It has been said before (if not always), that creating a list of the top 10 artists ‘ever’ in any genre is almost an impossible task. There are always at least ten more other artists that should have been there by any criteria. But, then, it is a personal thing and you have to guide yourself on who among these artists has left the most lasting personal impression and who among them you see as giving a lasting impact on the genre and other artists. In any case, subjectivity rules.
Number 10: Karen Dalton
Sometimes it does not matter how many releases an artist has had, but what personal or general impact the music of that artist has had. Dalton released only two albums during her brief life cut short by illness – ‘It’s So Hard to Tell Who’s Going to Love You the Best’ and ‘In My Own Time.’ Yet both of those albums were bursting with some magical music that at the time of their release, when americana as a term was still just forming, were described as “a hybrid of folk, blues, country and jazz”. While her guitar playing and lyrics were impeccable, it was her incredible voice that left the most lasting impact. It is even more incredible that her first album was practically done all in one live take, with Dalton being tricked that the tape wasn’t even rolling.
Number 9: Townes Van Zandt
Townes Van Zandt is the kind of artist who will make you laugh, cry, and dance all in one song. His unique blend of folk-inspired ballads and country twang has made him a beloved figure in both music circles and beyond. From his classic songs like ‘Pancho & Lefty’ to more modern classics like ‘If I Needed You’ Townes’ ability to capture emotion through his lyrics is unparalleled. But it’s not just his words that make Townes so special – it was also the wit he brought to every performance. Whether he’s singing about love or loss, there are always moments of levity peppered throughout each song – which makes for an incredibly enjoyable listening experience no matter what your musical tastes may be. Essentially, with Van Zandt, it was always the case of good old-fashioned storytelling with a side order of laughter, often laced with a healthy dose of irony – perfect life lessons.
Number 8: Gram Parsons
We are talking about a true pioneer of country rock, or as he put it himself, “Cosmic American music” (did the term americana have its germination here?) and his influence can still be felt today. He blended traditional country music with the sounds of the hippie movement, creating something entirely unique and ahead of its time. Yet it was his influence at the time that really shaped americana as an evolving genre – from his direct immense influence on The Byrds, shaping and presenting The Flying Burrito Brothers, his achingly brief but incredible solo career, and definitely not the list as one of the ‘ghostwriting’ influences on The Rolling Stones and probably their best album ‘Exile on Main Street’.
Number 7: Gene Clark
Gene Clark may have left the Byrds in 1966, but his influence on music continues to be felt today. Known for being (yet another) pioneer of country-rock and folk-rock, Gene Clark’s songwriting was ahead of its time – blending genres together that had never been blended before. His lyrics were often poetic and introspective, providing an emotional depth that resonated with listeners everywhere. Although he only released eight solo albums during his lifetime (including two posthumous releases), Gene Clark’s legacy lives on through covers by artists like REM and The Jayhawks as well as countless tributes from other musicians who cite him as an inspiration. He has truly earned the title of ‘the forgotten Byrd’ who recorded at least one absolute classic americana album in ‘No Other’.
Number 6: Wilco
When so many point at you as the progenitor of alt-country and modern americana music, first with Uncle Tupelo and then with Wilco, you just can’t do anything but put Jeff Tweedy’s name above those of many other renowned names. And it was with Wilco that his work presented itself in the best possible light. It is that intricate blend of all things roots (and rock) that always woos the listeners with Tweedy and Wilco particularly their tendency to push the boundaries within their genre by experimenting with different sounds throughout their career while staying true to themselves as musicians at heart – something which many other bands fail at doing successfully over time due its difficulty level involved in maintaining originality without losing one’s core identity as an artist or group.
Number 5: Lucinda Williams
For decades now, Williams has been creating some incredible americana sounds that were never bound by a single musical idea or genre, always combined with lyrics so personal but still able to relate to a very wide audience. Maybe that is where all those Grammys and other awards and accolades came from, but it was always a blend of country, folk, rock, and blues, that actually put her at the heart of americana music. Williams’ songs are often characterized by their raw emotionality; they explore themes such as love, loss, heartache, and hope in ways that many find deeply moving. With her powerful voice backed up by heartfelt guitar playing, she creates an atmosphere of intimacy that draws listeners in like few other performers can do. Her ability to capture complex emotions through song makes it easy to understand why so many people have connected with her work over the years.
Number 4: Grateful Dead
If there ever was a band that dared to explore any depth of music that would fit under the americana umbrella, it was the Grateful Dead. Whether they stuck to the original theme or went into one of their cosmic explorations The Dead were always gratifying – as they instinctively always had the spirit of the roots sounds present. And it didn’t make any difference whether they were in the psychedelic mood of their early albums or infinite versions of the incredible ‘Dark Star’ their jazz variations of ‘From The Mars Hotel’ their ‘true americana’ mode of ‘American Beauty’ and ‘Workingman’s Dead’ or any of those live sets that just keep cropping up even today – they were always on top and at their best playing live, even when the notes went astray and the vocals cracked. The magic was there.
Number 3: The Byrds
Bringing the British invasion into American folk music was just the beginning for a band that created some timeless classics. Throwing in perfect psychedelia, some incredible harmonies, true country rock and whatnot else was just the added bonus. The Byrds’ sound was unique for its time; their use of electric instruments combined with vocal harmonies created an entirely new sonic landscape that set them apart from other acts on the scene at that time period. Additionally, they helped bridge together different musical styles by incorporating both traditional American influences into their songs alongside more progressive sounds like those heard on ‘Eight Miles High’ or ‘Mr Tambourine Man’. This type of experimentation allowed them to push boundaries while still maintaining a sense of authenticity within each track they released – something that would prove essential for future generations looking back at this era’s impactful work.
Number 2: The Band
The Band could have just recorded their first three albums and their importance for americana music would have surely been sealed with these three all-time classics. Yet it is all that came before and after that, from playing with Dylan and recording all those ‘Basement Tapes’ to some incredible music to follow, and ‘The Last Waltz’ to boot. But what makes them so special? Well, let me tell you: it’s all about the chemistry. The Band was made up of five unique musicians with distinct personalities; each brought something different to the table and together created a sound like no other. Whether playing upbeat rockers or soulful ballads, there was always a sense of camaraderie between them that shined through in every performance. It truly felt like these five were meant for each other – as if fate had put them together just so we could hear this incredible music. So next time you’re looking for some great tunes from one of rock ‘n’ roll’s most beloved groups, don’t forget about The Band – because when those guys got together something magical happened.
Number 1: Bob Dylan
When you say that throughout his career Bob Dylan has embraced many musical styles from folk to rock & roll as well as incorporating elements from blues, country, gospel and jazz into his sound it just sounds so dry and a bit simplistic. But then, how can you put into words a description of the music created by a man who himself has such an incredible and unfathomable way with words? Pointing out where he was at his best or at his lowest (is there such a phase with Dylan?) is probably an impossible task – Dylan’s output is not only so vast but so diverse that it can cover practically any niche of modern music. Yet, always there was a roots line present there that included his knowledge of all shapes and forms of americana. That was always present in his music, something that will always be there with one of the greatest artists of all time.