At AUK we are now well into our quest to find the ‘Top 10 Americana Albums Ever’. Over the coming weeks and months each AUK writer will in turn, present their own personal selections. When each writer has had their say, a shortlist of the most frequently chosen albums will be drawn up and voted on, in order to generate the definitive AUK writers top ten. This week AUK stalwart and institution Paul Kerr steps up to the podium.
First off, there’s no such thing as the top ten Americana albums ever, hell, most folk can’t even agree on a definition of the term. However, having been threatened that all future ‘bro country releases will be sent to me for review if I fail to comply, I humbly submit this list of favourites and discs which, I think, contributed to the progression of what has been variously described through the years as folk, country rock, new country, alt-country, cowboy punk, insurgent country and others, too many to list here. There are omissions, far too many, and the list is back heavy but that’s what happens when one is ancient (although not necessarily wise).
Number 10: The Band Of Blacky Ranchette. ‘Sage Advice’ (1990)
What can one say about Howe Gelb? A chameleon and true maverick. Prolific as hell and never standing still, able to pen a classic one moment and then baffle you with a curveball full of sonic mischief. Considered a progenitor of desert rock (a term he dislikes, preferring erosion rock) and called by some, the godfather of alt country (and don’t ask what he thinks of that) Gelb has recorded under many guises. Giant Sand in all its incarnations is the best known, but for the purposes of this list we have plumped for his third recording under the name of The Band Of Blacky Ranchette. ‘Sage Advice’ is stuffed full of typical Gelb mannerisms – snippets of his baby daughter talking, grungy guitar, gypsy wanderings and whimsical murmurings – but it’s also chock full of powerful and wonderful songs. The title song soars and sears with a Dylan like intensity, Lucinda Williams waxes wonderfully on ‘Burning Desire’ and ‘Wild Dog Waltz’ is a totally unhinged plunge into David Lynch territory. Add to that the two wildly disparate versions of ‘Loving Cup/ Blanket Of Stars’, one a jolly country romp, the other yearning heartbreak, and the brilliant western swing of ‘Outside An Angel’s Reach’ with one of the zingiest slide guitar solos ever, and you have an almost perfect left field country album (i.e. an Americana album). Having said all that, there are at least two other Gelb albums which fit this list.
Number 9: Emmylou Harris. ‘Red Dirt Girl’ (1995)
From being the torchbearer for the late Gram Parsons and recording some excellent albums with the Hot Band in the seventies, Emmylou Harris kind of disappeared into Nashville country for a couple of decades before ‘Wrecking Ball’, recorded in 1995 with producer Daniel Lanois, allowed for a more contemporary sound. Five years later, ‘Red Dirt Girl’, despite its traditional sounding title, saw Harris at her bravest and most experimental with a set of songs in the main penned or co-written by her (in itself a departure) with arrangements influenced by the likes of Tom Waits and even The Cocteau Twins along with the then current trip hop. Producer Malcolm Burns should probably get a co credit on the album as he programmes much of the percussion and sound effects but Harris is exquisite throughout with her crystal clear voice ringing out on ‘My Baby Needs A Shepherd’. The album peaks on the pulsating ‘I Don’t Wanna Talk About It Now’.
Number 8: Michael Hurley, Unholy Modal Rounders, Jeffrey Frederick & The Clamtones. ‘Have Moicy’ (1976)
Heading to the furthest outreaches of Americana, ‘Have Moicy’ stands like a beacon amidst the welter of country rock bands who infested the early seventies. Sure enough, there was gold in them hills with the Dead and their buddies, The New Riders, along with the likes of Barefoot Jerry and Mike Nesmith releasing some gems but this was somewhat unique. Misfits from the start, Hurley and Stampfel had been entranced by old time music and their various recordings in the sixties reflect that. Frederick came into Stampfel’s orbit when the Rounders shifted to Oregon and his easygoing offbeat songs were a perfect fit for them. Thus, we have some of the best songs Michael Hurley has committed to disc including the breezy ‘Driving Wheel’, the sublime ‘Sweet Lucy’ and his infamous ode to digestion on ‘Slurf Song’. Frederick turns in the country fiddled ‘Robbin’ Banks’ and the existential country thump of ‘What made My Hamburger Disappear’ while Stampfel’s crazy croon on ‘Midnight In Paris’ and ‘Griselda’ along with his frazzled fiddle reminds one of what a singular genius he is. Listen to the closing song, ‘Hoodoo Bash’, and be transported to a world where weird is good and good is weird.
Number 7: Songs Of Our Native Daughters ‘Songs Of Our Native Daughters’ (2019)
To be considered a classic album, a recording ideally should be left to mature for some time, a bit like a vintage wine, so some of the selections here are somewhat aged, allowing their classic notes to come to fruition. Not so with this 2019 release which addresses the past and the present (even more so now than on its release) as it reclaimed the forgotten Negro roots of Americana and hit out powerfully against the insults and injustices suffered especially by black slave women. The quartet – Rhiannon Giddens, Allison Russell, Amythyst Kiah and Lela McCalla – are just astounding, each bring their own voices and experience to the project with a passion. There’s little else to say here about the album other than that it should reside in everyone’s collection. Ms. Giddons sums it up saying, “There is surely racism in this country—it’s baked into our oldest institutions—just as there is sexism, millennia old. At the intersection of the two stands the African American woman. Used, abused, ignored and scorned, she has in the face of these things been unbelievably brave, groundbreaking and insistent. Black women have historically had the most to lose, and have therefore been the fiercest fighters for justice.” This album attempts to redress the balance and it does so with a mighty voice.
Number 6: Jim White ‘The Mysterious Tale Of How I Shouted Wrong Eyed Jesus!’ (1997)
Out of nowhere, this guy, with past careers supposedly including being a professional model, surfer and New York taxi driver, upped the ante on how to deliver an astonishing debut album. Jim White, troubled by a Pentecostal past and recurrent bouts of depression, turned in an album which is unrivalled in its spectral approximation of Appalachian music and Southern Gothic with White singing like a fallen angel over some exceptionally oddball yet beautiful arrangements. It has an almost narcoleptic effect as the likes of the rippling notes of ‘Still Waters’ drift along wonderfully, lulling the listener despite grim lyrics regarding bodies swinging from trees. The heart of darkness indeed. Elsewhere White delves into a David Lynch meets Johnny Dowd sonic surrealism on ‘When Jesus Gets A Brand New Name’ which is wonderfully barmy while ‘A Perfect Day To Chase Tornados’ is just perfection.
Number 5: Bob Dylan ‘Blonde On Blonde’ (1966)
Jonathan Sebastian sang that Nashville cats played clean as country water and Bob Dylan checked that out on this supreme double album, recorded just before his amphetamined 1966 world jaunt with the nascent Band and the subsequent motorcycle accident which derailed him. It’s incredible that ‘Blonde On Blonde’ was Dylan’s seventh album since his debut in 1962 and more so in that it’s a double album stuffed full of mercurial songs which were bursting out of him like lava from a volcano. It’s certainly the highpoint of his career by then and many consider that had he not taken time out he would have self-combusted.
Recording commenced in New York in October 1965 but after three months there was only one song in the can which made the final cut. Frustrated, Dylan took producer Bob Johnson’s advice and shifted the operation to Nashville where in two concentrated bursts of recording (taking around six days in total) ‘Blonde On Blonde’ was conceived. Compared to the biting irony of ‘Highway 61 Revisited’, Dylan here revels in the more loose limbed and joyous arrangements with glorious comic moments as on ‘Rainy Day Women Nos 12 & 35’ and ‘Leopard-Skin Pillbox Hat’. Dylan has said that, “The closest I ever got to the sound I hear in my mind was on individual bands in the Blonde on Blonde album. It’s that thin, that wild mercury sound. It’s metallic and bright gold.” And he speaks the truth as on ‘One Of Us Must Know (Sooner Or Later)’, ‘I Want You’, ‘Stuck Inside Of Mobile With The Memphis Blues Again’, ‘Most Likely You Go Your Way And I’ll Go Mine’ and especially, ‘Absolutely Sweet Marie’, the evidence is there to be heard. ‘Blonde On Blonde’ is THE Bob Dylan desert island disc and it should really come with a warning – light the blue touch paper and retire.
Number 4: Sparklehorse. ‘Good Morning Spider’ (1998)
One of the most tragic stories in the Americana universe is that of Mark Linkous. Troubled by depression he nevertheless released five albums of fractured and sometimes tortured music before taking his own life. ‘Good Morning Spider’ was recorded after his infamous overdose in a London hotel, which left him with serious health problems, and it balances incredibly tender moments with coruscating grungy rock. Recorded at home with a collection of vintage instruments played by Linkous, the album is both an incredibly affecting yet difficult listen given what we know now of his life.
‘Saint Mary’ addresses his time in hospital while the somnambulant ‘Painbirds’ is a melange of minor key misery with Beatles’ like psychedelic murmurings and the burbling sonic undertones in the winsome ‘Sunshine’ likewise recalls late sixties bucolic hippie meanderings. Stripping it back further, ‘Junebug’ and ‘Hundreds Of Sparrows’ are songs so delicate one is afraid to pick them up in case they crumble in your hand but there’s also the sharp attack of ‘Ghost Of His Smile’ and ‘Chaos Of The Galaxy/Happy Man’. This one could have been a college rock hit a la The Pixies but Linkous deliberately distorts the song, not wanting his record label to steer him into the charts. Misery likes company they say and Linkous covers an Americana eccentric on Daniel Johnston’s ‘Hey Joe’ on which he adds vinyl scratchiness while another troubled soul, Vic Chesnutt, adds vocals to the aforementioned ‘Sunshine’. It’s almost impossible to listen to this album without shedding a tear.
Number 3: The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band ‘Will The Circle Be Unbroken’ (1972)
The Byrds pissed off the Grand Ole Opry folk in 1968 when Gram Parsons sang ‘Hickory Wind’ instead of the agreed cover of Merle Haggard’s ‘Sing Me Back Home’ and it seemed that the gap between longhaired hippies and music row was set in stone. Three years later another bunch of longhaired hippies however managed to gain the respect of a pantheon of venerated Nashville artists (most of them predating the sixties) with their musical prowess and knowledge of the genre. The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s groundbreaking triple vinyl album was probably the first time many folk under the age of 30 had been exposed to the likes of Roy Acuff, Doc Watson, Jimmy Martin, Earle Scruggs and Mother Maybelle Carter. Talking to Zigzag magazine back in 1972, John McEaun said, “It took a while for these people to accept us and see that we weren’t just a bunch of kids fooling around” and, as the end result proves, the Dirt Band more than held their own with these kings and queens of old time country music.
Number 2: Flying Burrito Brothers. ‘Gilded Palace Of Sin’ (1969)
Given that we only have ten selections here, The Burritos’ first album represents the entire west coast country rock evolution from The Byrds to CSN&Y and this selection pays tribute to Gram Parsons who surely deserves a mention here. Psychedelic, Southern inclined, stoned most probably, Parsons and Chris Hillman, along with their secret weapon, Sneaky Pete Kleinow’s ferocious pedal steel (which at times sounds as if it has just buzzed in from Mars), smashed open the doors for countless bands to incorporate country licks into their rock’n’roll. Want to hear what The Louvin Brothers might have sounded if they took acid? Have a listen to ‘Sin City’. Bassist Chris Ethridge gets in on the action writing ‘Hot Burrito #1’ and ‘Hot Burrito #2’ with Hillman and Parsons turrns in perhaps his best vocals ever on the first of these. They also give big licks to Chips Moman and Dan Penn who were forging their own version of Americana down in Memphis, recording two of their songs and giving the album a touch of Southern Soul, something sadly amiss from many of the country rockers who followed. A couple of the songs are tied into their time with ‘My Uncle’ coming across like an amped up Arlo Guthrie (which isn’t a bad thing and Kleinow’s pedal steel is a joy to hear) while ‘Hippie Boy’ would probably have had covens of zonked out hippies muttering, “right on” as this sorry tale is dragged out. Listening today it seems like Parson’s idea of a joke as he zones into the likes of Ferlin Husky with a moralising tale. But when Kleinow lets loose with his fuzzed up pedal steel on the immaculate confection that is ‘Hot Burrito #2’ then you are in cosmic American music heaven. Parsons of course moved on to record his solo albums including the sublime ‘Grievous Angel’ (just outside the top ten) but then he went and died despite having ice cubes stuffed up his bum before his body was stolen and burned by his roadie who was a buddy of Charles Manson but we won’t go down that rabbit hole here. Maybe someone will make a movie about it all.
Number 1: ‘The Harry Smith Anthology Of American Folk Music’ (1952)
This remarkable collection should be given to every child at birth with instructions that they can recite all 84 songs by the time they are five years old. Released in 1952, it was the fuse that lit the sixties folk boom with Dylan at the forefront. Talking about the collection, Dylan commented, “It’s weird, full of legend, myth, Bible and ghosts… chaos, watermelons, clocks, everything…” Having fuelled Greenwich Village in the sixties, a superb reissue on Smithsonian Folkways in 1997 along with associated live shows, in the main organised by the late Hal Willner, breathed new life into the anthology. Jeff Tweedy, Nirvana, Anais Mitchell, Will Oldham, Beck, Nick Cave and Elvis Costello and countless others have drunk from its well and I expect that this will continue to be the case.