Having dared to take a peak at my fellow AUK Writer’s Top 10 list over the previous weeks, rather like a naughty schoolboy trying to copy in class, I get the feeling that these articles are viewed rather like a game of pass the parcel where, awaiting our turn, we take a certain measure of perverse pleasure watching one’s colleagues struggle with this poison chalice, whilst dreading the moment the music stops with the parcel still in our hands. Well either I’m hearing a long interlude or the music has stopped with me.
The question what is ‘americana music’ has been the hot potato since before the turn of the century, capable of dividing the most loyal fans as it centres very much on whether you see the phrase as describing a specific, if somewhat narrow and relatively new, musical entity or rather as an umbrella that encompasses a whole range of roots music. For me it’s most definitely the latter with folk, bluegrass, country, blues, gospel, rock ‘n’ roll, rockabilly, southern rock and even jazz being the base colours that the americana genre simply dips it’s brush and is able to create the broad range of wonderful music we are so passionate about.
With that in mind there is the temptation to go right back to the source of these roots to find the top ten artists. With country music we must surely have Hank Williams and probably Johnny Cash, while folk music can’t be without Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger and of course the bard himself Bob Dylan. Then there’s the blues of Robert Johnson, and Muddy Waters and what about gospel and Mahalia Jackson or The Staple Singers. Yes, all worthy candidates and we’ve only scratched the surface, but, and here’s the key, though they all wonderfully represent their own genre, individually they don’t capture the essence of what americana music is. Americana music is a cross-pollination of these musical styles and therefore we have to find the artists that have best drawn from this varied palette and in doing so created something new.
A recently released book written by Mandi Bates Bailey entitled ‘The Downhome Sound – Diversity and Politics in Americana Music’ attempts to take an unusually scientific approach to this fundamentally organic subject to try and solve our conundrum, describing americana as the purest form of American music. Purest! possibly, but just as importantly is the diversity, as it draws its influences from so many different cultures and social backgrounds. Also, let’s not lose sight that the title itself, ‘americana’, is not a 21st century invention as the history books clearly show, with another possible contender for this list Leon Russell having released an album entitled ‘Americana’ as far back as 1978.
Right, with that sorted do we head straight back to the 21st century? No, of course not, for scanning through the previous decades we can find key artists that are fundamental to the development of the americana music scene we’ve come to recognise today. Artists that created a new sound, sometimes subtlety, possibly even unconsciously, but nonetheless original, that have had both impact and longevity and thus clear influence on those that regularly fill the pages of our magazine. It is important to remember that the challenge here, as I understand it, was to create a list of the greatest and subsequently most influential artists within the americana genre and not simply a list of my personal favourites which would almost certainly have taken on a different look. So with all the usual caveats and apologies to all the great and worthy candidates my list has overlooked I leave you with my ‘Top 10 Greatest Americana Artists’ along with my final thoughts on the subject as I paraphrase a famous quote from Potter Stewart (1964)
“Therefore as from today I shall no longer try to define Americana Music, as perhaps in truth I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. That said, I can confidently say, I know it when I hear it”.
Number 10: Rhiannon Giddens.
With a multi-ancestry, her father an European-American whilst her mother’s descendants included both African-Americans and Native American tribes, Giddens was born to celebrate and embrace the diversity of her homeland through its music and culture. Coming to the attention of the wider public through her work with the Carolina Chocolate Drops, an old-time string band that breathed new life into traditional and bluegrass music, Giddens’ contribution of fiddle, banjo and sublime vocals helped secure the band a Grammy Award for ‘Best Traditional Folk Album’ in 2010. This accolade marked the pinnacle of the band’s achievements and signalled the beginning of Giddens’ ascendancy as a solo artist within the americana genre.
Gidden’s inclusion in this list is justified not only by her achievements musically, be it either with the Carolina Chocolate Drops or latterly with her fabulous solo work, but also for the work she has done in helping to change the face of americana music, breaking down barriers and preconceived ideas. In 2017 she became only the fourth artist to perform at both the Newport Folk and Jazz Festival. Later that same year she delivered the keynote address at the ‘World of Bluegrass Business Conference’ and according to Bluegrass Today “shattered long held stereotypes, dismantling the myth of homogeneous Appalachia”. The following year, as guest curator for the Cambridge Folk Festival she would use her position to invite, among others, Kaia Kater, Yola Carter, and the Birds of Chicago on to the bill. Early 2019 saw the release of ‘Songs For Our Native Daughters’ an album that confronted cultural conditioning on American history of slavery, racism and misogyny, along with fellow black female artists, Allison Russell, Leyla McCalla, and Amythyst Kiah, all whose careers arguably benefited from the exposure of working with Giddens.
Giddens musical contribution to the genre has been as diverse as her cultural upbringing, but her role in helping promote black female artists has changed the face and perception of the genre forever, helping remind us all that the americana genre is not just built upon diversity of music but also diversity of culture, race and gender. For the attached video I’ve chosen a track from Giddens’ new album ‘You’re The One’ featuring Jason Isbell, due out on August 18th.
Number 9: The Grateful Dead.
Formed in 1965 and from the San Francisco Bay Area, the Grateful Dead are synonymous with the West Coast music scene that developed during the latter half of the 1960’s. Growing up on a diet of traditional roots and jug band music it was in part the ‘British Invasion’ of The Beatles and The Rolling Stones that enticed them to the electric sound of rock ‘n ‘roll. Their early albums saw them at the forefront of the new psychedelic scene, while their live shows quickly gained legendary status consisting of long improvised jams that fused the bands eclectic influences of blues, jazz, folk, country, bluegrass, reggae, gospel, and rock ‘n’ roll.
1970 saw the band return to their acoustic roots releasing two albums ‘Workingman’s Dead’ and ‘American Beauty’ combining more traditional song structures to their broad eclectic palette and in doing so produce two pieces of work that are seen as pioneering in the development of the americana genre. The band were blessed with a high level of musicianship, particularly guitarist, singer and songwriter Jerry Garcia who sadly passed away on August 9th, 1995 at just 53 years of age.
The Grateful Dead’s influence on the music scene of the following decades is as diverse as their own sound with acts such as Phish, Widespread Panic, and The String Cheese Incident, all greatly impacted by the early psychedelic period whilst their early 70s material can be heard in many of the roots artists of today and their influence along with their fanbase is as strong as it has ever been.
Number 8: Emmylou Harris.
Emmylou Harris’ continued contribution to americana music, with her achingly beautiful voice of pure crystalline tremor, has now reached into its sixth decade starting with her work with Gram Parsons and in particular the seminal album that was ‘Grievous Angel’. Parsons had a vision ever since his first foray into the music scene with the International Submarine Band, to mix the authentic sound of country music with the new energy of rock ‘n’ roll. On his untimely death shortly after the release of ‘Grievous Angel’ Harris would pick up the baton using Parsons’ vision as a template for her debut solo album ‘Pieces Of The Sky’. Here she mixed songs from the likes of Merle Haggard, The Beatles, and The Louvin Brothers and in doing so kickstarted a career that would see her become a torchbearer for a genre as well as a vessel to promote the work of some of the finest songwriters of a generation. Writers such as Townes Van Zandt, Guy Clark, and of course Rodney Crowell all benefiting from the exposure gained from Harris’ support.
All this would deservedly see Harris as a contender for this list, but it’s what came two decades into her career that cements her position. By this time her star no longer shone so bright, another victim of the fickle finger of Nashville, and despite the success of her ‘Trio’ album with Linda Ronstadt and Dolly Parton, she found herself by the early 90’s walking in the shadows of lesser lights. Enter producer Daniel Lanois, known for his work with acts such as U2 and Peter Gabriel, who by supplying an alternative-rock approach to Harris’ vocals of dark poetic hurt and smoulder, helped create ‘Wrecking Ball’ an album that reinvented her sound, redefined her art, and is considered by many to be one of the major influences in establishing the new americana music scene. Country music hated it, but the album would go on to be voted ‘Best Contemporary Folk Album’ at the Grammy’, and Harris would go on to better this with the equally lauded and mostly self-penned follow up ‘Red Dirt Girl’, cementing herself as a true icon of the genre.
Number 7: Wilco.
Rising from the ashes of Uncle Tupelo, Wilco were initially viewed as part of the neo country-rock acts of the early 90’s, eschewing the melancholia and sentimentality associated with the genre while still retaining and respecting its musical traditions. However by the release of their second album ‘Being There’, in 1996, founder member Jeff Tweedy would start leading the band’s sound towards unexplored territories combining distorted guitars and cosmic drones with sombre dirges and perfect pop sensibilities. Their fourth album ‘Yankee Hotel Foxtrot’ was finally released in 2002, after the band had been unceremoniously dropped from their record label Reprise, leading the band to initially making the tracks available to stream on the official website before signing to Nonesuch Records. The album has since gone on to be accepted as one of the most important releases of the 21st century appearing in Q Magazine’s ‘Top 100 Albums Ever’, and Rolling Stone’s ‘Top 500 Albums of All Time’. The introduction of Jim O’Rourke on production duties helped to create a chaos of noise and labyrinth-like corridors that propelled the powerful mix of roots music to a bewildering, confrontational and grandiose sound beyond anything heard before. In turn the album along with their following releases would become a major influence in defining so much of the alternative music scene, becoming a template that acts such as The National and The War On Drugs are amongst the best current exponents.
Add the work they did with Billy Bragg in bringing the name Of Woody Guthrie to the ‘MTV Generation’ under the guise of the ‘Mermaid Avenue’ albums, delivering a real earthy sound reminiscent of early bluegrass and folk-rock, and it becomes clear that Wilco’s place in this list was never in doubt.
Number 6: Lucinda Williams.
Lucinda Williams’ story is the epitome of a woman succeeding in a male dominated industry without ever allowing her dreams or her music to be compromised, no matter how long it took. Daughter of the poet and professor Miller Williams where she undoubtedly learned the power of language it was her mother’s battle with mental illness that provided Williams with both her steely determination as well as the source for so many of her songs, all wonderfully recounted in her recent released memoir ‘Don’t Tell Anybody The Secrets I Told You’.
Having learnt to play guitar from a young age Williams was initially drawn to folk singers such as Joan Baez and Judy Collins before discovering Bob Dylan just at the time he went electric and quote “completely blew my mind”. However, it was the late 70’s emerging punk scene that would give her the vision for that unique sound, adding a whole lot of snarling defiant attitude and electric energy to the folk, blues and country music she’d soaked up in her teens all married together with her poetry of gothic southern landscapes and dark evocative vengeance. Her vision was not shared originally by the ‘Suits’ of the record industry who famously claimed that her music was “too country for rock, and too rock for country”, so it would take the best part of two decades of stoic resilience and two outstanding albums before Williams would finally receive the accolades for being one of the most original artists of her generation. Albums such as ‘Sweet Old World’ and ‘Car Wheels On A Gravel Road’ have long since cemented themselves within americana folklore and are now regarded as a touchstone for so much that we recognise the genre for today, whilst Williams herself punched a gaping wide hole in stereotypical white male perceptions, thus creating a platform for female singer-songwriters around the world to explore the rockier side of americana music.
Number 5: Steve Earle.
Steve Earle learned his craft at the knee of two of the greatest songwriters in the history of American folk music, Townes Van Zandt and Guy Clark whilst still in his teens. Having run away from school at the age of fourteen to find his idol Van Zandt, Earle finally dropped out of school at sixteen, his heart set on being a songwriter. By the time he was nineteen he had moved to Nashville joining Clark’s band on bass and appeared in the 1976 film ‘Heartworn Highways’, a documentary on the ‘outlaw country’ movement in Nashville (released in 1981), which as well as Van Zandt and Clarke included another of their disciples in Rodney Crowell. However it would take Earle another ten years to hone is skills with his debut album ‘Guitar Town’ serving his reputation as one of the first ‘roots rockers’ as it straddled the genres of rock and country, and though he wasn’t the first artist to blend these styles, the combination of the high energy accompaniment strapped to his heartfelt lyrics of the American heartland helped forged the road into what we recognise today as alt-country.
In the following thirty-seven years Earle has established himself as the godfather of the americana music genre, winning three Grammys for ‘Best Contemporary Folk Album’. Albums such as 1988’s ‘Copperhead Road’ a quixotic project that mixed lyrical folk traditions with hard rock and eclectic Irish influences that would be a massive influence on acts such as the Dropkick Murphys. Earle’s natural rebellious nature and personal misadventure would offer ample fuel for his songs of heartbreak whilst his restless spirit was constantly instep with blue-collared workers never slow to vent his fury with sharp polemical verse.
Earle would continue to broaden his musical palette, as with 1999’s ‘The Mountain’ an album he made with the Del McCoury Band commemorating the late great bluegrass king Bill Monroe, but even here despite the instruments being primarily acoustic the music abounded with merciless precision and furious visceral. Earle’s writing here is nothing short of breathtaking as this album of original songs instantly assumed the gravitas of age old Appalachian standards. Combine all this to the influence and support he regularly offers to his peers and countless disciples and it is clear that americana music wouldn’t be what it is today without Earle’s contribution, and I’m sure Van Zandt and Clark would be mighty proud.
Number 4: Neil Young.
Los Angeles during the late 60’s and early 70’s was the bedrock for a burgeoning singer-songwriter movement driven to write thought provoking songs with a lyrical content often more politicised, tackling topics with social and environmental issues as well as those of the heart and thus move away from the simple pop sensibilities that crowded the charts and radio airwaves. The likes of Joni Mitchell and Jackson Browne were pivotal in the development of this new art form and their influence on todays music scene is immeasurable. However their importance within the development of americana music is eclipsed by one of Mitchell’s fellow countrymen, Neil Young.
Young initially came to everyone’s attention during his time with Buffalo Springfield in the mid 60’s, a short-lived band that capitalised on the new folk-rock scene that had been quickly gathering pace and popularity during this period. His distinct sound and songwriting skills immediately stood out with numbers such as ‘Broken Arrow’ and ‘Expecting To Fly’ gaining plaudits from all corners displaying his ability to combine the traditional folk and country music of his idols such as Bob Dylan and Phil Ochs, with the more fashionable rock sound. By the late 60’s Young would combine his solo career with occasional forays with the supergroup CSNY that would see him produce a cannon of work over the next six decades that few if any have equalled, and in doing so release some of the finest and most influential albums in popular music culture. Albums such as ‘After The Gold Rush’ and ‘Harvest’ full of songs with an introspective approach, starkly poignant lovelorn lyrics that perfectly evoked both the dying optimism of the west coast counterculture with a mystical eulogy to a vanishing America. However, sitting along side these, and what makes Young’s music so unique are albums such as Tonight’s The Night’, ‘Rust Never Sleeps’ and ‘Ragged Glory’ and the juxtaposition of styles. Here the pastoral idylls of the former are replaced by overloaded guitar feedback and jagged edgy bursts of noise, with bruising modal harmonies, while the lyrics are full of bilious unresolved turmoil and full on anger that would become so influential not just with the grunge movement of the early 90’s but with the alternative-rock and country scene that would emerge at the turn of the millennium.
Seen by many as an eccentric visionary, Young’s musical odyssey has been uncompromising, full of unpredictable twists and turns. Whether it be his sparse hopeless romantic ballads, his spontaneously raw epic country-rock or the corrosive intensity of his distorted guitar, Young has constantly demonstrated the unbridled passion of an artist who understands that self-renewal is the only way to avoid burning out. For this reason he remains one of the most significant and influential artists of popular music and in particular the development of so much that we accept today as americana. Long may he refuse to “Burn Out Or Fade Away”.
Number 3; The Band.
It is now almost 65 years since four Canadian musicians along with a drummer from Arkansas became The Hawks, the backing band for legendary rockabilly artist Ronnie Hawkins but over the following twenty years the quintet would garner a reputation, thanks mostly to two extraordinary albums, which would see them become the essential influence for every country-rock band that followed.
Striking out on their own in 1963, they quickly honed their sound with the fusion of soul, country, folk and gospel all intertwined with sublime vocal harmonies that by 1965 had brought them to the attention of Bob Dylan who was looking for a backing band for his electric tour. Over the next few years they would absorb Dylan’s literary approach and combine it to their own sound before going into the studio in 1968 to record their astonishing debut ‘Music From Big Pink’. Released against the grain of the times this enduring epoch of musical history that detonated in the middle of the psychedelic era seemed to synthesise a century of American culture and yet still remains bracingly fresh to this day. With Robbie Robertson and Richard Manuel they had unearthed two of the finest songwriters of their generation whilst Dylan assisted with two co-writes ‘Tears Of Rage’ and ‘This Wheels On Fire’ in addition to his own ‘I Shall Be Released’ to which The Band delivered the definitive version. This album was quickly followed the following year by their eponymous offering that was quite simply an extraordinary cycle of songs inspired by the American south, an album thats power remains immune to the passage of time with the peculiar quality of sounding as if it had existed for decades. Digging deep beneath the American soil for it’s themes and sounds, the quintet mixed organ, fiddles, mandolins with soulful bluegrass and the stinging electric blues of Robertson’s guitar, before bringing it altogether with their sublime vocals and close knit harmonies. Almost every song on the album, mostly written by Robertson, has taken up legendary status such as ‘Rag Mama Rag’, ‘The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down’ and ‘King Harvest (Must Surely Come)’, with their evocative lyrics traversing the entire course of American history through the voices of the ordinary working class. Combined with an unequalled level of musical dexterity they expertly allowed each instrumental part to sublimate towards the overall feel, the imagery created being as powerful and graceful as the finest etched portrait.
Rarely have two albums been greeted with quite as much acclaim, or remained so influential as acts through the following decades would testify to. Bands ranging from the Rolling Stones to the Grateful dead, from Little Feat to Fairport Convention, Lucinda Williams, Uncle Tupelo and Steve Earle all benefited, and who themselves were or would become inspirational acts.
I will leave the last words to the great writer Barney Hoskins who in his biography of The Band entitled ‘Across The Great Divide’ argued with some conviction and evidence that they could very well be North America’s greatest ever band. You’ll find no argument here.
Footnote: Whilst putting the final touches of this feature together the sad news came through that Robbie Robertson had passed away aged 80 years old.
Number 2: Stephen Stills.
Whether through his work with Buffalo Springfield, a band he formed in 1966 with among others, Neil Young, the supergroup trio he formed with ex-Byrd member David Crosby and ex-Hollies vocalist Graham Nash, or his early solo work, Stephen Stills position in this list would come us little surprise. A multi-instrumentalist capable of playing keyboards, bass, percussion, banjo, and drums, it was with the guitar that he best garnered his reputation being voted by Rolling Stone Magazine to be the one of its finest exponents. It was with Buffalo Springfield, a West Coast outfit that blended folk and country with the more fashionable harder rock sound that would become so influential on the next generation, that Stills’ first demonstrated his unique talent as a songwriter, albeit in a band simply stuffed too full of songwriters to survive. Tracks such as ‘For What It’s Worth’, a beautifully understated snapshot of the turbulent times and one of the finest protest anthems of the 60s, along with the immaculate ‘Everydays’, ‘Bluebird’ and ‘Rock and Roll Woman’, stamped him amongst the best of his generation.
On the demise of Buffalo Springfield Stills joined forces with Crosby and Nash to create the ultimate supergroup that lived up to their billing with their debut album delivering a collection of songs that demonstrated the flawless compatibility of the three voices. Here again his songwriting shone with songs like the staggering ‘Suite Judy Blue Eyes’, and the heartrending ‘Helplessly Hoping’, instantly becoming classics of the West Coast genre. Their follow up album ‘Déjà Vu’, saw former bandmate Young turn the trio into a quartet albeit with mixed results as Stills’ working relationship with Young continued to inspire and frustrate in equal measures and would do so through out their careers.
It is however Stills’ solo work that propels him to the lofty position on this list. His first two albums demonstrated not just his considerable dexterity as a songwriter, guitarist and singer but also the breadth of his musical pallet. Whether it was the gospel soaked ‘Church (Part Of Someone)’ or the electric folk-blues of ‘Go Back Home’, the acoustic blues of ‘Black Queen’, or the Latin Rhythms of the irresistible ‘Love The One Your With’ the album’s ten superb songs skilfully sketch a soulful journey through reflections of love and delivers a vibrant mosaic of Americana music the like of which had never been heard before. His follow up album would be equally potent but he would take it all to another level when joining forces with former Byrds and Flying Burrito Brothers bassist Chris Hillman to form Manassas. Armed with a support cast of musicians to die for that included Al Perkins, Dallas Taylor and Byron Berline and a wealth of material this is arguably Stills’ greatest achievement. Drawing from a myriad of musical styles that included country, bluegrass, rock, blues, folk, and Latin, Stills’ delivered a double album of music that remained remarkably cohesive throughout its 21 tracks. Songs like ‘Both Of Us (Bound To Lose)’, ‘Fallen Eagle’ and the album opener ‘Song Of Love’ explode with a zestful freshness and yet at the same time are instantly recognisable. It is possibly the finest album in americana music’s cannon.
Number 1: The Byrds.
By fusing the lyrical genius of Bob Dylan with the harmonic and melodic ingenuity of The Beatles, The Byrds’ debut album ‘Mr Tambourine Man’ (1965), pioneered the onset of folk-rock, with their signature blend of clear harmony singing along with the bright jangly sound of a 12 string Rickenbacker guitar cementing a permanent path through popular music’s language and history. Not satisfied with that, after one more album of folk-rock the band would reset their focus on the new psychedelic scene with albums such as ‘Fifth Dimension’, ‘Younger Than Yesterday‘, and ‘The Notorious Byrd Brothers’, and songs such as the extraordinary ‘Eight Miles High’, and ‘So You Want To Be A Rock ‘n’ Roll Star’, that expanded on their eclecticism, creating an indelible mark on the new impressionistic culture. By this point the band had expanded their sound drawing from a diverse mix of rock ‘n’ roll, folk, jazz, country and raga encompassing a new genre of cosmic americana. As if that wasn’t enough, in 1968 the band would return to the studio to record the seminal ‘Sweetheart Of The Rodeo‘, an album that not only gave country music a sense of place in late 60’s pop culture but would play a pioneering role in the development of country-rock that would follow through the following decades.
The three distinctly different musical styles that The Byrds had such a subversive impact in developing was helped in no small way by the revolving door of key members that contributed greatly to their continually evolving sound. At least four of them could easily have been candidates for this list with the quality of work that they went on to deliver, either as solo artists or with new collaborators, and the lasting influence that their music has endured. Whether it be collectively as a band or individually their impact can be felt from The Eagles, to Wilco, from Tom Petty & Heartbreakers to The Pretenders, R.E.M, The Jayhawks and Fleet Foxes, and that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
Whether it be as folk-rock pioneers, psychedelic-rock innovators or harbingers of country-rock, The Byrds have produced some of the greatest and most memorable music ever recorded. Their stylistically diverse material continually demonstrated a profound vision and wonderful spirit of adventure that few of their contemporaries could dream of, let alone match, and it forms the very foundation of so much of the music we listen to today and call americana. Their influence is inestimable.