Six Songs That Define Americana
‘The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down’ by The Band (1969)
There’s a beautiful sadness to The Band’s famous ballad of the south. “When I first went down south, I remember that quite a common expression was ‘don’t worry, the south’s gonna’ rise again’,” Robbie Robertson has said. “Levon (Helm, The Band’s singing drummer) wised me up to the politics of the period and the concept just blurted out of me.” That concept took in a familiar chord sequence, coloured with bold piano notes and beautiful harmonies, over a meandering melody that told its story strolling. A story of the end of the American Civil War from the south’s point of view, it’s been covered widely by artists such as Joan Baez, Johnny Cash, The Black Crowes and Zac Brown Band.
‘You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere’ by Bob Dylan (1971)
Written in Woodstock back in 1967, ‘You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere’ has lived many lives. It started as a bit of Dylan-esque fun in the famous basement of The Band’s Big Pink house but wasn’t released properly until 1971. From there, the chorus-dominated tune has become a standard for pick-up bands everywhere and one of the go-to choices when a country cover is called for. First released by The Byrds in 1968, the writer’s version remains definitive and proves the adage: nobody sings Dylan like Dylan.
‘No Depression’ by Uncle Tupelo (1990)
When a song arrives at a cultural high spot lauded enough to give its name to a musical movement, you know there’s something special about it. Written by A.P. Carter sometime in the 1930s, ‘No Depression’ is a tune first recorded by The Carter Family in 1936 – but it’s Uncle Tupelo’s version that became the touchstone for Generation X’s alt-country stylists. Naming their debut album ‘No Depression’, Jeff Tweedy’s first band set off a chain reaction that resulted in the emergence of a movement, the progression of the influential No Depression magazine and, eventually, a ‘best Americana’ category at the Grammys. Not bad for a 140-second song.
‘Drown’ by Son Volt (1995)
Two influential bands formed from the ashes of Uncle Tupelo. We all know about Wilco, but Jay Farrar’s Son Volt remain a hugely important part of the Americana story. ‘Drown’ was the highlight of the band’s successful 1995 record ‘Trace’ and became a college radio hit that summer. “Happenstance is falling through the cracks each day,” Farrar sings with the bruised but determined melancholy that’s become his trademark. And he just might have been describing the movement his band were leading in the mid-nineties…
‘Hurt’ by Johnny Cash (2002)
What can we say about Johnny Cash’s recording of ‘Hurt’ that hasn’t already been said? Acoustic guitar notes and the delicate sound of thunderous piano chords resonate in and out of Cash’s gravely baritone as the country legend recounts Nine Inch Nails’ Trent Reznor’s tale of addiction. But it was the video that shocked the music world: “I cried the first time I saw it,” said producer Rick Rubin. “If you were moved to that kind of emotion during a two-hour movie, it would be a great accomplishment. To do it in a four-minute music video is shocking.” It remains so…
‘Black Myself’ by Our Native Daughters (2019)
‘Songs Of Our Native Daughters’ is a hugely important album in the story of Americana. That it was just released in 2019 and already carries such weight tells you everything. The record, inaugurated by seminal American label Smithsonian Folkways, is a rumination on historical American issues that have influenced the identity of black women. A collaboration between four revered US songwriters (Rhiannon Giddens, Amythyst Kiah, Leyla McCalla and Allison Russell), the song ‘Black Myself’ is a highlight thanks to its blues strut, call-and-response riff and prescient lyrics.