Honestly I get it, I really do. I love a list as much as anybody and probably more than most. I still scour old NME, Select, Skyscraper, Shindig and Paste magazines to read annual best of lists from 25 years ago and to recheck the occasional list of greatest records of all time (the Pitchfork 500… ohhh now you’re talking…). I fully understand the glory of a list, the self-satisfaction of finding one of our favourites on there, someone who we thought was more obscure than Jude and twice as undervalued. Then there is our animated huffing and puffing at the ridiculous omissions; like when ‘Billy’s Live Bait’ is left out of the best LPs of all time, again. I feel every bit of it.
So does the AUK massive it seems. There is a share in my predilection for codifying personal subjective judgements into definitive musical categorisations of one kind or another. Our pages are heavy with the heft of such compilations and they generate both readership and, judging by the comments on some of the posts in this series, conjecture, discontent, conflict or just plain old discussion. Clearly this is a good thing and to be encouraged. With this in mind I am here to add my tuppence to the debate with my selection of ‘The Top 10 Greatest Ever Americana Artists’.
My promise is not to preface this piece with another grumble about how difficult it is to select 10 artists out of so many, or to argue for some spurious criteria that I used to whittle the list down to these 10. Nor do I intend to offer some kind of overarching philosophy to justify a list of random names that most people have not heard of. I make this promise, however much I want to do all these things. So without theses crutches, I turn to, and take a long look at, the previous lists in the series, 15 by my calculation. Not looking for inspiration in who to pick you understand, but just seeing if any themes emerge or if there are any interesting little quirks to pick up on that will offer me some inspiration for how to approach my list.
In reviewing my colleagues’ lists I note that 82 different artists have been nominated, 32 of whom have been nominated more than once and Lucinda Williams has the most nominations at 6. We seem to much prefer solo artists to bands and Americans to anyone else (wow, great insight there Guy!). Despite Lu leading the way, we have nominated three times more men than women and perhaps the most interesting observation for me is that nearly 60% of those listed made their first recordings over 35 years ago*.
*Disclaimer – maths was never my strong point.
Given that AUK is so supportive of new acts, independent acts and acts that reside outside what we are calling the mainstream, this is perhaps something of a surprise. To see so many artists who made their recording debut well into the previous millennium taking their place in our merry band of GOATS suggests a certain retrograde perspective on our part. I would question that view though, and offer instead the notion that that having fewer recent artists is a reflection that to be considered a GOAT requires some kind of recognisable track record, a catalogue of good stuff built up over a decent period of time. Being a great does not come from having one supernova record and disappearing into the mists of obscurity immediately after, otherwise Lift to Experience would be on most lists!
The final thing that jumps out at me is the very small number of pure ‘country’ acts on our lists. Absolutely no paroxysms over genre here, it is what you make it. Whatever you make it though, it is not possible to argue that country music does not make a significant contribution to americana. With that in mind I offer a list that goes someway to putting the country music back, front and centre, where it belongs. So that’s the no criteria or philosophy promises broken but still no moaning about how hard it is and no mention of all those who just ‘missed out’. As someone who should never be anywhere near any list of musical quality once said “two out of three ain’t bad”.
To tell you the truth, those I offer below probably aren’t the ten best americana artists of all time, they may not even be my ten favourite artists right now. At one time or another, for a fleeting moment or perhaps for a year or two, I have thought that each of these artists was the best thing I had heard, and certainly the best country artist it was possible to reckon with. But I may have moved on since I began writing this (Theo Lawrence, Logan Ledger and Emily Nenni busy vying for my affections). As a wise old songwriter once observed, ‘Time Changes Everything’. And with that we begin at the beginning:
Number 10: Bob Wills
I know, before you feel the urge to point out that this was written by Tommy Duncan and that western swing is not ‘pure’ country music, give me a little license. It was Wills’ name on the record label and it is still recognised as one of his biggest songs. Wills, or “the best damn fiddle player in the world” (Haggard, 1970), was ‘the king of western swing’ and arguably the founder of the music that remains one of the key building blocks of americana. This stuff is absolutely fundamental to the music we love and Wills, with his Texas Playboys and Tommy Duncan leading the front line, was the quintessence of everything that was so great and influential about it.
Number 9: Wayne ‘The Train’ Hancock
Artists have been playing music inflected by Wills’ western swing for years. Some of them worthy ambassadors, some of them slavish copyists and a few of them even creative interpreters. None of them have captured the spirit of Wills, the exuberance and vitality of his performance and the pure joy of swinging with real passion as well as Wayne the Train. Often unfairly labelled as a retro shaded traditionalist, the energy and deep feeling he has for the music make his interpretation something genuinely special. He may have “more Hank Williams in him” than Hank III (according to Hank III) but he’s much, much more than a Williams bootlegger. Ultimately The Train makes music for a good time, the best time in fact, the time inevitably involves mighty fine ‘Juke Joint Jumping’.
Number 8: Hank Williams
I just presented the glory that is Wayne Hancock, largely in relation to how he echoes Hank Williams. That he does is not in question. Neither is the fact that almost every emerging neo-traditionalist honky-tonker, every retro sounding country classicist that comes along has to suffer the same fate, and for good reason. As far as I can tell we have never run a piece specifically about Hank Williams yet he crops up as a reference point in more reviews of other artists than Accrington’s soft Mick. He is the granddaddy, the king and the prime mover of hardcore traditional country and he remains fundamental to what country music was, is and will be. The ‘Hillbilly Shakespeare’ wrote of despair and hope in a way that reflected the myth of his short, tragic life and in so doing almost singlehandedly codified country songwriting as we know it today. He endures as the platonic ideal by which accomplishment in country music is and always will be judged.
Number 7: Steve Earle
Steve Earle, occasionally trading as the ‘Hardcore Troubadour’, is something of a polymath. As well as writing and performing coruscating anthems for our times that catalogue the travails of the working man and his activist sister, acting the shit out of some of the best drama made in the last 20 years and campaigning for causes aplenty as a self-styled ‘commie hillbilly’ he also wrote a novel and some short stories. It matters because his novel was named after a Hank Williams song ‘I’ll Never Get Out of this World Alive’ and had Williams’ ghost as a central incarnation of the story. Thus keeping the connection going and that lineage, the association between artists that spans generations and geography is a vital component of this country-cana firmament.
Number 6: George Jones
There are too many stories about George Jones’ marriages, his boozing, his unreliability, his facial resemblance to a possum (hence the nickname), that hair and his erratic driving habits. All they serve to do is distract us from the only story about him that we need to know, which is that he is the greatest singer of songs that country ever produced. As an actual genuine professor of country music, Bill Malone should know and he observes that “For the two or three minutes consumed by a song, Jones immerses himself so completely in its lyrics, and in the mood it conveys, that the listener can scarcely avoid becoming similarly involved.” Sums it up perfectly that. With one phrase Jones can transport you utterly to a point where it is just you and him and the song. He’s cut more than his share of stinkers, granted, but when he gets it right, we get this. If he’d only ever made this one record, it would be enough…
Number 5: Jesse Dayton
… and Jesse Dayton knows this too when he says “it’s the feeling you get when a George Jones song plays”. While he might only know Jones from records and (no) shows, Dayton is a country lifer through and through. Having played guitar for / produced Waylon Jennings, Glen Campbell, Johnny Cash and Willie Nelson amongst many. His CV might be impressive but what really makes him stand out is his utter devotion to the life and the music, playing hundreds of shows on what seems like a never ending tour. Spending the cash he earned making movies about the undead with Rob Zombie to subsidise playing to 20 people on a miserable Monday night in Leeds… just because he loves it. This devotion to our music shines bright in every song he has written, every solo he has played and every album he has recorded. So much so that we can’t begrudge his current taste of popular acclaim (of sorts) playing blues with Samantha Fish. He will always be a country boy though and one of its unsung greats at that.
Number 4: Robbie Fulks
Including compilations and oddities, Robbie Fulks has released approaching 20 albums since his stone classic debut ‘Country Love Songs’ in 1996. He has roamed across every type of country music in that time and whether hammering the bluegrass banjo, polishing the honky tonk hardwood floor or shaping like a denizen of Bakersfield trying his hand at hillbilly boogie he has nailed every one of them. Despite this, he has always distanced himself from all the existing country clichés, yet in stark contradiction, steadfastly remains the living embodiment of the greatest country cliché of all, the outsider – too country for alt-country, too alt for country and too irreverent and confrontational for americana. He says it perfectly in this somewhat shaky Bloodshot Records video of possibly his most famous song.
Number 3: Lucinda Williams
As I noted above Lu has been included six times already in these lists. She deserves every one of those nominations. That’s over 3,000 words of eulogising about her peerless voice, her fearlessly real and poetic songwriting and her utterly mesmeric performances. There’s not much for me to add, save to say that I came to her via Mary Chapin Carpenter’s cover of ‘Passionate Kisses’ and soon realised that as much as I loved MCC, Emmylou, Nanci Griffith and the like, here in Lu was the real deal. At once I knew the answer to the question she asks in this song ‘is it too much to demand, I want a full house and a rock n roll band’ and it’s remained that way ever since.
Number 2: Buck Owens
We all know Buck Owens was responsible for developing the Bakersfield sound, that melding of honky tonk twang with feisty electrified rock ‘n’ roll. He often gets lumped in with Merle Haggard as the founder of the sound but really Buck was there first and best (props to Wynn Stuart as well though). For this he sits proudly amongst the americana greats. Everything I love most about the music today, the crunch and power together with the sweetest melodies and knockout swing to move the heaviest of feet, flows from Bucks’ tireless 60’s output. In particular his innovations in tempo and texture that saw him really embrace a rock aesthetic with psychedelic sounding records and sold out shows at the Fillmore West. It might not have done the longevity of his career much good but he came at this merging of art forms from a true country background and the importance of that remains undiminished.
Number 1: Gram Parsons / Burritos
My number 1 is also renowned as someone who reunited the distant cousins of country and rock music. In this instance though he was working from the rock direction and ended with a very different result to Buck Owens. Gram’s story is another that brooks no retelling here, his privileged birth-right, his addictions, his dependent relationships and his ultimately sad and lonely demise are all the over-told stuff of myth and legend. As is the fragile and beautiful music he created, often seeming to be on the verge of crumbling completely yet with an inner strength and authority that keeps new fans coming to his records time and time again. Whether with the Burritos, Emmylou or flying completely solo Parsons sang with a vulnerable and weary voice that remains one of the most affecting you will ever hear. He was a wonderful interpreter of others’ songs as well as penning some wonderful songs that perfectly reflect and communicate the melancholy and world weary desolation that underpinned his short life.