The Top 10 Greatest Ever Americana Artists: Jonathan Smith

Aargh! The best? How do you even do that? Answer: don’t fret, just pick ten who spring to mind, even if that means leaving out Bob Dylan, The Band, Jackson Browne, Bruce Springsteen, Steve Earle, Jason Isbell, Wilco, Lambchop, Lucinda Williams and who knows how many others. No Kristofferson, even. That was probably a mistake. Oh well. Gulp. Leaps in. Here we go. 

Number 10: The Jayhawks

Sometimes, the music alone is enough. The Jayhawks realised quite early on that the sound of an electric 12 string guitar, coupled with an acoustic strum and two voices blending into one, is enough to send many people skyward. That’s not to say their lyrics are in any way inferior, quite the opposite, it’s just that when you hear the Jayhawks, you don’t need to be able to understand the language to understand that something beautiful is happening. Scotland’s Teenage Fanclub did something similar, and are similarly loved. With the Jayhawks, try ’Tomorrow The Green Grass’, when their youth and the presence of co-founder Mark Olsen kept things a tiny bit more raw, with opening track ‘Blue’ still sounding like vocal harmonies were invented just for this song. 

Number 9: Courtney Marie Andrews.

It’s tricky picking one of the newer kids on the block as one of ‘the best’, but Andrews just has a quality about her, that magical X factor, that so few can muster. Having recorded several low key indie albums while she found her musical feet, ‘Honest Life’ launched her into the stratosphere, at least critically. An album that just was so perfect, songs so beautifully realised with such a complex range of emotional connection, with Andrews own distinctive voice shining through the mix. ‘May Your Kindness Remain’ and ‘Old Flowers’ built on the template, perhaps with less immediacy but certainly with equal class. However, the arrival of ‘Loose Future’ in 2022 suggested the muse still burned bright in her, and augers for a future that may yet see her take her place in the pantheon of the greatest songwriters. 

Number 8: Paul Simon.

Is this a controversial choice? Is Paul Simon americana? OK, here’s the rationale. He gets inside the head of a certain kind of American sensibility in a way very few others do. The sometimes hard, even brutal take down of songs like Kodachrome, when I look back on all the crap I learnt in high school / it’s a wonder I can think at all” suddenly diverts itself to the commercial reality of America which has a soporific effect on its citizens “just give us the nice bright colours… makes you think all the world’s a sunny day”. These are themes that come up again and again in Simon’s work, but he dresses them in superbly realised musical vignettes. From the gospel of ‘Bridge over Troubled Water’ to the calypso of ‘Cecilia’, the African grooves of Graceland album to the Latin groove of ‘Me and Julio Down By The Schoolyard’, the country rock of ‘Baby Driver’ to  the melancholy doo wop celebration of ‘Rene and Georgette Magritte and their Dog After the War’, he covered virtually every base of American music and experience from the home grown to the immigrant, while simultaneously applying a laser -like eye on the so-called American dream. 

Number 7: Mark Knopfler.

There are some terrible musical injustices in the world. One is that Knopfler will generally be known for his huge commercial success with Dire Straits, sometimes for his film soundtracks, and only amongst those in the know for the truly wonderful body of his solo work. Admittedly, it’s an injustice that will see him laughing all the way to the bank, and anyway, there were some cool songs in the Dire Straits cannon too, but still… Starting with 1996’s ‘Golden Heart’, Knopfler has crafted album after album packed full of understated gems. His main musical style is across blues and country, with a healthy smattering of folk in there, and always the most subtly observed character studies, sometimes of known faces (Sonny Liston, Beryl Bainbridge, American explorers Mason and Dixon in the peerless ‘Sailing To Philadelphia’); but best of all when he writes short stories disguised as short songs, such as ‘The Scaffolder’s Wife’ or ‘Quality Shoe’. Honestly, there’s no one quite like him, and he deserves a statue and national treasure status. Oh, and his guitar playing is pretty tasty, too.

Number 6: Gram Parsons.

Just to prove this list is not being deliberately left field… I think it’s not really possible to talk about americana without talking about Gram Parsons. He was the one who tied it all together. He called it ‘Cosmic American Music’ (well, it was the late 60’s, man), but basically he had a dream, and that dream was to bring together rock, folk, country, blues and soul into a stew and put it out to the people. First coming to notice with the Byrds ‘Sweetheart of the Rodeo’ album, Parsons quickly formed the Flying Burrito Brothers and released two albums, the first (‘The Gilded Palace of Sin’) being a bona fide classic. He then made two solo albums before his untimely death (albeit in partnership with Emmylou Harris and a fantastic band) which still sound vibrant and alive today, ‘GP’ and ‘Grievous Angel’. If you have yet to understand what all the fuss is about, or are simply new to Parsons, check these out first. If you’re short of time, just jump straight to ‘Return of the Grievous Angel’. If that doesn’t do it for you, maybe americana just isn’t for you. 

Number 5: Townes Van Zandt.

Talking of legends…Van Zandt was an apparently complex, difficult personality who appeared intent on undermining any attempt to allow him to embrace the success and recognition that his peers wished for him. He lived a trailer park existence, even though the royalties of his wonderful songs (from ‘Pancho and Lefty’ alone, one would imagine) would have allowed him to live a life of comfort. He once said “There are only two types of music – the blues, and zip-a-dee doo-dah”, and it was fairly clear what side of the line he was on. Capable of the most intensely human and humane lyrics, that said so much with so little, there was just something about his work that captured the beauty and the pain of existence. Sometimes gentle (‘If I Needed You’, ‘Colorado Girl’), sometimes brutal (‘Lungs’, ‘Waiting’ Round To Die’), sometimes existential (‘High, Low and In Between’, ‘To Live Is To Fly’), Van Zandt didn’t leave behind a huge body of work, but he didn’t need to. Everything he needed to say is in there, and one of his songs is frequently worth more than the entire output of lesser artists. 

Number 4: Tom Petty.

Americana as a term might have been coined for him. What an influence he exerted, what a body of work he created, always keeping the quality level of the songs high, grooves, choruses, legendary hooks and riffs, and frequently laugh out loud wry lyrics, too. Oh, and did we say effortlessly cool? From the edgy, spare early work like ‘Damn The Torpedoes’ and ‘Hard Promises’ to the commercial high point of ‘Full Moon Fever’, then on to the critically acclaimed yet resolutely loveable ‘Wildflowers’, he also made room for fan favourite albums chock full of hidden treasures (‘Highway Companion’ and soundtrack album ‘She’s The One’, anybody)?  Just so good. Every chance he will turn out to be an artist whose work is periodically rediscovered as the decades go by.

Number 3: John Prine.

I don’t even know if John Prine is americana. I mean, he’s American, and he obviously loves country music. His music is perfectly fine, and his singing voice is as comfortable as a pair of old slippers. But he’ll always be in any list I do of American music, because his songs are so good. So good it feels almost impossible they can be this good. So good that he captures universal truths in a way that anyone can hear and understand. So good that he makes you laugh at the ridiculousness of the life challenges we all face, of the banal or mean things we do or say, and then shed a small knowing tear for the same reasons. He never makes a crisis out of a drama, he seldom makes a drama out of a drama. He just…heck, they should teach him in schools. The closest comparison I can think of isn’t another musician, but the author Terry Pratchett, who similarly was able to see human endeavours and foibles with the same clear eye, and teach us about them without being judgmental and with a vast capacity for kindness. Oh, and make us laugh while he was at it. But it takes a while to read a book, and only three minutes to listen to a John Prine song, so just go and do it. You’ll thank me. 

Number 2: Nanci Griffith.

Oh, Nanci. She just was so… special. She didn’t try to be tough, or hard edged, or talk about drug crime or shooting or vindictive narcissistic personalities who would scare you into never leaving your house. Well, ok, actually she did write a few songs with a definite political thrust; but I suspect the thing most of us loved Nanci Griffith for, was her ability to capture those precious moments of natural beauty in our lives, when we see someone we love, or remember someone we love, or just have a moment that is melancholic or tinged with sadness, which is also kind of lovely. Anyway, songs that carry the joy and the sadness and the lightness of living are rare, and Nanci had a hatful of them. ‘Working’ In Corners’, ‘Trouble In The Fields’, ‘Banks of the Pontchartrain’, and (probably) her greatest song ‘Love at the Five and Dime’ (which is also the one that is most  quintessentially her). The early albums especially are just a treasure trove of music that will make you feel a bit better inside, and that is a rare gift that she has given us, and one that will always be there when you need it. 

Number 1: Mary Chapin Carpenter.

Solid gold class. Solid gold humanity. Solid gold songs. It may be that her timing was immaculate, too, because she arrived in a narrow window of time when it was finally possible for a woman to have a shot at musical success without having to be manipulated by a male run industry, that traditionally didn’t really see women as having any intrinsic artistic value. Well, I see you, mainstream country and rock radio, and I raise you one Mary Chapin Carpenter. There’s one thing about Carpenter’s body of work, and it’s this; it’s the songs. It was always the songs. It’s still the songs. She’s still making records today that are just steeped in quality, with something to say about the state of the world and its inhabitants. But for a while, she was doing all that and being heard everywhere on radio and TV. There were songs that had important messages ‘He Thinks He’ll Keep Her’, ’Stones In The Road’, songs with great intimate delicacy ‘John Doe no. 24’, ‘A Place In The World’, songs with fabulous story telling ‘When Halley Came To Jackson’, ‘Houston’, and there were songs that had music that just made you want to jump about madly ‘Down at The Twist And Shout’, ‘Shut Up and Kiss Me’, ‘I Feel Lucky’. Heck, there’s just songs, great songs, an abundance of them, way more and way better than any one person has a right to. This woman’s a genius. Give her a plaque, but mostly, just listen to the songs.

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