Modern Americana: a guitarist's guide

Jason Isbell: from Drive By Trucker to solo artist, he's one of contemporary Americana's greatest songwriters and guitarists (Image credit: Joby Sessions / Future)

Originating with the folk and country rock of the late 1960s, Americana saw a resurgence with the arrival of alternative country groups like Uncle Tupelo in the 90s, and bands have been blurring the line between North American roots music and conventional rock ever since. 

For guitarists, it means adopting techniques pioneered by musicians working in traditions stretching from the Appalachian backwoods to Bakersfield honky- tonks, from bluegrass and gospel to country and folk.

Start with...

Drive-By Truckers
Southern Rock Opera (2001)

Long considered to be the band’s definitive statement, Southern Rock Opera is an ambitious concept album that reflects on the complex nature of Southern identity (especially around race and poverty) through a fictionalised retelling of the rise and demise of Lynyrd Skynyrd. 

The band convincingly integrated Skynyrd’s three-pronged guitar attack into their hard-edged alternative rock sound to create their own countrified, stadium-conquering riffs on songs like Ronnie And Neil, Zip City and Dead, Drunk And Naked. 

Despite the hooks and Patterson Hood’s whiskey-warmed vocals, there’s a bittersweet, thoughtful tone throughout, culminating in Birmingham’s reflections on the Civil Rights struggle in Alabama, and the moving, eulogising ballad, Angels And Fuselage.

Recommended track: Dead, Drunk And Naked

Then try...

Gillian Welch
The Harrow & The Harvest (2011)

A long-awaited return to form after 2003’s so-so Soul Journey, The Harrow & The Harvest finds Welch and her musical partner David Rawlings revisiting the lean instrumentation of their earliest outings. 

Rawlings’s hybrid picking sparkles throughout, particularly when framing Tennessee’s honey-smooth vocals, while Welch’s rhythm guitar recalls the warmth of The Carter Family’s Maybelle Carter on songs like Scarlet Town and The Way It Goes, the latter combining a bluegrass sound with modern country hooks and lyrics befitting the finest trailer psychodrama.

Recommended track: The Way It Goes

Don’t miss out...

Sturgill Simpson
Metamodern Sounds In Country Music (2014)

Drawing comparisons to heavyweights like Merle Haggard, Sturgill Simpson’s sound is rooted in 1970s country rock, and yet his Kentucky brogue conceals psychedelic philosophical lyricisms; the magnificent Turtles All The Way Down namechecks Buddha, LSD and “reptile aliens made of light” in the album’s opening minutes. 

Simpson’s bluegrass strumming is great on the Nashville Skyline- esque Voices, but it’s lead guitarist Laur Joamets’ mind-bending slide work on Just Let Go and space rock freak-out It Ain’t All Flowers that seal the deal. Three chords and the truth, indeed

Recommended track: It Ain't All Flowers

Songs: Ohia
The Magnolia Electric Co. (2003)

Jason Molina spent half of his career performing as Songs: Ohia. His folkish indie rock drew comparisons to Harvest-era Neil Young, but it’s the thunderous power chords of Crazy Horse that come to mind on Farewell Transmission and the Zeppelinised John Henry Split My Heart. 

Mellower numbers hold their own, with touches of classic Nashville in the keening lap steel accompaniment to Just Be Simple and the honky-tonk underscoring The Old Black Hen. 

“Swing the heaviest hammer you got,” Molina sings on John Henry, “Hit this one out of the park.” This album does just that.

Recommended track: John Henry Split My Heart 

Worth a spin...

Justin Townes Earle
Harlem River Blues (2010)

Justin Townes Earle has followed in his honky-tonkin’, hell-raisin’ father Steve Earle’s footsteps, but while Harlem River Blues is undoubtedly an album born of that lineage, it also evokes the 1970s sound of Gram Parsons and the Topanga Canyon crowd. 

Notables like Jason Isbell and Calexico’s Paul Niehaus flesh out Earle’s acoustic work with electric guitar and pedal steel respectively, as on the feather-light Learning To Cry and Workin’ For The MTA; but it’s the Springsteen-esque Christchurch Woman and Rogers Park that really r with all the ambition of heartland classics.

Recommended track: Christchurch Woman 

Wild card...

Our Native Daughters
Songs OF Our Native Daughters (2019)

Rhiannon Giddens of the Carolina Chocolate Drops created this project to reaffirm the role of women and people of colour in North American roots music. 

It’s a melting pot; Moon Meets The Sun uses Afro- Caribbean guitar lines over fretless banjo, while Blood And Bones combines contemporary blues with a minstrel tune. 

The vocals are superb, particularly Amythyst Kiah’s deep soul holler on Black Myself, and the multi-part harmonies on a cover of Bob Marley’s Slave Driver. 

Recommended track: Blood And Bones


Jason Isbell & The 400 Unit
Live From Alabama (2012)

Never underestimate the transformative energy a crowd can impart to familiar songs; Live From Alabama sees Isbell playing country barnburners from his solo career and his time with Drive-By Truckers to a sold-out venue on his home turf. 

The usually acoustic Alabama Pines goes electric, adding just enough grit to deliver a stadium-sized high, while a fiery rendition of the Truckers’ Decoration Day and a cover of Like A Hurricane showcase Isbell’s chops as a lead player.

Recommended track: Decoration Day

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