The Top 10 Greatest Ever Americana Artists: Kimberly Bright

After seven months of this series, it has been entertaining to see how many different artists have appeared on AUK writers’ lists instead of the same names repeatedly. By my count, it has been about 110 or so, depending on, for example, whether you count Drive-By Truckers and Jason Isbell as one entry. Astonishingly, Bob Dylan has barely turned up. 

My #1 does appear on others’ lists too. I couldn’t possibly compile a list without her. Some artists here were influential but not commercially successful in their lifetimes, widely played on the radio, or well-known until later in their careers or after their death. Many of them had or have a tendency to be fiercely independent, resulting in conflicts with labels and executives for being non-compliant. In cases where the artists were unfairly overshadowed by family members, friends, or ex-lovers who happened to be fellow musicians, I have tried to only bring up those people in passing for context. Feel free to be full-on pernickety in the comments and please post your Top 10 lists.

Number 10: Nanci Griffith

Nanci Griffith did not neatly fit into any musical category and frustrated anyone who tried to classify her. She is among a multitude of female artists who have been tarred with the usual “difficult” and “complex” euphemisms, another recurring theme on this list. She blended country and folk, inspired by Southern literature – Carson McCullers, Eudora Welty – and wrote in an engaging literary style. Griffith’s compositions like ‘From A Distance’ were hits for everyone but her. She could sound sweet to the point of saccharine, but then blast the listener with her gritty and heart-rending lyrics, capturing her restless inner life (‘It’s Just Another Morning Here’) decades before Taylor Swift was criticized for having a similar confessional style. 

At first glance, Griffith’s songs are primarily about love (‘Love At The Five And Dime,’ ‘Poet In My Window’), but things seldom go smoothly. She struggled with depression and loneliness, believing that her work was never truly respected and appreciated. She felt about Texas the same way James Joyce felt about Dublin, calling it in an angry open letter to several Texan newspapers in 1999, “the only place where they actually eat their young.”

Number 9: Buffy Sainte-Marie

Buffy Sainte-Marie may be a controversial choice, but writing ‘Cod’ine’ alone would be a suitable reason for including her. There’s also ‘Until It’s Time For You To Go,’ recorded by, Elvis Presley, Barbra Streisand, and Cher, and her anti-war song ‘Universal Soldier,’ written in the basement of The Purple Onion coffeehouse in Toronto in the early ‘60s, that was a hit for Donovan on his EP of the same name in 1965. He told ‘Goldmine’ in 2016: “There’s never been a more apt time for that song than now, even though it was written by her 52 years ago in 1964. When Buffy released her debut album (‘It’s My Way!’), I learned every single song of hers. I was in love with her music”.

Whatever her background, she was one of the first North American artists to publicly embrace a First Nations heritage (biological or adopted) as part of her identity and work and to highlight Indigenous issues (‘My Country ‘Tis of Thy People You’re Dying,’ ‘Now That The Buffalo’s Gone’). She was blacklisted on American radio at the order of FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover himself, but her work still became known via other artists’ cover versions, most notably Joni Mitchell (Sainte-Marie also recorded Mitchell’s songs before Mitchell released her debut album), Glen Campbell, the aforementioned Elvis, and Janis Joplin. Some of us Gen X’ers first saw Sainte-Marie on Sesame Street.

Number 8: The Roches

Terre and Maggie Roche were a folk duo for a long time in the ‘60s and ‘70s before their sister Suzzy joined them and enlivened their shows with her humorous comments and stories between songs. Although formally untrained musically, The Roches figured out how to uniquely harmonize together with stunning effect. Shy, private Maggie barely spoke onstage but was a prolific writer whose mysterious, opaque, and quirky lyrics painted the everyday life experiences of a young woman living alone in a city: begging to get an old waitressing job back, wondering whether to quit music and find different work (‘Hammond’), the absurd complications of being involved with married men, and being scared of an overbearing creep on the commuter train home from work. Her personal, enigmatic style of storytelling foreshadowed artists like Ani DiFranco. This approach didn’t fit into the usual folk niches but endeared The Roches to Robert Fripp and other arty collaborators. 

The group received support from other female artists like Phoebe Snow and Linda Ronstadt, who both recorded Roches songs and like many fans, were mystified that The Roches did not become hugely successful.

Number 7: Joan Baez

Joan Baez may have contributed to the creation of the ‘60s and ’70s trope of the long-haired, earnest, ethereal, guitar-strumming lady folk singer, but her hefty social commentary and stridency more precisely place her as the heiress of the 1930s-1940s political protest singers. She was so active in the anti-war and civil rights movements of the ‘60s that she is inextricably tied to the anthem ‘We Shall Overcome.’ There was also a lot of turmoil and struggle going on underneath that clear soprano. Her compositions, including the best-known ‘Diamonds & Rust,’ famously covered by Judas Priest, and ‘Outside The Nashville City Limits,’ weren’t written until she was in her thirties, a divorced single mother who had already been in the music world for nearly two decades. She recorded her own interpretations of traditional folk tunes plus songs by The Band, John Prine, Lefty Frizzell, Phil Ochs, The Allman Brothers, Tom Waits, Mary Chapin Carpenter, and, of course, Bob Dylan. While it is a dangerous opinion to express in the wrong company, some fans prefer her covers of you-know-who’s songs to his originals.

Number 6: Judee Sill

The way Judee Sill’s short career began is worthy of a screenplay. What other artist was discovered by David Crosby while in the same post-prison drug rehab group and had members of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young’s help recording a debut album? Face it, if there hasn’t been a Janis Joplin biopic made yet, there won’t be a Judee Sill one for another half century, even with that amazing story. Sill was another talented, otherworldly, strikingly intelligent but troubled artist, but with a streetwise, checkered past rivaling that of anyone from punk, grunge, outlaw country, or gangsta rap. She has been compared to Elliott Smith and Joni Mitchell, although sweeter than Joni, critics have been eager to point out. She developed an interesting, difficult-to-copy orchestral guitar style. Warren Zevon and Bonnie Raitt cited her as a musical influence. 

Sill impressed bigshots like David Crosby, Graham Nash, who produced her song ‘Jesus Was A Cross Maker,’ and David Geffen, and was soon the opening act for artists like Crosby and Nash, Cat Stevens, and Gordon Lightfoot. In a review of her set opening for America at the Royal Festival Hall in 1971, NME‘s James Johnson described her as, She came over as rather a strange sort of girl, with a kind of woebegone expression and a habit of preluding her songs with a great torrent of explanation.”

A documentary about Sill premiered in October 2023 at the Doc ‘N Roll Festival in London. Linda Ronstadt and Shawn Colvin make appearances in the film to describe how influential Sill was to them. 

Number 5: Martha Wainwright

Martha Wainwright stealthily created a spectacular debut album in 2005 that established her well apart from everyone in music, not least those who share her surname. Seven albums later, her body of work still stands on its own. Her songs are quirky, vulnerable, and surly at times, as she refuses to be a people pleaser or keep from expressing her opinion. She adds just enough musically and vocally to keep her songs from sounding too spare and covers an amazing amount of ground: frustration with her dysfunctional family, anger at being ignored as an artist, bad romantic decisions, motherhood, losing her mother, a horrible divorce, and finding new love in her forties.

In her wonderful autobiography ‘Stories I Might Regret Telling You: A Memoir’ she describes always feeling, tragically, “like number four on the totem pole” in her family. She deserved to be treated better than that. If she had come from an unknown, non-musical family and been spared constant comparisons to her relatives, she would have immediately been lauded as a genius years ago. On ‘Middle Of The Lake’, she self-deprecatingly calls her songs “my little songs of love and pain,” but they are defiant anthems for young women who have spent years feeling they weren’t good enough in some way — or in every conceivable way.

Number 4: Karen Dalton

Like Judee Sill, Karen Dalton had a short but influential career, also releasing only two influential albums, eventually leaving music altogether, living in seclusion, struggling with a drug habit, and dying far too young from drug-related causes. Dalton appears in Bob Dylan’s autobiography ‘Chronicles: Volume One’ where he calls her his favorite musician from his early Village folk scene days, describing her as singing like Billie Holliday and playing her 12-string guitar like Jimmie Rodgers. She didn’t write her own songs, choosing to interpret others’ work and a repertoire of odd, obscure traditional tunes. She was friends with, among other singer-songwriters, Tim Hardin, and it’s a shame they never recorded anything together. Dalton’s first album ‘In My Time,’ is absolutely profound. She sounds frail and far older than her years, as though it’s using up a lot of precious strength to get those words out, much like Jason Molina often sounded. In the 2021 documentary ‘Karen Dalton: In My Own Time’ Nick Cave said he and The Bad Seeds were always trying to recreate her song ‘Something On Your Mind’ from the moment he heard it.

Number 3: Loretta Lynn

I’m willing to grudgingly accept that Dolly Parton might be too big-hat country to qualify for this list, but I don’t accept that assertion about Loretta Lynn. She wrote and sang, without toning down her rural Kentucky accent, her own songs about poverty, her Appalachian heritage, bad marriages, predatory women, unplanned pregnancies, loss, society’s double standards, and the dissonant chasm between rich celebrities’ lives and most women’s mundane reality. Despite wearing a towering hairdo and frilly designer gowns onstage, she was tough as nails and not ultra-glamorous in the standard Nashville fashion. Seven of her songs were banned from country radio (including ‘Wings Upon Your Horns,’ ‘Rated X,’ and ‘The Pill,’ which also gets a sneaky mention in ‘One’s On The Way,’ written by Shel Silverstein), which must be some sort of world record. Lynn was not shy about telling people off (‘All I Want From You (Is Away)’) or getting into a fight, usually over her wayward husband whom she always seemed on the verge of leaving. 

Number 2: Neko Case

As a member of the supergroups The New Pornographers and the brilliant case/lang/veirs, or as a solo artist, Neko Case can transform a song like a witchy alchemist. She is well acquainted with and unafraid of the darker aspects of life, and with that powerhouse of a voice, there’s more hidden power than she’s letting loose. Deep Red Bells,’ off her album ‘Blacklisted’ (2002) has the incredible line: “It looks a lot like engine oil / And tastes like being poor and small.”

Whether she shouts, purrs, or snarls like Nancy Sinatra, she’s also capable of channeling disparate spirits like Grace Slick, Etta James, and Dave Vanian. A friend of mine says she sounds like “a pissed-off Patsy Cline.” Yet on an appearance on the radio quiz show ‘Wait Wait…Don’t Tell Me,’ she was funnier than the actual comedians on the show’s panel. Reading through her witty and whip-smart Substack newsletter ‘Entering The Lung’ over a huge cup of coffee is one of the best ways to spend a morning. I hope to read in a future edition that she has been secretly working on a book of poetry and an old-school Goth cover album (like Juliana Hatfield’s album series of cover songs).


Number 1: Lucinda Williams

Lucinda Williams shows up on more of this series’s lists than any other artist so far (eleven, including this one), a statistic that is further proof of her towering status as a songwriter and performer. Her career has been a slow-burning one, with her first album of original songs, ‘Happy Woman Blues,’ released in 1980, introducing her penchant for rich details and deeply flawed characters. She changed americana and single-handedly brought the genre to a wider audience with her masterpiece ‘Car Wheels On A Gravel Road’ and subsequent nearly note-perfect albums. By “wider audience” I mean people who didn’t usually buy americana records and would have to look up Lake Charles or Lafayette on a map. Williams is not afraid to shoot straight from the first line of a song, often with her devastating deadpan delivery, conjuring seemingly effortless, seering turns of phrase, an endless well of simple, emotionally powerful melodies, and catchy, dirty, rock-inflected riffs. Long may she reign.


About Kimberly Bright 85 Articles
Indiana native, freelance writer specializing in British, Canadian, and American music and cultural history, flyover states, session musicians, overlooked and unsung artists. Author of 'Chris Spedding: Reluctant Guitar Hero.' You can contact her at
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Martin Johnson

As you say, Kimberly, a different perspective on the run-of-the-mill Top 10. I must admit, Buffy Sainte-Marie had faded from my memory over the years and I suspect I’m not the only one. Definitely ripe for reappraisal.

Alan Peatfield

An excellent list. Yes, we can all play “butwhataboutery” but it misses the point of this series. However, I notice all 10 are female. Really? I mean, really?

Jordan Ceri

The Top 10 Greatest Ever Americana Artists feature is fantastic reading/watching/listening… however I can never fathom why Mickey Newbury never makes ANYONE’S list. IMHO no artist is more Americana than Elvis Presley’s favourite singer/songwriter. If you aren’t familiar with Newbury… do yourselves a favour… grossly underrated late, great special talent.
America’s (only?) gift to the world is music… Mickey is right up there with Lucinda Williams, Steve Earle, Gene Clark…