Writing for Americana UK can sometimes be a bit like riding one of those extreme roller coasters. One minute you’re trundling along on a straight track and all seems well with the world, the next you’re plunged into the abyss as the track drops away beneath you and you find yourself frantically scrabbling around, trying to pull together a list like this one and justify the selections you make! Ah, the Top Ten lists, each one that little more gut-wrenching than the last!
AUK’s Top 10 Greatest Ever Americana Artists. Ever! A foreboding task to attempt but we do like a challenge here at AUK, allegedly. The caveats are likely to be many and varied on these lists and I did like our Features Editor Clint’s attempts to narrow down the definition of americana for his selection and discard those that were too country, too rock etc. My main caveat is that I’m of a certain age and, therefore, most of my selections are of a similar vintage because I’ve been listening to them for a long time so, while they may not be everyone’s (anyone’s?) idea of the best, they have stuck with me through the years (and I with them).
My other main caveat is that, a bit like Clint, I have discarded those that seem to have too much of one of the constituent parts of americana, instead choosing artists that clearly combine two or more of folk, country, blues and rock and the various sub-genres associated with them. Those are my justifications and, if you don’t like them, well, I’ll try to come up with some others. All these are artists that I’ve been listening to since I started down that road leading to americana and, significantly, they are all artists that I’m still playing, on a regular basis, today.
The really difficult part of compiling a list like this is the artists you have to leave out. My decision to avoid those that are too country, too folk, too rock etc made it easier to omit the likes of Johnny Cash, Bob Dylan, Tom Petty and Bruce Springsteen but it was much harder to justify passing over artists like John Prine, the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Linda Ronstadt, the Delevantes, Shelby Lynne, Wilco, Margo Price, Jason Isbell, Rodney Crowell and so many more. In the end, I had to make it about those I listened to the most over the longest time. So, without further ado…
Number 10: Crosby, Stills & Nash.
I’d always been into folk music and singer/songwriters and when CS&N came along, I instantly loved the sound they made. Great songs, some outstanding guitar playing, and the amalgamation of those voices was just an explosive combination back in 1970 when I first heard their recently released debut album. It was the era of the ‘supergroup’ and to have members of Buffalo Springfield, The Byrds, and The Hollies come together in that way seemed particularly magical, especially as it coincided with a time when I was turning away from chart singles and starting to look more towards albums and less ‘commercial’ music. I’d loved The Hollies, but they had begun to sound a little bland and it seemed only right that a musician like Graham Nash would want to spread his wings and explore that fusion of folk and rock, and just a faint hint of country, that characterised the Laurel Canyon sound. Of course, I knew nothing about the massive egos involved at that point and the fact that the addition of another massive ego would mean that they’d never quite achieve the dizzying heights of a track like ‘Suite: Judy Blue Eyes’ again, but they continued to deliver through the years, in various combinations, and I’ve always found their contributions, individually and collectively, to americana music to be significant. Above everything else, it was always about the harmonies with CS&N, and I learned a lot from listening to them. It made me appreciate how difficult good harmony vocals are as well as how important they are to americana music and how the right harmony in the right place can lift a song.
Number 9: Rosanne Cash
Much as I love Johnny Cash’s music, he’s just a bit too country for this list. Rosanne, on the other hand, has been a constant on my playlist pretty much since she arrived on the scene in the early 1980s. She brought an almost punk attitude to her music and achieved early crossover success in America, with her willingness to combine roots music with pop and rock commerciality. Initially produced by then husband, Rodney Crowell, until the relationship faltered in the early 90s (they divorced in 1992), she then went on to achieve greater musical heights with husband number 2, John Leventhal, after meeting when he co-produced her 1993 album ‘The Wheel’. Rosanne Cash & John Leventhal are one of those great artist/producer combinations that just gets better with every new release and her inclusion on this list is as much about Leventhal’s contribution to her music as it is about the artist herself. Rosanne Cash would be a great artist regardless of who produced her – that voice alone is an instrument of great depth and power and her ability to both write and select songs that show off her talents is outstanding – but Leventhal really does bring out the best in her and, while Crowell was a good producer for her fledgling talent, Leventhal has really helped to refine that talent, as evidenced by 2014’s triple Grammy-winning ‘The River and the Thread’. A voice I could never tire of.
Number 8: Buddy Miller
Why Steven Paul ‘Buddy’ Miller is not a huge name in americana circles is something that has mystified me for years. People know of him, certainly, but most see him as a sideman and occasional producer, but this is a man who has been an active musician, working in what we have come to know as americana, since the 1970s. Individually, as well as in partnership with his wife Julie, he has written songs that have been recorded by a wide range of artists including Emmylou Harris, The Chicks, Tab Benoit, Patty Loveless, and Lee Ann Womack. His production credits cover the cream of americana artists – Alison Moorer, the Carolina Chocolate Drops, Richard Thompson, Shawn Colvin, Robert Plant’s Band of Joy, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, and many more. As a session musician he has played and recorded with Lucinda Williams, Levon Helm, Johnny Cash, Emmylou Harris, Elvis Costello, Alison Krauss and Robert Plant, John Fogerty, Rodney Crowell; the man is a walking representation of americana. As a recording artist, he has made six solo studio albums and one live recording (the outstanding ‘Cayamo: Sessions at Sea’) and has made three studio albums in partnership with wife Julie. He has also recorded with Jim Lauderdale. Miller is an outstanding musician who has won no less than 14 Americana Music Awards and one Grammy over the course of his career and he really deserves to be recognised as one of the ‘Greatest Ever Americana Artists’.
Number 7: Lucinda Williams
An artist who is likely to appear on a number of these lists. I first became aware of Lucinda Williams when I heard ‘Passionate Kisses’ on Mary Chapin Carpenter’s 1992 album, ‘Come On, Come On’, and had to know who the writer was. That started a long-term interest in this most fascinating of artists. Lucinda Williams came late to success simply because she wasn’t prepared to compromise her art for commercial achievement and, in these days of instant, if short-lived, fame for those prepared to play the game, that’s something to be admired. Frequently described as “too country for rock and roll and too rock and roll for country” she always believed that her talent would, eventually, be rewarded. For me, she is exactly what an americana artist should be. You can hear the roots music of America running through every song she writes, but she still retains a very distinct identity of her own. When I listen to Lucinda Williams I hear the country and folk songs she started out with and I hear the rock and roll that’s very much a part of her musical soul, but I also hear the Cajun music of Lake Charles, Louisiana, where she was born and the Tex Mex influence of Houston and Austin, where she lived in her twenties. Williams has that valuable ability to absorb and incorporate influences from throughout her life while always sounding like the individual artist she is. Lucinda Williams is an artist who never disappoints.
Number 6: Old Crow Medicine Show
Wow – a band on this list that almost didn’t come into being until the 21st Century! (They actually formed in 1998). I thought this band were an absolute knockout the first time I heard them and I’ve followed them avidly ever since. Essentially, they play old-time country music but they mix it up enough to incorporate a whole range of influences and, to me, they’re very much an americana band and encompass that spirit of community that the best americana is all about. It’s also impressive that they were ‘discovered’ by the great Doc Watson (his daughter heard them busking and knew her father would love their music, so brought him along to hear them play. He put them on at MerleFest and the rest, as they say, is history) and that their most successful song (‘Wagon Wheel’) is a co-write with Bob Dylan! I love the fact that they are total Dylan fans, so much so that they performed (and recorded) ‘Blonde on Blonde’ in its entirety to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the original recording. Driven by their outstanding fiddle player, Ketch Secor, who formed the band with multi-instrumentalist Chris ‘Critter’ Fuqua, I’ve always loved the sheer ‘joie de vivre’ of the band and the energy they give off even on their recordings. It’s rare that a band translates their live energy to studio recordings but OCMS seem to do it almost effortlessly. Maybe it’s the years they spent travelling around the U.S. busking to get their music heard, maybe it’s all the time spent playing at various festivals and collaborating with other musicians. Most probably, it’s a combination of all these things but Old Crow Medicine Show always make such a glorious noise that you can’t help but smile when they play. They remind me of the history of americana music and the roots that it sprang from while simultaneously making it relevant to today.
Number 5: Kris Kristofferson
I came relatively late to Kris Kristofferson. For years the only thing I knew about him was that he wrote ‘Me & Bobbie McGee’ and I only knew the Janis Joplin version of the song and didn’t think much of it. Then someone played me ‘Sunday Morning Coming Down’ and the scales fell from my eyes. Kristofferson is one of the great songwriters and has written so many good songs – ‘For the Good Times’, ‘Help Me Make it Through the Night’, ‘Loving Her Was Easier’, ‘The Silver Tongued Devil and I’ – he’s a master of the craft. He has that wonderfully world-weary voice and great phrasing that means his songs always sound best when he sings them. He is, of course, the ultimate renaissance man – an Oxford Blue (for boxing), a Rhodes scholar, a helicopter pilot, an actor, an all-action man who is also a poet, a member of Country supergroup The Highwaymen, along with Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, and Waylon Jennings. He has always been recognised as a country singer, but I see him more as being in the troubadour tradition, a singer of folk-styled songs that invariably address failed love affairs. Many artists can be compared to other artists, or you can clearly see where their influences lie; the other artists that have inspired them or whose work they draw from. I think Kristofferson is a true original and the influences he has come more from the world of literature than the world of music. One of the things I particularly like about americana music is that it is populated by one-offs and true originals and Kris Kristofferson is a perfect example of that.
Number 4: Emmylou Harris
Oh, Emmylou! How many of us were seduced to country rock because of this doe-eyed beauty?! Of course, Emmylou Harris is so much more than just a pretty face, even if that was a big attraction when you’re in your twenties and a slave to testosterone. Perhaps the most important thing about Emmylou Harris is that she’s the Keeper of the Flame. For those of us who bought into Gram Parsons’ “Cosmic American Music” and his vision of roots music married to Rock and Roll, it’s Harris who has really delivered the music he championed. She is the disciple who became the master. Parson’s had great musical vision, but wasn’t with us long enough to see that vision progress very far. Emmylou took his vision and ran with it and look how far she brought it. A folk singer who embraced country music and fused it with rock and more. She assembled the great Hot Band, full of outstanding players. She championed the young Rodney Crowell and brought his songwriting into the limelight. She embarked on the Trio project, with Linda Ronstadt and Dolly Parton, producing award-winning albums. She recorded with experimental producer Daniel Lanois to produce the ‘Wrecking Ball’ album and took that on the road with her Spyboy band (including Buddy Miller), gaining a new audience from Indy Rock fans. She explored bluegrass with the Nash Ramblers, was an early advocate for Steve Earle’s songwriting, recorded an album with Mark Knopfler (‘All the Roadrunning’) and, more recently, returned to recording with Rodney Crowell, earning Grammy and Americana Music Awards for their efforts. All of that is just a brief glance through a career that has constantly pushed the boundaries of americana music and has earned her 14 Grammys and endless other awards along the way. I think even Gram Parsons himself would be amazed at how far the folk singer from Birmingham, Alabama has come since they first teamed up back in the early 1970s. She has 26 studio and 4 live albums to her name, along with some 11 compilation albums, and while she may be considered, primarily, an album act, she has recorded no less than 15 number 1 singles. What an outstanding artist.
Number 3: Chris Hillman
Where would americana music be without Chris Hillman? Would there even be americana music without the influence of this amazing musician? Chris Hillman’s musical history is incredible. The original bass player with The Byrds; along with Gram Parsons he was a founder of The Flying Burrito Brothers; the first recruit to Stephen Stills’ Manassas project; the leader of his own Desert Rose Band, formed with Herb Pedersen in the mid-1980s. He was a member of the Souther-Hillman-Furay Band (with J.D. Souther and Richie Furay), and of Rice, Rice, Hillman, and Pedersen, turning from country rock to exploring his interest in bluegrass with Tony Rice and brother Larry. In addition to being a fine bass player, Hillman is also in demand as a session musician on guitar, banjo, and mandolin and has contributed to recordings by a whole host of artists including Dillard & Clark, Poco, Dan Fogelberg and his old bandmate, Roger McGuinn. Chris Hillman is a consummate example of an americana musician, with his in-depth knowledge and appreciation of American roots music and his appreciation of rock and roll, having grown up during the beat boom in America and witnessed firsthand the ‘British Invasion’ of the 1960s. So much of the music that informed my appreciation of American roots music has Chris Hillman at the heart of it, from songs like ‘Mr. Tambourine Man’ to ‘So You Want to Be a Rock ‘n’ Roll Star’, from ‘Dark End of the Street’ to ‘Fallen Eagle’, from ‘He’s Back and I’m Blue’ to ‘She Don’t Love Nobody’. Chris Hillman is a river that runs through some seven decades of americana music.
Number 2: The Band
If A.I were to assemble a perfect americana band you have to suspect that it would be remarkably similar to The Band, though without the human failings and high talent that made this unit so fascinating. That American Levon Helm along with Canadians Robbie Robertson, Rick Danko, Garth Hudson and Richard Manuel are known simply as The Band speaks volumes in itself. Starting out as a rock and roll band, backing American singer turned Canadian resident, Ronnie Hawkins, they were originally known as The Hawks. When they parted company with Hawkins they were, briefly, known as the Levon Helm Sextet (there was a sixth, saxophone playing member at that time, Jerry Penfound) and then as Levon and The Hawks, they became The Band after backing Bob Dylan for his U.S tour in 1966 (and subsequent world tour the following year), marking the start of a long association with Dylan and a series of sessions with him that would lead to the famous Basement Tapes that, in turn, became the foundations for their debut album, the superb ‘Music From Big Pink’. The Band are, simply, outstanding. As a group it is a near phenomenal combination of musical talent and, for me, their first three albums (‘Music from Big Pink’, ‘The Band’ and ‘Stage Fright’) are as close to americana perfection as it might be possible to get. Sadly, the descent into substance addiction by some members of the group meant that later albums become increasingly patchy but their swan song, the superb ‘Last Waltz’ is another gem that pulls so many great performances from so many people and, not least, from The Band themselves. After the breakup, all members of The Band continued to record and perform with varying degrees of success and there’s so much good music connected with these five musicians. The Band itself did continue, reforming on a number of occasions, but Robbie Robertson never returned to their ranks and he and the phenomenally talented Garth Hudson are the only remaining members of what is, for my money, the best americana band ever.
Number 1: Steve Earle
And so, to my number 1 choice. It really couldn’t be any other artist for me. I have just about everything he’s ever recorded, and I’ve probably seen him perform live more times than any other artist. From the first time I heard ‘Guitar Town’, his 1986 debut album, I was hooked and my appreciation of his songs and his abilities as a musician and performer haven’t wavered since that time. Stephen Fain Earle is, for me, the best of the best. When I listen to Earle I can hear all of his influences but still hear how he has raised himself above them. I love many of the musicians he names as his big influencers, like Townes van Zandt and Guy Clark, but my appreciation of them only came about because that’s where Steve Earle’s music led me. Above everything else is his ability as a songwriter, which has just continued to grow with each passing year. For me, he hit the pinnacle of his writing career to date with 2020’s ‘Ghosts of West Virginia’, a slow-burn album that gets better with every listen and really gets into the heart of the mining industry from the mine worker’s perspective. It’s not just about West Virginia but is relevant to mining communities the world over. It’s an outstanding piece of narrative songwriting and it’s hard to imagine any other artist who could pull something like this off with such aplomb.
Steve Earle is, of course, more than just a singer and songwriter. He’s an acclaimed actor, an activist fiercely opposed to capital punishment, a successful author, and a playwright. His ‘Guitar Town’ series on YouTube is also well worth checking out if you’re into guitars, as each episode takes you through a different guitar in his extensive collection of vintage instruments and shows he has presenter skills as well. There doesn’t seem to be much he can’t do!
Steve Earle is everything we expect from a great americana artist. His music incorporates folk, country, blues, and rock and he’s even ventured into bluegrass territory (1999’s ‘The Mountain’, recorded with the Del McCoury Band). He addresses the issues that need addressing, he’s not afraid to speak out and he’s not afraid to try something new and he’s also not afraid to put his own spin on the things he does try. He’s a collaborator who enjoys working with others but is equally happy to walk out on stage with just an acoustic guitar. He has, so far, recorded 22 studio albums, 6 live albums, and released 9 compilations. He has received 7 Grammy nominations and won the award on 3 occasions. And as has been noted before, he writes very, very good songs.