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
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.