The Top 10 Greatest Ever Americana Artists: Number 3 – Steve Earle

As we reach the podium places it is little surprise to see Steve Earle occupying one of them. He received 46 points from AUK writers to comfortably get him over the line into third place, helped by three writers placing him at the top of their list, one of which was myself. Here’s what each of us had to say:

“I’m not sure that Steve Earle would approve of being placed above his two great mentors Townes Van Zandt and Guy Clark, but I’ve put him there anyway, so I’d better explain why. Well firstly, he’s a great songwriter himself, but he’s also much more than that. He’s been the conscience of americana for many years, never afraid to speak out and equally unafraid to branch out musically.

Like many, my first exposure to Steve Earle was through Andy Kershaw’s Whistle Test report from Nashville on the ‘New Country’ scene around about the time of the release of Earle’s debut album ‘Guitar Town’ (1986). At that time, it was probably not so much the songs, as the sound of the thing. Full of energy and yes, twang, it excited me, and I’ve been a massive fan since. Looking back, yep, the actual songs were pretty good too!

Follow-ups in ‘Exit-0’ (1987) and ‘Copperhead Road’ (1988) were released in short time, the latter becoming Earle’s biggest-selling album, although some way off being his best. Nevertheless, its success did bring Steve Earle into the limelight and made him a recognised name. His next release, ‘The Hard Way’ (1990) was his first with The Dukes and demonstrated that Earle was going to do his own thing. Following the success of ‘Copperhead Road’ many might have played it conservatively and gone for something similar for their next release, Earle on the other hand went the other way and produced something completely different, a full-blown rock album – a good one, but a surprise, nonetheless.

By this time Earle was well into developing a serious drug habit that prevented him from recording for the next four years. When he did re-emerge, he once again sprung a surprise with the release of the acoustic, country and folk-influenced ‘Train a Comin’ (1995) which was an absolute triumph and remains one of my favourite Earle albums. Following up this up with ‘I Feel Alright’ (1995) and ‘El Corazon’(1997) it marked a purple patch for Earle who then sprung another surprise by recording an album of bluegrass with The Del McCoury Band.

The purple patch continued right through to 2007 with the release of ‘Transcendental Blues’ (2000), ‘Jerusalem’ (2002), ‘The Revolution Starts Now’ (2004) and ‘Washington Square Serenade’ (2007), all great albums but ‘Jerusalem’ in particular I’d place high in any list of the best Earle albums. More recently Earle’s output has been focused on tribute albums to Townes Van Zandt, Guy Clark, Justin Townes Earle and Jerry Jeff Walker as each has in turn passed on. All are equally listenable, but I tend towards the school of thought that says that if I want to listen to Guy Clark’s songs, I’ll probably listen to Guy Clark singing them. More interestingly, Earle’s last two albums of original material, So You Wanna be an Outlaw’ (2017) and ‘Ghosts of West Virginia’ (2020) have been terrific, so here’s looking forward to the next one.

Steve Earle’s longevity, originality, willingness to plough his own furrow and when necessary, be outspoken, make him my number one americana artist. Oh and did I mention – he writes a pretty good song too.” Clint West

And so, to my number 1 choice. It really couldn’t be any other artist for me. I have just about everything he’s ever recorded, and I’ve probably seen him perform live more times than any other artist. From the first time I heard ‘Guitar Town’, his 1986 debut album, I was hooked and my appreciation of his songs and his abilities as a musician and performer haven’t wavered since that time. Stephen Fain Earle is, for me, the best of the best. When I listen to Earle I can hear all of his influences but still hear how he has raised himself above them. I love many of the musicians he names as his big influencers, like Townes van Zandt and Guy Clark, but my appreciation of them only came about because that’s where Steve Earle’s music led me. Above everything else is his ability as a songwriter, which has just continued to grow with each passing year. For me, he hit the pinnacle of his writing career to date with 2020’s ‘Ghosts of West Virginia’, a slow-burn album that gets better with every listen and really gets into the heart of the mining industry from the mine worker’s perspective. It’s not just about West Virginia but is relevant to mining communities the world over. It’s an outstanding piece of narrative songwriting and it’s hard to imagine any other artist who could pull something like this off with such aplomb.

Steve Earle is, of course, more than just a singer and songwriter. He’s an acclaimed actor, an activist fiercely opposed to capital punishment, a successful author, and a playwright. His ‘Guitar Town’ series on YouTube is also well worth checking out if you’re into guitars, as each episode takes you through a different guitar in his extensive collection of vintage instruments and shows he has presenter skills as well. There doesn’t seem to be much he can’t do!

Steve Earle is everything we expect from a great americana artist. His music incorporates folk, country, blues, and rock and he’s even ventured into bluegrass territory (1999’s ‘The Mountain’, recorded with the Del McCoury Band). He addresses the issues that need addressing, he’s not afraid to speak out and he’s not afraid to try something new and he’s also not afraid to put his own spin on the things he does try. He’s a collaborator who enjoys working with others but is equally happy to walk out on stage with just an acoustic guitar. He has, so far, recorded 22 studio albums, 6 live albums, and released 9 compilations. He has received 7 Grammy nominations and won the award on 3 occasions. And as has been noted before, he writes very, very good songs. Rick Bayles

“Of all the artists on this list Steve Earle most consistently draws on all the components of americana. A country boy on debut  ‘Guitar Town’ and ‘Exit 0’ to full-on rocker on ‘Copperhead Road’ and ‘The Revolution Starts Now’ , bluegrass with Del McCroury on ‘The Mountain’ and touching tributes to the two great songwriters who set him on his own creative path, ‘Townes’ and ‘Guy’, not to mention the grief of doing likewise for his own son, ‘J.T.’. Always on the side of the downtrodden and exploited ‘Ghosts of West Virginia’ Earle embodies the spirit of Guthrie and Seeger. After achieving success the “Hardcore Troubadour” increasingly battled his own demons that nearly defeated him.  Earle’s recovery from addiction and a spell inside led to a more thoughtful approach but his fury at the many injustices he saw in the world never lie far from the surface. Solo or with his impressive band The Dukes, Earle’s shows over the years have been a constant reminder of why, were I ever to be asked who is the greatest americana artist ever, I’d say Steve Earle. May that ‘Hillbilly Highway’ go on and on.” Lyndon Bolton

Tomorrow we reveal our runner-up. Join us here.

About Clint West 319 Articles
From buying my first record aged 10 and attending my first gig at 14, music has been a lifelong obsession. A proud native of Suffolk, I have lived in and around Manchester for the best part of 30 years. My idea of a perfect day would be a new record arriving in the post in the morning, watching Ipswich Town win in the afternoon followed by a gig and a pint with my mates at night,
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Andrew Riggs

Only two spots left has to be WILCO & DBT?


I might be dumb…
But I dont see the other 9 anywhere.


Oh, i just saw that the next one is released tomorrow. No thank you. Boring.