The Top 10 Greatest Ever Americana Artists: Paul Russell

As many writers have suggested in their pieces, trying to assemble a Top 10 to this brief is challenging to say the least. It’s been fascinating to see the selections from my fellow writers to date – and let’s hope I can be allowed a little flexibility with my choice.

This is MY list of the Top 10 Greatest Ever Americana Artists – it’s not the list of the best – simply my interpretation of the best. So there aren’t many classic names here – a few, but not that many. For me, these ten artists have been the most important for my americana listening in the last thirty years or so.

Number 10: Matthew Ryan

Matthew Ryan has been making music as a solo artist since getting a deal with A&M in 1996 with ‘May Day’. He’s been described as “Equal parts Springsteen, Westerberg, and Ryan Adams, Ryan is a powerhouse of a storyteller for almost two decades”. He’s also known for his “hushed rasp, with words catching like vows destined to be broken – one of modern music’s most potent whispers”. He’s a champion of the blue collar world and his songs are often bleak and heartfelt – but always memorable and distinctive. Highlights from his immense back catalogue include ‘Jane I Still Feel The Same’ from ‘vs The Silver State’; ‘Time & Time Only’ from ‘East Autumn Grin’; ‘Return To Me’ from ‘Regret Over The Wires’; and ‘Summer Never Ends’ from ‘Hustle Up Starlings’. It’s a complete mystery as to why he isn’t better known, but he’s one of the most important and under-appreciated americana artists ever and needs to be much more recognised as such.

Number 9: Jesse Malin

If there’s one musician destined to be a rock’n’roll star it’s Jesse Malin. For starters, he fronted his first band, hardcore act Heart Attack, at the age of twelve. A slew of bands followed with Malin involved, learning the craft of performing and song writing. Ryan Adams had long been a fan and in 2001 they worked together on ‘The Fine Art Of Self Destruction’ in London in just six days. It’s an astonishingly accomplished debut and made a big impression.

Eight studio albums have followed, mixing superb up tempo rockers with beautiful, haunting ballads. He’s worked with Bruce Springsteen, members of Green Day, Lucinda Williams and Joseph Arthur. He’s done film work with a role in Scorsese’s Bringing Out The Dead (1999). His live performances are legendary and I remember with glee a gig I say him playing at Dingwall’s in London where he does his legendary ‘getting the audience to crouch down on the floor’ routine, which worked brilliantly.

Sadly, in June 2023 he suffered a rare spinal stroke that has left him paralysed from the waist down. In need of extensive medical procedures, a donation campaign has been set up by friends to help pay for his recovery. He’s determined to walk and dance again – and let’s hope he’s able to do so – it’s the least we can grant him. I defy anyone not to be knocked for six when they hear the opening bars of ‘Wendy.’

Number 8: Mary Gauthier

Mary Gauthier is an astonishingly accomplished musician and songwriter and there’s almost no-one who can demonstrate better the redemptive power of song. As The Associated Press said “From start to finish, Gauthier masterfully makes the personal universal”. I first came across her through good old Bob Harris and, working in radio at the time, managed to arrange for her to come on an arts show that I produced for a London speech station, as she was promoting her ‘Drag Queens In Limousines‘ album in 1999. She performed live in the studio and was mesmerising. Her lyrics were both powerful and vivid and you knew you were in the presence of someone really special.
As she says “Writing helps me sort out the confusion, untangle powerful emotions, and ward off desperation. It helps me navigate the powerful emotional weather systems of life”. Gauthier has experienced a lot in her life – a troubled start and she didn’t start her musical career until she was 35 – and goodness has she made up for lost time. Over 25 years and eleven albums, she has become one of the most important female voices ever – and she continues to dazzle in all her work.

Number 7: Brendan Croker

Andy Kershaw once described Brendan Croker as the nearest thing we’ve got to having a Ry Cooder. And he wasn’t wrong. Croker got into music in his thirties, but he started playing with some real pros. Steve Phillips was a masterful guitarist and a certain Mark Knopfler was a pretty good strummer as well. They played in and around the Leeds area in the seventies and early eighties and after Knopfler went off to do his own thing, Croker and Phillips played as a duo, garnering rave reviews.

Croker then decided to form his own band, The Five O’Clock Shadows, and their debut release ‘A Close Shave’ was exceptional and featured Flaco Jiminez and an incredibly tight band. His glorious vocals shone and his knack of choosing superb songs of his own, mixed with really creative cover versions, made for an instant classic. He followed this with two other ‘Shadow’ albums, ‘Boat Trips Across The Bay’ and ‘Brendan Croker and the Five O’Clock Shadows’. They’re all worth tracking down, albeit this is now a little challenging to do. Knopfler then came calling and on a sojourn from his mega band – worked with Croker, Phillips and others to become The Notting Hillbillies and score a chart success with their only album ‘Missing…Presumed Having A Good Time’.Never one to want or need success, Croker then spent the next few decades here in the UK and in Europe, performing and recording occasionally.

Croker sadly passed away in September and we have lost a magnificent singer, musician and songwriter.
He was quite a character and was never too far away from incident, as in the experience where he once avoided a knife-fight in a Mexican cantina by picking up a guitar and playing songs by Hank Williams and Jim Reeves. He recorded with Eric Clapton, Chet Atkins and Tanita Tikaram and ended up doing what he loved best – playing music. He once said “I can’t understand those angst ridden pop stars. This is the best job in the world”. It’s a job he did effortlessly.

Number 6: Griffin House

It always amazes me when musicians admit that early in their lives they never realised they had musical or singing ability. But that’s exactly what happened to Springfield, Ohio born Griffin House. In high school he was brilliant athlete who accidentally managed to get a role in a musical and, hey presto, he realised he had a natural talent for singing.

He released his early album ‘Upland’ in 2003 and this caught the ears of Vancouver based Nettwerk and they released his classic ‘Lost and Found’ which is the album where I first discovered his amazing talents. I remember listening to the track ‘Liberty Line’ on it and was transfixed by the quality of the song writing and his glorious voice. It’s still one of my favourite americana tracks to this day. In 2004, American journalist from MTV and VH1 Bill Flanagan raved about the new singer songwriter. “I bought House’s ‘Lost and Found’ CD after a show in New York City and this never happens – I took it home and must have listened to it 20 times that weekend. I was knocked out”.

He’s recorded eleven albums to date – with a new EP ‘The Tides’ recently released. He’s also recorded an album with Mike Campbell and Benmont Tench and has toured with the likes of Ron Sexsmith, Josh Ritter and John Mellencamp. His unerring knack of writing instantly memorable tunes and mixing styles is always reassuring and there isn’t a dud in his catalogue. Career highlights include ‘If You Want To’ from ‘The Learner’; ‘When The Time Is Right’ from ‘Flying Upside Down’; ‘Burning Up The Night’ from ‘Homecoming’;and ‘Better Than Love’ from ‘Flying Upside Down’.

Number 5: James McMurtry

If you’re an aspiring singer songwriter and you have a mighty National Treasure of an author as a father, the pressure’s on. That’s what befell James McMurtry as the son of Larry McMurtry, author of such classics as ‘The Last Picture Show’, ‘Lonesome Dove’ and ‘Terms of Endearment’. Yet, despite this pressure, McMurtry has managed to mirror his fathers amazing writing talent and pen some quality songs. As John Mellencamp said after hearing his ‘Too Long In The Wasteland’ album in 1989 “James writes like he’s lived a lifetime”. Jason Isbell has said of McMurtry “He has that rare gift of being able to make a listener laugh out loud at one line and choke up at the next. I don’t think anybody writes better lyrics”.

Over his ten studio albums he’s created an astonishing collection of songs, many caustic and abrasive, but always laced with humour. He’s had to cope with quite a range of different record labels, seven to date, but he continues with his band, the gloriously named Heartless Bastards and still tries to perform a midnight set each week at The Continental Club in Lockhart, Texas.

Personal favourite songs from his back catalogue include ‘Rayolight’ from ‘Where’s You Hide The Body’; ‘The Old Part of Town’ from ‘Childish Things’; ‘Just Us Kids’ from the album of the same name; ‘Jaws of Life’ from ‘It Had To Happen’; and ‘Levelland’ from ‘Where’d You Hide The Body’.

Number 4: Lucinda Williams

I can remember as though it was yesterday the moment I first put into my CD player a copy on Rough Trade by a new name to me – Lucinda Williams. It was 1988 and fresh from reading some highly complementary reviews I was literally blown away by this new album ‘Lucinda Williams’, specifically with the rootsy and down and dirty ‘I Changed The Locks’. I was hooked. But chart success eluded Williams and even though she released ‘Sweet Old Word’ to further great reviews, she had to wait until 1998’s ‘Car Wheels On A Gravel Road’ to gain that commercial breakthrough.

Her subsequent work has been nothing short of sublime – with personal favourites including ‘Blue’ and ‘Essence’ from ‘Essence’; ‘Lake Charles’ from ‘Car Wheels On A Gravel Road’; ‘Something About What Happens When We Talk’ from ‘Sweet Old World’; and ‘Over Time’ from ‘World Without Tears’. Her characteristically throaty vocal delivery is perfectly matched with great guitar work on albums that continue to thrill her fan base.

Sadly, she suffered a stroke at her home in Nashville in 2020, but having seen her live at The Barbican this year, even though her mobility is a little limited – she still sings with all the power and vigour she always has.

Number 3: Jeff Finlin

Another brilliant wordsmith, Jeff Finlin is simply the best. Over the course of ten majestic albums this poet, yoga guru  and singer-songwriter has amassed a highly impressive collection of songs that hook you instantly and combine memorable tunes with elliptical and fascinating lyrics. As The Chicago Sun Times said of him “Finlin writes with the minimalist grit of Sam Shepard and Raymond Carver – tune in and you will hear an elusive magic”.

Finlin is the grandson of Irish railroad workers and as he was growing up music, writing and travel became his passions. He then travelled across America using every form of transportation with the exception of tuk tuk and he ended up in Nashville, where he recorded his first solo album ‘Seduced By Money’ with Marshall Crenshaw producing.

His songs are deceptively captivating – great tunes, his nasally vocal delivery working wonders, masterful musicianship from a roster of superb musicians who always back him and lyrics which mesmerise. Gems from his back catalogue include ‘American Dream No 109’ from ‘Epinonymous’; ‘Waiting On a Flood’ from ‘Original Fin’; ‘Sugar Blue’ from ‘Somewhere South Of Wonder’; ‘Summertime’ from ‘Somewhere South of Wonder’ and ‘Big Love Song’ from ‘Ballad of a Plain Man’.

But his jewel is the simply astounding ‘Forever Evergreen’ from his ‘Epinonymous’ album which ranks as one of my favourite americana tracks ever.

Number 2: Dave Alvin

One of the most consummate roots musicians ever to have emerged from America, Dave Alvin and his brother Phil managed to make roots music cool in the eighties with their seminal band The Blasters. Hearing songs like ‘So Long Baby Goodbye’, ‘Marie Marie’ and ‘American Music’ was such a joyous experience in my early musical appreciation life that I had to know more about these two amazing musicians. At that young age, I could never have known just how important Dave Alvin was to become in the annals of americana. Phil had a stunning voice and was a powerful lead singer – but it was Dave’s ability to pen some amazing songs that really impressed.

When he left The Blasters, he started his solo career with a killer release ‘Romeo’s Escape’, which, although it didn’t sell well, showed that he was a force to reckoned with. His next two albums ‘Blue Blvd.’ and ‘Museum of Heart’ continued with a similar Blasters feel to the songs. But from 1994’s ‘King Of California’ onwards a more sedate Alvin has prevailed and he was awarded a Grammy for his ‘Public Domain’ album , when I was lucky enough to interview the debonair and relaxed musician. He was a dream interviewee. In 2011, Rolling Stone called Alvin “an underrecognized guitar hero”.

He’s recently recorded two albums with his brother Phil and an album with Jimmie Dale Gilmore. He’s also had some fine poetry and other writing published to much acclaim. Both he and his brother have had some quite major health issues recently, but Dave is now once again touring to much acclaim.

To see just how good a guitarist Alvin is take a look at the clip below, where a reformed Blasters absolutely rip into ‘Don’t Lie To Me’ with Gene Taylor on vocals. The look of unadulterated joy on Alvin’s face on his two guitar solos is a treat.

Dave Alvin is a really important musician – incredibly respected and so knowledgeable about the music he loves. Long may he reign.

Number 1: John Prine

The number one slot on my list could only go to one artist – the much respected and masterful John Prine. There’s not many musicians who can cite an early job as a mailman as the perfect grounding to becoming a songwriter. But John Prine was that musician – he worked as a mailman in Chicago and performed in local folk clubs in the evenings, crafting songs around people he’d “met on the job”. . Quickly his witty, playful yet sometimes mournful lyrics really shone, as did his musicianship.

With the help of critic Roger Ebert and Kris Kristofferson, they helped him secure a contract with Atlantic Records and so began a wonderfully rich and successful career. With three albums under his belt and success guaranteed, he turned his back on the established model of the recording industry and formed his own record label, Oh Boy Records, which survives to this day.

His subsequent albums were all so good, with ‘The Missing Years’; ‘Lost Dogs and Mixed Blessings’; and ‘Fair and Square’ being particularly memorable. I had the honour a few years back to see Prine live at The London Palladium and it was one of the most memorable gigs I’ve ever been to. I knew he was a consummate performer but I had no idea how easily he held the audience in the palm of his hands with his witty banter, funny and moving songs and a backing band to die for.

It was so sad to hear that he had passed away from Covid complications – but it’s so good knowing his amazing wife, Fiona Whelan, and her team at Oh Boy are continuing to promote and remember Prine’s fantastic talent.

The clip below is audio only but is a live recording of one of his funniest, non PC tracks – ‘Let’s Talk Dirty In Hawaiian’. He was a really mischievous performer and this perfectly captures the spirit of the wit and naughtiness that was the basis of so many of his songs. The audience clearly relish his every word. He’s smiling like a Cheshire cat as he’s singing this and it always makes me smile from ear to ear. Bless him.

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Alan Peatfield

A quality list. I’ve been lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time to come across most of these artists quite a few years ago. Particularly gratifying to see Griffin House. And if people like him, they should check out Matthew Perryman Jones too.