterbilly’ (1998) and ‘Pizza Deliverance’ (1999). I also bought the 2000 live album ‘Alabama Ass Whuppin’ at the gig that night.
Since those early days Drive-By Truckers have been regular visitors to the UK and have firmly established themselves as one of the pillars of modern-day americana music. The three albums with Jason Isbell ‘Decoration Day’ (2003), ‘The Dirty South’ (2004) and ‘A Blessing and a Curse’ (2006) helped to establish them as a real force and attendances at their UK gigs were noticeably growing. With the songwriting talent of Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley already well-established within the band Isbell left to be able to record and perform more of his own songs.
The first post-Isbell album ‘Brighter than Creation’s Dark’ (2008) was a quieter, more acoustic and country-leaning album and featured the legendary Spooner Oldham on keyboards. It epitomised the Trucker’s ability to evolve, develop and flourish as a band. Those qualities were further demonstrated by the release of the ‘The Big To-Do’ (2010) and ‘Go-Go Boots’ (2011). The two albums were recorded at the same sessions with the songs being split between them. The first of the pair was very much a return to a more rock sound, whilst the latter, for which the band recorded five additional tracks, highlighted the band’s soul and country influences.
‘English Oceans’ (2014) gave much greater prominence to Mike Cooley who for the first time was responsible for half the songs on the album, whilst ‘American Band’ (2016) was the band’s most politically charged album to date and arguably one of the strongest of their long career. Three more great albums have appeared since then ‘The Unravelling’ (2020), ‘The New OK’ (2020) and ‘Welcome 2 Club XIII’ (2022) all demonstrating that the band is still very much uncompromisingly on top of its game musically, creatively, and artistically. Long may they continue.
Number 3: Townes Van Zandt
Everybody else on this list are in some way included because of their longevity. They are for the most part, still making great records, or at least were doing so until their passing. Townes does not fit that mould. He produced six albums of breathtaking songwriting in just four years between 1968 and 1972. He then released just four more new albums in the next 35 years before his death on New Year’s Day 2007. Even then ‘The Nashville Sessions’ (1993) was actually recorded in 1972. It had been intended as his seventh album under the title of ‘Seven Come Eleven’. However a dispute between his manager Kevin Eggers and producer Jack Clement over payment for the sessions led to Clement erasing the master tapes leaving only an Eggers’ cassette copy of the rough mixes in existence. If you therefore remove that from the equation, you’re down to just three albums in 35 years.
There were very many live albums released both during Van Zandt’s lifetime and after his death which are of varying quality. By far the best of them is ‘Live at the Old Quarter, Houston, Texas’ released in 1977, but recorded in 1973. It is prime Townes, free from some of the overblown production of the studio albums, it features just Townes solo performing many of his greatest songs. Its simple organic nature makes it in my opinion, his best album.
Throughout his most creatively successful period Townes Van Zandt was only a minor artist commercially. It was only when others picked up on his songs and cited his influence that he began to get the full recognition that he deserved. The latter part of his life was marked by drug and alcohol problems that affected his voice and his coherence. When I saw him perform twice in the 1990s he was something of a sad shambling wreck – but it was Townes – and I still felt thrilled and honoured to see him play.
Townes Van Zandt was a songwriting colossus, a shaping influence on many within the americana genre, and even if his period of creativity and genius was relatively short, he was a hugely important artist whose ability with words set the songwriting bar higher than most mere mortals could dream of achieving.
Number 2: Guy Clark
It’s hard to think of a Guy Clark song that you couldn’t make a movie out of, and I rather wish somebody would. Clark was the master of capturing the nuances, emotions, trials and tribulations of ordinary characters, living ordinary and sometimes extraordinary lives. His characters, often real, or at least based on people that he had encountered, are keenly observed and expertly portrayed.
Clark’s 1975 debut album ‘Old No. 1’ whilst widely regarded as his best all-round collection was by no means a yoke around his neck. Throughout his career, Clark continued to write high-quality songs with his trademark combination of understated emotion, laconic dry wit, and wry humour. Indeed, his final album ‘My Favourite Picture of You’ was his best in some years.
Clark was never prolific, releasing just 13 albums in 38 years. What he did do though, was to exercise a high level of quality control, crafting each song as carefully and perfectly as he did the guitars that he built in his carpentry workshop. His staggeringly consistent output makes any of his albums well worth a listen, even his sometimes-maligned major label Warner debut ‘Guy Clark’ (1978). A few personal favourites are: ‘Texas Cookin’ (1976), ‘Old Friends’ (1988) and ‘Dublin Blues’ (1995) but really – pick any of them.
With a writer like Clark it would be wrong not to use an individual song or two to make his case. ‘Texas 1947’ from ‘Old No. 1’ tells a story from Clark’s childhood about the first time a streamline train passed through his home settlement of Monahans, Texas. The scene setting, the anticipation and the drama all help to bring to life a memorable event in the life of a young child in rural America.
“Well, there’s 50, 60 people, they’re just sittin’ on their carsAnd the old men left their dominos and come down from the bars And everybody’s checkin’, old Jack Kittrel check his watch And us kids put our ears to the rails to hear ’em pop”
From the same album comes ‘Let Him Roll’ the story of the funeral of a down and out and reflects on his life.
“It was white port, that put that look in his eye
That grown men get when they need to cry
And he sat down on the curb to rest
And his head just fell down on his chest
He said “Every single day it gets
A little bit harder to handle and yet”
And he lost the thread and his mind got cluttered
And the words just rolled off down in the gutter”
Guy Clark, crafter of songs, master of words is someone I always return to. I know many of his songs by heart, but I still listen to them just as intently as I did on the day that I first heard them.
Number 1: Steve Earle
I’m not sure that Steve Earle would approve of being placed above his two great mentors Townes Van Zandt and Guy Clark, but I’ve put him there anyway, so I’d better explain why. Well firstly, he’s a great songwriter himself, but he’s also much more than that. He’s been the conscience of americana for many years, never afraid to speak out and equally unafraid to branch out musically.
Like many, my first exposure to Steve Earle was through Andy Kershaw’s Whistle Test report from Nashville on the ‘New Country’ scene around about the time of the release of Earle’s debut album ‘Guitar Town’(1986). At that time, it was probably not so much the songs, as the sound of the thing. Full of energy and yes, twang, it excited me and I’ve been a massive fan since. Looking back, yep, the actual songs were pretty good too!
Follow-ups in ‘Exit-0’ (1987) and ‘Copperhead Road’ (1988) were released in short time, the latter becoming Earle’s biggest-selling album, although some way off being his best. Nevertheless, its success did bring Steve Earle into the limelight and made him a recognised name. His next release, ‘The Hard Way’ (1990) was his first with The Dukes and demonstrated that Earle was going to do his own thing. Following the success of ‘Copperhead Road’ many might have played it conservatively and gone for something similar for their next release, Earle on the other hand went the other way and produced something completely different, a full-blown rock album – a good one, but a surprise nonetheless.
By this time Earle was well into developing a serious drug habit that prevented him from recording for the next four years. When he did re-emerge, he once again sprung a surprise with the release of the acoustic, country and folk-influenced ‘Train a Comin’ (1995) which was an absolute triumph and remains one of my favourite Earle albums. Following up this up with ‘I Feel Alright’ (1995) and ‘El Corazon’(1997) it marked a purple patch for Earle who then sprung another surprise by recording an album of bluegrass with The Del McCoury Band.
The purple patch continued right through to 2007 with the release of ‘Transcendental Blues’ (2000), ‘Jerusalem’ (2002), ‘The Revolution Starts Now’ (2004) and ‘Washington Square Serenade’ (2007), all great albums but ‘Jerusalem’ in particular I’d place high in any list of the best Earle albums. More recently Earle’s output has been focused on tribute albums to Townes Van Zandt, Guy Clark, Justin Townes Earle and Jerry Jeff Walker as each has in turn passed on. All are equally listenable, but I tend towards the school of thought that says that if I want to listen to Guy Clark’s songs, I’ll probably listen to Guy Clark singing them. More interestingly, Earle’s last two albums of original material, So You Wanna be an Outlaw’ (2017) and ‘Ghosts of West Virginia’ (2020) have been terrific, so here’s looking forward to the next one.
Steve Earle’s longevity, originality, willingness to plough his own furrow and when necessary, be outspoken, make him my number one americana artist. Oh and did I mention – he writes a pretty good song too.