So, it’s my turn to agonise over the selection of the greatest ever artists in our little musical world of americana. Of course, the first thing to consider is how on earth we define the genre of americana. The fact alone that this generates so much debate tells me that perhaps we’re trying too hard and worrying too much. For the purposes of lists like this, we can embrace the idea that it’s an umbrella term for American roots and roots-inspired music, particularly where those musical forms overlap and combine to make something new, rather than the original genres in their purest forms. It’s the stripping away of genre restrictions while acknowledging the inspiration from those very musical forms. That said, I also agree with the notion that americana is something more than that, more than musical genre, that it has some greater meaning: nurturing artistry over commerce, community over competition. There’s also something key about attitude – the ‘alt’ in alt-country – and lyrical intent. Something about being on the fringes and being at odds with the mainstream. If that all sounds more than a bit nebulous, that’s because it is, which is why for the purposes of this list, I’m going with the umbrella-term thing.
Perhaps we also need to reflect on what we actually mean by ‘greatest’. I take this to mean artists who are the whole package: technically gifted, masterful songwriters and poetic lyricists, whose music has had a deep emotional impact on me or truly influenced other musicians. They have (or had) something profound to say about what it means to be human and may even have changed the direction of the genre through their contribution. These are people whose legacy, I believe, will have a lasting impact, connecting with listeners for many years to come and inspiring musicians of the future. It’s asking a lot. But there are actually so many who match that profile. To start with, I just scribbled out a long list on instinct, filled with personal favourites. Many of those, ultimately, had to give way to acts who had arguably a greater impact or influence. There are some huge artists that I’ve left off this list and I’ve managed to convince myself that these omissions are justified. Bruce Springsteen, probably my most listened to artist of all, doesn’t appear because he’s known to the public primarily for stadium-filling rock although he has a parallel career with a list of outrageously good albums that I might call americana (‘Nebraska’, ‘The Ghost of Tom Joad’, ‘Devils & Dust’, ‘The Seeger Sessions’ and ‘Western Stars’). I found similar reasons to omit a number of my very favourite artists, such as Johnny Cash (number 1 in my first draft), Kris Kristofferson and Neil Young. Where’s Bob Dylan? Steve Earle was brilliant at Black Deer this year. I almost argued for Steppenwolf. The truth is that most of my justifications were spurious and it was just a way of removing some of what, to me, were obvious selections. There were over thirty on the list and something, other than my sanity, had to give. Gram Parsons, Alison Krauss, Josh Ritter and Ryan Adams were on the list until five minutes ago. I feel really bad about Gram…
Number 10: Rhiannon Giddens
The nature of this feature is that the artists have to appear in some kind of hierarchy and Rhiannon Giddens happens to be at number 10. However, she was actually the very first name I scribbled on the long list. A supremely talented multi-instrumentalist and gifted writer, Giddens is one of those rare artists who transcends her art because she writes about things that truly matter. As a member of the Carolina Chocolate Drops, Giddens displayed her wonderful prowess on the fiddle and banjo and won over many fans. But it’s as a solo artist that her immense talent has become increasingly evident. ‘Tomorrow is My Turn’, her GRAMMY-nominated first solo studio album, is tremendous collection of well-chosen songs, including personal favourites ‘O Love is Teasin” and ‘Don’t Let it Trouble Your Mind’. For all her other talents, Giddens’ pure voice is her most powerful attribute. It is just so distinctively hers. Her range is phenomenal and she stirs up emotions with her contrasting delicate balladry and more forceful moments. I’ve written previously about the quality of her second solo release, ‘Freedom Highway’, which won the International Folk Music Awards Album of the Year. In terms of musicianship and songcraft, as well as cultural significance, we’ll look back on this as one of the best ever albums. In her words, we find defiance and spirit, hurt and hope, history and struggle: “You can take my body, you can take my bones // You can take my blood, but not my soul.” That’s what I want in my music.
Number 9: Uncle Tupelo
Uncle Tupelo are here for two main reasons. Firstly, they created something altogether new out of a mesmerising blend of musical styles. So much more than country, or even ‘alt-country’, they found a way of effectively combining folk, country, alt-rock and punk sounds and sensibilities into a distinctive sonic concoction. Distorted guitar over powerful drums turned country influences into forceful, compelling pieces, like ‘Outdone’ and ‘The Long Cut’. Sometimes, other more delicate or moody songs, like ‘Slate’, offered contrast and balance. Others, say ‘Whiskey Bottle’, managed to be both at once. ‘Anodyne’ is a short epic of a song that twists and turns hypnotically. ‘No Depression’ is, to use an overused word, timeless and is also often used like a code word for the alt-rock/alt-country combo that we love. Listen back and it all still sounds so fresh. Secondly, it’s about the band’s impact. Uncle Tupelo’s reach is hard to over-state. Like others on this list, Uncle Tupelo inspired new artists and can be heard in the DNA of so many bands. Even the break-up of the band helped to create two of the most inspirational forces in americana. Jay Farrar’s Son Volt put out ‘Trace’, one of the great albums, while Jeff Tweedy’s Wilco has proved to be one of the most adventurous bands of the last thirty years. Putting Uncle Tupelo in my list allows me to mention both of those superb bands for free. However, it’s Uncle Tupelo on the list because this band was like the origin story for those americana superheroes.
Number 8: Courtney Marie Andrews
Like Rhiannon Giddens, Courtney Marie Andrews is one of those artists that I think we’ll be listening to many years from now. Her wistful reminisces and tales of life, love and loss have a sense of authenticity and honesty. Her songs are windows into another’s lived experiences with real emotional resonance, capturing what it means to be human, the essence of loving and being loved in spite of everything. Sonically and lyrically, it’s timeless stuff. Andrews’ breakthrough album, ‘Honest Life’, is filled with memorable tunes that feel immediately familiar, the picks being the gentle and poetic ‘Rookie Dreaming’, the heartbreaking ‘How Quickly Your Heart Mends’ and the wonderfully encouraging ‘Irene’: “Where your dreams are bounded // Just can’t tell…If you speak, let your voice ring out.” It was actually her sixth album and the precision of her lyrics came from honing her craft in creating those earlier releases, not all of which are easily available now. Stunningly good as it was, the follow-up was even better. ‘May Your Kindness Remain’ was full of inspired songwriting. Deeply reflective words, matched by Andrews’ emotive delivery, tell stories of the disenchanted and dispossessed. The songs are populated by everyday people, down on their luck and struggling to attain seemingly impossible goals. Again, she can break hearts with a few simple words, like these from the opening two tracks: “Wearing loneliness like a costume for the whole world to see” and “I am a lonely woman who loves you.” But what could be so bleak is so frequently the opposite because Andrews finds strength and hope and resilience in these situations. ‘Kindness of Strangers’ becomes an uplifting hymn to helping others during hard times. In ‘Rough Around the Edges’ Andrew sings, “I see the flaws in all the in-betweens,” in an anthem for self-acceptance and learning to love yourself while ‘I’ve Hurt Worse’ is about accepting the imperfections of a lover. These songs ache with reality and hold up a mirror in which we listeners see ourselves. Two further albums have reinforced the perception of Andrews as a truly rare talent, who constructs such thought-provoking songs and happens to sound incredible. Her latest, ‘Loose Future’, shimmers brightly and finds her sound evolving. Come back in a few years and she might be at the top of this list.
Number 7: Jason Isbell
Jason Isbell’s star has risen high and shines brightly down from above. Simply, he is a masterful songwriter, who consistently puts out material that deserves to be on any list like this. Drive-By Truckers could very easily have been on this list – magnificent live and creators of such purposeful, powerful songs. However, former DBT member Isbell is here because of his knack for finding impossibly memorable melodies alongside his perceptive, lyrical brilliance. ’24 Frames’ from 2015’s ‘Something More than Free’ is a song to play again and again and was an indication of how good Isbell was going to be. Then you have ‘Southeastern’. It’s one of the all-time albums, deeply personal throughout, gorgeously arranged and, above all, deeply moving. That’s what music’s for, isn’t it? The emotional currents of these songs stir up some sort of sedimentary dust deep inside us. ‘Elephant’, a song about cancer, opens with the terrific narrative line: “She said Andy, you’re better than your past,” throwing us directly into an intriguing relationship. Later, he sings: “No one dies with dignity,” and those words are hard to hear but oh so true. Every song is concise, complete, tight. So, how does one follow that up? With ‘The Nashville Sound’, that’s how. Backed by the outstanding 400 Unit, Isbell’s writing for this album is varied, with some really forceful songs that pulse with power alongside more delicate balladry. Yet it still feels remarkably coherent. He tackles difficult, important subjects with confidence, from race issues to mental health, and there’s a sophistication to his lyrics and ideas. This is particularly evident on the immediate classic ‘If We Were Vampires’, which is based on the most beautiful of guitar-lines and features some of the most heart-wrenching lyrics I’ve ever heard or read: “It’s knowing that this can’t go on forever // Likely one of us will have to spend some days alone // Maybe we’ll get forty years together // But one day I’ll be gone and one day you’ll be gone.” For anyone in a long-term relationship, we don’t tend to think this far ahead so when this idea is placed in front of you – that one of you will die first – it is completely disarming in it’s hard truth. Once again, it’s deeply moving. And, once again, that’s what music’s for, isn’t it? Subsequent albums have continued to deliver, thoughtful, reflective songs of such consistent quality that the danger is of taking for granted the level he reaches routinely.
Number 6: Rosanne Cash
For more than forty years, Rosanne Cash has delivered songs that are real and human and beautiful, enjoying both critical and commercial success along the way. There have been GRAMMY Awards and U.S. Country Chart hits. Stylistically, Cash has drawn upon various genres but running through all her songs is her distinctive, powerfully ranging, melodic vocal, full of experience and life. Cash is an expert in giving of herself and writing personal material in such a way that everyone is included and hears themselves in her songs. The complexities of relationships and the resignation and tragedy of life is intimately portrayed but universal. In Cash’s songs, we can also find hope, rebirth and renewal. All that it means to be human can be found here: themes of love and joy, compromise and disappointment, loss and weary heartache. Always, her messages are delivered with the sort of literate, poetic lyricism that gives her songs weight and depth, revealing more with each listen. That she continues to produce such absorbing and consistently high-quality new work is remarkable and all her 21st century output demonstrates that she remains an artist capable of generating powerful emotional responses. ‘Seven Year Ache’ in 1981 was Rosanne Cash’s real breakthrough album when she announced herself to the world as a great songwriter, particularly with the memorable melody of the Cash-penned title track. However, her style has developed and changed over the years, becoming more sparse and roots-inspired. The opening three tracks on 1990’s ‘Interiors’ are as good as it gets, detailing a tumultuous period in her life as love unravelled. It’s deeply personal, utterly honest songwriting. Cash’s 2014 GRAMMY-winning album, ‘The River & the Thread’, is compelling, spellbinding and remarkably consistent, one of the best americana albums of all time, poetry in musical form. She continues to produce gorgeously melodic, intimate records and her latest, ‘She Remembers Everything’ is full of sophisticated songcraft. Cash’s songs can teach us about life and on ‘Everyone But Me’, she sings “We run a similar course // On a track laid with broken glass // So tie your shoes real tight // It goes by real fast.” Indeed, it does.
Number 5: Levon Helm
The drummer and vocalist from The Band, Levon Helm was an obvious choice for this list. As well as his work with The Band, his solo material is remarkably-written and full of warmth and compassion. Helm’s great comeback album ‘Dirt Farmer’ earned him a GRAMMY in 2007 and recreated the feel of his ‘midnight ramble’ concerts with musical guests at his home in Woodstock. The follow-up, ‘Electric Dirt’, won the first ever GRAMMY in the newly-created americana category and that fact alone puts him right up there with all the other americana legends. ‘Electric Dirt’ captures a mood so completely – it’s joyous, a celebration of music and camaraderie. This is exemplified in the song ‘When I Go Away’, which is such a fitting song for Helm’s final studio album. Sonically and lyrically delightful and upbeat, this song must be on any americana fan’s funeral song list. His music is full of heart and soul and authentic American life. Helm’s voice may be weathered but it isn’t weary – it’s exuberant, strong and vital. Levon Helm’s contribution to music is immense.
Number 4: Townes Van Zandt
My personal ‘discovery’ of Townes Van Zandt came with the purchase of a three-CD set that seemed to offer a lot of music for the money in terms of quantity. Unknown to me at the time, it was gamble and I had no idea of the quality of his songs. But I was immediately transfixed. Townes Van Zandt possessed such a clean, clear voice that soared above his stunning finger-picked guitar. Those stories, told through the sheer poetry of his lyrics, remain so engaging and gently powerful. ‘Pancho and Lefty’ on its own was an absolute triumph. But the consistency of his songwriting was irresistible. Personal favourites include ‘Flyin’ Shoes’, ‘Be Here to Love Me’, ‘Kathleen’, ‘To Live is to Fly’ and ‘Tecumseh Valley’ and these demonstrate why Van Zandt is so revered as a songwriter. He had to be on this list, given the number of americana artists who have covered his songs and cite him as an influence on their own work. There are too many to name here. Suffice to say that the great Steve Earle considers Van Zandt to be a mentor and a source of true inspiration. Van Zandt is the blueprint for the modern singer-songwriter: distinctive vocal, poetic lyrics and captivating instrumentation – that fluttering guitar. If you want to explore American folk, start here.
Number 3: The Delines
Much has been written about The Delines, AUK favourites and multiple-winners in our annual readers’ polls. The arrangements and the depth of instrumentation in their songs are stunning, so full of atmosphere and understated drama, layered with musical textures. Amy Boone’s voice aches with emotion and the depths of her heart and soul, cracking and weary as she explores gorgeous melodies. Unsurprisingly, as he’s a fine novelist, Willy Vlautin, constructs songs of cinematic beauty, reinforced by the sheer quality of his lyrics. Vlautin is such a talented writer that he can condense an entire story, a character’s whole life, into a few compelling lines in a song – check out ‘Surfers in Twilight’ as prime example of this. His use of language, with the careful selection of fine story-telling details, is so precise. His tales of struggling characters in challenging circumstances are utterly absorbing and we can easily connect to their imagined lives. Other highlights are ‘The Oil Rigs at Night’ from 2014’s ‘Colfax’ and ‘The Imperial’. The Delines: captivating tunes and tales and timeless class.
Number 2: Lucinda Williams
It’s not just about ‘Car Wheels on a Gravel Road’. When you think of americana, you think of Lucinda Williams. Across her albums, the characters and stories that have unfolded have been compelling. Equally stunning has been her remarkably consistent songcraft and musicianship throughout the decades. The controlled grit of Williams’ voice captivates and is perfectly suited to the personal narratives that she’s famous for. I had the privilege of reviewing ‘Good Souls Better Angels’ for AUK and what’s most impressive is the energy, commitment and freshness that she is still bringing to her work. While writing for this list, I found myself rediscovering the languid 2007 album ‘West’. Its melodies and rhythms are dreamily hypnotic and her vocal performance is so uniquely Lucinda. ‘Are You Alright?’ and ‘Unsuffer Me’ are examples of her finest work and words: “My joy is dead // I long for bliss.” Was melancholy ever so beautiful? It’s not just about ‘Car Wheels on a Gravel Road’.
Number 1: John Prine
John Prine was one of the recipients of the GRAMMY Lifetime Achievement Award in 2020 and that is, perhaps, a fitting way to celebrate his enormous talent and influence after decades of crafting songs that consistently got to the heart of the human condition. From protest songs to social commentary, Prine wrote about important themes through personal tales and engrossing fictional narratives that were often infused with relatable humour and wry observations. One of the best lyricists I’ve known, Prine also, simply, created fine songs, timeless tunes delivered in his wonderfully characterful voice. Often sounding like he was in the room with you, almost speaking rather than singing, telling stories and sharing intimate details of life and love, Prine just made you care that little bit more. Since his death in 2020, much has been said about Prine’s lyricism, wit and storytelling ability. His talent for creating beautiful songs was a rare gift but, most importantly, those songs have an emotional resonance that has influenced so many artists. The likes of Brandi Carlile, Sturgill Simpson and Jason Isbell, amongst respected contemporary artists, have cited Prine as an inspiration and, when I think of americana, I think of his brand of heartfelt, heartwarming country-folk. One of my favourite albums of all time is ‘Souvenirs’ from 2000, which contains re-recordings of earlier, well-known songs and is a fine place to start for anyone still unfamiliar with Prine’s work. I think his voice improved with time, age, experience and at this stage it was so warm and welcoming. He joked himself that his voice improved after surgery in the 1990s. Songs like ‘Souvenirs’, ‘Angel From Montgomery’, ‘Sam Stone’ and ‘Hello in There’ are masterful and deeply moving. Explore further and enjoy songs like the half-spoken ‘Lake Marie’ on ‘Lost Dogs + Mixed Blessings’ and the flowing poetry of ‘Fish and Whistle’ from 1978’s ‘Bruised Orange’. Absorb the entirety of his self-titled debut and ‘The Missing Years’, which won him a GRAMMY. His final album, ‘The Tree of Forgiveness’, is the most stunning farewell. In ‘Long Monday’ from ‘Fair & Square’, Prine sings: “You and me sittin’ in the back of my memory…We made love in every way love can be made // And we made time look like time could never fade…Gonna be a long Monday // Sittin’ all alone on a mountain by a river that has no end.” It sums up a life spent living and loving in words that are simple and yet profound and, in such words, he captures us all. It’s great, affecting americana. The greatest.