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A Taste of Americana – 10 songs to start with

October 13, 2012

Kyla Fairchild, the publisher of the splendid No Depression website on Americana and roots music, recently asked readers in a blog post to list some of the top Americana albums so that she could pass them on to a radio station that was compiling a greatest 600 albums of all time thing. I offered up a few ideas and then, as I was heading out to a friend’s for the evening, slapped together a sample based on my own music collection. Below you will find my rather rushed selection.

Americana, by the way, is not the easiest thing to define in part because it encompasses so many different things. To give you some idea, here is Wikipedia’s definition:

Americana is an amalgam of roots musics formed by the confluence of the shared and varied traditions that make up the American musical ethos; specifically those sounds that are merged from folk, country, blues, rhythm and blues, rock and roll and other external influential styles such as bluegrass.

So basically you can include at various times Woody Guthrie, the Alabama Shakes, Waylon Jennings, Taj Mahal, CSN&Y, Stevie Ray Vaughn, Ry Cooder, Ledbelly,  the Grateful Dead  , Bob Dylan, Paul Simon, Vassar Clements, Bruce Springsteen, Lana Del Rey etc etc. All of which makes it an irritating genre to pinpoint, but a wonderful one to explore and listen to. Here’s the taster of some of my favourites, with links to the music where possible:

Willin’ by Little Feat – One of my all time favourite bands and certainly songs (I do a passable version myself). The song tells the story of a truck driver who is pretty much willing to do anything as long as he gets his “weed, whites (speed) and wine”. The late Lowell George penned the song when he was part of Frank Zappa’s Mothers of Invention. It is said that Zappa listened to it and told the young George to go off and make his own band. Linda Ronstadt, of whom more later, does a fine version. But the original is the best.

The Very Thing That Makes You Rich (Makes Me Poor) by Ry Cooder – I could not play this one if my life depended on it. The guitar work in the original is simply stunning – slide and funky plucking hand in hand. The lyrics are also wonderful, all about how men will bankrupt themselves for the love of a good woman (at least, that is the family-friendly interpretation). Cooder, himself,  is one of those musicians who is hugely famous in a specific circle but who is not a household name. He likes to play roots music of all kind and world music, including on the Hawaiian music soundtrack to “The Descendants”. He has also hammered angry response to America’s current political situation with the album “Election Special”.

Land Of The Navajo by Old & In The Way – This may have a lot of people scratching their heads. Old & In The Way was a group of established musicians who played together in the early 1970s. They included the Grateful Dead’s Jerry Garcia and the fiddling maestro that is Vassar Clements. They combined folk, bluegrass, country and rock in a way that could only be Americana. I like Land of the Navajo in particular because it descends into a haunting pastiche of Native American chanting at the end. But the album is superb – if you can find it.

Floating Bridge by Gregg Allman- A bit of blues in this one. Allman produced his “Low Country Blues” album last year and opened it with this song by Sleepy John Estes. It tells of Estes’s own near-death experience when he came close to drowning. Allman has had his own brushes with death and brings a passion to it. (It was one of the best albums of 2011, by the way).

You’re No Good by Linda Ronstadt – Pure country rock, circa mid-1970s. Ronstadt was once the queen of rock, could pack stadiums and stood as one of the greatest female singers of a generation. She remains highly successful if not quite in the public eye, having moved on to world music, jazz, Broadway and opera over the years. Back in the day, though she took country music and made it cool. I saw her once – at a fund raiser for U.S. presidential candidate Jerry Brown, along with The Eagles and Jackson Browne.

I’m On Fire by Johnny Cash -Bit of a double whammy here. Even though my intention is to come up with a sample, not a definitive list, no list of Americana songs would be complete without Johnny Cash. He had all the country folks loving him, but a lot of the rock gang too and is the epitome of Americana as a result. In this case he is singing a Bruce Springsteen song. I am not a particular fan of Springsteen but I like this song and if certainly fits the bill, no matter who sings it, of American roots.

One More  Cup Of Coffee by Bob Dylan – Dylan also has to be on any list of Americana. The No Depression contribution to the radio station had  “Blood On The Tracks” as his best America album. It may be. But my favourite has always be “Desire” from which this song is taken. The song is all things – love song, cowboy dirge, bittersweet desperation, outlaw, coffee.  Can’t get much more Americana than that.

Me And Bobby McGhee by Janis Joplin – Probably the most famous song on this list, it was written by  Kris Kristofferson and Fred Foster about a woman but then turned into a guy – and an iconic song – by Joplin. It has everything – southern towns, trains, singing, trucks, coal mines, financial straights, lost love. “Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose ” is one of the greatest lines in modern music.

Roll In My Sweet Baby’s Arms by Leon Russell – Part country, part rockabilly, part bluegrass, all Americana.  The song was written by Lester Flatt, and sung by him , Earl Scruggs, and the Foggy Mountain Boys as well as covered by Buck Owens. The version I list here is by Leon Russell from “Hank Wilson’s Back” – a much underrated, or at least unheralded, album.

The Weight by The Band – Got to have The Band in this list, if only because of is drummer, the late Levon Helm, a kind of Americana god. Wikipedia says he grew up in Turkey Scratch, Arkansas. Enough said. The song is great. In fact, why don’t you watch it. Enjoy.

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