The Top 10 Greatest Ever Americana Artists: Keith Hargreaves

As always in these prescriptive articles there must be a drawing of boundaries and Clint’s first article in the series seemed to have dealt with the idea that you should define americana in a narrow sense eschewing the likes of CSNY, Tom Petty, Johnny Cash, Joni Mitchell, The Byrds and Dylan et al on the understanding that their influence and reach extends beyond simply genre boundaries. Although it could be argued their popularity/diverse output within a ‘field’ created the genre in the first place…

By removing these ‘giants’ you then examine what exists in their shadow and like all shadows there are darker places than others. My list tends towards the mainstream americana artists, the bigger fish in the pool if you will (enough with the metaphors!!). As the curator and broadcaster of a regular 2-hour radio show in association with AUK

Sounds from beyond the Shed – Week 103

I am relentlessly trawling Bandcamp for new voices in the field, as well as the pages of the site and my extensive personal collection (still physical!) for weekly inspiration to present a show that is not only artistically satisfying but also promotes a sense of curiosity in listeners and that is ultimately what these articles should be doing. Yes, they are clickbait to the site but also a way for us writers to tell you about the sounds/ artists that led us here and indeed continue to lead us here and hopefully inspire investigation/ inspiration.

Before my list there should be a ‘those who also served’ notice for those that didn’t make it: Conor Oberst, Justin Currie, Kevin Morby, Dawes, Hurray for the Riff Raff, Bill Fay, The Band, Buffalo Springfield, Counting Crows …you get the picture.

Number 10: Josh Rouse

There is a t-shirt that Rouse sells at gigs. It simply states Josh Rouse – Singer and Songwriter. A case of does exactly what’s on the tin. Rouse ploughs a fertile if undervalued furrow creating a huge catalogue of instant earworms full of melody and self-effacing lyricism. Highlights such as ‘Nashville’ and ‘1972′ threatened the big time with their beauty and warmth. It didn’t happen which is our gain as he can still be caught at intimate gigs that are full of joy and lots and lots of great tunes.

Number 9:  Sparklehorse

Mark Linkous was Sparklehorse and his contribution to the genre and my love of it cannot be underestimated. Here is the DIY aesthetic shot through the prism of clear-headed melodicism with a lacquer of the experimental. Drifting samples and discordant interruptions serve only to heighten the power of the songs and the oblique lyricism encourages exploration. The overwhelming sense of beauty is burnished by the tragic backstory and compounded by the heartbreaking vocal delivery.

Number 8: Drive By Truckers

DBT are one of the touchstones of modern americana. Fierce and honest in every aspect of their art. Performances are full-blooded communions of sound, spittle and fury mixed with the love of a good song and an even better time. Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley remain a powerful independent pair of songwriters and their nurturing of Jason Isbell proved to be inspirational for this most powerful of solo acts.

Number 7: Peter Bruntnell

Bruntnell remains an enigma. Years of press highlighting his genius and questioning his relative obscurity have secured his place as a celebrated national treasure within select circles but not increased his record sales. I suspect that worldwide fame will forever remain elusive but the joy and pleasure to be had from seeing him live or just slipping the needle in the groove is tough to beat.

Number 6: Jonathan Wilson

Wilson is an overarching influence in much of the music I am listening to these days. His own albums, particularly ‘Fanfare’ and ‘Gentle Spirit’ are remarkable, as are his live shows which showcase his extraordinary musicality. More than this is his production and sideman duties which have seen him contribute to key albums by Dawes, Conor Oberst, Gary Louris, Roger Waters, Roy Harper, Father John Misty and many more. His name is a mark of quality.

Number 5: The Felice Brothers

If looking for authenticity in the genre then look no further than the brothers Felice. As The Felice Brothers, they have produced some of the most compelling songs of recent years with or without Simone. Ian Felice is a powerful artist and lyricist and James’ talent with a melody is stronger with each release. Mixing haunting imagery or imaginings with melancholic hooks or rowdy singalongs their songs take flight live producing raucous, glorious gigs that reminds one why music matters. Often bands release powerful works and then slowly fade into the distance trading on former glories not so the boys from New York.

Number 4: Chuck Prophet

Speaking of live performances brings us to Chuck Prophet and the Mission Express. THE definitive performer Chuck takes an audience, winds it up and then travels with them through all points on the rock n roll express. His ability to work a room is a joy to watch and feel part of. You would do anything for this alchemist who you feel is giving his very soul to the performance. Every night. Recorded works often fail to capture his spirit but still set a very high bar. This live clip just gives a taste of the absolute genius that is Chuck.

Number 3: The Jayhawks

The boys from Minneapolis almost singlehandedly set the template with ‘Hollywood Town Hall’. Wild guitars, sweetly intertwined harmonies and songs of urgency and strength. Losing Mark Olsen could have been a terminal blow but instead it was a catalyst for even more powerful music allowing Gary Louris to emerge as one of the key writers of his generation.

Number 2: Wilco

Jeff Tweedy’s vehicle for exploring the very form of the song itself. Morphing from the traditional first album via the experimental and avant garde through an almost Tin Pan Alley demonstration of songwriter to the latest Cruel Country a distillation of all that had gone before. The band are not just supporting players they are enablers, providing the building blocks to great art. Their live shows are separate jewels of celebration steeped in a melancholy, wistful incandescence.

Number 1: Willy Vlautin

A liberty has been taken here but bear with me. As the writer and singer with Richmond Fontaine, Vlautin used his literate lyricism to shine a dim spotlight on working-class America and American life beyond the consumer gloss. His songs were full of humanity in all its guises from the feckless and foul to the hopeful and hopeless. Whilst performing and touring Vlautin was also writing novels that chronicled these very themes in rich tapestries of prose. The Fontaine sound was guitar based and reeked of woodsmoke and asphalt. His next band The Delines was a different proposition altogether. Taking his tales of low lives and high dreams he penned songs for the voice of Amy Boone and eventually the arrangements of Cory Grey and in doing so created a sound unlike anything else in the genre. Steeped in keys and trumpet the sultry voice of Boone brings these characters to life before our mind’s eyes as we listen to their stories. Willy Vlautin is the number one americana act writing and performing today.

About Keith Hargreaves 375 Articles
Riding the one eyed horse into dead town the scales fell from his eyes. Music was the only true god at once profane and divine The dust blew through his mind as he considered the offering... And then he scored it out of ten and waited for the world to wake up
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Martin Johnson
John Brgan

Great selsction.

Joe R

Excellent piece Keith. Some of all my all-time faves in there. I was at what I think was Richmond Fontaine’s last ever show at The Electric Ballroom in Camden. Willy walked past me after the show, and rather embarrassingly I said “I love you Willy.” To which he responded “aww thanks man.” I was pleased as punch. I must admit, I have never heard of Peter Bruntnell before, so once again Americana UK has opened up yet another avenue of pleasure for me. Thank you!

Ali

That was their last UK gig. They played a few across Europe before a farewell show in Portland. I was ever so tempted to go that last gig from here in the UK. I miss them even now, seven years after they called it a day.

Last edited 10 months ago by Ali
Mike

His :Normal For Bridgewater: is a stonewall classic.

John Avery

Best top 10 so far. Not really any dubious “Americana” choices in this lot.

Thanks Keith

Keith

I’ll take that John, thanks.

Robert Prew

Great list, contains of my favourites.

Robert Prew

Should read: many of my favourites !!

Todd

You obviously haven’t heard of the Mother Hips, or have you? Honest question. Good list regardless!

Keith

I have but …

Todd

but what? I am a super hips nerd so I’m always trying to push people to listen to them harder. It’s all good though! They are americana and so much more so they might not be fitting for your list. Thanks for the response!

Keith

But not quite top ten
The link is a song of theirs I like very much

Alec

10 is pretty restrictive, a top 50 or 100 would give room for more debate and take out a lot of whatabout XXZ

Katy Hale

just wanted to agree with other commenters, great list! Very glad to see Chuck Prophet on a list of such venerables–it is very well deserved. Great capsule description and video clip. Made my day, thanks!

Keith

He is a true rock n roll legend if you love him the book What makes the monkey dance is a great read

William O Connor

I met Willy a few times when he played in Dublin..and also in Kilkenny Roots festival.. me my friends loved Richmond Fontaine

Aaron

James McMurtry at the top. But not even honorable mention? Crazy omission.

Last edited 10 months ago by Aaron
Keith

Sorry Aaron close but no cigar

Keith

Folks
If you like this list then Sounds from beyond the Shed will be highlighting all ten artists in August and September in detail tune in and enjoy
Thanks for all the feedback

Andrew Rutter

Thanks for the article. Very well considered and explained. I’m an Aussie with a great passion for Americana. My faves are Green on Red (Chuck’s former band), Band of Horses, Whiskeytown, Uncle Tupelo, Son Volt & many of those on your list. Also loved Cracker back in the day although not sure they were considered Americana. Well done. I will be seeking out your show and listening from Australia. Cheers Ruttsy

Rob B

Spoken like a true Anglophile. I agree on the DTBs and the top 5 (especially Chuck Prophet) but The Band, first and foremost should be at the top of the list or in a league of their own. They truly embody the spirit of Americana; American Music, with their ragtag bag of Country, Folk, R&B, Blues, and Pop instead of these Wonder Bread, indie-cred posers. Hell, throw in Emmylou while we’re at it.

Keith

You have a valid point I should have included The Band in my intro

Jerry Cooney

Great list. It’s awesome to see Chuck Prophet and Willy Vlautin get superb props. I will add two to this list without taking two out. And it will still be my Top 10 as I learned math from Ween while listening to 12 Golden Country Greats. This list absolutely deserves Josh Ritter with or without his Royal City Band. It also would benefit with Joe Pernice. Best known for the Pernice Brothers, but there has been excellent songs through Scud Mountain Boys as well as Chappaquiddick Skyline and other projects. Thanks for posting. I will explore Sparklehorse more thoroughly.

Keith

Thanks Jerry
Josh R was close …

LolaInSF

Interesting list with a lot of great musicians. And, of course, I LOVE that my SF hometown hero Chuck Prophet comes in at #4. BUT…no women?? I mean…Cowboy Junkies? Neko Case? Lucinda Williams?
That’s just off the top of my head…I hear you about needing to establish boundaries, but you really couldn’t find a single woman who made the cut?

Keith

It is to my shame Lola that there are no women in the list several were close but that is no excuse
Natalie Merchent, Rickie Lee Jones, Be Good Tanyas and Joni who was excluded in the initial paragraph are all close contenders. Although perhaps Amy Boone is there with Willy …..?

LolaInSF

Thanks for the acknowledgement, but I’m still struggling to understand how a “best of all time” list could include Josh Rouse and Sparklehorse (neither of whom are really thought of as Americana…not in America, anyway) and have no room for any of the women you mention, or those I mentioned above ….or Emmylou Harris or Allison Krause or Gillian Welch or k.d. lang or any number of others. When you say they were :close” but didn’t make it…what do you mean? What were your criteria?

Keith

Hi Lola
My criteria is fairly amorphous ie if I like it, play it a lot and as artists they move me in some etc etc sorry to be so vague.
It’s very interesting that Rouse and Sparklehorse don’t tick the Americana box in the US in your opinion.
Close means they got down to my final 20-30
Of course the key thing is that lists change on a daily basis
Thanks for the interest and indeed prompting
Keith

E.Lo

Arlo McKinley?

Keith

Nope no yet

Dave

How can a list of the Top 10 Americana bands not include Uncle Tupelo or Son Volt.

andy riggs

Wilco number 1 please!

Keith

It was close

andy riggs

No room for Dave Alvin & Alejandro Escovedo ?

Keith

Sorry no

Gary Baysinger

Willy Vlautin will be on KBOO.FM this Saturday from 7:00am to 9:00 am Pacific Time (that would be 3:00pm GMT) talking about music, writing, and how Merle Haggard and cowpunk made him love country music.

Swing ‘n’ Country | KBOO

Keith

I will be there !!

Colleen

Kudos to the ‘boys from Minneapolis’ AND KAREN!

I appreciate playlists

Keith

Love The Jayhawks and their recent albums and lock down stuff only reinforces that feeling

Vincent

Great list of favorites, as well as new discoveries. I think The Wood Brothers epitomize Americana music, for my taste right now. Maybe they could be sneaked in there too somewhere..

Keith

Vincent I know very little about The Wood Bros I will investigate further
Thanks for the tip