The Top 10 Greatest Ever Americana Artists: Joe Graham

Cass McCombs performing - Top 10 Greatest Americana Artists JG

I puzzled over how to compile and preface this list for the best part of four months. I’m bad at choosing favourites, my mind tending toward blankness if asked on the spot. Suitably, when I started on some notes, my initial thoughts were sparse and stilted, as I seemed to temporarily forget all the artists who have been important to me over the years. Even after getting together a rough starter list of well over ten artists, I came up against another block – how to narrow this down, and how to authentically convey these musicians’ quality and personal meaning to me?

I’d read a number of other writer’s top 10 Americana lists, and the broad-church approach to what constitutes americana helped me loosen up a bit. Like others, I have also chosen to omit the ‘big name’ americana artists who (perhaps inadvertently) founded or shaped the genre, and go for those that are more personally important to me. Ultimately, I have gone for artists whose music I have followed for some time, and whose sound evokes a vague nostalgia, isolated memory or stylised imagery in me.

Often, I find that when attempting to represent the feel or a song or album, or the sound of an instrument in writing, I tend to stray toward scenic description; sometimes I think this a sub-par way of going about music reviewing or criticism, but it’s where my mind goes, so I’ve gone with it for this list. The artists in this list conjure images of wide open, sepia-toned plains at dawn and sunset; purple-blue mountains cloaked in gossamer mist; dim-lit side alleys on the outskirts of small American towns, shrouded in darkness and flecked with neon. Having only been to the US twice, these vistas mostly imagined, pieced together from music, film and books. In the end, I guess that’s what americana is to me, and these artists have helped shape that image that allows me to escape when I’m a little fed-up of my run-of-the-mill transport planning life in London.

I’d like to give honourable mentions to some artists who were close contenders for this list, but missed out by virtue of my poor knowledge of their extended discographies, or my having only very recently discovered their work: Dougie Poole, Cory Hanson, Anna St. Louis, Julie Odell, Sam Burton and Erin Rae. My top 10 is currently fluid and will undoubtedly change over time, but this lot will always be in and around the upper echelons.

Number 10: H.C. McEntire

I started listening to H.C. McEntire during a heatwave in August 2020. The album ‘Eno Axis’ passed like the sun across the Appalachian foothills, a calming, rustic-yet-contemporary wash of folk and country, with the faintest of hints of bluegrass in the twang of the guitar. McEntire’s music always grows on me – as I listen more and more, I discover layer upon layer of depth in the lyrics, melodies and instrumentation.

McEntire is one of many musicians from North Carolina who have cultivated a desire to visit the state and spend some time soaking up the atmosphere which has inspired so many great americana artists. Her third album, ‘Every Acre’, released earlier in 2023, explored connections to the physical landscape one grows up and lives in, and parallels between this and one’s own internal landscape; for me, the themes explored here struck right at the beating heart of Americana music and solidified McEntire’s status as one of my current favourites.

Number 9: Tim Hardin

Tim Hardin’s music is etched into my childhood memories – a CD bought by my dad which both my parents played in the car. Perhaps when I was young, I didn’t fully appreciate the music, but now I can see what a singularly pure and talented songwriter Hardin was, and how the repeated background exposure to classics such as ‘Reason to Believe’ and ‘If I were A Carpenter’ has shaped my adult music taste.

Although Hardin wasn’t strictly an americana artist, with his compositions often unbounded by genre, taking in country, pop, chamber music and jazz, his music has clearly influenced many recent americana artists, and his songs encapsulate the open country landscapes, urban sunset scenes, and cluttered music studios which for me represent the key images of americana.

Number 8: Jim Sullivan

I only properly delved into Jim Sullivan’s music this summer, having briefly listened to his debut, ‘U.F.O.’, back in the strange and hazy pandemic summer of 2020. I think I first heard the album’s title track, ‘U.F.O.’ on the French radio station FIP, and was beguiled by its Jimmy Webb/David Axelrod stylings and cosmic lyrics.

Sullivan only ever released two albums, and to little fanfare, before he mysteriously disappeared in the New Mexico desert in 1975 whilst travelling from L.A. to Nashville hoping for a last chance of a breakthrough. These albums have enjoyed a recent resurgence, having seen several re-pressings over the last decade by record label Light In The Attic.

Although there are only two Jim Sullivan albums, each track seems like a distillation of some facet of the modern americana sound, even the more heavily orchestrated tracks are built around a recognisable americana-style kernel. ‘U.F.O.’ (featuring The Wrecking Crew as backing band) sounds like an esoteric version of ‘Wichita Lineman’ era Glen Campbell – mysterious, cosmic and wistful, whereas the self-titled ‘Jim Sullivan’ incorporates menacing blues, chirpy honky-tonk piano and intricate fingerpicking.

It’s a shame that Sullivan never got the break he needed in the late-60s or early-70s, and for years fell into obscurity following his disappearance. It’s great that his records are now getting the airing they deserve and his music getting more recognition.

Number 7: Big Thief

Big Thief have been prolifically releasing exceptional guitar music since their debut ‘Masterpiece’ appeared in 2016. In 2019 they released two great albums, ‘U.F.O.F.’ and ‘Two Hands’, displaying a knack for shimmering songwriting spanning the americana spectrum, from a darker, grungier sound on the former, to a scrappier, more rustic feel on the latter. The musicianship across their records is of strikingly high quality: Adrianne Lenker’s expressive voice and complex fingerpicked patterns, Buck Meek’s humming, buzzing electric guitar embellishments, Max Oleartchik’s rolling basslines and James Krivchenia’s distinctive, halting drum grooves lending the songs an idiosyncratic lilt.

My route in was the 2017 album ‘Capacity’, with its irresistible melodies on ‘Haley’ and ‘Mythological Beauty’, smooth-open-road rock’n’roll on ‘Shark Smile’ and creeping, sinister elegiac lope of ‘Watering’.  Across its eleven tracks the sound veers from the bright open plain to a dark, claustrophobic city apartment, to sweaty dive bars.

After releasing ‘Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe In You’, a sprawling, almost experimental album, in early 2022, I’m looking forward to whatever is coming next.

Number 6: Eric D. Johnson

Everything Eric D. Johnson is involved with is gold. Lately, his main musical endeavours have been his long running project, Fruit Bats, and his supergroup with Anaïs Mitchell and Josh Kaufman, Bonny Light Horseman. Perhaps it’s a little cheeky to list Johnson, as it allows me to sort of include two bands under one entry, but I’d mainly like to focus on Fruit Bats over BLH, as the former has a more extensive back catalogue.

Since returning from a temporary dissolution in 2016, Johnson and Fruit Bats have hit a purple patch, with four excellent albums in seven years. If I were to choose one that is quintessentially americana, it would be ‘Absolute Loser’ – it’s a perfect mix of perky country-folk, bittersweet fingerpicked laments, and desolate, psychedelic lilts that sound like a dusty highway in the early morning. The songwriting is immaculate – it’s strange Johnson hasn’t met more success in the UK, but it’s clear he has a devoted set of followers, as was evident at an excellent Fruit Bats gig at Bush Hall last September.

I’d also like to give mention to the two Bonny Light Horseman albums, which are both well worth a listen – the first mainly consisting of glistening reworkings of old folk tunes, the second containing original compositions. Johnson’s sound is clear on both, and it works so well alongside Mitchell’s compositions and voice and Kaufman’s musicianship and production expertise.

Number 5: Hiss Golden Messenger

I first became aware of Hiss Golden Messenger in 2014, when I chanced upon a five-star review for the album ‘Lateness of Dancers’. I listened to the track ‘Mahogany Dread’ and was instantly hooked. The bristling, chiming, open guitars, the looping chord sequence and M.C. Taylor’s smooth yet sandy voice suited perfectly the September light that morning – in sync with my intermingling of nostalgia for the recently departed summer and idealistic optimism for the golden-orange hues and woodsmoke aromas of the approaching autumn.

Since then, I have followed Hiss’s prolific releases and dug deeper into their back catalogue. It’s all excellent, my personal favourites being ‘Poor Moon’, ‘Heart Like a Levee’ and ‘Hallelujah Anyhow’.

Taylor is part of a bustling music scene in Durham, North Carolina, and has an eclectic musical past. Like a fair number of artists who end up gravitating toward folkier, americana music, he started out in a hardcore band (Ex-Ignota), and then formed The Court and Spark with former Hiss member Scott Hirsch. In 2022, he also collaborated with Spacebomb House Band bassist Cameron Ralston on the album Revelators – a set of four hypnotic, jazz-inflected jams. This wide-ranging musical genealogy and exploration feeds into and is evident across the Hiss Golden Messenger catalogue – it’s grounded in classic americana, yet has a unique, slightly unpredictable edge.

Number 4: Kevin Morby

Kevin Morby has a knack for taking seemingly simple ideas and turning them into vividly atmospheric, scene-stealing songs. Formerly a member of The Babies and Woods, since striking out on his own with his release ‘Harlem River’ in 2013, he has released a string of unceasingly high-quality albums exploring the universal themes of change, love, loss and the search for the profound in the everyday. His songs sound like they have been around forever – always a sign of a top-notch songwriter and with an ear for melody.

His standout albums for me are ‘Singing Saw’ from 2016 and ‘City Music’, released the following year. These two albums encompass the yin and yang of my imagined americana landscape – the bucolic, rustic country and the gritty, glowing city; I find the music incredibly evocative, particularly the title track from ‘Singing Saw’, and ‘Night Time’ from ‘City Music’. I also enjoy Morby’s ‘Fam Club’ email where he elucidates on how his songs came together, recommends artists, photographers and writers, and paints lucid yet detailed pictures of his hometown Kansas City, as well as various other places he visits on his musical travels.

Number 3: Kurt Vile

Kurt Vile’s music is both meandering and insightful. His stream of consciousness wanderings set over incredibly pretty picked guitar melodies do a good job of translating the internal monologue of the everyday, riding the little crests and trudging through the varying lows. Heavily influenced by John Prine and Neil Young, Vile continues a lineage of americana artists distilling existential quandaries and considerations into songs that sounds like a laid-back stroll or meandering reverie, often with a healthy dose of humour to temper the innate sadness and angst.

Each and every one of Vile’s albums is worth your sonic while, with his sound shifting from low-fi tape loops and ambient sounds on earlier releases to the smoother yet still satisfyingly scruffy ‘Bottle It In’ and ‘Watch My Moves’ from the past five years. My personal favourites are ‘Smoke Ring for My Halo’ and ‘Wakin’ on A Pretty Daze’ – these were the first two Vile albums I got into and each and every song is so evocative of the spring and summer of 2013 – they’re like little time machines for me.

Number 2: The War on Drugs

Although Adam Granduciel’s The War on Drugs are a world-famous, arena-filling rock band these days, their musical genealogy can be traced back to classic American folk, heartland rock and the low-fi experimentation so important to many Americana artists. My no. 3 on this list, Kurt Vile, was a member before beginning his solo career around 2008/9.

Helmed by the sandy-voiced Granduciel, they haven’t lost the knack for concocting melodies and chord sequences which can shift the listeners’ emotions like tectonic plates, conjuring both yearning and warmth. Ranging from rustic acoustic tracks, particularly on earlier albums such as ‘Wagonwheel Blues’ and ‘Slave Ambient’, to driving kosmische numbers, decorated with Granduciel’s intricate soloing.

Since first listening around the time ‘Lost In The Dream’ was released, I have delved into their back catalogue and followed subsequent releases as they became grander and technically awe-inspiring, as Granduciel mined the many intricacies and characteristics different studio methods and circuitous guitar effects can lend a song.

Though the band’s sound has shifted from more traditional alt-folk/americana to expansive, exacting masterpieces, there is a definite unifying skein from the start, which has allowed the band to become ever smoother and more polished without losing authenticity. There’s something there in the chord changes, in the timeless melodies and the malleable, universal lyrical themes that has created a truly unique identity, yet also ties the band into a lineage of americana greats.

Number 1: Cass McCombs

Cass McCombs has released ten consistently excellent albums since the early-2000s, incorporating genres such as rock, folk, country, pop, jazz, and even cumbia. His songs are at turns humorous, devastating, cutting social commentary, elegiac and even sometimes informative; they range from the economically spare yet effective and richly complex and hypnotic. As well as his solo albums, he has recorded in ensemble The Skiffle Players and recently released an album of children’s folk tunes with nursery teacher and musician Mr. Greg.

Somewhat of an enigma, the itinerant McCombs doesn’t have much of a public presence, which makes his music all the more intriguing: the poetic, sometimes obscure lyrics splaying at the seams, spawning dreamlike images and inquisitiveness in the listener’s mind. His music showcases what happens when great musicians allow songs to wend their own way through extended jam sessions: albums full of unexpected twists and turns, imbued with an uncanniness that results from experimentation and improvisation with traditional song forms. That’s not to say McCombs can’t write a straight-up classic earworm too – in fact many of his songs are incredibly catchy.

To be honest, I’m at a bit of a loss of how to summarise McCombs’ music, so I’ll just list some of my favourite albums of his: the folky, Laurel-Canyonesque ‘Dropping the Writ’; ‘Catacombs’ with its irresistible, sweet melodies; the retro-futuristic grooves of ‘Mangy Love’; the loose and jammy ‘Tip of the Sphere’; and last year’s sublimely uncategorisable concoction, ‘Heartmind’.

About Joe Graham 14 Articles
New Cross based fan of americana, country, folk and folk rock music. Besides that, I enjoy exploring the city on runs and walks, finding pubs and gig venues, playing guitar and watching some football every now and again.
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Andrew Riggs

To each his own but this list omits some classic albums/artists.

Joe G

Yeah, fair assessment. I did have an original list with a few more names you’d expect to see, but then I saw how often they’d already featured and thought I’d go for a slightly different approach focussing on artists that are just as important to me personally as some of the more typical ones.

Harry Scott

Thanks for not just following the crowd…my list would be different from yours and also different from the norm. Stick to your guns…

Harry Scott

By the by…I had never heard of half of your list …but I’ll explore further