Welcome back to our occasional series in which we ask the Americana UK staff writers and contributors to give us a handle on the what, whys and wherefores that got them into the genre and why they thought flares where a necessary fashion statement back in the day. This week we hear from master of brevity and king of eclectic lists Mike Elliott:
I grew up in a house filled with a variety of good music. My grandma lived with us and she was a devotee of classic country and gospel. I heard my share of everyone from Johnny Cash to Webb Pierce, Tammy Wynette to Charley Pride. Meanwhile, my uncle – ten years my senior – would be in his room blaring Led Zeppelin, Vanilla Fudge, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Foghat and sometimes Steely Dan. Dad was the soul man. James Brown was his favourite, but he was deep into the Stax soul out of Memphis such as Otis Redding and Sam & Dave, as well as anything Atlantic Records-based like Wilson Pickett, Aretha, Joe Tex, etc. My mom was enamoured with Elvis and Chuck Berry but also the swamp-rock of Creedence Clearwater Revival and Tony Joe White. On the occasion when I visited my paternal grandparents, they were always listening to Beethoven or Tchaikovsky.
Absorbing all this, I never really preferred one genre over another. Rock and roll, country, folk, blues, soul, gospel – it’s the sum of all those parts that make up Americana to me.
Around 13 years old, I discovered both Robert Johnson and Bob Dylan. Both led me on a musical journey I’m still on. Through Johnson, I discovered everyone from Son House and Charley Patton to Big Bill Broonzy and Johnny Shines. Through Dylan I found The Band, then Neil Young (and Crosby, Stills, and Nash), Van Morrison, Joni Mitchell, Gram Parsons, Emmylou Harris and on and on and on. These legends draw a straight line to today’s artists from Jason Isbell to Rhiannon Giddens.
I find it quite surreal to see most all the artists I grew up loving from different genres now appear to be joined together under one umbrella.
It’s hard to narrow down to a list of the ten songs that helped form my taste in Americana, but here goes (they’re not in any particular order) …
Elvis Presley: “Mystery Train”
The first rock and roll was also the forefather of Americana – merging country, blues, and gospel into my DNA. The standard by which all others would be measured.
The Band: “Long Black Veil”
This version of a country classic from “Music from Big Pink” was the first time I heard a convincing convergence of country and rock while not sacrificing the attitude or authenticity of either.
The Byrds: “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere”
The sound of the Byrds and Dylan inventing Americana.
Emmylou Harris: “Boulder To Birmingham”
The angel of Americana.
Terry Allen: “Amarillo Highway”
“I don’t wear no Stetson / but I’m willin’ to bet, son / that I’m as big a Texan / as you are.”
Guy Clark: “Let Him Roll”
Too many Guy Clark songs to really pick one, but since I must, this one’s it. The perfect encapsulation of his storytelling brilliance.
Steve Earle: “Guitar Town”
One of the best summations about life on the road, coupled with one of the best country guitar lines this side of Don Rich and Luther Perkins.
Little Feat: “Willin'”
From the Mothers of Invention to greasy funk-rock, Lowell George could do no wrong, and he penned one of the greatest truck-driving songs ever.
Waylon Jennings: “Honky Tonk Heroes”
Waylon introduced the world to the songs of Billy Joe Shaver and we’re all the better for it.
Willie Nelson: “Shotgun Willie”
How can one pick just one Willie song? This one represents his rebellious nature – and being the first country song ever released by the venerable Atlantic Records doesn’t hurt either.
Spot on. In my small mind, today’s Americana is akin to yesterday’s top 40. Radio was a delight; you’d hear Wilson Pickett followed by Johnny Cash then Boz Scaggs and The Beatles. That element of surprise and diversity was fascinating. Americana today is about the same quality writing and story telling and musicianship and the same influences that made that music great. It’s in its Golden Era, never been better.