In the introduction to his book ‘Americanaland- Where Country & Western Met Rock ’n’ Roll’ music writer of four decades John Milward wrote, “Americana is hard to define but easier to recognise” before quoting the greater precision of Merriam-Webster, “americana – a genre of American music having roots in early folk and country music”. The word that clinches it for me is roots, something that marks place and belonging but also movement as these roots keep stretching out further. If americana entered musical labelling in the 1990s the music itself had been around for a very long time before. To country and folk we can add the further genres of bluegrass, blues, rock and pop. But what follows is not an attempt to find the holy grail of americana. Think of it instead as ten great artists that I would offer anyone, whether music obsessive or newcomer, as ten examples of great americana, each embracing several of those other styles and all with distinct roots. Whether they are the “greatest” I leave to readers and list compilers. As for “ever” I’ll leave that to the time travellers.
Number 10: Rhiannon Giddens
An artist who first recorded in 2006 may seem to lack the discography to appear on a “greatest ever” list. Compared to others in this line-up Rhiannon Giddens is a relative newcomer. But the title of her debut album contains a prophetic message, ’Tomorrow Is My Turn’. Here she applies her amazing voice to folk, blues, jazz, country and gospel with a modern freshness yet with the deepest feeling for where the music comes from. Previously she was in Carolina Chocolate Drops with Dom Flemmons, Sule Greg Wilson and various other contributors. Together they made ‘Genuine Negro Jig’ to celebrate the string band music of the Piedmont region of the Carolinas and the influence of African-Americans on this style. So many influences emerge but rather than itemise each Giddens should summarise, “Tradition is a guide, not a jailer. We play in an older tradition but we are modern musicians”. Giddens is electrifying live, and representing the wealth of new americana music being made now she confirms there’s a lot to look forward to. She will be on these lists long after we’ve all gone.
Number 9: Buddy Miller
For sheer output both as a performer and producer in the era of americana it is hard to beat Buddy Miller. Whether as lead or supporting musician, producer or engineer those Miller has worked with reads like a directory of americana since the term was invented. A particular favourite of mine is ‘Band of Joy’ with Robert Plant, Patty Griffin and Darrell Scott. If Plant was discovering a new world of American roots music he couldn’t have got himself a better guide. Miller and his wife Julie have been a musical duo for many years but digging into his americana roots this is hard to beat.
Number 8: Rosanne Cash
When Rosanne was 18 her father Johnny gave her a list of 100 essential country songs. What a gift! Rosanne put her own interpretation on 12 of these songs for her 2009 album ‘The List’ that, with husband John Leventhal and guests such as Bruce Springsteen, Jeff Tweedy and Elvis Costello, give these classics a contemporary americana feel. In so doing Cash plays her part in a long musical heritage. AP Carter’s ‘Bury Me Under The Weeping Willow’ is a fine example of the storytelling tradition being handed down the generations. AP with his wife Sara and her sister Maybelle (mother of Johnny Cash’s second wife, June Carter) recorded and performed as The Carter Family. The purity of Cash’s voice ties a tight bond back to those origins of what was then called “hillbilly music”. Of course, Cash has a long and varied discography that explores several other avenues on the americana map. Here is something rather more muscular from her 2014 release ‘The River & The Thread‘.
Number 7: Nitty Gritty Dirt Band
If roots lies at the heart of this list then the three volumes of their magnificent, ‘Will The Circle Be Unbroken’ albums should ensure NGDB’s inclusion. In 1972 a bunch of west coast country rockers were keen to connect with their greatest country and bluegrass influences. Despite his initial reluctance Roy Acuff agreed and with him, “Mother” Maybelle Carter, Earl Scruggs, Doc Watson and Merle Travis joined the NGDB in making this immense record of country and bluegrass songs. Acuff and Scruggs returned for ‘Volume Two’ in 1989 joined by Levon Helm, Emmylou Harris, Johnny and Roseanne Cash, John Hiatt, John Prine, Roger McGuinn and Chris Hillman among others. Together they added an alt-country dimension to that country and bluegrass heritage. NGDB have a rich catalogue of their own but just for these two, the latter released on the eve of americana coming into music parlance deserve their place. If a bit grainy, here they all are in the studio.
Number 6: Jerry Garcia
Jerry or the Dead? Not the first to face this dilemma I’m also not alone in opting for Jerry Garcia on his own, if only because I can cram The Grateful Dead and Garcia into a single slot. More seriously I would suggest, most humbly, that his was the most americana influence on the band. That country, blues and bluegrass abounded in their massive discography is largely due to Garcia’s own insatiable curiosity about the roots of American music and ingredients of what was to become known as americana. He had various side-lines from the Sleepy Hollow Hog Stompers and the Black Mountain Boys in the early 1960s to the jug band Mother McCree’s Uptown Jug Champions with Bob Weir and Pigpen that one iteration further, The Warlocks, became the Grateful Dead. More bluegrass came in 1975 when as Old & In The Way, Garcia teamed up with Peter Rowan, David Grisman, Vassar Clements and John Kahn. Garcia also played pedal steel with country rock pioneers New Riders of the Purple Sage. Some fine picking here from Jerry at the Boarding House, San Francisco in 1973.
Number 5: Uncle Tupelo
This list leans heavily towards artists who come under americana before the name was another way of saying alt-country. To country and bluegrass add the power of indie and the aggression of punk and you have Uncle Tupelo, whose first album ‘No Depression’ encapsulates what that alt-country was all about. It remains one of the most complete examples of the genre right from the off with the blistering ‘Graveyard Shift’ . Uncle Tupelo spawned a genre of garage bands with a bit of country thrown in but will go down in history as the original americana group. Their version of (him again) AP Carter’s ‘No Depression’ extends those roots further yet.
Number 4: Emmylou Harris
Since dropping out of her drama scholarship at the University of North Carolina and drawn by the songs of Seeger, Dylan and Baez to play the coffee shops of Greenwich Village during the 1960s folk boom, Emmylou Harris was discovered by Gram Parsons at the dawn of country rock. She rose to country music fame in Nashville and blazed her own trail in americana. She has released 21 studio solo albums, 7 further albums with other artists, four live records not to mention various others. Dubbed “the Queen of Country” Harris has won fourteen out of 48 Grammy nominations as well as multiple awards from associations representing country, bluegrass and americana. Her span of americana is wide, from her heavily atmospheric ‘Wrecking Ball’ produced by Daniel Lanois to the rousing ‘At The Ryman’ with the Nash Ramblers. But for sheer vocal purity can this be topped?
Number 3: Lucinda Williams
Rock, blues and a tougher edge to country run throughout the catalogue of Lucinda Williams. Wide acclaim for ‘Car Wheels On A Gravel Road’ released in 1998 made the hard pounding of the previous decade since her debut worthwhile. Among the steady flow of top-quality releases thereafter ‘The Ghosts of Highway 20’ particularly stands out. Williams suffered a stroke three years ago that left her unable to play guitar but as anyone who has seen a show since will attest, with a voice that crunches just a bit more gravel Williams has lost none of the power and expression she puts into her depictions of all life’s traumas.
Number 2: The Band
The Band are frequently cited as the creators of americana. That is not purely down to those sepia tinged photos depicting them as frontiersmen from the century before last. Their debut album ‘Music From Big Pink’ in 1968 was the antithesis of contemporary rock music. This idiosyncratic ensemble of four Canadians and one American emerged from a basement in upstate New York with a gentler blend of country, rock, classical, folk, blues, R&B and soul with sparkling purity, lyrics of deep honesty that drew deep from the well of traditional American music. At their peak there was no leader, this was a genuine co-operative. If writing was concentrated into few hands, performing was a group activity. Each member played several instruments, vocals were shared as harmonies abounded. Vocally diverse, Robbie Robertson’s intricate guitar, Garth Hudson’s classical organ forays complementing Richard Manuel’s keys all powered by Levon Helm’s syncopated, slightly behind the beat, drumming style alongside Rick Danko’s dependable bass lines define americana. After their legendary ‘Last Waltz’ farewell show The Band officially disbanded in 1977 but each member pursued separate and, for some more than others, fruitful solo careers. The most deeply immersed in americana was Helm whose ‘Dirt Farmer’ and ‘Electric Dirt’ albums are americana classics.
Number 1: Steve Earle
Of all the artists on this list Steve Earle most consistently draws on all the components of americana. A country boy on debut ‘Guitar Town’ and ‘Exit 0’ to full-on rocker on ‘Copperhead Road’ and ‘The Revolution Starts Now’ , bluegrass with Del McCroury on ‘The Mountain’ and touching tributes to the two great songwriters who set him on his own creative path, ‘Townes’ and ‘Guy’, not to mention the grief of doing likewise for his own son, ‘J.T.’. Always on the side of the downtrodden and exploited ‘Ghosts of West Virginia’ Earle embodies the spirit of Guthrie and Seeger. After achieving success the “Hardcore Troubadour” increasingly battled his own demons that nearly defeated him. Earle’s recovery from addiction and a spell inside led to a more thoughtful approach but his fury at the many injustices he saw in the world never lie far from the surface. Solo or with his impressive band The Dukes, Earle’s shows over the years have been a constant reminder of why, were I ever to be asked who is the greatest americana artist ever, I’d say Steve Earle. May that ‘Hillbilly Highway’ go on and on.