I am conscious that some of my choices for my Top 10 americana artists may be a bit different from other AUK writers. I confess that I am a relative newcomer to the genre having had an awakening after listening to Billy Bragg and Wilco’s 1998 “Mermaid Avenue” and so haven’t a lifetime of listening, although 20 odd years isn’t too bad. This has skewed my selections towards more contemporary acts where I have loved their music and who have either moved or interested me with their lyrics. Well, that’s what it’s all about, isn’t it? It has helped, too, if I have loved seeing them live, but again, isn’t that such a key part of being a great band? I also have a preference for the country/rock/pop/soul sides of americana rather than the folk/blues/jazz/bluegrass sides that some writers like. I particularly like a song to be moved along by some steel guitar in the background – who knows where that taste comes from? I also tend to like less famous artists who haven’t lived the “star” lifestyle- it’s a bit of a cliché but I find that their words are more authentic and interesting. A few of my choices haven’t made many albums – perhaps they haven’t done enough to disappoint me yet!
A friend bought me a Gram Parsons compilation for my 40th birthday and this had a great influence on me and really got me into americana. I am a huge fan of his but have left him off the list as he does not quite fit with the modern acts chosen, all of whom are still going. I also love The Lemonheads but there isn’t quite enough americana in their work for them to be considered. Missing out here but bubbling under, as they say, are Jason Isbell, Caitlin Rose and Sturgill Simpson. Finally, although I am a great fan of Billy Bragg and he has some definite country influences and a bit a twang in some of his guitar work, his music is a bit too English overall to get in as americana.
Number 10: Jack Grelle
There are just a lot of Jack’s songs which I really like. He has been described as “progressive honky-tonk” and this gives a good idea of what you are getting. The songs have great melodies and go with a swing that is often driven wonderfully by steel guitar. His engaging lyrics are mainly about affairs of the heart but he deals with social issues from a left-wing perspective at times. It’s a relief to think that he won’t have voted for Donald Trump. Jack has spent a lot of time ‘rambling’ around the country, hopping trains, hitchhiking and using his experiences to help him write his songs. He has four excellent albums to his name. His last, 2020’s ‘If Not Forever’ was one of my favourites of that year. Here is the video for his fabulous song about a woman being stood up by a date, ‘Got Dressed Up To Be Let Down’, which has been described as a country feminist anthem:
Number 9: The Hanging Stars
If you have not come across them, The Hanging Stars are a London psychedelic cosmic country band who have produced four albums starting in 2016 with ‘Over The Silvery Lake’. I am consistently astounded by the quality and originality of their music – it’s a long way from the ‘three chords and the truth’ of standard country music. There are echoes of the Byrds in some of their work but there is such variety in their songs. They are fantastic live with the group being brilliantly led by frontman and singer Richard Olson. My first sight of them was after lockdown in a room above a pub in Todmorden and I was left wondering why they aren’t bigger than they are. The group sounded so good live with great contributions from the whole band. The video below showcases their country and psychedelic sides very well.
Number 8: American Aquarium
In some ways, American Aquarium are not dissimilar to the great Jason Isbell but I think that I just like their music more. It’s a bit more country-influenced with more steel guitar than Jason. They have produced ten albums full of songs with great melodies and choruses. Led by charismatic singer, guitarist and frontman BJ Barham with different members over the years, the lyrics often deal with Barham’s life on the road, his problems with the demon drink and particularly the women he has met along life’s path. I am slightly surprised that I don’t find this dull but he has a great way of keeping these stories and other lyrics engaging. Perhaps it is his confessional style- there is no bragging but more of an “I have sinned'” feel. They put in a fantastic high-octane performance at the Brudenell in Leeds this year as reviewed by AUK. The clip is a heart-warming video of a great song from their last album ‘Chicamacomico’
Number 7: Pat Reedy
Pat has only recorded three albums with his group The Longtime Goners, but I really like all three. His music is traditional country honky-tonk, with fiddle and steel guitar, and he produces consistently great tunes which I don’t tire of. The last two, 2016’s ‘Highway Bound’ and particularly 2018’s ‘That’s All There Is and There Ain’t No More’ are excellent, the latter being my favourite album of that year. Pat is originally from New Orleans and started out busking on the streets but has now moved to Nashville. Someone wrote that Pat “is the real deal” and he seems to be a down-to-earth bloke who has previously grafted in the oil and construction industries. His engaging lyrics about his life have a realism that you don’t often get. I have seen him twice playing solo where he was good-humoured and didn’t take himself too seriously and hope to see him again but this time with his band. This is a great video of a track from ‘That’s All There Is…’
Number 6: Otis Gibbs
I have seen Otis a number of times over the years and have really warmed to him. The last time was a great evening just after lockdown at Wakefield Labour Club in a room smaller than your average living room, with an encouraging crowd of fans who sort-of roared him on in a low-key way. Live it is just him singing and playing his guitar nicely with humorous or moving anecdotes told with charm in between songs. Like Pat Reedy, he has done manual work and has not lived a glamorous life in the past, which helps to give his lyrics a great authenticity. He spent 10 years as a tree planter and planted over 7000 trees, which he loved even though the work was very demanding physically. His politics are left of centre, with one of his albums being called ‘Grandpa Walked A Picket Line’, although his albums or shows aren’t very overtly political. He has recorded nine albums in all with 2014’s ‘Souvenirs of A Misspent Youth’ being my favourite although his latest, ‘Hoosier National’, where he has done a Dylan and gone electric, is very good. Here is a live version of his fabulous song ‘Caroline’
Number 5: My Darling Clementine
Michael Weston King and Lou Dalgleish are a modern British throwback to the days of country duets such as George Jones and Tammy Wynette. They have written three albums full of fantastic country or country-soul songs with great melodies where each of the duo takes a singing part. They have also produced an enjoyable album of Elvis Costello covers. Their expertly written words are clear and sometimes witty tales, usually detailing the struggles that people have in relationships, which I always find engaging. I have seen them many times live and never get bored. They make a great sound, often with jazz guitarist Preben Raunsbjerg backing them beautifully, with good-humoured marital bickering in between songs. This is my favourite track of theirs, a country-soul tale of two world-weary people meeting in a bar with their previous lives etched into their bodies.
Number 4: Lee Bains
My admiration for Lee Bains and his band The Glory Fires takes me back to my youth and my love of punk and new wave. They are best described as playing the southern rock, country and gospel of their home state, Alabama, but having the words and attitudes of The Clash – their lyrics are very definitely political. I first saw them in the front room of a pub near Halifax; they were absolutely blistering with the paint starting to peel off the walls after the blast of the opening track ‘Company Man’. Frontman Lee has more than a whiff of Joe Strummer about him both in his energetic raging performance but also in his righteous sense of injustice, with his talk between songs at a gig being something like an inspirational evangelical preacher. He is a man who walks the walk, holding down a day job in construction in between touring, doing benefit gigs and being on the picket line lending his support to striking workers. At shows, he seems to be a person with time for fans, friends and the support act. My favourite albums of the four the Glory Fires have done are the first, ‘A Bomb In Gilead’, and the last, 2022’s ‘Old Time Folks’ which was my album of last year. The music on these two is more varied than the middle two albums with some softer almost-country and gospel songs on them. However, ‘Dereconstruction’ and particularly ‘Youth Detention’ are brilliant, scorching rock albums. It was great to see Lee play in Sheffield recently with a band, although it was a shame that his regular bandmates, the Williamson brothers, could not be with him. I saw him play solo in Manchester last year, where he showed what a good voice he has. Here he is with a solo acoustic version of ‘Whitewash’ from ‘Youth Detention’.
Number 3: Laura Cantrell
I just love Laura’s songs with their sweet, sweet melodies, sung with her beautifully clear voice. I find myself singing along happily to them as I drive along in the car (as long as there are no other passengers). I also like her words, which often give a female view of love and romance, finding them interesting and heart warming. I have seen her play a couple of fantastic gigs at the Brudenell in Leeds; it was so enjoyable to see her there recently, where she showcased some songs from her new album ‘Just Like A Rose’. She and her band seemed to enjoy being there and I found her words between songs charming. This clip is of one of my favourite songs of hers with her long-term collaborator Mark Spencer playing excellent guitar alongside her.
Number 2: Willy Vlautin
As I am a great fan of The Delines and particularly Richmond Fontaine this choice feels like a bit of a cheat- a two-for-one. I find Willy’s tales of ordinary folk struggling by completely compelling and this then draws me into the music- the alt-country of Richmond Fontaine and the country-soul of the Delines. His books are excellent, too. Favourite Willy Vlautin albums are The Delines’ first and ‘Post To Wire’ and ‘You Can’t Go Back If There’s Nothing To Go Back To’ by Richmond Fontaine, the latter two being a couple of my favourites ever. Memorable gigs from Richmond Fontaine were at Bury Met the first time I saw them with a great performance by Paul Brainard on steel guitar and trumpet and also one of their final gigs at the Trades Club in Hebden Bridge. This was the venue, too, for a wonderful Delines gig on an autumn evening with the mist rolling in from the canal to give a magical feel to the night. Willy’s jokey persona when playing is at odds with the rather gloomy nature of the songs; he is a good laugh and the band seem to enjoy each other’s company, which always helps the performance to go with a swing. I have chosen a clip of one of my favourite ever songs, ‘Post To Wire’, which I find very moving. The nearest thing that they ever had to a hit.
Number 1: Drive-By Truckers
I have wondered why I like the DBTs so much and I think it is their words that I am drawn to. Their music isn’t very catchy or particularly melodic (there’s not much chance of them having a ‘hit’) but the words on pretty much all their tracks are so interesting and compelling that they draw me into listening to the tracks. I then find myself very much liking the songs musically and wanting to listen to them repeatedly. Patterson Hood’s lyrics are dark stories of contemporary life in the US, often documenting people’s struggles in a similar vein to Willy Vlautin. I am constantly amazed by his ability to think up fresh material to write new songs about and the skilled nature of the lyrics which are never ‘clunky’. Mike Cooley’s lyrics can at times be slightly opaque but he can come up with some brilliantly memorable lines and the songs are often very strong musically. I have put them at number 1 because of the consistently high standard of their work- they have produced 15 albums, most of which I love and still like listening to, but even the few which I am not as keen on have four or five excellent tracks on them. It is hard to say which album is my favourite, though controversially I like the country-soul of ‘Go-Go Boots’ and the recent ‘The Unraveling’ more than many seem to. I have found their live shows to get better and better over time- they are rock shows so the subtleties of their music got a bit lost at times in the past and the sound got a bit samey. However, Patterson’s massive enthusiasm for music and for the band is clear to see at a gig and is infectious. I felt that they sounded excellent at Leeds recently with more ‘light and dark’ and changes of pace than when I first saw them many years ago. I would have liked to have posted a clip of the first time I saw them on ‘The Jools Holland Show’ playing ‘Birthday Boy’ – it was love at first sight for me- but this is no longer available. Instead, there is a clip of them playing ‘The Righteous Path’ at Austin City Limits with John Neff on pedal steel and Shona Tucker on bass, neither of whom is with them anymore. A perfect song for the cost-of-living crisis that we are going through today.