Trying to define the distinction between Country and Americana music is - to quote a famous pop song - a mixed-up, muddled-up, shook-up world. And this is patently obvious when compiling a Greatest List of whatever music genre you choose!
Take that esteemed music magazine Rolling Stone for example. Over the, now many, years, Rolling Stone has made an art of compiling “Best of …” lists. These may apply to specific music genres, whether it be Dance songs or Reggaeton or by particular artists, whether it be Beyonce or Rage Against The Machine.
But it got back to the basics with “The 100 Greatest Country Albums of All Time” – published under the dateline August 30, 2022, and in the names of around a dozen by-lines.
It is probably no surprise that Dolly Parton (Coat Of Many Colors) tops the list. No fan alive could imagine Country without Dolly! And her companions in the top three – #2 Waylon Jennings (Dreaming My Dreams) and #3 Willie Nelson (Red Headed Stranger) – will also invoke few arguments.
The real intrigue, however, lies in which artists make the list, not necessarily on the merit of their albums, but on the music genre they are commonly defined as belonging.
To be fair to Rolling Stone, it confronts this issue in its introduction: “The question ‘what is country’ has been asked endlessly, and definitions can become frayed, contested and deeply personal.”
And in particular, the magazine addresses the issue of genres: “What you won’t find much of is alt-country, country rock, and Americana, as we tried to keep this list focused on music produced by the Nashville system (or in direct response to it) and marketed to the country audience. That means no Uncle Tupelo or Eagles, though Lucinda Williams and Gillian Welch make appearances for sterling work that exists comfortably in both worlds. Maybe we’ll get to that country-rock list another time.”
The apparent contradiction to this statement comes early in the list when the Flying Burrito Brothers are listed at #92 for their debut album “The Gilded Palace Of Sin” released in 1969. For this was time when folk & blues artists were plugging in their guitars into amplifiers – and popular music would never be the same again. Gram Parsons, co-founder of the Flying Burrito Brothers, was one of them and he would come to be regarded as an architect of Country Rock by fusing various musical strands together.
Getting back to the R.S. introduction, the operative word here has to be “much.” For, to this student of Americana music, the genre is indeed well represented among the 100 albums. In fact, aside from Lucinda and Gillian, a first glance at the list identifies at least 25 artists – a quarter - whose albums, once released, would find pride of place in the weekly Americana Radio Albums & Singles Charts.
And this includes some of the names which helped define Americana music – Emmylou Harris, Guy Clark, Steve Earle, John Prine and The Flatlanders.
Harris has long been regarded as the Queen of Americana. No one has criss-crossed the genres of all music – let alone Country - more than Harris. Inspired by Parsons, she has interpreted everything from Gospel to Springsteen, or from Bluegrass to the Beatles.
There is no better example of her diversity than the album (Pieces of Sky) Rolling Stone lists at #33 in the Country roll of honour. In it, Harris performs work by songwriters as broad as Lennon & McCartney; Charlie & Ira Louvin; Felice and Boudleaux Bryant and Dolly herself.
In fact, Emmylou’s second appearance on the list, at #47 with Trio, sees her teamed up with two artists are each end of the Country-Pop spectrum - Dolly Parton and Linda Ronstadt.
The question is whether the two Harris albums listed – Pieces of Sky and Trio – best personify her Country output. For the album which, it could be argued, is her finest work – the 1995 release Wrecking Ball – does not make the 100. Is this Daniel Lanois-produced masterpiece just too Americana for Rolling Stone?
And on the subject of eligibility, one artist on the list is Arkansas singer-songwriter Iris DeMent. She makes the listing with her 1992 debut album “Infamous Angel,” which, to any observer, fits smack-bang in the middle of Americana music - just like her Country 100 listing at #50. This release was in fact produced by Jim Rooney, someone recognised as Americana as you can get when it comes to music identification.
And if “Infamous Angel” made the grade, why then didn’t the album considered Rooney’s finest production also get on the list? This of course is the Nanci Griffith 1993 release Other Voices, Other Rooms. To many, nothing personifies Americana music better than this Rooney-produced classic which sees Griffith do masterful interpretations of song-writing legends Bob Dylan, Woody Guthrie, John Prine and Kate Wolf. There has to have been a Country song in each of these wordsmiths!
Pure Country has never been to the forefront of musical collaboration like some of its strands. Pete Seeger would wave his banjo at any folkie who passed by, while there was a time when anyone who attended a Bluegrass jamboree with a fiddle could expect to end up on stage.
So it is good to see that Rolling Stone does recognize one of the finest collaborative albums ever produced – the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s Grammy-winning Will The Circle Be Unbroken, which is listed #38. In it, Jeff Hanna and his band brought together a Who’s Who’s of Old-Timey music – Maybelle Carter, Roy Acuff, Earl Scruggs and Doc Watson, among them.
Sadly, there is no place for Doc on the R.S. list, though there is for Maybelle as a member of the Carter Family, perhaps the founder group of recorded Country music. They are listed at
#23 with Can The Circle Be Unbroken: Country Music First Family.
Scruggs, another member of a genre-founding band, also gets listed, but not with the Blue Grass Boys who backed Bill Monroe and gave their name to a music strand. Banjo-playing Scruggs would leave Monroe after three years and take with him rhythm guitarist Lester Flatt to form the Foggy Mountain Boys. Flatt and Scruggs get on the list at #65 with their 1957 blockbuster Foggy Mountain Jamboree.
Monroe, acknowledged as the father of Bluegrass, does not make the list, nor does Ralph Stanley, the other giant of the genre.
In fact, the only other Bluegrass artists listed are female – Hazel Dickens & Alice Garrard and Alison Krauss & Union Station. Dickens and Garrard, from the old school of Bluegrass, get the #70 slot with their 1973 release Hazel and Alice, while Krauss, the poster child of the so-called Newgrass movement, is placed at #79, with Every Time You Say Goodbye.
Compilers of “Best of” are sometimes accused of ignoring the bleedin’ obvious. It is often seen as a badge of honour to make a choice which ignores popular opinion. And Rolling Stone’s decision to place Krauss’s 1992 Every Time You Say Goodbye ahead of her stunning 2001 release New Favorite is yet another example of the compiler’s prerogative being out of favour with fans. Both albums would win Grammys, but New Favorite was by far the bigger seller, with three charting singles.
And speaking of acclaimed albums, why is there no place for Krauss and her stunning collaboration with Robert Plant on their award-winning 2007 release Raising Sands. (They followed up with Raise The Roof in 2021). Maybe an old rocker like Plant – he was lead vocalist for Led Zeppelin – just cannot cut the mustard as a Country artist.
But, hey, even Elvis Presley makes this Greatest Country List. He gets in at #72 with Elvis Presley (I’m A Thousand Years Old). Many might even regard Elvis as more Gospel than Country.
But if you thought it odd there was a place for the King of Rock ‘n Roll, what about the Supremes? Yes, as in Diana Ross and the Supremes! For they get on the list by contributing to a massive compilation album of 60 tracks titled From Where I Stand: The Black Experience in Country Music. It was produced by The Country Music Foundation and released in 1998. The compilation is placed #64 on the 100 Greatest Country Albums.”
No one can argue with Rolling Stone’s desire to acknowledge the rightful place of African American artists in Country Music – there is enough on that subject to fill a thousand thesis – but the inclusion of this mammoth compilation is surely splitting genre hairs. But, then again, if you cram in around 40 Black artists on one album, somewhere there might be a Country singer.
It, of course, does include songs by Black Country superstar Charley Pride, but, as might be expected, it is crammed with dire-hard Blues/Gospel/ Soul artists like Lead Belly, Mississippi Sheiks, Solomon Burke, The Staple Singers, Al Green, Joe Hinton. Yes, Hinton had a hit with Willie’s “Funny How Time Slips Away,” but didn’t everyone across a mire of genres?
Two artists on this Country Music Foundation production do make it to the R.S. 100 as solo artists.
The first is obviously Pride, one of only three African Americans to be a Member of the Grand Ole Opry. He gets the #37 spot with Charley Pride 10th Album, one of his most acclaimed releases, notwithstanding its hit single “Is Anybody Going to San Antone.”
The second is somewhat surprising, not only to be listed at all, but to attain the high rating of #4! Few would reply “Ray Charles” when asked to name a popular Country singer. But not Rolling Stone. It has Ray in the Top 10 with his 1962 release Modern Sounds in Country And Western Music, which, to be fair to the R.S. listing, did more than any of his releases to give him mainstream air play, getting as much recognition in the pop market as it did in the R&B charts, or even country. Its pop appeal clearly came from its hit single “I Can’t Stop Loving You,” which, like the album, was certified gold. There were in fact three other charting singles – “Born to Lose,” “Careless Love” and “You Don’t Know Me” – which also stamped “popular” all over this classic.
Putting aside the validity of listings #64 & #4, the fact that there are only three African American entries in the top 100 is a sad indictment – albeit an historic one - on the Country music industry and Nashville’s stewardship.
However, there are some positive signs. The Americana Music Association has in recent years made concrete steps to solve this sensitive issue in partnership with the National Museum of African American Music. And, consequently, Americana music has seen the emergence of several black stars, including Yola, Allison Russell and Rhiannon Giddens, who may all sometime soon make their way into a Rolling Stone list.
Americana’s leading performer in R.S.’s latest Country list is long-time singer-songwriting star Lucinda Williams. She gets a well-deserved place in the Top 10 at #6 with Car Wheels On A Gravel Road. This 1998 release was her fifth album, coming a full six years after the previous. The album production had a chequered history – there are four producers credited – but the finished product was stunning, especially for its reflection on her southern roots.
The other two most prominent Americana artists in the 100 Greatest are Rosanne Cash at #20 with her 1981 release “Seven Year Ache” (her father Johnny has listings at #11 & #35) and the much-loved John Prine at #22 with his self-titled debut album – regarded as a lyrical American essay of the 1970’s. It could easy have catapulted up the list.
At the other end of the spectrum, The Flatlanders sneak into the 100 at #97 with More A Legend Than A band. The thoroughly-deserved inclusion of this West Texas trio – Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Butch Hancock and Joe Ely – is specially significant because they like to tell the story that when the music marketing gurus were establishing the Americana brand they used The Flatlanders to help define the genre.
So perhaps when Rolling Stone compile another list, they give Butch or Jimmie a call for advice on definitions!
For the full list of Rolling Stone’s 100 Greatest Country Albums of All Time visit https://www.rollingstone.com/music/music-lists/best-country-albums-1234581876/ - The 100 Greatest Country Albums of All Time
Editor Crossroads – Americana Music Appreciation