Hot-headed fans constantly confront each other about how to define "Americana music," but not me. I'm a lover, not a fighter. Instead, I'll just say, in my humble opinion, that Americana music is rooted in the singer-songwriter tradition with possible influences of country, bluegrass, rock and soul. It's a fun format to explore, but where to begin? Please allow me to share my 10 favorite Americana albums. By no means is this a definitive list, but it'll certainly give you a place to start.
Ryan Adams, Heartbreaker (2000)
After breaking away from Whiskeytown, Ryan Adams offered this cocky, confessional record on the too-cool Bloodshot label. Damn, Sam, the guy can write, and his singing voice is pretty solid, too, even when he's dropping an F-bomb. Emmylou Harris, Kim Richey and Gillian Welch lend harmonies. Warning: He's a little bit self-destructive. Who else would be aroused by a girl who'd steal all his records and screw all his friends?
Choice track: "Come Pick Me Up"
Billy Bragg and Wilco, Mermaid Avenue (1998)
This one's a hoot. Woody Guthrie's daughter presented a stack of his lyrics to singer-songwriter Billy Bragg so he could write new melodies to accompany the words. (Guthrie, who wrote "This Land Is Your Land" and other classic folk songs, presumably had melodies, too, but poor health prevented him from documenting them before his death in 1967.) Wilco came on board, too, and the result is like a big, crunchy popcorn ball of cheeky folk lyrics, easygoing country melodies and, occasionally, Bragg's British accent. The title comes from the street where Guthrie's family lived in Brooklyn, N.Y.
Choice track: "California Stars"
Hayes Carll, Trouble in Mind (2008)
After selling his first two albums from the card table after shows, Hayes Carll finally found a national audience with Trouble in Mind. His dry wit is evident in "She Left Me For Jesus" and many, many others, but songs like "Beaumont" prove there's more depth to his catalog than just goofy novelties. If this Austin-based singer-songwriter had been around in the 1970s, he would have run with Guy Clark, Rodney Crowell and Townes Van Zandt, and I dare say he wouldn't have been overshadowed.
Choice track: "It's a Shame"
Patty Griffin, 1000 Kisses (2002)
And a hush falls over the crowd. ... Patty Griffin's gift is taking you to the point where you can hardly bear the sadness and then whispering, "There's hope." In "Nobody's Crying," she leaves a farewell note to her lover, wishing him the best but ultimately realizing she can't compete with his demons. Her characters come alive, too: a woman who bakes pies all day, a hometown oddball, an emotionally-detached widower. Very few writers convey loneliness without sounding pitiful, but she does it consistently.
Choice track: "Rain"
Tift Merritt, Another Country (2008)
After an incredibly long tour, Tift Merritt revitalized her creativity by renting a flat in Paris. She worked through her frustrations by writing songs on piano and later recorded those tunes in Laurel Canyon in Los Angeles, which explains the sunny-sounding arrangements. Vocally, the North Carolina native reminds me of Emmylou Harris, which is obviously high praise. I've always admired her lyrics, too, because she doesn't pad her songs. Every word belongs. If you like bummer lyrics with peppy melodies, this one's for you.
Choice track: "Broken"
Buddy Miller, The Best of the Hightone Years (2008)
I don't know if Buddy Miller focuses on his phrasing or if it just comes out that way, but his naturally-exposed vocals cut right through me every single time. "My Love Will Follow You," "I Just Can't Get Over You" and "Don't Tell Me" have surfaced on some cool country albums, but I'm still drawn to his subdued originals. Although he's an outstanding electric guitarist, he's probably the only guy in Nashville who can sing Otis Redding's "That's How Strong My Love Is" and make you forget it's a cover.
Choice track: "I Just Can't Get Over You" (with Lee Ann Womack on harmony)
Allison Moorer, The Hardest Part (2000)
Within the first minute, Allison Moorer proclaims that "lovin' turns to leavin' every time," then spends the remainder of this album weighing her options. That she was married to her co-writer, Butch Primm, makes it sort of uncomfortable to listen to now, since they placed all the frayed cards on the table. She constantly swings from loves-me to loves-me-not, and the romantic entanglements are never resolved. Doesn't matter. I'm merely grateful to hear the hurtful, heartbreaking country songs, the way they used to be.
Choice track: "Best That I Can Do"
Old Crow Medicine Show, O.C.M.S. (2004)
The live show is where it's at, but I still get a charge out of this album. The Old Crow boys remind me of the old-time music that my grandparents grew up listening to. The album is by no means polished, but without layer after layer of production, the easygoing personalities shine through. After all, it's just five dudes strumming some old acoustic instruments and singing along. Without the liner notes, I wouldn't even be able to discern which tunes were traditional and which ones they wrote.
Choice track: "Wagon Wheel"
Gillian Welch, Time (The Revelator) (2001)
Time stands still whenever I listen to Gillian Welch. It's almost like she and musical partner David Rawlings have been transported from the 1930s and planted squarely in modern-day Nashville. (It's a good place to land, though, since they helped orchestrate the O Brother, Where Art Thou? musical phenomenon.) Their lyrics long for an easier time, back when the Grand Ole Opry was still in full tilt and a musician could count on a stuffed tip jar. They recorded the album on Nashville's Music Row at RCA's historic Studio B, which makes "Elvis Presley Blues" even more haunting.
Choice track: "Revelator"
Lucinda Williams, Car Wheels on a Gravel Road (1998)
Listening to Car Wheels on a Gravel Road is like sitting through an indie film festival somewhere in the Deep South. Lucinda Williams' writing here is so vivid and descriptive, you forget there's no visual component to these songs. I like to listen to her sing about her friend who used to love Lake Charles, La., or about the kid in Macon, Ga., who's enjoying Loretta Lynn on the kitchen radio. This being a Lucinda Williams album, the narrative isn't always pretty, but given the opportunity, I prefer the scenic route.
Choice track: "Still I Long for Your Kiss"