So, the brief is to pick 10, and only 10, artists that are in my view the greatest ever… Big ask. Having whittled my list down to about 40, and with an hour to go before the deadline I was forced to make some choices. My americana listening experience, like yours no doubt, is very personal, and many of these are artists that I’ve been listening to for decades, and a couple are people I’ve only discovered in recent times, usually through AUK in one way or another. When I’d finished this list, I pushed the button for my most played artists in iTunes. Of the top 10 in any genre, 4 are below. In his opening shot Clint West suggested a fairly narrow definition of americana. As you’ll discover below, I’ve opted for a slightly broader variation, and I’m sure our colleagues will have their own equally personal takes on what is, and isn’t, americana. This refining of definitions has left Clint and I with no artists in common, although I could easily have chosen Gillian Welch, Drive By Truckers or The Jayhawks who were all on the long list. Another artist who didn’t make the cut was Jason Isbell. If we do this again in another couple of years, I’d expect him to appear as I am working my way through his back catalogue rapidly. I missed out anyone who has only had a couple of albums out, despite people like Our Man In The Field being up near the top of the most played list on iTunes, greatness implies longevity, and consistency. So, here’s my list, it has some big names, it has at least one who barely raises a passing nod in Britain, but the connection between them is that they have all pointed me towards other music, and new artists who have enriched my life.
Number 10: Nick Lowe
Nick Lowe has covered many styles in his career, but even in his pub rock days with Brinsley Schwarz there was a ‘roots’ feel to his music. Having appeared in our favourite albums of the 21st Century with ‘The Convincer’ and other magical albums like ‘The Impossible Bird’ to his name Lowe has to be among the finest singer songwriters alive. I’m not making a case for ‘Cruel to be Kind’ as an americana song, but ‘Shelley My Love’ is among the best country influenced songs of the last 30 years, and ‘Checkout Time’ from his last album to date, 2011’s ‘The Old Magic’ is a great lost Johnny Cash song. He often manages to inject a little humour into his music and that may be one reason why he isn’t taken as seriously as a songwriter as he should be.
Number 9: Alison Krauss (and Union Station)
I’d never really listened to bluegrass or considered anything with a banjo something I might have an interest in until Alison Krauss crossed my path. Her ‘So Long So Wrong’ album put me right. Her voice opened up a lot of other great singers who I had discounted as not my thing. Her recent collaborations with Robert Plant have similarly pushed me in to listening to his solo work. And that should be the role of an artist for me, opening you to the possibilities of great music.
Number 8: Emmylou Harris
Another truly great voice, and one whose music has progressed with the decades. Listening to her work in order you can see her picking styles up, folding them into herself as a performer and as a writer moving towards a sound that is uniquely her own. She has matured as a singer and while some of her more mainstream country 80s output passes me Harris is an artist who I could pick a song from any point in her career and use that to disappear down a rabbit hole of Emmylou Harris songs for hours. From picking up the country-rock torch following the passing of Gram Parsons to the darker work of ‘Wrecking Ball’ she has turned in 3 or 4 inspiring albums, and many more that have defined the country end of americana.
Number 7: The Byrds
Where and when ‘americana’ started is one of the questions that keeps AUK writers up at night. The Byrds must be one of the foundation stones by anyone’s measure. Stretching across the key 64-74 decade when music of all sorts was finding its feet, The Byrds sound shifted with their personnel, and Roger McGuinn’s whims. I’ve been listening to more of their post ‘Sweetheart of the Rodeo’ albums recently and finding that they are mostly much better than their reputation. One of the crucial acts in any genre of music. While their early albums were influenced by the need to produce hits, they still manage to cover the more traditional styles of music that Hillman and Clark especially had been playing all their lives. The ‘reunion’ of the original band managed to come full circle, as the opening song suggests, and bring the country-rock lessons of the previous few albums to material that would not have been out of place on the first couple.
Number 6: Peter Bruntnell
An artist I only found recently, through the good offices of Matt Owens and his Americana Fest in Bath last summer. AUK readers put ‘Normal for Bridgwater’ at number 6 in the all-time best album list back in 2021. And they are right. It is a great album with ’Handful of Stars’ as the standout song. His most recent albums have matured and ‘Journey to the Sun’ includes a fabulous version of ‘Wild Mountain Thyme’. Like Lowe he can insert a bit of humour into proceedings, even while tackling some fairly serious subjects. ‘You’d Make a Great Widow’ and ‘By the Time My Head Gets to Phoenix’ which contains the immortal couplet, “By the time my head gets to Phoenix. You’ll be on your way to school. By the time my earlobe freezes. You’ll be acting like the fool.” Who would have thought of writing a song about being cryogenically frozen. Peter Bruntnell…
Number 5: Linda Ronstadt
If anyone stands at the junction of rock, country and folk that is at the core of americana then it’s Linda Ronstadt. When you add in her diversions into mariachi and the ‘Great American Songbook’ she ends up as a one-woman trip through the history of American music. One of the last great interpreters of songs, she was criticised at various times for not writing her own material. But that misses the point, which is that many of the great singers, certainly up until The Beatles shifted the goalposts didn’t write, they focused on producing a unique interpretation of great songs written by great writers. Ronstadt has said she “sticks to what the music demands”, and that is a skill in short supply when the pressure is on to write as well as sing. And it’s often the performance that suffers. In a time when so many singers rely on vocal tricks and gymnastics to get by, the simple, bold performance that characterises much of her mid-70s heyday is refreshing and demonstrates why Ronstadt deserves to be up there with the greats despite having her name on only three songs in her whole career.
Number 4: Tom Petty (and the Heartbreakers)
While I take Clint’s point about rock acts, and Petty was at least on his first two albums primarily a rock act, by the time ‘Damn The Torpedoes’ came along he was starting to show his roots. Notably on ‘Louisiana Rain’, but also on ‘Even the Losers’ and ‘You Tell Me’ the country-rock side of his sound started to come through. Rock is an aspect of americana for me, and Petty was the key artist in pointing me towards folk-rock, country-rock and then on into music with the rock taken out altogether. ‘Wildflowers’ was the point at which his rock and pop sensibilities blended most successfully with country and some of his most perceptive lyrics.
Number 3: The Delines
Every so often you come across a band who land from outer space and just take over your listening life. Last year The Delines did that for me. I was sent their album ‘The Sea Drift’ to review for AUK and couldn’t stop playing it. Having discovered their earlier albums, the magic combination of Willy Vlautin’s songs, Amy Boone’s singing, and Cory Gray’s trumpet and electric piano make up one of the great group sounds of the 21st century. While ‘The Imperial’ is seen as their best album, ‘The Sea Drift’ contains their best song, and for me one of the best songs of the last 20 years or so, ‘Little Earl’. Quite simply the standout band of the last decade.
Number 2: Over The Rhine
I think any music fan ends up championing artists who they love and want everyone else to love as well. Mine is Over The Rhine. From their start as an indie rock outfit through to the core duo who have been quietly recording sublime albums since the mid-90s and managing a career on their own terms. Sadly, they seem unable to justify even one UK gig this year, despite running a songwriting workshop in Northern Ireland and a tour in Holland. Karin Bergquist’s voice is one of the great unsung instruments of contemporary music, and with husband Linford Detweiler she writes the most heartfelt and emotionally challenging songs. They won’t be filling stadiums, but I don’t think they want to. Following their muse through 18 studio albums and live albums documenting their whole career has left them with a fanbase that sustains them and music that wraps itself around you and won’t let go.
Number 1: Cowboy Junkies
The Cowboy Junkies were one of the first americana artists I discovered. Over 35 years they have built up a remarkably consistent catalogue. I can’t think of a Junkies album I wouldn’t happily play regularly. If one of the main considerations for greatness is consistency, then the Junkies are deservedly number one. Their sound and style have evolved rather than been radically reshaped. Having finally seen them live in 2019 the intensity of the performance and the depths of skill, especially from Michael Timmins and Alan Anton make them the clear choice for my number one americana artists. ‘200 More Miles: Live Performances 1985-1994’ stretches across the 10 years that defined their sound. ‘Waltz Across America’ from 1999 is worth seeking out, not least because Over The Rhine are amongst the supporting musicians. Of their studio albums only ‘Miles From Our Home’ fails to hit the mark. That’s mainly down to John Leckie’s production which doesn’t suit the band. Other than that, wherever you start in their catalogue you will find beautiful, atmospheric songs and performances. Their latest album ‘Such Ferocious Beauty’ is yet another triumph.