The Top 10 Greatest Ever Americana Artists: Jonathan Aird

So, we get to this point again – and like most of the contributors so far there’s the temptation to explain the thought process behind this list. I’m going to try and avoid that too much – other than to say “why do we do this to ourselves?” and to note that this list will have a lot of the obvious names missing as I’ve tried to stick to choices that represent music that has existed more or less since the terms alt-Country and americana came in to use otherwise this would just be a re-run of the previous ways of terming this question. So, no Dylan, no Byrds, no Grateful Dead, no Long Ryders.  And no Hank Williams.

And it turns out that there aren’t that many singer-songwriters or folky musicians either, and that also seems about right.  I’m convinced that a lot of great singer-songwriters belong in this billowing tent we call americana, but paradoxically they don’t seem to define the sound by themselves.  Who knows, maybe we’ll do “The Top 10 singer-songwriters (who aren’t Bob Dylan)” at some point in the future.  So without further ado…

Number 10: Phosphorescent

Matthew Houck is the prince of despair – his often funky songs delve deep into a world of sorrow of darkness.  There’s a relentless to his embracing of the world-weary, the worn out and the wasted – when he’s lustful he’s also not holding back.  An artist of extremes whose sound surely pervades that of many bands who have followed in his footsteps.  And not for the last time – great live.

Number 9: Mary Gauthier

Mary Gauthier is one of the strongest modern songwriting voices – her topics range widely and she is fearless in not shying away from the difficult, the complex, and the personal.  And boy can she write, never afraid of a co-write either, and her choice of collaborators in songwriting shows both excellent taste and a willingness to acknowledge that two can tease something even more special out of a song.  Her ‘Rifles & Rosary Beads‘ is a shining light of that approach – with songs that arose from the Songwriting with Soliders program.   Her most recent release ‘Dark Enough to See the Stars’ is a poignant contemplation of facets of love and loss.  Oh, and what a great voice.

Number 8: The Handsome Family

Americana can be weird sometimes, and The Handsome Family (Brett and Rennie Sparks) have done more than anyone to carve out a strangely compelling Gothic otherworld that finds the eerie and the eldritch in the simplest of things – the natural world from bugs and birds upwards, neon lights, lonesome motels (of course) and much more.  And they’ve done that for over two decades and never made a bad album.  That’s a phenomenal achievement.

Number 7: Drive By Truckers / Jason Isbell

Rewriting the narrative of southern rock across albums that are steadily more and more strident in their political nature, Drive By Truckers have become a leading band of note within americana.  And Jason Isbell – well recall that in their song (read the lyrics here) explaining americana at the 2018 Americana Music Awards & Honors show in Nashville the Milk Carton Kids (who should be on this list in their own right) sang “Don’t need to see the envelope Isbell won it”.  As someone else used to say – “Nuff said! Excelsior!”

Number 6: Josh Ritter

A mercurial singer-songwriter, who can also summon up a killer band.  If there’s a new Dylan (always a  curse to be so nominated of course) then it’s Josh Ritter – he’s smart, lustful, playful and cryptic.  Sensational live, and another whose album history is spotless – nothing can be found that even the harshest could give less than 6 or 7 out of 10.

Number 5: Uncle Tupelo / Son Volt / Jay Farrar

The band that defined the alt-country of the nineties and spawned a separate band in Son Volt who could carry on that rocking with a country influence tradition and also become modern-day Woody Guthries.  We wouldn’t be here without them.

Number 4: The Sadies

Since I’d ruled out bands like The Long Ryders I did want to include someone who took the rock – and country-rock – of The Byrds and Buffalo Springfield and imbued it with a punk passion.   They’ve recorded album after album of hugely distinctive americana, you know it’s The Sadies from the first notes.  A band full of passion for their music and relentless in their live performances.

Number 3: The Decemberists

The indie-folk band to outdo them all, a Portland band in love with the English folk sound, who famously offered to be Olivia Chaney’s Albion Country Dance Band as part of the Offa Rex super-grouping.  Along the way they’ve dallied with full-blown prog-folk concept albums, dabbled with synth-driven songs, and yet have always retained their own identity intact.  And, quite importantly, they are a wonderful live band.

Number 2: The Felice Brothers

And I haven’t listed out all the solo recordings or the much missed The Duke and The King, but taken as a whole The Felice Brothers pulled off the remarkable feat of recording music that definitely threw back to the likes of The Band and Dylan in his John Wesley Harding stance but at the same time imbued their music with a modern sensibility.  Rough and tumbling lives that skirt alongside an outside the law existence without really glamourising it – things go so terribly wrong so often, nobody would want that for themselves.

Number 1: Richmond Fontaine / The Delines

I could have just said Willy Vlautin but that would be rather disrespectful to his bandmates in both bands, and in particular to Amy Boone who is the predominant voice of The Delines.  Richmond Fontaine documented the lives of the marginalised in American society, often featuring men desperate to outrun themselves and change their circumstances.  Conversely in The Delines most often we find women hanging on in desperate situations – wanting to run, sometimes running, but mostly trying to keep everything together, patched up and not bleeding out too much.  Hard songs to listen to, but so beautifully written and sung.

 

About Jonathan Aird 2689 Articles
Sure, I could climb high in a tree, or go to Skye on my holiday. I could be happy. All I really want is the excitement of first hearing The Byrds, the amazement of decades of Dylan's music, or the thrill of seeing a band like The Long Ryders live. That's not much to ask, is it?
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keith hargreaves

Great list

Martin Johnson

Nice to see the Sadies making a respectable showing, Jon.

Ken Beveridge

I have started (almost finished) my own list in the hope of having it published once all of ‘team’ AMA have had their go.

My opening pre-amble (written some 4 or 5 months ago) shares many of the same thoughts as this article.

And so shall it come to pass, whenever six or more music fans gather together at Hackney, High Wycombe, The Betsey Trottwood, Oberhausen or Kilkenny the question shall be asked ‘what constitutes Americana music?’
And invariably there are six different but similar answers.  
Also, every now and again, prestigious music magazines will pose the same question to their readers and their contributors.
And invariably, there are different but similar answers.
As night follows day, august journals such as Americana UK posit a similar type question ‘name The Top 10 Greatest Ever Americana Artists.

Where to start? Looking through the lists already published it soon becomes clear how diverse our opinions of what Americana really is.
Artists already crowned include The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, The Band, Calexico, Ry Cooder, Rosanne Cash, Lucinda Williams. 

For further inspiration I turned to a Spotify playlist entitled ‘Americana Icons.’ which consists of some 150 songs which plays for over 9 hours!! Again just to highlight the enormity of the question the first dozen songs include numbers by The Old Crow Medicine Show, John Prine, Lori McKenna and Steve Earle.

I have set myself my own criteria.

a: only acts I have heard of since I first heard the term Americana – around the early 90’s
b: only acts that I have seen live.

So, no Gram Parsons, no Neil Young, no Byrds, no Jackson Browne, no Eagles. All of whom would be in most ‘Americana’ fan’s thoughts.

I maybe don’t know what Americana is, but I know what I like.

andy riggs

No room for Wilco, The Jayhawks, Steve Forbert ?

Paul Kerr

Hi Andy, why don’t you you post your top 10 in the comments here? Be interesting to see your take on it.

andy riggs

1 Wilco
2 Drive By Truckers
3 Mary Chapin Carpenter
4 Neil Young 1969-79 and some early CSNY
5 David Crosby
6 Dave Alvin
7 Todd Snider
8 Tom Petty
9 Josh Ritter
10 Lucinda Williams