Top 10 Greatest Ever Americana Artists. Ever? Impossible task. So, let us assume the writer cannot possibly have had access to every potential artist who might fit comfortably into that category and take it from there. We are left then with the music to which an individual might have been exposed and for how long that exposure has taken place.
To that end I will offer no apologies for this compilation and the glaring omissions that are bound to arise as a result of a deprived childhood and older sibling bullying and their force-feeding of Top Of The Pops. These aren’t the Top 10 ever. How could they be?
Number 10: Thea Gilmore
With a new album pending Thea Gilmore writes “On my last album I changed my name to Afterlight and drew a line under everything I’d done up to that point. Not to invalidate it, but to put an end to the ‘before’.” Well thank goodness for that Thea or your inclusion here would make this writer a tad foolish. Gilmore has always garnered great respect from within the industry and has been a frequent and popular tourer here. If that has not translated into huge record sales well isn’t that just the way of it with our beloved americana. For every Springsteen or Young there is a Bruntnell or a Peters, brilliant songwriters and performers who have passed below far too many radars. Gilmore is a hugely gifted writer, often bitter and personal, unafraid of tackling whatever issue that is driving her passions at that time. Whether layering the slower numbers with a silky smooth vocal or rocking out and raging at the world Gilmore has a vocal range to die for. Anybody unfamiliar with Thea could do worse than head for her brilliant 2008 album ‘Liejacker’ which opens with the gorgeous ‘Old Soul’ the inspiration for which is described by Thea in this clip below.
Number 9: Joni Mitchell
Joni Mitchell’s first album ‘Song To A Seagull’ was released in 1968 and reached the dizzy heights of 189 in the US charts. An inauspicious beginning for the legend she went on to become. Mitchell bucks a trend here in that this very personal list is dominated by artists still plying their trade and continuing to deliver high-quality work. Mitchell by contrast last released a studio album of new music in 2007 so it is her legacy as one of the defining artists of a generation that warrants her inclusion here. There is something about that whole anti-war, Woodstock, Laurel Canyon generation that makes those us of a certain age feel as though we lived it even if we never went within 5000 miles of California. This live version of ‘Coyote’ dates back to 1976 and shows Mitchell performing with The Band at their farewell concert.
Number 8: Lori McKenna
When compiling an ‘All time’ list the instinct is usually to delve as far back as our aged brains will allow and to dismiss 21st century artists. Then the light goes on upstairs and we realise that we are fast approaching a quarter way through this century and surely 23 years of music making is enough to justify an inclusion? In that spirit, if Lori McKenna may be dismissed by some as too country-focused to qualify here then the sheer quality of her output, both individually and in respect of the huge number of songs written for others deserves respect. Her numerous CMA awards would seem to reinforce that country bias but isn’t that just what the broad bandwidth of americana is all about, drawing influences from various genres? ‘Humble And Kind’ was a huge hit for Tim McGraw and both a CMA and Grammy winner. McKenna’s version here showcases not only her own gorgeous vocals but also her ability to wring emotion from every lyric. If only all country music could be this good.
Number 7: Willy Vlautin
This is not the first time the marvellous Mr Vlautin has come up in these lists. If anyone missed his Richmond Fontaine incarnation then surely no-one in americana circles could have failed to be blown away by the wonderful Delines. The songwriting allied to Amy Boone’s aching and evocative vocals affords us Brits an up close and personal insight into the underbelly of small-town America; the minutiae of everyday life and the hardships that go with it brought to life. Vlautin paints pictures as vividly through his music as he does through the written word for which he is also renowned. He is another artist who we are fortunate to see this side of the pond in smaller venues on a fairly regular basis and for this we are truly grateful.
Number 6: Patty Griffin
Summer 1996 was a significant one americana wise. It marked not only the release of Gretchen Peters’ debut, of which more below, but a certain Patty Griffin also introduced herself with her ‘Living With Ghosts’ album. While achieving little in the way of commercial success the pared-back acoustic sound along with that distinctive vocal on that debut was highly regarded critically and has paved the way for a career path not dissimilar to Peters. A hugely respected songwriter her songs have been covered by many, not least The Chicks, who have regularly plundered Griffin’s work. Like a number of her peers her moderate album sales are more than offset by a body of critically acclaimed work and the respect of those in the know. As if to emphasise the point here is Griffin performing ‘Ohio‘ with Robert Plant from 2013 album ‘American Kid’.
Number 5: Peter Bruntnell
On a listing dominated by American artists, which is, after all, hardly surprising, there has to be at least one shout-out for one of our own. We will ignore the fact that he was born and raised for all of one year in New Zealand before his family returned to the UK and celebrate the magnificence that is Peter Bruntnell as a true Great Brit. Bruntnell may not be a household name outside of americana circles but within it respect is unbounded. A 2021 review on this website for his lockdown album ‘Journey To The Sun’ perhaps sums this up best; “Once again we ask ourselves why Peter Bruntnell is, one of the finest exponents of americana this side of the pond, not more widely recognised for his consistent genius?”
For the fan, Bruntnell’s lack of a wider audience may be perplexing but does at least have the upside of allowing us to regularly see him up close and personal in small, intimate venues. As if to emphasise that point here is Bruntnell looking suitably uncool at 2022’s Maverick Festival with ‘Heart Of Straw’ from that aforementioned album.
Number 4: Bruce Springsteen
Where to start with Springsteen? Prolific hardly seems to do the man justice and even now he continues to explore and experiment with last year’s ‘Only The Strong Survive’, the man’s take on soul classics. You never quite know what is coming next with Springsteen, the man who followed ‘The River’ with ‘Nebraska’ and ‘Lucky Town’ with ‘The Ghost of Tom Joad’. These constant shifts in gear, occasional forays away from The E Street Band into something sparser and unexpected keep the listener on their toes. Enough words have been written about him throughout his career without taking up unnecessary space here so suffice to say Springsteen has been an ever present throughout this particular individual’s musical journey and a delve into a mighty back catalogue is always a pleasure. ‘Brilliant Disguise’ is sans E Street Band and a youthful Springsteen from 1987’s ‘Tunnel of Love’.
Number 3: Gretchen Peters
The measure of the respect that Gretchen Peters holds as a songwriter is best summed up by browsing the sheer number of her songs recorded or covered by other artists ranging from Bryan Adams to Martina McBride, Etta James to Trisha Yearwood. As a performer Peters sets incredibly high standards and is much loved by the americana community as her regular appearance on this website in various highlights features will testify. Sadly 2023 saw Gretchen bring the curtain down on 25 years of touring the UK but her songwriting remains as classy as ever and, if anything, recent releases are finally starting to see her gain the respect she has deserved ever since her 1996 debut ‘The Secret of Life’. ‘The Matador’ is one of the finest songs in a back catalogue chock full of them and comes from 2012’s ‘Hello Cruel World’.
Number 2: Mary Chapin Carpenter
It was 36 years ago that Mary Chapin Carpenter released her country-leaning debut ‘Hometown Girl’ Carpenter continues to cement a reputation as one of the finest artists of her generation. Her five Grammys may date back to the distant days of the 20th century but her influence and relevance and the respect with which she is held in the industry can be illustrated with a 2022 nomination, her 18th in total, for ‘One Night Lonely’, a two-hour long solo concert to an empty auditorium in Vienna, Virginia in the middle of lockdown. Interestingly this latest nomination was in the best folk album category. Early awards were firmly in the country camp and the fact that this is how she was viewed is evidenced by her regular appearance in CMA and ACM lists. The fact that her last nomination in these country circles was in the early 90s emphasises not just a subtle change in musical direction at that time but also that Carpenter never really did fit comfortably in this camp. Certainly, after those first two or three albums anyone hearing those albums now would file them confidently under the americana heading.
‘Our Man Walter Cronkite’ was a bonus track on 2020’s ‘The Dirt And The Stars’. Carpenter shares many of the concerns about the state of her country that has categorised Jackson Browne’s music for so long. Of the song, Carpenter shares, “Growing up, Walter Cronkite was in our house Monday through Friday, presenting the news as The Most Trusted Man In America, as he was known in his time. My parents raised us to believe that people in jobs like Cronkite’s told the truth; they raised us to believe in a world that reaches out to those who need help, that does not turn away from those less fortunate, or homeless, or those forced to leave their country because of the threat of violence, poverty and persecution. The arms were there to hold them, the eyes to see them, and the hearts of the world were there to love them. Because that was the right thing. It’s a different time now. I miss my parents, and I miss Walter Cronkite.”
Number 1: Jackson Browne
So much of the music that came out of Laurel Canyon in the 70s stands the test of time and is surely and proudly americana even if the genre hadn’t been christened then. Jackson Browne’s influence is found throughout that highpoint in musical history and, 50 years on, Browne continues to write from the heart and often with an anger aimed at the political might of America. Browne has never let his politics or environmental activism get in the way of a good tune. Rather, he channels that passion as fuel to maintain his standards. Standards that have rarely faltered in all those 50 years. As if to emphasise that point the video below sees Browne with co-writer Leslie Mendelson on a track from 2021’s ‘Downhill From Everywhere’. Written initially for a documentary about the doctors and nurses who revolutionised AIDS care during the 1980s it showcases Browne the balladeer at his sublime best.