30 Great Americana Music Albums
Choosing 30 Great Americana Albums is almost as hard as trying to define Americana Music.
First of course you have to identify an Americana artist. And this too is complicated because some performers - legends Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen for example – may produce a ton of albums that simply don’t fit the Americana Music criteria. All in all, it can be a very arbitrary exercise open to interpretations and subjective assessment.
Once again, this selection is not based on polling or sales, but rather the judgement of the Crossroads editorial team. Each artist is limited to two albums.
Other Voices/Other Rooms
There is no greater tribute to the artists of Americana Music than Nancy Griffith’s Other Voices/Other Rooms, released in 1993. Nancy asked legendary producer Jim Rooney to bring together in an album the voices, words and melodies “which had entered her soul” as a young girl growing up in Texas. No surprise then that the work of legends – Bob Dylan, Woodie Guthrie, John Prine, Townes Van Zandt, Tom Paxton, Gordon Lightfoot (among others) – are interpreted by Griffith at her soft and soothing melodic best! It helps when an artist of the calibre of Griffith convinces the likes of Dylan, Prine, Emmylou Harris, Chet Atkins, Arlo Guthrie, Iris Dement (among others) to actually contribute their musical expertise to the project. The result is an ever-lasting Hall of Fame on record! It would be unfair to choose a favourite song from this Grammy-winning album but among the numbers covered are Dylan’s "Boots of Spanish Leather", Lightfoot’s "Ten Degrees and Getting Colder"' Van Zandt’s "Tecumseh Valley" and Kate Wolf’s "Across the Great Divide". Griffith and Rooney produced a second volume – Other Voices, Too (A Trip Back to Bountiful) – in 1998
Note: Other Voices, Other Rooms was the title of Truman Capote’s first novel, published in 1948.The album cover features Nancy holding the novel.
There was no better beginning for John Prine than John Prine. Prine biographer Eddie Huffman said it best: "John Prine introduced its namesake to the world like few debut albums before or since.” The album contains at least four songs – "Paradise", "Angel from Montgomery", "Hello in There", "Sam Stone" - that could find a place in any list of the best Americana songs ever written. And some of the biggest names of the genre have recorded them. Yes these were songs with a serious message. Yet Prine introduced us to his uncanny ability to integrate whimsical imagery into even his most tragic characters. The frustrated housewife from Montgomery, for instance, has an old man who is another child that’s grown old, while Sam Stone’s children run around wearing other people’s clothes. Of course Sam Stone is famous for the memorable line: There’s a hole in Daddy’s arm where all the money goes/Jesus Christ died for nothing I suppose. Such lyrics drew the inevitable comparison to Bob Dylan, something that proved both a help and a hindrance for Prine during his long and distinguished career.
This self-titled album was The Band’s second, coming just a year after their acclaimed debut Music from Big Pink. And it reinforced the belief that there was more to this talented bunch of musicians than backing and regurgitating the works of one Bob Dylan. There are no Dylan songs on The Band. All but two are attributed to Robbie Robertson. And that is another story in itself. But putting copyright controversies aside, it is generally considered that it was The Band (with Dylan) who pioneered Americana music. Of all the accolades this album received, perhaps the finest came in 2009 when it was preserved into the National Recording Registry because it was “culturally, historically, or aesthetically important, and/or informs or reflects life in the United States.” The two most popular songs on the album – "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down" and "Up on Cripple Creek" – certainly do that. Of course, it was just a coincidence that the lead vocalist on both was drummer Levon Helm – the only American in The Band!
Car Wheels On A Gravel Road
This album became infamous for the longevity of its production, with the perfectionist in Lucinda reportedly leaving casualties on the floor of studios from Texas to Tennessee! Who cares what it took. It so happens this turned out to be probably the best example of modern roots-style music. From the raunchy opening "Right in Time" – I take off my watch and my earrings/My bracelets and everything – this album is near perfection. The title track is a dead-set classic. In it, Lucinda evokes memories of her southern childhood with imagery – There goes the screen door slamming shut/You better do what you’re told - few songwriters have ever been able to replicate. And there are two tracks which serve as beautiful eulogies to lost friends. "Drunken Angel" champions the hard-living Blaze Foley and his music - Why did you let go of your guitar/Why did you let it go that far/Drunken Angel. And the insightful "Lake Charles" honors an old boyfriend with whom she never got to properly say goodbye - Now your soul is in Lake Charles/No matter what they say. Steve Earle, Rick Rubin, Buddy Miller and Emmylou Harris are among the big names who had a hand in this stunning musical travelogue below the Mason-Dixon line! Car Wheels won a Grammy for Best Contemporary Folk Album. Folk?? Hey, it’s all Americana nowadays!
In his 2016 biography Bruce devotes just two pages to Nebraska. He wrote: “I wanted black bedtime stories. I tapped into white gospel, early Appalachian music and the blues.” Is this yet another definition of Americana music? However you define it, Nebraska must rank among Springsteen’s greatest achievements. He recorded it single-handedly in his bedroom on a four-track Japanese Tscam 144 cassette recorder. He then took the songs into the studio and remixed with the E Street Band. But the electric version was never released, Bruce deciding what was on the original cassette was the sound he wanted. Fans continue to speculate what might have been with the unreleased recordings. The closest they get is the various live recordings Bruce has done with various Nebraska songs in concert - a good example being the 2007 Live in Dublin version of "Highway Patrolman", recorded with a dozen-or-more musicians from the wonderful Sessions Band. The tone of the album is set by the opening title track, - based on the true story of a young serial killer and his girlfriend – which begins with the dark haunting lyrics: I saw her standin’ on her front lawn/ Just a twirlin’ her baton/Me and her went for a ride sir/And ten innocent people died. When asked by The Late show’s Stephen Colbert to name his five favourite Springsteen songs, Bruce quipped: “Nebraska was a good one.” It sure was.
Blood on the Tracks
Choosing the best Dylan album is like being asked to name your favourite child. But here goes. Blood on the Tracks marked Dylan’s return to both Columbia records and legendary producer John Hammond. Outside the music, these were difficult times for Dylan. His marriage to Sara was near an end and to many critics, Blood on the Tracks was a reflection of this turmoil. Dylan, as might be expected, denied such assertions. He preferred to say the album was merely based on the short stories of Russian writer Anton Chekhov. Whatever! Dylan said "Idiot Wind" - now regarded as a masterpiece - was a song he “wanted to make as painting.” It might be interesting to see what image might come from this line: One day you’ll be in the ditch/Flies buzzin around your eyes. Another track to attain classic status is "Shelter from the Storm", written with only three chords. It was to become a regular on his playlist! The mid-to-late seventies was as productive musically for Dylan as the mid-sixties had been, with the wonderful albums Desire and Street Legal in the mix. But for some reason, Blood on the Tracks, which topped the U.S. charts, is the one fans still like to talk about – and debate!
Dylan know-alls got all excited when Bob’s thirty-fifth studio album was released. Tempest would be his last they cried, the parallel being that Shakespeare’s last play was titled The Tempest. They were, of course, wrong. But to be fair, his subsequent releases to date have included few new Dylan compositions. This is all the great man’s work, apart from a co-write with Robert Hunter on the opening track "Duquesne Whistle". The critics loved the album, one suggesting it was his best work this century. Rolling Stone gave it five stars and placed it top of its all-time folk-rock list. There are two sublime songs, both seeped in all hearts. The title track - all 14 minutes and 45 verses of it - is an intriguing take on the sinking of the Titanic, while "Roll on John" is a very moving tribute to his old friend John Lennon: Playing to the big crowds, playing to the cheap seats/Another day in the life on your way to your journey's end. Dylan still at his lyrical best!
The title track, one of the greatest cross-genre songs ever written, would be enough to put this, Earle’s third album, in any best-of list. But there are two other outstanding tracks – "The Devil’s Right Hand" and "When Johnny Comes Marching Home". The latter was recorded with The Pogues and compares the reception American veterans received coming back from Vietnam to those servicemen who returned from World War II. Of course, the dynamic title track is all about a Vietnam vet and his family of bootleggers. It contains the wonderful line: I joined the army on my birthday/They draft the white trash first 'round here anyway. At the time critics raved at the sheer potency of the first half of the album, but some were dismissive of the conventional love songs on the other side (this was the era of LP’s). But there is no doubt Copperhead Road has stood the test of time as an album which is so hard to define and a forerunner of what was to come, not just from Earle but other Americana artists.
Note: In 2008 a 2-disc deluxe edition of Copperhead Road was released. Disc one was the digitally remastered original and the other featured unreleased live recordings
The Late Great Townes Van Zandt
Townes Van Zandt
The two albums Townes Van Zandt released in 1972 – High Low and In Between and The Late Great Townes Van Zandt – are generally regarded as his greatest, if only because both produced several compositions that were to be recorded by big-name artists for years to come. And The Late Great … was to include two of the finest songs ever written in Americana music – the sensational ballad "Pancho and Lefty" and the beautiful love lament "If I needed You". There is no doubt that Townes, like most great songwriters, was delighted when others made hits out of his work. And he was only too happy to accept an invitation to play a small part – as one of the Mexican federales – in the Willie and Merle promotional video for "Pancho and Lefty". Not all the songs on the album are original compositions. He does a very distinctive cover of the Hank Williams classic "Honky Tonkin" and includes the old standard "Fraulein" because, it is said, it was his father’s favourite country tune. But there is no doubt it is his own works that hold sway. You can never tire of listening to the poetical "Sad Cinderalla" – When your magazine memory has spun you around/ And you realise your lovers were just painted clowns. No wonder Amazon.com declared the album “a release that should be in every collection of great American music.”
The Gilded Palace of Sin
The Flying Burrito Brothers
Regarded by many students of Americana as the very beginning of the fusion of genres, this was the debut album by a motley group of musicians searching for a purpose. Gram Parsons and Chris Hillman were refugees from The Byrds and they teamed up with musical acquaintances “Sneaky” Pete Kleinow and Chris Ethridge to form The Flying Burrito Brothers. (Drumming on the original album was performed by various session men) Much has been made of the somewhat chaotic recording sessions in L.A. but whatever, The Gilded Palace of Sin made noises in all the right places. When Rolling Stone asked Bob Dylan to name his favourite country-rock album, he replied: “The Flying Burrito Brothers.” Parsons and Hillman wrote the two songs – "Sin City" and "Wheels" – which were to become Americana classics. Hillman recalls waking up in the San Fernando Valley with the immortal line This old town’s filled with sin/ It’ll swallow you in. “I said Gram, get up I got something here. And he got up and we wrote that song ("Sin City") in about thirty minutes. It actually wrote itself.” The only two songs that Parsons did not have a hand in writing were "Do Right Woman" and "Dark End of the Street", two Rhythm and Blues standards he wanted included because they represented “cosmic American music.”
Emmylou Harris married her producer Brian Ahern just as Luxury Liner was being released. It was their third album together and, you might say, a perfect wedding gift, given that it reached #1 in the country album charts. Of the many impressive albums she and Ahern produced for Warner Bros, Luxury Liner packed the most punch. Harris is as gutsy and billowing as she gets on songs like the Gram Parsons title track and Chuck Berry‘s "C’est La Vie" (You Never Can Tell) , yet soft and moody as she needs to be on "Making Believe" and "When I Stop Dreaming". But the track that got everyone talking was her treatment of Townes Van Zandt’s masterpiece "Pancho & Lefty". She was the first artist to cover this gem and did so six years before Merle Haggard and Willy Nelson really put it on the map. The fact that some of the “hottest” musicians – Albert Lee, Glen D. Hardin, Micky Raphael, Ricky Skaggs, Rodney Crowell et al – were backing Emmy only reinforces the album’s majesty. Crowell and Harris, combined to write the wonderful "Tulsa Queen" which provides a fitting close to a perfect production.
The only thing to do when you leave a great band, is to form an event greater one! Jay Farrar did just this when he formed Son Volt after the break-up of Uncle Tupelo. Within a year, the new band released their debut album Trace - all songs, bar one, written by Farrar. Praise from the critics was unanimous. “Masterful” was a popular phrase. AllMusic reviewer Mark Deming was to write: “ Trace ultimately displayed his (Farrar’s) talent to better advantage than any album he made before or since.” It helped that this first album included two of the best songs – "Windfall" and "Tear Stained Eyes" – ever recorded by an Alt Country (Americana) band. "Windfall", the opening track, became an anthem for road music, while the soft and soothing "Tear Stained Eyes" - inspired by the flooding at St Genevieve along the Mississippi in 1963 - is near perfect in its musical composition and production. Not bad for a new band!
By the time Gram Parsons finally got to record this - his debut solo album - in 1973, he was already in a troubled state of mind. He had been kicked out of The Flying Burrito Brothers, ousted from the Rolling Stones inner sanctum and then Merle Haggard had abandoned plans to actually produce the album. And you can add alcoholism and drug addiction. The good news, however, was that in the meantime he had discovered Emmylou Harris. For that alone, he will be revered. Emmylou’s discipline, both in and out of the studio, would prove crucial. And, of course, the music she produced with Gram will forever take centre-stage. Their harmonies on "We’ll Sweep Out the Ashes in the Morning" and "That’s All It Took" are like no other. But, despite the demons, Gram must take credit for the very distinctive country-rock – or “Cosmic American Music” as he called it – he was to produce. Being able to play with the core of Elvis Presley’s band – under the direction of Glen D. Hardin – was a big help. The inclusion of a handful of original compositions, especially the quirky "The New Soft Shoe" and the gutsy "Big Mouth Blues", further demonstrated Gram’s musical inventiveness. "She", the single from GP, failed to chart, as, sadly, did the album.
This solo album - Helm’s second - came 25 years after his first and confirmed his re-emergence as a single artist. It also marked his recovery from throat cancer and rigors of treatment! Over the years, Helm disputed Robbie’s Robertson’s claim to sole authorship of many songs in The Band’s catalogue. But, in fact, Levon did little song-writing himself. Instead, he chose other works carefully and relied on his distinctive vocals, and expert production, to craft such songs into musical gems. This album typifies this approach. It contains a number of traditional songs which are expertly arranged by producers Amy Helm and Larry Campbell. Amy, Levon’s daughter and a successful recording artist herself, and musical maestro Campbell also contribute with a bevy of instruments and backing vocals. The best of the traditional numbers "The Girl I left Behind" was one of the first songs Levon’s parents taught him as a child. Helm came across "Poor Old Dirt Farmer" while working on a movie in Tennessee and his interest was clearly motivated by his upbringing on an Arkansas cotton farm. But the stand-out song is Paul Kennerley’s "A Train Robbery" which was a left-over from Kennerley’s earlier concept album The Legend of Jessie James, which featured Helm. Dirt Farmer won a Grammy for Traditional Folk Album.
Train a Comin
The significance of this album is somewhat overshadowed by the circumstances in which it was produced, rather than the fact it remains one of the finest acoustic albums ever recorded. It was Earle’s first album for more than four years and it was in that intervening period that he suffered serious drug addiction and, in fact, served a period of court-ordered rehabilitation. Steve likes to stress that only four of the songs were actually written during his dark period. The other originals – there are three cover songs – all came from his distant past. This was an album without his regular backing band The Dukes and instead he assembled just three musicians – Peter Rowan, Norman Blake, Roy Huskey – regarded as some of the best bluegrass players in Nashville. Emmylou Harris provides backing vocals, though not on "Goodbye", a song she recorded herself the same year on the much-acclaimed Wrecking Ball. Interestingly enough, this album pipped Train a Comin for a Grammy the following year. Two numbers in particular – "Mercenary Song" and "Ben McCulloch" – demonstrate Earle’s emerging social conscience. The line in "Ben McCulloch" – I don’t even know what I’m fighting for/ I ain’t never owned a slave – remains one of his best.
This album, a collaboration with rock producer Daniel Lanois, marked a change of direction for Harris, away somewhat from her country roots. And it was much acclaimed, winning the 1996 Grammy for Best Contemporary Folk Recording. The title track was written by Neil Young, who does harmony vocals, and there are other big name songwriters featured, like Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix, Steve Earle and Lucinda Williams. But the standout song belongs to Lanois. "Blackhawke" is a beautiful love lament and Harris just nails it. Various versions of the song have surfaced over the years, including one in concert featuring Harris and Lanois. Another standout is "Going Back to Harlan", written by Emmy’s old friend Anna McGarrigle. In fact Anna and her sister Kate are among a number of big names who provide backing on the album, though not this particular track.
The River & the Thread
Rosanne Cash wrote this superb collection of songs with husband John Leventhal after a soul-searching journey through the deep American South, including a visit to father Johnny Cash’s childhood home in Arkansas. In fact, the star track on the album, "Etta’s Tune", is named after Etta Grant, the wife of Marshall Grant who was Johnny’s long-time bass player. This beautiful song reflects on the life of a loyal, abstemious wife whose husband spent years touring: No you never touched the whiskey and you never took the pills/ I traveled for a million miles while you were standing still. It was the first song written for the album and inspired the pair to dedicate all songs to the South. But these are no southern songs forged with red dirt on the fingers and a sleepy hollow in the soul. They are far more sophisticated, and philosophical, to be truly rustic. After all, Cash is now a well-entrenched New Yorker. Metaphors abound, no better than in the Grammy-winning opening number "A Feather’s Not A Bird": A feather’s not a bird/ The rain is not the sea/ A stone is not a mountain/ But a river runs through me .The album proved immensely popular, with both fans and critics. The Grammy judges liked it too. The River & the Thread swept all of its three-nominated categories at the 2015 Grammys.
Old No. 1
To choose an artist’s debut album as the best can sometimes suggest it was all downhill, creatively speaking, from there. On the other hand, it can only serve to illustrate how high a musician can set the creative bar from the outset. And, like John Prine, Guy Clark certainly set the mark sky-high with his debut release, "Old No.1." Guy become known somewhat as a “singer-songwriter’s singer-songwriter” and the 10 tracks here – all written by Clark – are proof of this. "Desperadoes Waiting for the Train" would become a classic – recorded by industry legends - while "L.A. Freeway"would become legendary in itself for one gob-smacking lyric: If I can just get off this L.A. Freeway/ Without getting killed or caught. There is a wonderful recording of Clark performing the two songs - about the time of the album’s release - on the remarkable Jim Szalapski documentary Heartworn Highways, which portrays Nashville’s musical “outlaws” in the mid-seventies. And though it is not included in the documentary, there is no better “outlaw” song than the wonderful talkin’ blues "Let Him Roll". Here Clark tells the tale of an old loser who fell in love with a lady-of-the night: And old one-eyed John said her name was Alice/ And she used to be a whore in Dallas.
American IV: The Man Comes Around
This was Cash’s last album released during his lifetime. There could be no more fitting end for a music legend. It was the fourth in the American series he released under the stewardship of producer Rick Rubin, though son John Carter Cash shared in this production. Six of the songs had previously been released by Cash, the oldest, "Give My Love to Rose", dated back to 1960. His version for American IV is simply astonishing – especially for a man in failing health – and rightly won a Grammy in 2003. Unlike some of the previous albums in the Rubin series, there are host of big name musicians on American IV. He shares vocals with Fiona Apple on "Bridge Over Troubled Waters", Don Henley on "Desperado" and Nick Cave duetted on "I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry". The album was enormously popular, being certified gold and besides the Grammy won a stack of other industry awards – across a range of musical strands. The emerging Americana genre had suddenly found its perfect ambassador!
Van Lear Rose
Loretta Lynn was 72 when she teamed up with producer Jack White, aged 28, in what must be one of the most extraordinary musical collaborations in the history of Nashville. The critics called it a "crossover" album - fusing several musical styles. But "cross-generational" might have been more appropriate. Whatever the description, it turned out to be a brilliant move, or "experiment" as it was often labelled. Van Lear Rose won instant acclaim and went on to bag two Grammy Awards. Loretta wrote all 13 songs - there were two co-writes - but Jack played on all tracks. The pair performed one duet "Portland, Oregon", a song which Lynn had penned some time ago. It turned out to be the star track and was to win Best Country Vocals Collaboration at the Grammy's. But there is much more to like about this album in which Loretta again displays her unique all-round talents. "Family Tree" has her at her best on her pet subject of somebody-done-somebody-wrong: Bring out the babies daddy/That's who they've come to see/Not the woman that's burning down our family tree. In recent years, Loretta's son Ernest Ray claimed the cost of the album had been underwritten by the family. It went on to be certified gold, so it turned out to be a good investment!
While this was a debut album – and lauded as such by the critics – Lyle Lovett and his music had been doing-the-rounds, so to speak, in Texas. And other artists had already recorded his songs. Lyle wrote all 10 tracks - though "This Old Porch" was a co-write with Robert Earl Keen - and each is jam-packed with words few singers could ever digest. In "This Old Porch", he crams in white Hereford bulls, brand-new Chevrolets and guacamole salads, while "Closing Time" takes us to a gig with a soundman called Kenny who ain’t got no ears! The opening track, "Cowboy Man", was to prove his most successful single, but the album’s other cowboy song, "Father Down the Line", resonates most with many Lyle fans – Let’s have a hand for this young cowboy/ Wish him better luck next time/ And hope we see him up in Fargo/ Or somewhere farther down the line. A sure sign of great lyrics to come!
What a Crying Shame
Sometimes described as a “neotraditonal country band” (whatever that means), The Mavericks originated in Miami, which is why tags like Latin and Tex-Mex also stick. Whatever strand they bring to Americana, The Mavericks certainly brought a vibrant rockabilly style to Nashville in the nineties. It also helps to have a lead singer, Raul Malo, with a sensational tenor voice, though at times he sounds almost too “pop” for country. What a Crying Shame was the group’s third album and took them to another level they were to sustain for some years. Allmusic reviewer Mark Deming summed it best: “Truth to tell What a Crying Shame doesn’t have a single dud track.” The fans agreed. This was to be their most popular album, with five of the 11 tracks being released as a single. The title track, one of seven Malo had a hand in writing, is regarded by many as the band’s signature song. But what Malo does to the weepy "Neon Blue" and Jesse Winchester’s "O What a Thrill" just makes this album so hard to turn off.
Fans of Fred Eaglesmith call themselves Fredheads, a fact which sometimes gets more publicity than the fine works of the Canadian artist himself. For sadly, Fred Elgersma (Aka Eaglesmith), is one of the most under-rated singer-songwriter’s in Americana music even though he has been on the road for 40-odd years and has a 20-something album repertoire! His quirky story-telling is no better illustrated than on his 2006 release Milly’s Café. Here he tells tales of lovers, robbers and even musicians in a wonderful collection of on-the-road songs. One critic nicely defined the album as “a road-trip in the classic sense.” The title track has a young flirtatious couple on the run in West Texas, "18 Wheels" takes us on a journey 40 miles out of Michigan with a lovesick trucker, while the delightful "Mrs Hank Williams" tells of the perils of having a wife tour with the band! And in every song, there’s a clever lyric - no better than in the melodic "Summer is Over": Ferris wheel turns by itself in the breeze. It’s enough to delight the Fredheads forever!
Rifles and Rosary Beads
Critics have often been dismissive of “concept” albums, citing them as being somewhat contrived, often corny. But when they work! And this one certainly does, probably as a result of its original, if somewhat unusual, conception. All the eleven songs were co-written by – “and for” – military veterans. It came about after Gauthier was invited to participate in a program labelled “Songwriting With: Soldiers.” The result is certainly the best of her ten albums. Each song is a story, defined differently, but consistent with the emotion of trauma. "Iraq" – probably the most-pointed track – tells the tale of a female mechanic sexually harassed by fellow soldiers: A salute and a wink, a little pat on the back/My enemy wasn’t Iraq. And the pressures of life for the returned veterans and their families is dealt with in "The War After the War": Who’s gonna care for the ones who care for the ones who went to war/ Land mines in the living room eggshells on the floor. The album received critical acclaim and won her a host of award nominations.
The Prodigal Son
Call him a multi-instrumentalist, a guitar virtuoso or even a musical mastermind, Ry Cooder has to be one of the finest musicians of his generation. And he has done as much as anyone to infuse the various modern musical genes. His album collection dates back nearly 50 years so to choose his latest offering for inclusion in any “best-of” list further belies his greatness. This is somewhat of a concept album, one dedicated to spiritual music and motivated by touring with bluegrass star Ricky Skaggs and Ricky’s wife Sharon White. "Straight Street", the stunning opening track, was recorded by the Pilgrim Travelers 60-odd years ago. But Ry makes it his own, as he does with Blind Alfred Reed’s "You Must Unload" and Carter Stanley’s mystical "Harbor of Love". Three of the 11 tracks are Cooder originals, two of these written with son Joachim who also co-produced the album from the drummer’s perch. And these two – "Jesus and Woody" and "Gentrification" – are the most lyrically inventive, with the Cooder boys poking fun at everyone from Johnny Depp to the Good Lord himself! You were a dreamer, Mr. Guthrie, Jesus tells Woody, and I was a dreamer too.
It'll Shine When It Shines
Ozark Mountain Daredevils
This bunch of southern country rockers from Springfield, Missouri, deserve a listing for their name in itself. The story goes that the band was told their original name “Family Tree” was taken so a “naming party” was organised at which founding member John Dillon came up with “Cosmic Corn Cob & His Amazing Ozark Mountain Daredevils.” It was shortened to the last three words because no one in the group liked the first three! It’ll Shine When it Shines was their second release and, like the first, co-produced by the Eagles’ original Producer Glyn Jones. It was recorded in Missouri, in a Civil War-period farmhouse, with Jones and his off-sider David Anderle working in a mobile truck parked outside. The unique, seemingly-rustic, sound achieved is attributed to this recording arrangement. There is certainly something distinctive, and refreshing, about all the dozen tracks, none-the-least Steve Cash’s rocker "E.E. Lawson". The album produced a hit single "Jackie Blue", which reached number three on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1975. But Ozark purists would prefer the Cash/Dillon title track with its wonderful imagery – There’s a fire on the stove/ Keeping out the cold/ Warming’ wine and winters and babies and homes. Pure comfort music!
We Shall Overcome : The Seeger Sessions
This is The Boss’s tribute to folk Legend Pete Seeger - without the great man himself, though Pete was said to have been more than happy with the finished product. But this is not folk music as you know it! Instead Bruce has gathered more than a dozen musicians loaded with everything from violins and accordions to tubas and trombones! They were to become known, and to tour, as The Sessions Band. What they produce is rockin’n rolling traditional music like you never have heard. There are no actual Pete Seeger songs, instead such traditional numbers as "O Mary Don’t You Weep" and "Jacob’s Ladder". And Bruce takes to them like a singer possessed. To appreciate his treatment of Bill and Sis Cunningham’s "My Oklahoma Home" you must watch the Live in Dublin DVD, recorded in 2007 There is little to compare! The Seeger Sessions may not have pleased some of the snotty-nosed folk purists. But the fans loved it, being certified gold after selling several hundred thousand copies in the U.S. alone. And in 2007 it won the Grammy Award for Best Traditional Folk Album.
Time (The Revelator)
This was the third album by Gillian Welch and David Rawlings. It came just as the duo was struggling somewhat to earn their stripes as authentic creators of what has been described, a little loosely, as traditional roots music. There’d been some sniping that she was no more than a Californian kid trying to pretend she was from some sleepy Appalachian hollow. Time (The Revelator) changed all that. It won wide critical acclaim and can be found in many “best-of-all-time” lists. From the opening "Revelator", Welch and Rawlings are on song! And this time the red dirt sticks, served up beautifully on the album’s standout track, "Red Clay Halo" – I’ll take the red clay robe with the red clay wings and a red clay halo on my head. But for down-right clever story-telling, nothing beats "April the 14th Part 1" & "Ruination Day Part 2", separate songs about historic events all occurring on April 14 - the Ruination Day. And somewhere in the middle is the saga of a struggling punk band on the road: There’s no way they’d make even a half a tank of gas. You can never get enough of this!
It is almost impossible to measure Tom Russell’s contribution to whatever musical genre he may wish to define, with countless albums, collaborations, concept trilogies etc.
While the much-covered "Gallo Del Cielo, recorded in the 1980’s, must remain his classic song, it is the material late in his long career that continues to impress the critics. Folk Hotel, his 2017 release, can hardly compare in volume and lavish production with his 52-track western folk opera The Rose of Roscrae. But its sheer simplicity, both musically and lyrically, makes it instantly appealing. Russell himself sees it as his finest work to date. And No Depression’s Jeff Burger speculated it was “maybe even the best of all the items in his catalogue.” From a tale about a dead president, "Rise Again, Handsome Johnny", to a track about Dylan Thomas, "The Sparrow of Swansea", Tom is at his story-telling best. He is aided and abetted by several guest artists including Joe Ely on the sole cover, Dylan’s "Just Like Tom Thumb Blues". But the most endearing song was inspired by singer-songwriter Ian Tyson’s reply when asked by Russell why he wouldn’t move south from Alberta: I’ll Never Leave These Old Horses. Magic stuff!
Something More Than Free
In between his early days as the lead singer of Drive-By Truckers and through to the more recent collaboration with his own band, The 400 Unit, Isbell has released a number of what is quaintly listed as “solo records”. Something More Than Free was the most popular, certainly from a cross-genre perspective. It reached number one on Billboard Magazine’s rock, folk and country record charts. It went on to sweep its album and song categories at both the 2016 Americana and Grammy awards. Jason says he was in a better state of mind at the time of this Nashville recording and there is something very easy-on the-ear from the likes of "24 Frames" (Best American Roots Song winner), "If It Takes a Lifetime" and "Hudson Commodore". The intrigue honours goes to "Speed Trap Town", the tale of small-town cop, while the sentimental favorite is "To A Band That I Loved", Jason’s tribute to an old Texas band from days gone by: I'll be guarding your place/ In the lights on the stage of my heart. There is little not to like about the boy from Alabama these days.
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