A Core Collection: Classic Americana

Post by Peter Viney - Around and Around

What is Americana? It has been used to describe antiques, patchwork quilts, historic handguns, paintings in the Grandma Moses school, Walker Evans’ photographs and to sections of libraries devoted to American history.

Aaron Copland’s music has been called Americana. There’s a 1965 orchestral album, with Robert Merrill and Stanley Black conducting the London Festival Orchestra which is called Americana and that ranges from Battle Hymn of The Republic to Camptown Races via Oklahoma.

CBS / Columbia called one volume of their Columbia Country Classics series Americana, and this is popular C&W with a novelty aspect … Big Bad John, Don’t Take Your Guns To Town, El Paso, Battle of New Orleans, A Boy Named Sue, Long Black Veil.

Some argue that Marty Robbins Gunfighter Ballads from 1959 is classic Americana, but really it’s “cowboy.” It’s also a marvellous album, and we noted that every National Parks gift store in the west had copies on CD and vinyl for sale.

In popular music, we’re thinking late 60s onward. We’d label Chuck Berry as rock ‘n’ roll or rhythm and blues, but his lyrics are definitive Americana …

Deep down in Louisiana close to New Orleans
Way back up in the woods among the evergreens
There stood a log cabin made of earth and wood
Where lived a country boy named Johnny B. Goode
Who never ever learned to read or write so well
But he could play a guitar just like a-ringin' a bell

Chuck Berry also recorded Route 66 which dates back to 1946 and was a hit for Nat King Cole. The lyrics are perfect Americana.

For rock fans, we’re looking at music which has aspects of country and western, folk, R&B, gospel, soul and rock. Here are ten that would get you started exploring Americana. They’re personal choices.  I pondered Déjà vu by Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young … certainly some tracks are straight Americana … but others are not. Two good friends will berate me for missing off Gene Clark and Emmylou Harris. I decided I wanted the seminal years, so took the official release of the Basement Tapes in 1975 as the stop point. So no Nevada by Bruce Springsteen, for instance. Ten means hard decisions. It’s chronological.

1  Music From The Big Pink The Band, June 1968, Capitol

Music From The Big Pink – The Band, June 1968, Capitol

This is generally considered the first true Americana album. I was sorely tempted to start with Wheatstraw Suite by The Dillards, which came out three months earlier, but it was much less well-known, and to my ear leans far enough into bluegrass / country rock to pre-date Americana. No title on the sleeve of Music From Pig Pink, just a painting in primitive style by Bob Dylan. Nor on early pressings does the name ‘The Band’ appear on the centre label … it’s credited to the five members. Bob Dylan’s backing group on the 1966 tour consisted of four Canadians plus Levon Helm from Arkansas. They’d started out backing Ronnie Hawkins in Canada, went out on their own as Levon & The Hawks, then got the Dylan gig. Levon Helm left, and the other four spent 1967 holed up with Bob Dylan in Woodstock creating The Basement Tapes. If they’d released that collection officially it would have been the first Americana album indeed, but they didn’t. Levon Helm returned for Thanksgiving 1967, and in 1968, Music From Big Pink appeared as if from nowhere. Its reputation spread like wildfire among musicians … Eric Clapton split Cream and headed to Woodstock to meet them, as did George Harrison. The crossing of genres is at its centre. Check out the people who’ve covered The Weight … soul artists … Aretha Franklin, The Staple Singers, King Curtis, Diana Ross & The Supremes With The Temptations; country artists … Hoyt Axton,. John Denver; soul jazzers Odell Brown and The Rotary Connection; British acts like Spooky Tooth, Amen Corner, Joe Cocker and Paul Jones. Popular singers like Jackie de Shannon; The Ventures. Then you get country and western in Long Black Veil, solid rock in Chest Fever. Dylan songs  … I Shall Be Released, Tears of Rage.

Available on LP, CD with bonus tracks and a superb box set with a blu-ray surround mix

Sample tracks: The Weight, We Can Talk

2  Sweetheart of The Rodeo The Byrds, August 1968, CBS

Sweetheart of The Rodeo – The Byrds, August 1968, CBS

This was only a shade later, and developed quite separately, when country rocker Gene Parsons joined The Byrds. Like Big Pink it had two Dylan basement songs, You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere and Nothing Was Delivered. Then you get a soul classic in country style, You Don’t Miss Your Water by William Bell, best known by Otis Redding. Add Woody Guthrie’s Pretty Boy Floyd, Merle Haggard’s Life in Prison,the traditional I Am A Pilgrim and The Louvin Brothers The Christian Life. The album would have to be in any list of Americana though I’d add that it veered very close to plain ‘country rock’ … rock bands playing country songs. If I were choosing great examples of The Byrds as Americana I’d go later for Drug Store Truck Driving Man or Chestnut Mare.

Available on CD, LP

Sample Tracks: You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere, I Am A Pilgrim

3  The Band - The Band, September 1969, Capitol

The Band - The Band, September 1969, Capitol

It’s generally known as The Brown album. I wanted to avoid two by one artist, but while Big Pink is considered the first, this is the definitive Americana album. The difference is thematic, so many of the songs reach into an American past as well as enigmatically connecting it to the present. The truck driver in Up On Cripple Creek morphs into a miner. Across The Great Divide is the best evocation of the aftermath of the Civil war, seen through Southern eyes. King Harvest takes us into the Great Depression years of Walker Evans photographs. Rockin’ Chair has the old sailor returned from sea. Who is The Unfaithful Servant and who and when is it about? It’s steeped in American legend and creates more. It’s The Band’s masterpiece.

Available on LP, CD with bonus tracks and again, as a superb box set with a blu-ray surround mix

Sample Tracks: The Night they Drove Old Dixie Down, King Harvest (Will Surely Come)

4  Workingman’s Dead: The Grateful Dead, June 1970, Warner Bros

Workingman’s Dead: The Grateful Dead, June 1970, Warner Bros

What’s that doing here? Twenty minute jams for a bunch of stoned hippies at an outdoor festival? Well, Workingman’s Dead and American Beauty are essentially Americana, and stand apart from the rest of their work. Both were consciously Band-influenced and Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young-influenced, and they sought the services of David Crosby and Stephen Stills to work on their vocals. Robert Hunter’s lyrics were deliberately Americana. Jerry Garcia was the proud owner of a steel guitar and wanted to use it. The albums reflect Garcia’s future albums with The Jerry Garcia Band and with Old & In The Way. Readers of Rolling Stone voted Workingman’s Dead the best album of 1970. The sepia cover sits alongside The Band and CSNY’s Déjà vu (and Elton John’s Tumbleweed Connection … British Americana!) to form a set.

AVAILABLE: LP and CD. 2020 brought the 50th Anniversary De Luxe Edition with a remastered album, plus two albums of a 1971 live show, not that Grateful Dead live albums are a rarity.

Sample tracks: Uncle John’s Band, Casey Jones

5  Jesse Winchester: Jesse Winchester, 1970  Ampex / Bearsville

Jesse Winchester: Jesse Winchester, 1970  Ampex / Bearsville

This is where you need to keep checking your second-hand record store. Any Jesse Winchester album is worth having, and there are several good compilation CDs. But you really need the original gatefold album with the stippled cover and the Bob Cato album design. Ampex? It wasn’t issued in the UK, but it was imported in quantity, and there are some about. Jesse Winchester was from Louisiana, but moved to Montreal to escape the Vietnam draft. He should have been much, much more successful, but he was unable to play in the USA until President Jimmy Carter pardoned draft evaders. Winchester was technically ineligible, as he had taken Canadian citizenship, but music fan Carter made an exception for him.  The result was that he became best-known as a songwriter rather than a singer. The first album was produced by The Band’s Robbie Robertson, and Levon Helm drummed on some songs. Brand New Tennessee Waltz  was heavily covered. The songs reflect his emigrant status … Snow and Biloxi hankering after Louisiana. Yankee Lady is a tale of his transit through New England. That’s A Touch I Like set a rhythmic tone revisited in later albums.

Available: there was a CD, and it’s out of print. The best-known tracks will be on compilations.

Sample tracks: Yankee Lady, Snow

6  Link Wray: Link Wray  June 1971, Polydor

Link Wray: Link Wray  June 1971, Polydor

This is the third in a row without a real title. Americana artists were poor at thinking of album titles then. This is also known as Wray’s Three Track Shack. The original LP has a fold-out die cut profile of Link Wray on the sleeve. Link Wray was known as the guitarist who played Rumble and created distortion. Like Robbie Robertson of the Band, he was part Native-American, so adding ORIGINAL American to Americana. He disappeared to Maryland and created a home studio with his brother where this first vocal album was recorded. It’s rougher, more raucous and rootsier than The Band. I heard about it when Richard Williams reviewed it as ‘the best album since The Band’ and he was right. The vocal is extraordinary as is the guitar playing, but so are the melodies and lyrics. The Neville Brothers have covered Fallin’ Rain and Fire and Brimstone and Calexico have done Fallin’ Rain too. Try Ice People or God Out West … or the Howlin’ Wolf cover, Taildragger. It remains an all-time favourite. The follow up was called Mordecai Jones a pseudonym for Wray’s pianist, Bobby Howard and is even rootsier. I won’t list it separately as if you get a CD nowadays, it will mainly be on there too.

Available: An original LP, or you need a compilation CD. The whole album starts off the 2 CD set Guitar Preacher: The Polydor Years. The same happens on the 2 CD 3-Track Shack from Ace and Wray’s Three Track Shack from Acadia.  None have the complete Mordicai Jones album, just a few songs.

Sample tracks (you won’t get Precious Jewel on the CDs):
Link Wray: Fallin’ Rain, Fire and Brimstone

Mordicai Jones: Walkin’ In The Arizona Sun, Precious Jewel

7  Into The Purple Valley: Ry Cooder, Reprise, January 1972

Into The Purple Valley: Ry Cooder, Reprise, January 1972

Worth it for the sleeve alone (#12 in Rolling Stone’s 100 Best album Covers). This was Ry Cooder’s second studio album. Ry Cooder had been in The Rising Sons with Taj Mahal and Ed Cassidy of Spirit, and had played with Captain Beefheart and The Rolling Stones. Ry Cooder and Taj Mahal would both  number among the most erudite miners of traditional folk and blues. They’re also both eclectic, venturing between them into calypso, Hawaiian, African, Cuban and Chicano music. Into The Purple Valley visits songs by Woody Guthrie, Johnny Cash, Leadbelly, Jesse Stone, Joseph Spence. Any Ry Cooder album explores deeper into Americana veins.


Sample tracks: Teardrops Will Fall, Billy The Kid

8 Sailin’ Shoes: Little Feat, Warner, May 1972

Sailin’ Shoes: Little Feat, Warner, May 1972

One song leaps out to make this essential. They reworked Willin’ from their first album (Ry Cooder played slide guitar on the earlier version) to create an ultimate example of the genre. Truck driving outlaws on drugs. Lowell George, like Ry Cooder and Jerry Garcia above, is an outstanding ‘Americana guitarist’ too. You might argue that Dixie Chicken is “more” Americana, but this has better tunes. Also check out Feats Don’t Fail Me Now and Lowell George’s Thanks I’ll Eat It Here.


Sample tracks: Willin’, Sailin’ Shoes

9  Good Old Boys: Randy Newman, Reprise 1974

Good Old Boys: Randy Newman, Reprise 1974

Randy Newman has written so many important Americana songs (if I were choosing ten songs instead of albums, Sail Away would be in the list)  that you really need a box set. It’s hard to choose one album, but in the light of Trump’s America over the last few years, it’s going to be Good Old Boys. As ever, Newman is adopting characters. There needs to be a warning … Rednecks includes the N-word in the guise of a ‘Good Old Redneck’ persona but how artfully the song turns it back on the North at the end. Randy Newman has said he cannot sing it any longer in the light of BLM. Even as a character, he can’t sing the N-word.  It’s political throughout … both Louisiana 1927 and Kingfish relate to Louisiana in the 1920s when it was under the governor, Huey Long, often regarded as an American equivalent of working class fascist movements in Europe. Every Man A King was written by Huey Long. Birmingham is of course Birmingham, Alabama. The singer owns the ‘meanest dog in the land’ which reminded me of P.J. O’Rourke writing on the 2020 US elections. He said urban areas have police forces, rural areas just have mean dogs. Then there’s Mr President (Have Pity on The Working Man).

AVAILABLE: CD, LP. The remastered 2002 double album has outtakes and alternative versions.
Sample tracks: Louisiana 1927, Rednecks

10  The Basement Tapes: Bob Dylan & The Band, originally CBS 1975

The Basement Tapes: Bob Dylan & The Band, originally CBS 1975

It emerged eight years later, after being heavily bootlegged. The 1975 double album was something of a fake. Yes, the Dylan tracks were from the basement, but The Band tracks were from elsewhere and some of them from two or three years later. They were also ‘improved’ by overdubbing in 1975. As more and more tracks were found the bootlegs expanded to 4 CD sets. What had happened was that a Band member asked someone to archive some tapes and inevitably they got out. A few tracks were scattered on Dylan’s The Bootleg Series. Also some of the favourite tracks were never on the 1975 release. The most surprising one was The Mighty Quinn. Then Sign on The Cross and I’m Not There (1956) were ones that should have been on the acetates which Dylan’s management hawked around in 1968.

AVAILABLE: Yes, you can get the 1975 album on CD or on vinyl. The best version is the Remastered CD from 2009 because the re-processing was considerable.
However if you’re into this stuff you need the 2013 6 CD box set The Complete Basement Tapes which has it all … except that it doesn’t. There’s a full bootleg CD worth of Band only tracks around too.

Sample tracks: (I’ll stick to the 1975 issue)
Dylan: Million Dollar Bash, Nothing Was Delivered

Band: Bessie Smith, Ain’t No More Cane

Footnote: Some great “Americana” albums are by British artists … Tumbleweed Connection by Elton John and Tupelo Honey by Van Morrison being prime examples. There will be a further selection later.