The Top 10 Greatest Ever Americana Artists: Martin Johnson

How does anyone go about determining the top ten americana artists ever, and once you’ve worked that one out, how do you rank them in a meaningful way? These are the legitimate questions facing Americana UK writers as part of this feature if personal favouritism and prejudice are to be avoided. However, whatever the criteria used, each list will be a reflection of the writer’s musical experiences and musical knowledge. Some artists can be considered to be too big for an americana top 10 list, even though they may have been genre influencers, the prime example of such an artist is Bob Dylan who looms over multiple music genres like the colossus he is. The same could be said for bands like The Band, Grateful Dead, and The Byrds,  but from a pure americana perspective, Levon Helm, Jerry Garcia, and Chris Hillman have contributed to americana through their various bands and their solo careers. They have been significant innovators of the americana genre, providing an inspiration for subsequent artists. By definition, any top 10 list of essential americana artists should ideally give a sense of what the americana genre is in all its glory, and reflect something of its history. As far as the order of the artist it is an attempt to rank the artists based on their influence and how much they embody the spirit of americana.

While this list may be an attempt to objectively list the top ten essential americana artists of all time, favouritism, prejudice and personal experience of the music cannot be fully removed from the process, so if you have any views on the list please share them. A major part of the benefit of these lists is the debate and arguments they can prompt. Righteous indignation can feel so good, particularly if your own top artist or artists failed to make the cut. Whatever readers think about the contents and order of the list, it is difficult to believe that americana would be the genre it is today without the work of all ten artists.

Number 10: Gillian Welch

When you see and hear Gillian Welch for the first time it is very easy to imagine her recording with The Carter Family, such is the tenor of the music and her visual style. However, while this is part of her appeal, it doesn’t do justice to her musical and songwriting craft. Gillian Welch was born in 1967 in New York, not at the turn of the 20th Century in the American South. She was a rock & roll fan while she was at college before finding The Stanley Brothers and subsequently attending Berklee College of Music in Boston to study songwriting. It is this love of the rural music of the South, filtered through a modern rock & roll ear and a modern take on songwriting that means Gillian Welch is fairly unique in her ability to keep the flame of old-time music alive while bringing something new to the sound that keeps it fresh in her hands. T-Bone Burnett was an early supporter, and she made significant contributions to ‘’O Brother, Where Art Thou’, which consolidated her career she shares with her husband, Dave Rawlings.  ‘Time (The Revelator)’ was when she wrote rock & roll songs but delivered them as old time music, and if music is to remain vital it needs to innovate, and Gillian Welch is an innovator who has managed to preserve the essence of old-time music ensuring it is alive and well in the 21st Century.

Number 9: Wilco

 Rising from the ashes of Uncle Tupelo after Jay Farrar’s departure, Wilco started out as an alt-country band that was a continuation of Uncle Tupelo. However, they were able to maintain their country rock roots and knowledge of country music, while weaving in the influence of a range of other artists and genres, including The Beatles and John Cale, and an experimental approach to become a leading indie rock band as well. Their defining and most popular album is 2002’s ‘Yankee Hotel Foxtrot’, which was so different to what their label Reprise Records expected, that it resulted in them moving to Nonesuch Records to release it after the band had streamed it on their website.  The music was complex with a sculptured soundscape and was a significant artistic achievement for the band.  The band have had a revolving number of band members with singer and songwriter Jeff Tweedy and bassist John Stirratt being the only original members. Wilco represents how americana can remain fresh as a genre with their adventurous approach to music and the great songwriting of Jeff Tweedy, increasingly solo but also in partnership with other members of the band. They have done all this while still retaining a fulsome understanding of country music, which was clearly evident in 2022’s ‘Cruel Country’. The mix of alt-country and indie rock is one of the reasons that americana is such a vibrant genre in the 21st Century.

Number 8: Drive-by Truckers

The music of the American South is the bedrock of americana. However, the troubled history of the South, the fact that the blues came about as a direct result of slavery, and the fact that there was a significant Ku Klux Klan influence on the early country music industry, means that enjoying the culture of the South can be like crossing a minefield, and today the South is an even more polarised society as modern-day America. What is heartening about the Drive-by Truckers, a band that wears their Southern roots proudly on their sleeve, is that they give an honest, and insightful,  take on the current state of American society in the South through their lyrics, while honouring the musical traditions of the South, filtered through a punk rock sensibility. The Truckers have been well endowed with long-term songwriters of the calibre of Patterson Hood, and for a three-album run in the 2000s, Jason Isbell was also a member. The songs of the Drive-by Truckers remind everyone that the South is more complex than the simple caricature of redneck racial bigots implies, and therefore adds to the understanding of a significant component of americana, the music and culture of the South. As Patterson Hood has said, “The duality of the Southern thing”.

 

Number 7: John Hiatt

 One of the defining characteristics of americana is the heavy preponderance of singer-songwriters and the overall quality of their songs. John Hiatt is recognised as one of the leading songwriters of his generation. While he has written many classics like ‘Sure As I’m Sittin’ Here’, ‘Riding With The King’, ‘Memphis In The Meantime’, and ‘Slow Turning’ that have been covered by a whole range of artists across genres including Bonnie Raitt, Bill Frisell, Gregg Allman, Carl Perkins, and Don Henley. His albums include blues, R&B, country, folk and bluegrass and he has been backed by the best in the business including Nick Lowe, Ry Cooder, Jim Keltner, Sonny Landreth, Jerry Douglas, Kevin McKendree, Kenneth Blevins, to name only some. The fact that Hiatt brought large dollops of rock and blues influences to country and folk is the epitome of americana, and his lyrics and songbook are some of the best in the business. John Hiatt struggled to get the music business behind his music in the early days of his career because, quite simply, they didn’t understand him and didn’t know how to market him. Was he a singer-songwriter in the ‘70s tradition, or was he a new wave artist like Elvis Costello? No, he was an americana artist who kept his rock & roll and blues influences to the fore as he presented his songs, and he had an ear for great guitarists of the calibre of Sonny Landreth, Ry Cooder, Luther Dickinson, Jerry Douglas and Doug Lancio, he just had to wait until americana became a genre to find a career home.

Number 6: Nick Lowe.

Nick Lowe may now have approached something close to national treasure status in the UK, with occasional appearances on Breakfast TV, but he has had a very influential career and is one of the great UK songwriters who had a significant influence on americana artists, so it is really a no-brainer to include him in an Americana UK list of essential americana artists. He has had three phases to his career, all of which feature his songwriting, and all three phases have proved influential to other artists. With Brinsley Schwarz, he established pub rock in London in the early to mid ‘70s which paved the way for UK punk rock, writing some of the classic songs of that era. With Dave Edmunds and their shared leadership of the band, Rockpile, he was instrumental in establishing the new wave genre. Rockpile were a big influence on the emerging American alt-country genre, something his ’80s solo career continued. In 1994 his commercial worth was reducing, and he felt that he was too old to continue playing the new wave rock & roller, and with the release of ‘The Impossible Bird’ he re-invented himself as a country soul crooner of impeccable musical taste. Lowe has continued this phase of his career into to 2020s with the help of Los Straitjackets. His songs have been covered by numerous country and americana acts over the years, most notably by his one-time father-in-law, Johnny Cash. Not only has he been a consistently great songwriter throughout his long career, but he was material in fellow singer-songwriters Elvis Costello and John Hiatt establishing their own careers. He is also probably the greatest UK americana artist.

Number 5: Lucinda Williams

While American roots music is timeless, americana emerged in the ‘90s as a newly defined genre to help promote the increasing interest in roots music amongst listeners. If any one artist could be said to be the perfect representation of the then-new genre it was Lucinda Williams, whose breakthrough fifth album, ‘Car Wheels on a Gravel Road’, was released in 1998. Lucinda Williams was born in Louisiana so has a clear understanding of the American South, and she was able to bring her love of country, blues, and rock and roll to her own roots-based style. Additionally, she was a very adept songwriter, and it was covers by artists like Tom Petty, Emmylou Harris, and Mary Chapin Carpenter that helped her breakthrough to a wider audience in 1998. While the ‘80s and ‘90s saw a rise in the number of female artists, too often you could see the hand of the record companies’ PR departments at work, but Lucinda Williams was able to bring her own style to work with her undoubted musical and songwriting talents. While ‘Car Wheels on a Gravel Road’ still casts a shadow over her career, appearing in many greatest albums ever lists, each subsequent release has always been met with great interest by fans and critics alike, as Lucinda Williams continues to make the music she wants how she wants as she mixes country, blues, and rock and roll for a modern audience. Her determination to be her own artist and follow her own vision is one of the reasons she has been able to continue her career following a stroke in 2020.

Number 4: Levon Helm

The influence of The Band on popular music cannot be overstated, with some of the biggest rock musicians citing them as an influence on their own music, and the fact that they opened a lot of listeners’ ears to the sounds of American roots music and reinforced the validity and variety of the earlier first generation of rock & roll and R&B performers. Levon Helm, singer, drummer and mandolinist with The Band not only added his own unique sound to the musical gumbo that was The Band’s music, but he ensured the beating heart of the American South permeated the sound and imagery of the music of this predominantly Canadian group of musicians. While The Band were at their best when each member contributed equally to a track or album, guitarist Robbie Robertson was seen as the primary songwriter, but it was Levon Helm who educated Robertson and the other Band members, in the folklore and history of the American South, that inspired some of Robertson’s greatest songs, of which ‘The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down’ could be the best synthesis of Levon Helm’s Southern sensibility and Robbie Robertson’s story telling.

Helm’s solo career which started in 1977 with ‘Levon Helm & the RCO All-Stars’ which saw him cover the songs of various southern genres and blend them in a nascent americana. Compared to The Band’s success, which was at rock star levels, Helm’s solo career was much more low-key, though this wasn’t due to any weakness in the music, rather it was that the tastes of the rock and popular music audience was moving on from the roots music championed by the band. Robbie Robertson’s own solo career was much more successful as he caught the ‘80s zeitgeist with his Daniel Lanois produced eponymous debut album, which brought an ‘80s digital sound to his cinematic songs. Levon Helm reactivated The Band in the ‘90s, without Robertson, which continued Helm’s exploration of American roots music until his diagnosis with throat cancer and bassist Rick Danko’s untimely death at the end of the decade. Against all expectations, Helm regained his singing voice and reactivated his solo career, finding great success within the americana genre with his regular Midnight Rambles at his Woodstock studio and his albums ‘Dirt Farmer’ and ‘Electric Dirt’. While Levon Helm wasn’t really a songwriter, his voice and musical knowledge allowed him to bring the music of the American South to a new audience, and therefore he helped preserve one of the cornerstones of americana for a new generation of artists and listeners.

Number 3: Jerry Garcia

With the pair of 1970 albums, ‘Workingman’s Dead’ and ‘American Beauty’, the Grateful Dead were significant contributors to the development of West Coast country rock, but this is only part of their overall legacy which includes psychedelic rock, avant-garde music, roots rock, and good old rock & roll. As the late Bill Graham said, “They are not the best at what they do, they are the only ones who do what they do”.  Also, while these two legendary albums certainly caught the public mood as the ‘60s turned into the ‘70s, the Dead recorded them to deal with the debt they owed to Warner Brothers Records for the costs of their earlier studio albums. Like most San Francisco bands, The Dead had roots in the folk revival and local jug bands, and they looked back to this time for inspiration to help deal with their financial problems. It also helped that Jerry Garcia and Robert Hunter were just hitting a prolific songwriting purple patch that carried over into Garcia’s debut solo album and the live ‘Europe ‘72′ that looked back to the folk songs of their youth for inspiration. Though the whole band was comfortable with the new direction, it was Garcia and Hunter’s songs and Garcia’s Bakersfield and pedal steel guitar lines that made the albums. The New Riders of the Purple Sage were a spin-off from this phase of the Grateful Dead’s career, with Garcia’s pedal steel heavily featured on their 1971 debut album ‘New Riders of the Purple Sage’.

By 1973 Garcia had picked up the banjo for the first time since his days in the folk clubs of The Bay area, and toured with old friends from the ‘60s bluegrass scene, Peter Rowan and David Grisman, with John Kahn and bluegrass star Vassar Clements, in the bluegrass band Old & In The Way. The resulting eponymous live album released in 1975 became the biggest-selling bluegrass album of all time until the ‘Oh Brother, Where Art Thou’ soundtrack outsold it, and helped fuel the bluegrass revival of the ‘70s. In the ‘80s Garcia was incapacitated by a diabetic coma, and as part of his recovery, he formed the Jerry Garcia Acoustic Band to play largely old-time music. By the ‘90s the Grateful Dead had become the most successful touring band in history, but Garcia found more musical solace with his old friend David “Dawg” Grisman, and their series of recordings, some released after Garcia died in 1995, are a key part of Garcia’s legacy and feature acoustic music covering jazz, folk, country, bluegrass, and even a James Brown tune. While Jerry Garcia’s music included much more than americana, both with and without the Grateful Dead, his contributions to country rock, bluegrass and new acoustic music mean that what we call americana would be very different without his influence.

Number 2: Chris Hillman

A self-confessed junior partner in The Byrds, co-leader of the Flying Burrito Brothers with Gram Parsons, and wingman to Stephen Stills in Manassas, before leading The Desert Rose Band to country rock chart success in the ‘80s and early ‘90s, and revisiting his bluegrass and country rock roots with his second solo career, Chris Hillman may just be the best embodiment of americana and its history. While he may have been considered a junior partner in The Byrds, he was the only Byrd with a genuine background in bluegrass and country, and he brought these influences increasingly to bear on The Byrds as his songwriting blossomed, starting with 1967’s ‘Younger Than Yesterday’. He introduced Gram Parsons to The Byrds and was heavily involved in the recording of the landmark ‘Sweetheart of the Rodeo’ which reflected Gram Parsons’ emerging vision of cosmic American music. Hillman joined Gram Parsons in The Flying Burrito Brothers and it is sometimes overlooked that Hillman was co-writer with Parsons of some of the best tracks on 1969’s ‘The Gilded Palace of Sin’, including ‘Christine’s Tune (AKA Devil In Disguise)’ and ‘Sin City’. Hillman went on to sack Parsons due to his unreliability, and before he left the Flying Burrito Brothers he had brought professionalism to their sometimes chaotic sound and delivered a classic live album with ‘Last of the Red Hot Burrito Brothers’.

Stephen Stills’ Manassas delivered one truly classic album and Chris Hillman, as well as playing bass and mandolin, co-wrote ‘Both Of Us (Born To Lose)’. During the rest of the ‘70s, Hillman was part of David Geffin’s master plan for Asylum Records as first the original Byrds reformed for one album, and Hillman brought a Manassas influence to the Souther Hillman Furay Band, which while originally successful fell apart due to the lack of any natural chemistry between its members. Hillman’s Asylum Records solo albums didn’t achieve much as public taste moved away from the country rock sounds of the early ‘70s. Hillman started the ‘80s on the bluegrass label Sugar Hill Records and developed the blueprint for the Desert Rose Band with his lifelong friend Herb Pedersen. The Desert Rose Band took country rock to the bank in the ‘80s and was the commercial validation of Hillman’s musical vision. His later solo career featured a mix of country rock and bluegrass, acoustic and electric music, with a group of musical friends and ex-bandmates. His final album before his retirement was the Tom Petty produced ‘Bidin’ My Time’, which was a celebration of Hillman’s whole career, and allowed Petty to work with one of his own heroes. If it is his last recording, it is a most fitting end to a career that defines the history of americana.

Number 1: Guy Clark

 Americana while concerned with roots music generally, is predominantly a genre about songs and songwriters, and if you scratch below the surface, it is Texas songwriters who have had possibly the biggest impact on the genre. Just a mention of Townes Van Zandt, Billy Joe Shaver, Rodney Crowell, Mickey Newbury, Butch Hancock, and Terry Allen, is enough to make you draw breath. Guy Clark was a very close friend of Townes Van Zandt, and could easily have topped this list if he had had a more sustained career like Clark.  Guy Clark had some success with other artists covering his songs before he recorded his debut album, ‘Old No. 1’, at the age of 34 in 1975. The album caused quite a stir, even within the rock press at the time due to the overall quality of the songs that included the likes of ‘L.A. Freeway’ and ‘Desperados Waiting for a Train’.

Clark recorded five more albums before he found his own style as a recording artist in 1992 with ‘Boats to Build’, and while ‘Old No. 1’ contained exceptional songs, the production was seen by some to be too glossy, despite the calibre of musicians appearing on it, to properly reflect Guy Clark the performer. Clark recorded nine albums between 1992 and his death in 2016, and while each album had its own character, they contained songs that seemed almost bespoke in their careful construction and delivery. It is virtually impossible to imagine anything being taken away or added, and the delivery is warm and personal. Clark was a regular collaborator and worked and mentored other songwriters to help their craft. The level of his craft is such that Guy Clark could be said to be the ideal model for a singer-songwriter. His final album, 2013’s ‘My Favorite Picture of You’, that was recorded after the death of his wife and the love of his life Susanna and it is one of his finest albums. While he may have become a Nashville resident, he never lost sight of his Texas roots, and that included the music of bluesmen Lightnin’ Hopkins and Mance Lipscomb. At the same time, he had been heavily influenced by the poet Dylan Thomas, which maybe gives a clue as to how he managed to become the songwriter’s songwriter who didn’t find an artistic style and home until the advent of americana in the ‘90s, becoming its greatest exponent.

 

About Martin Johnson 406 Articles
I've been a music obsessive for more years than I care to admit to. Part of my enjoyment from music comes from discovering new sounds and artists while continuing to explore the roots of American 20th century music that has impacted the whole of world culture.
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andrew riggs

Not sure about this 10 !

Paul

What happened to The Avett Bros?

Dave Spalding

Neat top ten Martin ,nice to see Nick Lowe get a mention ,Rockpile supported by the Fabulous Thunderbirds remains one of the best gigs ……ever.There has to be a caveat and its Wilco I’m afraid ,I can’t see them as having anything to do with Americana these days.

Ken Jones

Dave Spalding
I can’t find the Rockpile, Thunderbird gig you mention listed as such. Do you have a link to it you can share or was this a live performance you saw?

A. Michael Uhlmann

Wilco is definitely a no in my book and even though I’m a huge fan of Guy Clark, simply being a Texan songwriter ain’t good enough to put him in the top spot.

I would even argue, that the mentioned Townes Van Zandt, also a Texan, but with a broader recognition should take Guy’s place, maybe not in the Top Spot.

The list is also missing the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, with their “Will The Circle…” series they were instrumental in forming the genre called Americana.
Another act sadly missing is Willie Nelson who for the last 50 years bridged the realm of country and rock/pop music, be it as a songwriter, an artist, a duet partner/collaborator, as the cofounder of FarmAid, or simply as the human being he is. That said, I would argue that Nelson was more influential in that genre than Levon, Jerry, or Chris and would put him on top of this list.

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David Maxey

I like the list. Some on here I didn’t expect, and some missing that I thought would be here. What category does John Prine’s music fall in? I sure miss him!
You’ve given me some names to re-exported! Thank you!

Michael Crouch

No John Prine or Doc Watson–seriously?

Pete

You over looked Mary Chapin Carpenter. In my opinion she is unparalleled as a song writer and musician.

Blair Chafe

No Steve Earle?

Nathaniel

There are terrific videos af Guy, Steve and Lucinda at Guy’s house when Steve and Lucinda are teenagers. Glad to see all of them mentioned with the rest of the group, especially Jerry Garcia and Levon. And the Truckers are amazing. Great list, and I agree ten is never enough.

Brian Hoskin

I’m enjoying everybody’s top 10 lists and all the other similar top 10’s that come and go on the site. It’s good to see Guy Clark hit the top spot on one of them.

Louie Bourbonnais

Solid list and the No 1 is right on. Hard to believe there’s not a spot for John Prine here.

Dave Carwile

John Prine.

David Konrad

You may want to check your details. In your Chris Hillman entry, he was in the Souther–Hillman–Furay Band. As in JD Souther, Chris Hillman and Richie Furay. Speaking of Richie Furay, where is Buffalo Springfield on this list?