In common with many of the post-punk generation, there was a point in my musical life where the "three chords and the truth" transitioned from being delivered with a sneer and Telecaster to a world-weary smile and (semi) acoustic.
Here are the ten albums that most influenced me on my travels. The mix includes the best of Americana, folk, country, singer-songwriters and roots. Enjoy!
Nick Lowe - The Impossible Bird (1987)
By the Brentford Trilogy, Nick Lowe had discovered a way of playing quietly, moving away from the quick and dirty Basher of pub rock, punk and new wave days. He’d got into the thing of playing much more quietly and much more dynamically and it’s most apparent in the first of the Brentford Trilogy, The Impossible Bird.
It's a, dare I say it, sign of maturity that you get into the idea that it doesn’t have to be loud, or certainly that it doesn’t need to be loud all the time.
The thing about The Impossible Bird was that it was the writing shaping the arrangements and it being very much from the ground up – what does this song need? And it’s also Nick Lowe assembling a cast of sympathetic players for that way of working.
It’s a very focussed and honest album infused with wit. Throughout he’s on the right side of that tricky line between wit and “comedy songs”, another sign of growing maturity in his songwriting. I’d like to think my music has advanced in this way as well, a movement on from the more punning-led songs that I used to write, even though a lot of them were fun at the time.
Patsy Cline - The Best of Patsy Cline
Patsy Cline didn’t write her own material, as she was first and foremost a stylist. And what a stylist, what a voice, this is how to get songs across.
She really was my entry point into Country and Western, especially with the classic pop cross-over numbers like the Willie Nelson penned Crazy., blowing away the notion that Country was just the pop chart cheese we heard in the seventies.
But once you’re in there, there are discoveries to be made, I soon alighted on the Louvin Brothers, and realised that there’s more to this than just Rose Gardens. Especially when I started making the connections - to Blues, rock n’ roll, and, importantly for me and my music, rockabilly.
A whole world opened up, but it was Patsy Cline who showed me the way.
Dwight Yoakam - Hillbilly Deluxe (1987)
The second major album from one of the vanguards of the New Traditional movement in Country. Late seventies, early eighties, people going back to what proper country music should sound like, people who thought that country had got too pop. Yoakam himself was heavily influenced by Buck Owens, of, ‘They’re Going to Put me in the Movies’ fame.
Owens’ was the proponent of the Bakersfield sound – a very stripped-down sound from the later to mid-fifties which had rebelled against the slickly produced, string orchestra-laden Nashville sound.
So, with Yoakam following suit, we have twangy guitar, fiddle, pedal steel and unashamedly country singing, that nasally thing that you either love or hate. I’m particularly keen on it. I think there’s something sincere about it.
And I love the sound of this record, the cleanness of it. I love the songs, the writing is great. Like Nick Lowe, I like the honesty of it all. And, importantly, he picks the standards he covers very carefully.
This album’s a great example of a thing that Americans can do better with Country music than Brits. Their playing is very precise but not uptight, and in the arrangements, it’s clear what all the instruments are doing, they’re there to serve the song, enhancing the song, particularly the fiddle and steel guitar working subtly around the vocal.
New Orleans Funk: The Original Sound of Funk 1960-75
A different animal to your James Brown funk, more laid back, looser, more Big Easy
The stand-out track for me is Lee Dorsey’s ‘Who’s Gonna Help a Brother Get Further’. What it's got going on sonically is great. The arrangement is very lo-fi, but it's got a great feel to it. It pushes and pulls and has a great swing to it, and that’s what characterises New Orleans funk.
Like other favourites, Dorsey’s song feels very autobiographical - Alain Toussaint wrote it but Dorsey makes it his own - the song knows what it’s talking about.
Dave Swarbrick – Rags, Reels and Airs (1967)
Pre-dating his work with Fairport Convention, all quite traditional tunes. It’s him working with folkie Martin Carthy and jazzy, Django-influenced Diz Disley, so it sounds quite swingy.
I have a personal reason for liking this album, it was a record of my dad’s that was knocking around the house when I was young. I was particularly taken with a song called ‘The Hen’s March to the Midden’ - a tune my dad used to play on the fiddle. Hearing my dad play this song and others off this album is one of my earliest musical memories and influences.
We’re in the territory of songs that you hear at Scottish Country dances, but these are arranged differently, and the sound is different, mainly because of the Diz Disley's presence on the record.
Also Diz Disney first made me aware of (WC Fields’) “ I always carry a bottle of brandy, In case I’m bitten by a snake – which I also carry.".
The Proclaimers – Sunshine on Leith (1988)
Where they really found their stride. The first album’s great, but very raw with little embellishment - Sunshine on Leith is a real body of songs that hangs together.
Another one featuring the pedal guitar and, on the song ‘Sunshine on Leith’ itself, it’s very tastefully done, Gerry Hogan’s work, enhancing what the song’s doing and the build into the chorus, incredibly evocative – it's such a well-constructed song.
Craig and Charlie’s thing of singing in their own accent, I got that from them from dot. I’ve never pretended to sing in that mid-Atlantic accent which a lot os Scots performers seem to favour – that Blue-eyed soul thing of Deacon Blue, Danny Wilson and Hue and Cry.
Link Wray – Good Rocking Tonight (1965)
Did you know that the first eight members of The Cramps Fan Club in Britain were all from Inverness? I say this because, of course, there is a direct line between Link Wray and the Cramps. The Cramps are your punk equivalent of Link Wray, all guitars stripped back to their primal essence, all the needles on the console in the red, which, as we know, is a very good thing.
Speaking of the Cramps, theirs was still the best ever gig that I’ve been to, the only one which has provoked me into taking off my shirt in an auditorium, ‘They’ll ooze, you’ll throb!’
In terms of guitar influencing, for me Link Wray wrote the book and his records just sound amazing ... and all on one lung as well.
Tom Waits - Swordfishtrombones (1983)
The album where Tom Waits really became the Tom Waits that we know today, having been much more Brill Building before this.
It's a real mutant take on the blues, while being heavily influenced by New Orleans Jazz, to circle back to New Orleans Funk. The sonic palette and the range of sounds and instruments on this – it's a real introduction of the marimba into the mainstream – is once again a backdrop for very poetic lyrics - one of the themes throughout these favourites albums.
And it’s all slightly weird and sleazy and all the better for it.
Thin Lizzy – Jailbreak (1976)
Heavyish bit of rock that stands out a bit in this list, but I loved Thin Lizzy, particularly in pre-punk days. It was the sound of my summer of ‘76.
Never mind the genre, what it does share with the rest on this list is this is a set of well-constructed songs and, also in common with a lot of my other picks, it has a, maybe surprising, degree of lyricism.
This album was a great teacher for me, I’d play it at 16rpm just to figure out what they were doing.
The Clash – London Calling (1979)
As a body of work, it covers such a lot of ground, it’s where they realised, they really could throw in all their influences.
The title track is a straight-ahead bit of rock music, simple in its construction, but it delivers.
Their first album was a roughly-recorded amphetamine rush, but that’s great as it totally represented what they were at the time. But by the time we get to London Calling, only a couple of years later, it had coalesced into something much, much more. The song writing was a cut above and they were able to produce a suite of songs that really, really hangs together, something that the Pistols could never have done – the amphetamine rush was their one great trick. And everyone gets a go at singing, which I really love about it.
It sounds fantastic. Maverick producer Guy Stevens really creates a sound of its own which is just London Calling by the Clash.