The Top 10 Greatest Ever Americana Artists: Richard Parkinson

As ever when the subject of americana comes up the issue of what it is bubbles right up with it.  Back in the days when No Depression was an online community, there was a discussion where one participant posed the question “who made us the genre police?” to which another responded by quoting Lewis Carroll:

“When I use a word” Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less”. “The question is”, said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things”.
“The question is”, said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master — that’s all”.

So as this choice is mine, let’s row back to the mid-to-late 1960s when people referred to americana as styles and artefacts recalling historical North America and in particular the period comprising the 19th and early 20th centuries which, for many of us this side of the Atlantic, were found via books, magazines and especially films.

That’s the context in which bands such as The Charlatans (the George Hunter /Dan Hicks combo) adopted old-style American fashions and the San Francisco poster artists re-purposed iconic images to promote music and other art forms.  A classic example is the cover art of the Quicksilver Messenger Service’s ‘Happy Trails’ album featuring the departing cowboy waving farewell to his sweetheart as he rides off into the Western landscape.  Later we saw it in the old-style sepia artwork that adorned classic albums such as ‘The Band’ and ‘Déjà Vu’.
The pace of musical change from the early 1960s up to 1968 was so rapid, it set musicians looking back into the past to reconnect with their and their communities’ roots and presenting the results of this quest through their records in a way which introduced a wider audience to a range of musical influences and traditions much broader than those of the societies in which they had grown up and the (often) metropolitan societies on which they had converged.  And it’s this process that I’ve used here to provide this list of who I consider the 10 greatest Americana artists.

Two points first:
1.     The order is a requirement of the piece and thankfully none of us will ever be presented with a binary choice when we can only listen to one at the expense of another.
2.     While planning and writing this I realised the level of cross-pollination is such that it would have one of Pete Frame’s charts resembling a dense plate of spaghetti.

Number 10: T-Bone Burnett

Burnett makes the list more for his total contribution rather than his own released music.  These contributions demonstrate an acute feel for and understanding of the tangible and intangible artefacts that constitute americana and an ability to turn that into a musical context.

I first came across him when hearing of Bob Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue the part carnival, part medicine show travelling music circus that crossed the US in 1975 and 1976.  Later, he worked with LA band Los Lobos on their early albums one of which, ‘How Will The Wolf Survive’, is arguably the best to come out of the 1980s LA scene. In 1986, Burnett co-produced Elvis Costello’s ‘King of America’, a record heavily steeped in American culture and archetype.  Burnett helps Costello bring this off beautifully.

More recently he produced and helped organise ‘Raising Sand’ (2007), the excellent collaboration between Alison Krauss and Robert Plant.  He also produced the eventual follow-up ‘Raise The Roof’ in 2021.  Rising Nashville star Logan Ledger is another act to benefit from Burnett’s guidance, production, playing and composition on his superb self-titled debut record in 2019.

However, the main reason Burnett is here is the soundtrack album to ‘O Brother Where Art Thou?’ the Coen Brothers re-setting of ‘The Odyssey’ in the depression-era United States.  Working with the Coens through production, Burnett’s selection of songs and performers captures the pillars of faith, community, self-reliance and empathy which underpin the same perception of America as those which underlie americana.  In addition to being a delight artistically, picking up Grammy and IBMA awards, it was very successful commercially and brought traditional American roots to a much wider audience than any record before or since.

Number 9: Uncle Tupelo

It was said of the Velvet Underground that only 1,000 people bought their first album but that each of them went on to form a band of their own.  It might be said that Uncle Tupelo was the alt-country version of the Velvets.

Built around the twin pillars of singers/multi-instrumentalists/ writers Jay Farrar and Jeff Tweedy, Uncle Tupelo blended first and second generation American roots sounds with the energy of rock and punk. On their debut they also reached back to the 1930s covering AP Carter’s ‘No Depression’ and Leadbelly’s ‘John Henry’.

Uncle Tupelo brought a new audience to American roots music as well as re-inspiring older fans to look forward as well as backwards and while they were by no means the only catalyst for the upsurge of interest and activity in what then passed as the alt-country scene their influence cannot be ignored.

They broke up right after their first major label release (the band’s fourth) with the band’s principals going on to success with their respective projects, Son Volt and Wilco.

Number 8: Ry Cooder

An original and expert guitar player even as a teenager, Cooder’s early work as a principal with the likes of Captain Beefheart and The Rising Sons (his group with Taj Mahal) and session work with the Rolling Stones, Randy Newman, Little Feat and Crazy Horse among many others is outstanding.

His solo records though brought the songs of the greats of American folk, blues, R&B and country music to many ears, performed with a care to detail that set his work apart from that of many contemporaries.  Later he switched his attention to jazz, tex-mex and rock and roll, before branching into soundtracks evoking American history (‘The Long Riders’) and landscape (‘Paris, Texas’).

Then in the mid-1990s, Cooder sought out, played with and recorded the musicians comprising the Cuban music scene and brought them to the world’s notice via the phenomenal ‘Buena Vista Social Club’.

More recently Cooder brought out a series of records (such as ‘Chavez Ravine’) addressing episodes in American history often with a present-day parallel. Anyone present at his 2018 show at London’s Cadogan Hall can testify he remains a giant of American music.

Number 7: Calexico

The americana iconography celebrates the southern border with the cactus, the red sun, the run down cantina along with its Mexican mirror of the festival, the dance hall and the whitewashed homes.  No act reflects this in their music better than Calexico. Originally the rhythm section of one of the many iterations of Giant Sand, Joey Burns and John Convertino formed Calexico in the mid 1990s.  Over its almost three decades Calexico has introduced many across the world to so-called desert rock; really a mix of southern American and Mexican music.

The classic Calexico sound features the best of both and achieves a whole greater than the sum of its parts, especially live. Centred around Burns’ guitar and Convertino’s tight crisp drums, they have performed as a duo, bands of varying sizes, with a mariachi band and with a full orchestra.  In each case they succeed in highlighting different elements of their distinctive songs from the dusty instrumentals of ‘Hot Rail’ via the joyous Latin-flavoured ‘Feast Of Wire’ and intensity of ‘Algiers’ through to the calmer more mature approach on ‘The Thread That Keeps Us’ and ‘El Mirador’.

Calexico have also been prolific collaborators – two fine records with Iron and Wine and a major supporting role on the soundtrack to the Dylan (non) biopic ‘I’m Not There’ are personal standouts among many.  Calexico has also championed less well-known artists from Spain and Mexico as support acts on their tours, introducing them to a wider audience.

Number 6: The Chicks

We have all the seen the old photographs of tough frontierswomen, often widowed or orphaned, making their way as providers as well as protectors in a harsh world.  They are portrayed in books, films and photographs as strong and independent weather as heads of families, businesswomen or even sharpshooters. Seeing The Chicks live you can find yourself imagining the three women facing the photographer ready for whatever the world will bring.

The Dixie Chicks impact on popular country music this side of the Atlantic was pretty substantial.  What had been an older medium was suddenly rejuvenated; girls who had seen manufactured song and dance girl groups dominate the charts were faced with smart young women playing instruments.  And they had big tunes.

After the success of ‘Wide Open Spaces’, they followed it up with ‘Fly’ where they developed as writers and stepped up the attitude with barnburners ‘Sin Wagon’ and ‘Goodbye Earl’ which emphasised the defiance at the heart of the Chicks’.

The next phase of their career is well known from the top of the world to the Shepherds Bush Empire and a clear exposition of the judgemental ultra-right-wing US cancel culture.  Their strength shines through the moving and inspiring ‘Shut Up And Sing’ documentary as they stuck to their true selves despite incredible pressure embodying the independent and defiant spirit of country and folk music.

The band came out the other side having lost some popularity but truly found its audience.  The subsequent ‘Taking The Long Way’ album released three years later underlined that big time.  The Chicks proved that genuine art isn’t a consumer product and liberated themselves as artists while standing as a testament to courage and integrity for artists in the future.

Number 5: Neil Young

Raised in Winnipeg, Young like four-fifths of The Band and Joni Mitchell grew up close to the US-Canadian border and was exposed to the sounds of US radio stations from a young age.  He went from being in a rock band to the Toronto folk scene and ultimately moved to California where a chance meeting with Stephen Stills is the stuff of legend.  Young’s music is steeped in the history and culture of North America.  ‘Broken Arrow’, the mini-opera which closes out ‘Buffalo Springfield Again’ references a Native American holding out the broken arrow of peace.

His first solo album returns to the theme on ‘Last Trip To Tulsa’ but also alludes to the old West in the ‘Emperor of Wyoming’ and ‘String Quartet From Whiskey Boot Hill’.  His second album is a full-on country rocker adopting many country music styles and its two longer pieces further mining American cultural themes with the gothic ‘Down By The River’ and sprawling ‘Cowgirl In the Sand’.  The country trend is developed further on his third solo album with a cover of Don Gibson’s ‘Oh Lonesome Me’ before he takes it all the way to the heart of country music on bestseller ‘Harvest’ with a tight backing band of Nashville musicians.

These are themes to which Young returns on many of his records including war (‘Powderfinger’), rural life (‘Country Home’), faith and mortality (‘Prairie Wind’ album) and family.  He’s recorded several times in Nashville and co-founded the Farm Aid benefit with Willie Nelson.  More recently Young has mined a seam of nostalgia for a mythical America, especially in his ‘Greendale’ song cycle.

Between his albums and his touring he has shared these themes with audiences worldwide.  His work taken as a whole stands comparison with any of the greats.  Unlike the others on this list, he’s even issued an album titled ‘Americana’ comprising a selection of older American folk tunes.

Number 4: Nitty Gritty Dirt Band

The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band started out in Los Angeles in the mid-1960s as a pop rock band with country folk leanings and one of the early champions of the songs of Jackson Browne.  They turned to the country on 1970’s ‘Uncle Charlie And His Dog Teddy’ an album which contained their interpretations of songs by Michael Nesmith (‘Propinquity’, ‘Some of Shelley’s Blues’), Kenny Loggins (‘House At Pooh Corner’) and Jerry Jeff Walker whose ‘Mr Bojangles’ gave them their biggest hit. The reason they’re on this list is of course the landmark triple album ‘Will The Circle Be Unbroken’ released in 1972 which pole vaulted back to the roots of country and bluegrass music.  The album package with its old-style presentation and folding inserts complete with sepia-tinted photographs almost stands as an American artefact in its own right.

Curated by the band who played as a backing group on a lot of the record, ‘Circle’ went back and drank at the musical wellspring bringing in the likes of Mother Maybelle Carter, Doc Watson, Merle Travis, Roy Acuff, Jimmy Martin, Earl Scruggs and Vassar Clements.  The sound is crisp, the songs and performances incredible and the record evokes the campfire/cabin spirit of collective performance. For many listeners, including this one, ‘Circle’ was the first time hearing many of these legendary performers.  All involved are owed a major debt of gratitude by future generations. The album features songs steeped in history, faith, family and community.  The penultimate all-hands ‘Will the Circle Be Unbroken’ featuring Carter, Martin and Acuff as lead vocalists emphasises the continuity implicit in the lyric.  A point underlined by the final song – Earl Scruggs’ son Randy picking out Joni Mitchell’s ‘Both Sides Now’ on a lone guitar.

The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band would revive the concept twice more – 1989’s ‘Volume 2’ (with Martin, Clements, Acuff and Earl Scruggs following from ‘Circle 1’) which features Johnny Cash, Sam Bush, Bruce Hornsby, Emmylou Harris, John Prine, Roger McGuinn and Chris Hillman, Bela Fleck, Levon Helm and more with Jerry Douglas supplementing the Dirt Band. Then again in 2002 with ‘Volume 3’ reworking the familiar themes and with an even greater emphasis on the unbroken circle as Clements, Martin and Cash return, Doc Watson re-joins the project with grandson Richard along with two generations of McCourys and Dirt Band offspring Jaime Hanna and Jonathan McEuen.  Matraca Berg, Willie Nelson, Tom Petty, Tony Rice and Dwight Yoakam are among the first-timers.  Like its predecessor ‘Circle 3’ is a keeper.

The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band continue to record and perform; but the three Circle albums are a legacy that will continue as long as people listen to American roots music and illustrate the people, history and landscape of many generations.

Number 3: The Band

Emanating from Canada and Louisiana and forged in hardworking clubland as The Hawks, the musicians comprising The Band drew on many different traditions as well as playing a wide range of instruments, featuring three top-notch singers and showcasing at least in the early years three exceptional songwriters.

Throughout their career and especially from their debut ‘Music From Big Pink’ through to their last great album ‘Northern Lights Southern Cross‘, The Band took their audience on a tour through time and space and North American history.  They address the civil war in ‘The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down’, travelling (‘Life Is A Carnival’, ‘WS Walcott‘), gambling, drinking, love and redemption (‘Up On Cripple Creek’) and the fate of the French settlers in the Maritimes (‘Acadian Driftwood‘).

The Band could also turn their hand to many styles of American music as evidenced on ‘The Last Waltz’ where they are equally at home playing with artists as diverse as Muddy Waters, Van Morrison, Neil Diamond, Dr John, The Staple Singers and of course Bob Dylan with whom they recorded and toured in the 1960s and 1970s co-writing some of his classic tunes (‘Tears Of Rage’, ‘This Wheel’s On Fire’) and providing the definitive versions of others (‘When I Paint My Masterpiece’).

Sometimes though the americana is more implicit in The Band’s songs and playing – ‘Unfaithful Servant’ being a typical example.

Number 2: Gram Parsons

Parsons is a controversial figure amongst players in the world of americana, being lionised by some while being denounced by others as an undisciplined trust fund baby.  From the start of his Southern gothic arc from Waycross to Joshua Tree, Parsons’ star burned brightly.  He was an evangelist for country music from his early days in the South and the North East.

The International Submarine Band record ‘Safe At Home’ released early 1968 is an old school style country record laced with a bit of rock and roll attitude recorded at a time when psychedelic rock music was the norm.  After a brief stint with the Byrds for their 90-degree turn to country music on ‘Sweetheart of the Rodeo’, he and Chris Hillman along with Chris Etheridge from the ISB formed the Flying Burrito Brothers where Parsons vison of cosmic American music fusing country (from West and East), folk, rhythm blues and rock and roll was made flesh on ‘Gilded Palace of Sin’ a record which, as well as being a towering work, has inspired listeners and other musicians through the decades. Following a second album which has divided opinion, Parsons who was experiencing increasing drink and drug issues quit/was fired.  Around this time, Parsons had befriended Keith Richards and had an impact on the Stones country style output in subsequent years.

Returning to the studio, Parsons recorded his first solo album ‘GP’ which introduced the world to Emmylou Harris.  Their performances on ‘GP’ are astonishing.  The quality of Parsons’ songs on the album is right up there.  Interestingly, ‘She’ a co-write with Etheridge was one of actress Deborah Kerr’s Desert Island Discs.  Sadly, this was to be the last album of his lifetime – its successor ‘Grievous Angel’ was released posthumously.  Also co-starring Harris and featuring some excellent Parsons originals it sounded as fresh this week as it sounded in 1974.

Parsons’ role in introducing traditional country music to a wider audience, in joining the dots between the different elements of Cosmic American Music and inspiring generations who have heard his work to play, write and perform has been immense.  His composing credits on Discogs numbered almost 600 this morning and encompass classics like ‘Sin City’, ‘Wheels’, ‘Return of the Grievous Angel’, ‘She’, ‘A Song For You’, ‘Brass Buttons’, ‘Hickory Wind’, ‘Drug Store Truck Driving Man’ and ‘Las Vegas’.

Number 1: Grateful Dead

Perhaps more than any other act, the Grateful Dead embody the essence of americana.  The band members’ backgrounds were in folk/ bluegrass, rhythm & blues, jazz and classical composition.  Starting out as a jug band they became a psychedelic rock band at the heart of the mid 1960’s San Francisco scene.  Their first album, though, largely comprises folk, blues and country tunes albeit interpreted through a psychedelic lens.  Even the more out there records produced between 1968 and 1969 feature interpretations of folk and blues songs.

1970’s ‘Workingman’s Dead’ with its old-style lettering and sepia-tinted artwork featuring band members standing in line to catch the bus to work, marked a change in direction being more acoustic-driven, drawing on traditional American musical styles and, via the lyrics of Robert Hunter, reaching back through American history – real and imagined – as well as confronting the black heart of the present.  ‘American Beauty’, released later the same year, broadened the range further with the addition of the pedal steel guitar to Jerry Garcia’s repertoire, the gospel tinge to ‘Brokedown Place’, David Grisman’s mandolin touches on ‘Ripple’ and ‘Friend of The Devil’ and songs that addressed grief, the outlaw life and in ‘Truckin’ that most American of intangible artefacts, the road.

In addition to the songs of their own, the Dead have always been great interpreters of others’ work across the full palette of the American songbook including Nashville country (Cash’s ‘Big River’), Bakersfield country (Haggard’s ‘Mama Tried’), cowboy ballads (‘El Paso’), rhythm and blues (‘Turn On Your Lovelight’), rock & roll (‘Promised Land’) and blues of every hue, not to mention a pretty full grasp on the works of Bob Dylan which have served as a musical signpost down many fruitful roads to this writer among many others.
On top of that, Garcia’s side project with Peter Rowan, Grisman, John Kahn and Vassar Clements, the bluegrass band Old and In The Way produced the best-selling bluegrass album of all time in 1975 until it was surpassed 25 years later by the ‘O Brother’ soundtrack.

The Dead have been frequent collaborators with other musicians in the studio as well as live.  ‘Laughing’ on David Crosby’s ‘If I Could Only Remember My Name’ is essentially the Dead with Crosby on lead vocal.

The Dead live experience and the tours with accompanying troupes of Deadheads became and remain part of the travelling show strand of americana to the point where there is a case to be put that the Grateful Dead not only portray americana but have become part of it.

About Richard Parkinson 154 Articles
London based self-diagnosed music junkie with tastes extending to all points of big tent americana and beyond. Fan of acts and songs rather than genres.
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mike

I don’t disagree with who’s on the list but for me, the band would be numero uno

Graeme

This is a superbly written and considered piece that, although most of the people who use the Americana-UK will know all of these artists, really puts their contributions and influences to the fore. Bravo.

David Harper

Calexico? The Dixie Chicks? I’ve no issues with the rest of your choices, but those two I just can’t digest comfortably. “Oh, yeah? Then who’d YOU choose?” Pointless argument follows, hmm?

John Avery

Finally GP makes it on someone’s list. He might have a trust fund baby etc etc but he was hugely influential. For me other than Sweetheart of the Rodeo and early Band this is where it all started. Parsons took me deep into mainstream country music of the 60s, 70s and 80s and back out again. Parsons got me to listen to Merle Haggard, George Jones, Tammy Wynette, Loretta Lynn and scores of others.

He introduced me to country music and I will be eternally grateful. I grabbed hold of it and have never let go.