The Top 10 Greatest Ever Americana Artists: Fred Arnold

So, my initial list of candidates for this enterprise, drawn purely from memory without any prompts, added up to 35 artists. Then I went to the prompts (my music collection). That brought the number up to 56, which I thought was quite high until I remembered that one of my colleagues had noted that 82 artists had been nominated by the end of October. I went through them to see who should be added or who should be culled.

I was not inclined to seek out a theme to my favourite 10, nor was I particularly disposed to the idea of my favourite artists having necessarily been genre-changing or genre-defining artists (though most have been). I was tempted to include artists who had built up an extensive body of work, a not unreasonable criterion for inclusion, but I wanted to include two who will assuredly do that.

No, at the end of the day I included the ten artists who have had the most rotation in my collection and to whom I turn when I want picking up, or chilling out, or the need to let it all out emotionally, or to put life in some perspective. Or just when I needed to hear a specific track from their repertoire.  Then putting them in order presents a whole new dilemma, so here goes:

Number 10:  Molly Tuttle.

OK, so she has only released four full length albums (and a couple of EPs), but she is one of those artists who is already genre-changing, by redefining the way we listen to, and accept, bluegrass music. From an apparently shy, retiring, but more than competent flat-picking acoustic guitarist (watch her YouTube videos from the days when she played in the family band in her teens) via a solo country pop album ‘When you’re Ready’ and an exquisite album of covers made during covid lockdown, she has suddenly jumped into potential superstardom with two bluegrass albums, ‘Crooked Tree’ and ‘City of Gold’ (with her crack band Golden Highway). These two albums show her development as a songwriter (often with her partner Ketch Secor from Old Crow Medicine Show, and with broad subject matter), a lead singer (the confidence in some of her vocal offerings on these albums is remarkable) and, not least, as a guitarist, where she ranks very highly. Even if she were to experiment with other musical styles, her reputation is guaranteed. And during this period, she has also been able to become a symbol of hope and an ambassador for people with alopecia from which she has suffered since age 3. The bravery she shows at concerts in removing her wig is quite moving. Her song ‘Crooked Tree’ addresses this.

Her shows are as exciting as they come.  A veritable superstar in the making.

Number 9:  Ruston Kelly

Ruston Kelly has delivered three successive albums that rank near the best by anyone in each of the years in which they were released. They deal with the singer’s drink and drug addiction and his marriage and divorce from country star Kacey Musgraves, and other demons. After a 10 song extended EP ‘Halloween’ (which passed me by at the time) came his first full-length album ‘Dying Star’  a dark album exploring Kelly’s deepest problems with total honesty , his expressive voice getting to the raw emotion and despair at his situation.  The lyricism was outstanding, the tunes were gorgeous, the production was amazing and Kacey Musgraves voice appeared all over it. I was hooked on the drama of the whole album, even though my life had never contained even a bit of the poor life choices that Kelly had made. Then followed ‘Shape and Destroy ‘ in 2020, a second straight contender for album of the year, a generally more uplifting experience than its predecessor, as Kelly begins to see the sunlit uplands that his recovery is hoping for. Once again it was filled with lovely melodies and his great voice, all beautifully produced by Jarrad K. It was released just as he and Musgraves were divorcing and critics tended to see this as the ‘divorce’ album, given the timing of its release.  The 2023 release, ‘The Weakness’ (yet another album of the year contender), explored the trauma of the divorce and was, once again, the experience of a lived life and getting through the bad times. As he seems to emerge into the light there is the kicker in the last and best track ‘Cold Black Mile’  – “And I might die a thousand times, but I know I can survive, I’ll just keep on pushin’ down the cold black mile.” Since the beginning I’ve now returned to the EP ‘Halloween’ and the signs are there already of a great singer-songwriter waiting to be let loose. One can only hope that his talent will survive and the demons that have previously beset him will not return – he is an extraordinary singer/songwriter.

Number 8: Chris Hillman

What can you say about Chris Hillman?  One of a very small number of artists who has recorded and released albums over nearly 60 years and without doubt a major influence in the americana genre – he’s been credited with being the godfather of country-rock (though Gram Parsons has the greater profile for that title) but his real love has always been bluegrass. It is where he started at the beginning of the 60s with the Scottsville Squirrel Barkers at the age of 16 after he had learned to play the mandolin, and where he has been most prevalent in recent times with his albums with Herb Pedersen (even though he released a solo album ‘Bidin’ my Time’  in 2017,  a retrospective of all the different types of music he has played). He is probably best known as a founder member of The Byrds, playing bass which he had never played before, and then becoming a major influence in the band as it morphed from a predominantly pop band into country unit (especially when Gram Parsons joined for a short but influential period which led up to ‘Sweetheart of the Rodeo’. Management issues made him leave the group and he joined up again with Parsons to form the much-loved Flying Burrito Brothers.

In the 70s Hillman was a member of a number of country-rock bands, Stephen Stills’ Manassas, the Souther Hillman Furay Band, a temporary regrouping of the Byrds, The McGuinn-Clark-Hillman Band and then McGuinn-Hillman and then Clark-Hillman. He even released a couple of very worthwhile solo albums ‘Slippin’ Away’ and ‘Clear Sailing’ as well as playing sessions for a number of bluegrass and country-rock artists.

In the mid-80s however, after a couple of albums as a duo with Herb Pedersen he formed the very gifted Desert Rose Band, where he played acoustic guitar and his beloved mandolin. The songs on the albums had a bluegrass flavour even though it was largely an electric band. The group disbanded in the early 90s after a fine series of albums, including the most successful ‘Pages of Life’, since when Hillman has recorded more albums with Pedersen and a couple more with ace acoustic guitar player Tony Rice in the bluegrass group Rice Rice Hillman and Pedersen, and has performed with previous members of practically all of the groups he played in and released another couple of solo albums.

He is known to be friendly, kind and religious – he sings in a choir in a Greek Orthodox Church (influenced by his wife of more than 40 years who is partly Greek). He wins a place due to longevity (more than 40 albums), great musicality and writer of a number of excellent songs during his career,– the perfect ‘So You Wanna be a Rock’n’Roll Star’ and ‘Time Between‘ for the Byrds, or ‘Step On Out’ on ‘Running’ with The Desert Rose Band and his overall musical influence. Dwight Yoakam sums this up perfectly “without Chris Hillman acting as the connective tissue between West Coast country music traditions and the rock’n’roll generations, from Buck Owens to The Byrds, there would be no modern country music”

Number 7: Patty Griffin

Patty Griffin belongs to a select group of female singer-songwriters who have an extensive body of work, almost all of it exclusively highly rated and well-received by critics and fans alike. Somewhat of a late entry to the recording studio, when essentially a folk singer, with just a guitar for company, she was discovered by A&M executives singing in a bar, and after submitting an over-produced version of the demo tape she had submitted, ‘Living with Ghosts’ was released in its original form. She was then in her thirties. After the more rock-inspired ‘Flaming Red’, Griffin had familiar problems with her record company who failed to release her third album ‘Silver Bell’ in 1999 (it finally saw light of day in 2013)

By this time her songwriting was getting noticed (many of her songs were recorded by other, major artists), as was her wonderful, husky, expansive soaring voice, which resonates with the emotion of the songs she sings, usually about the human condition, about love and death, and longing and despair.

My first introduction was ‘1000 Kisses’ (2002), the start of a remarkable four-album run  – ‘A Kiss in Time’ 2003 (her first live album), ‘Impossible Dream’ 2004 and ‘Children Running Through’ 2007 were all consistently brilliant albums which garnered award nominations.  I recall having passed up ‘Living with Ghosts’ in the discount bin. Although it is one her most successful albums, the fact that I had started with ‘1000 Kisses’ left it pretty much unplayed in my collection (until quite recently!)

She toured with Emmylou Harris and Gillian Welch and then appeared on a gospel show with Mavis Staples, which became the inspiration for her side-project ‘Downtown Church’, a gospel-inspired album and another award winner.  She met Robert Plant and became vocalist in his reconstituted Band of Joy – a self-titled album appeared in 2011. Then she dated Plant until 2014.

In early 2013 came the wonderful ‘American Kid’, inspired by her father and including a quite stunning song ‘Not a Bad Man’, about a military veteran suffering from PTSD “There’s ghosts that follow me around, Things I seen and did, But I am not a bad man, Just an American Kid”.  ‘Servant of Love’ in 2015  had a rather more experimental production sound but the voice and the songs transcended any concerns about a different palette of sounds, that included jazzy brass backings.

In 2016 and for a few years after Griffin battled and fought off breast cancer, and for a while she lost her voice, but made a new album in 2019, a self-titled album about her various health battles and the ever-present cancer in US society. It is in fact one of her best albums. Apart from garnering many awards her songs have often appeared in film and tv series. Suffice it to say that Patty Griffin is an American national treasure.

Number 6:  Lori McKenna

Lori McKenna is a phenomenon – she was born in Stoughton, Massachusetts and still lives there 54 years later, she married her childhood sweetheart at age 19 and had five children.  She has really never travelled far away, not even to perform. And yet she has written (or co-written) and recorded 12 beautiful albums over a period of 23 years – her first album was released when she was in her early 30s,  ‘Paper Wings and Halos’ which introduced listeners to her emotionally stirring voice, which breaks and cracks, or whispers or roars over a  promising set of songs about love, heartbreak and loneliness.

Take the track ‘Hardly Speaking a Word’ – “Well I know your life has been hard I see it in your eyes and I feel it in your heart When your eyes move down to the floor And your mouth changes shape, and your voice sounds sore I can hold you close in my arms And tell you that you’re special And that you treasure such great charms And that you always keep my heart full But I’m hardly speaking a word”.

This early track typifies her writing style, the great melody, the little vignette with the wonderful observational skills that typified her approach to writing from then on through all 12 albums. Tim McGraw and Faith Hill recorded her songs and introduced her to Warner Bros Records for whom she recorded ‘Unglamourous’, a more ‘produced’ album (with strings and synths) that really did not suit her. ‘Unglamourous’ did not go down well with fans and after lacklustre sales and one album she left the company and reverted to a more acoustic instrumentation with a real small group feeling.

She was, then as now, in constant demand for her songs, which were recorded by a large number of artists. She was nominated for, and won, a number of songwriting awards. And the remarkable thing is that her albums keep getting better and better. 2021’s ‘The Balladeer’ was probably the most consistently wonderful album of her career.  The thread that runs through the three female songwriting artists appearing on this list is the transferability of their songs – for other artists to record with losing any power of the song, whatever the style.

Number 5: Jeffrey Foucault

Jeffrey Foucault is in his 40s and fits in a group of truly excellent male songwriters who sing in rich, resonant lived-in voices and write like latter-day American folk troubadours. Foucault released his first album in 2001 and has now released seven solo albums of original material, two as part of Redbird with his wife Kris Delmhorst and Peter Mulvey, two with his band Cold Satellite, a murder ballad album with Mark Erelli, a couple of solo albums re-imagining his earlier songs and the quite outstanding covers album of John Prine songs ‘Shoot the Moon Right between the Eyes‘. He is an extraordinarily literate writer (not unlike Danny Schmidt, who narrowly missed out in this list).  His first two albums were stripped-down affairs, but he branched out with the embellished sound of ‘Ghost Repeater’ in 2006, where the mellifluous ominous guitar of producer Bo Ramsey really brought his visions into life. Despite the more sophisticated instrumentation on ‘Ghost Repeater’, the star is always Foucault’s voice. The title track is about voiceless unmanned radio stations in deserted landscapes playing religious songs on repeat. But he can also write love songs – “one for sorrow two for joy they say, I’ve had my fill of sorrow anyway And we’ll have a hundred babies, And a little house outside of town, with a wood-stove and a claw-foot tub When we are all done travelling around.” from ‘One for Sorrow’. Foucault followed this album with two projects, the cover album of John Prine songs mentioned above, one of the great interpretations of another artist’s work, and the album of murder ballads with Mark Erelli, ‘Seven Curses’ recorded by just the two of them over two nights.

Not afraid to stretch out and diversify, Foucault worked with American poet Lisa Olstein on two albums with his band Cold Satellite, adding lyrics and music to her poems. The band included ace guitarist David Goodrich and Booker T bass player Jeremey Moses Curtis. In 2016 came the bluesy and brilliant ‘Salt as Wolves’, where Bo Ramsey came back on board, which showed the variety in Foucault’s vocals, moving seamlessly from folk to rock to blues. ‘Oh Mama’ is a great taster for this album, a bluesy song about the strained relationship between a son and his mother. Then in 2018 he released yet another Album of the Year contender, in ‘Blood Brothers’ (a more laid-back album than ‘Salt as Wolves’), very highly rated by AUK and many other review bodies. Using virtually the same band there was added violins and cello and a beautiful love song, about as upbeat and positive as Foucault has ever been.  “Run the Rio, Up to Albuquerque, Baby by my side,
nothing can hurt me”, from ‘Rio’ sung to a lilting hard-boiled country sound.

And then, just when you think he can’t get any better he releases ‘Deadstock’, a collection of songs he wrote solo or in collaboration from 2005 to 2020, more than half of them never heard before and others re-imagined with a new recording.  From a number of peerless contemporaries Foucault is the artist I revert to most often. He has a great body of work.

Number 4:  Gram Parsons

He did not have an extensive body of work, but Gram Parsons was instrumental in the evolution of americana music, starting with ‘Sweetheart of the Rodeo’ in 1968 (the Byrds standout, though not particularly successful, album), and ending with  ‘Grievous Angel’ in 1974), and introduced Emmylou Harris to the music scene, for which we should all be eternally grateful.

He wrote and sang songs during the mid-60s with a couple of minor bands and then The International Submarine Band, whose sole output included a number of Parsons’ classic songs – ‘Luxury Liner’ and ‘Do You Know How it Feels to be Lonesome’.

Irrespective of the contractual problems that surrounded Parsons’ involvement in the Byrds and the difficulties of getting him to the recording studio, ‘Sweetheart of the Rodeo’ still features his vocals on three of the tracks including the iconic ‘Hickory Wind’, which has now been covered more than 40 times, including on ‘Grievous Angel’. Parsons’ wrote songs that he liked to call Cosmic American Music – a mix of country, roots rock and blues, folk and soul – exactly what constitutes Americana. All of these elements were featured on the Flying Burrito Brothers albums and into his solo work. There is no doubt that the myth of Gram Parsons grew exponentially because of his death, a rather romantically interpreted event due to the desert cremation of his body. This writer however often digs into the Parsons catalogue partly because I love his songs, his interpretations and his voice (especially with Emmylou in tow as harmony), like ‘She’ from ‘GP’ for his songwriting – a song about love, loss, longing etc all wrapped up in introspective lyrics about her job and her departure from his life “Then he Looked down and he took a little pity The whole town swore he decided he’d help her some But he Didn’t mind if she wasn’t very pretty And deep inside his heart, he knew she was the only one” or ‘Return of the Grievous Angel’ with its powerful final chorus.

There is no doubting Parsons influence on the genre. What a pity that his addiction to hard drugs and alcohol deprived us of his genius.

Number 3:  Gretchen Peters

Wow, masterpiece after masterpiece from an artist who has just announced her retirement from touring after more than 40 years (although she will still record), Gretchen Peters is a singer-songwriter who writes consistently brilliant songs, with predominantly dark themes, about murder, sexual and domestic abuse, loneliness, and longing and various stress disorders, often tinged with optimism, and yet without judgment.  Every song allows the listener to explore its meaning and come to their own conclusions. After years of writing songs for other artists, she released her first album in 1996 at the age of nearly 40, the striking ‘Secret of Life’, which included her iconic ‘Independence Day’, about domestic abuse and female emancipation.  From then there have been a constant and regular supply of new albums of Peters’ songs from ‘Gretchen Peters’ in 2001 to 2018’s ‘Dancing with the Beast’, an outstanding album of songs about women of various ages in troubled circumstances. Peters has an ability to write a sentence of extraordinary power, such as “I swallow their indifference But I choke on my regrets” about a prostitute in ‘Truckstop Angel’ and then follow up in the same song on an optimistic note ” One day I’m gonna leave here Gonna hit my lucky streak Gonna spread my gorgeous wings And fly above all this concrete”. This album is probably Peters’ apogee alongside ‘Hello Cruel World’ from 2012, a dark album that was released after a tumultuous 2011 for Peters but ending with her marriage to Barry Walsh. Peters sings in a sweet expressive voice which often belies the nature of the content, and uses the players to convey the darker tones, Will Kimbrough or Doug Lancio on guitar or her husband Barry Walsh on piano.

Interspersed in her output have been a couple of live albums, her latest, the formidable ‘The Show’ from a selection of UK gigs, an album of Mickey Newbury covers (‘The Night You Wrote That Song’) and a sensational album which highlighted her interpretative skills ‘One to the Heart, One to the Head’,  which included Tom Russell’s divine masterpiece ‘Guadalupe’.

Truly the outstanding female singer-songwriter of her generation (in a very competitive field).

Number 2: Jason Isbell

Jason Isbell had been on my radar since his time with Drive-By Truckers, when he was clearly not only an emerging quality songwriter (‘Decoration Day’, ‘Danko/Manuel’’ and the brilliant ’Goddamn Lonely Love’) but a tasty guitarist to boot. He was kicked out of DBT by leader Patterson Hood allegedly for continued abusive behaviour due to alcohol and probably drugs. He was also in the process of divorcing his first wife Shonna Tucker, bass player with the group, and there may have been competing ambitions. But starting with his first solo album ‘Sirens of the Ditch’, on which DBT members played, he was set fair for greatness because he embarked on a string of outstanding solo albums that each included iconic songs of love, death, immortality, marriage, and little day-to-day observations. His iconic status may have been established with ’Cover Me Up’ on his breakthrough album ‘Southeastern’ in 2013, a  stunning love song and a thank you note to his wife Amanda Shires, who is deemed responsible for his sobriety but, there are other songs on that and his subsequent albums that cement his reputation – ‘ 24 Frames’ and ‘If it Takes a Lifetime’ from ‘Something More than Free’, ‘Last of My Kind’ and the spellbinding ‘If We Were Vampires’ from’ The Nashville Sound’, ‘What Have I Done to Help’ and ‘Letting You Go’ from ‘Reunions’, and ‘When We Were Close’ and ‘Cast Iron Skillet’ from ‘Weathervanes’, to name but a few.

Isbell has a great commitment to his music and his fans and his politics. He made an album ‘Georgia Blue’ after the 2016 Presidential election, which included songs exclusively by Georgian artists, that he had promised if Georgia voted Democrat; he and his wife appeared almost daily for weeks at the beginning of COVID lockdown at home playing songs in the absence of performing live on stage, and he joins with friends and colleagues in various collaborations, He has the great good fortune to have had the same group of musicians play with him through the last several albums, the formidable 400 Unit (although bass player Jimbo Hart has now left). It is a tribute to his performing skills that Amanda Shires can appear with the band from time to time without losing the power of any of his songs. I’ve had the pleasure of seeing him 5 times, from a pub in Muswell Hill to the Eventim Apollo in November 2022. The leading americana artist of his age.

No 1: Jackson Browne

Jackson Browne may be a controversial choice, but if americana had been a musical genre in the seventies, Browne would almost certainly have been included. And I have grown up with him nearly all my entire adult life. From his debut album, usually mistakenly known as ‘Saturate Before Using’, he has written some of the most honest, contemplative, soul-searching songs of the last fifty years or so. A lot of his critical success came with his first few albums, songs about love and loss and the human condition which were later superseded by songs of political activism, which were not received as well. His songwriting talent was spotted in his teens – he wrote ‘These Days’ when he was 16 and the song was a hit for Nico. Beautifully literate with a lovely tune, this is a song I wished I could have written. What talent to write these lines at that age “These days I’ll sit on corner stones And count the time in quarter tones to ten, my friend Don’t confront me with my failures, I had not forgotten them”

He wrote for others (including the Eagles’ ‘Take it Easy’)  until he decided to go it alone, releasing his first self-titled album in 1972 which set him on a run of several albums that over the years (though not necessarily at the time) have come to be regarded as one of the great bodies of popular music, ‘For Everyman’, ‘Late for the Sky’, ‘The Pretender’, his biggest sales success’ Running on Empty’,  and ‘Hold Out’. The songs on each of the albums include some which were incredibly personal (‘Here Come Those Tears Again’ on ‘The Pretender’ written with the mother of his wife Phyllis Major who had recently committed suicide, the title track on ‘Late for the Sky’ about a relationship gone wrong, the title track on ‘For Everyman’, a personal response to an apocalyptic vision on CSN’s ‘Wooden Ships’, and so on, too many to mention.

His releases further apart as he became more consumed with political activism, particularly the anti-nuclear organization Musicians United for Safe Energy, and he campaigned against American foreign policy (in Central America particularly, as his acerbic album ‘Lives in the Balance’ attests), and more recently, the environment). The run of largely protest albums did not play particularly well with critics or fans (apart from individual tracks like ‘Tender is the Night’ and the title track of ‘Lives in the Balance’  ‘Sky Blue and Black’ from  ‘I’m Alive’, and ‘Barricades of Heaven’ from ‘Looking East’.  The criticism largely related to a consistent format and production of his songs, rather than the lyrical content, but it resulted in a little less interest in his music.

He released two live ‘Solo Acoustic’ albums in the 2000s, and another stunning live album ‘Love is Strange’ in Spanish with David Lindley and friends (both Grammy-nominated) and was involved with dozens of collaborations on albums and singles.

His intermittent albums still contained beautiful melodies and telling lyrics but ’The Naked Ride Home’ and ‘Time the Conqueror‘ were lacklustre productions. Fast forward, however, to 2014, and ‘Standing in the Breach’ which included ‘The Birds of St Marks’, a great song he had written in his teens. And followed up in 2021 with one of his best-reviewed albums, the wonderful ‘Downhill from Everywhere’, in which he marries his personal issues with his political ones (stirred up by the effect on the US by the Trump years) and writes a nine-minute appreciation of his favourite foreign city in ‘Song for Barcelona’.

And, to come full circle to the beginning of this nomination, the album was nominated in 2021 for best americana album of the year – point proven.

About FredArnold 54 Articles
Lifelong fan of predominantly US (and Canadian) country roots music. Previously an avid concert-goer before wives, kids and dogs got in the way- and although I still try to get to several, my preference for small independent venues often means standing, and that ain't too good for my ancient bones!! Still, a healthy and catholic music collection helps ease the pain
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Jordan Ceri

No room in your top 10 for Steve Earle and/or Lucinda Williams?

Fred Arnold

Sadly not – you would probably be right to include them on an objective basis but I chose to reflect those artists I most regularly turn to.

Andy Riggs

Some glaring omissions me thinks.

Fred Arnold

Well, we all have our own criteria for inclusion. On an objective basis you may be right but it is a subjective issue. If I could have made 30 go into ten, then maybe some of your omissions might have been included.

Alan Peatfield

Fab list, Fred. It’s not about “glaring omissions.” Stop the “over thinking” and “naval gazing.” There are scores of wonderful Americana artists we bask in. It’s all down to that instinct which draws your hand to the CD’s (or vinyl or stream!). Simple as … and rarely wrong. But …. Gene Clark?? Oops.

Andy Davidson

Fred, diggin’ out Ghost Repeater. A forgotten treasure. Thanks.

Fred Arnold

Andy, happy to oblige!

Barry Cooke

Terrific, thoughtful article as always, Fred, thanks!