Not so very long ago, country music was relegated to the same cultural ghetto as NASCAR and bull riding. But during its transition from urban cowboy to new traditionalism, and coincidental to the post-punk era’s creative vacuum, it was reintroduced by the likes of Rank & File and Dwight Yoakam. Their rebel rehab slowly created a context wherein all manner of less qualified aspirants were able to exercise their own folksy, Flying Burrito-damaged indulgences, producing today’s wholly artificial brand of “Americana,” a predictably homogenous, frequently by rote and thoroughly unconvincing musical ghetto of its own. Here are some of the genre’s more memorable misfires.
10. Sam Outlaw
A lapsed local hipster who traded in his “very successful career in advertising” to shill some of the weakest, D.O.A. pop-country crap this side of Rascal Flatts, Outlaw’s combination of inauthenticity and amateur-hour warbling is an impressive exercise in total failure. When Outlaw first slithered out of Silver Lake with 2015 debut Angeleno, his PR firm constantly trumpeted, “It’s his real name! It’s his REAL NAME!” Wanna connect with him on social media? Look up “Sam Morgan.” (Outlaw is his mother's maiden name.) He endlessly lays claim to a spiritual kinship with historic West Coast country, but hearing any of his songs confirms this as thoroughly ludicrous lip service
9. Jack Grelle
While Missouri has produced such famed musical icons as Count Basie, Mary Lou Williams, Ferlin Husky and Porter Wagoner, St. Louis singer-songwriter Jack Grelle isn’t likely to eclipse any of them. Ballyhooed in his press materials as a stylist who “adeptly weaves Cajun, Tejano, country, honky-tonk, rock and folk to create a passionately complex overlay of the genres,” a more accurate reckoning would be “an ungainly genre jumper with a stale, heavy-handed approach topped off by flat, wooden vocals.” Between his Muppet-on-steroids whiskers and wildly inexpressive delivery, Grelle is a black hole of ill-advised, self-defeating musical aspiration.
8. Wayne the Train Hancock
Paralyzingly derivative, terminally predictable, Texas retro merchant Hancock specializes in titillating the most easily placated, uncritical division in the Americana crowd — the ’50s-fixated greaser set. Exploiting the formerly noble honky-tonk and Western swing genres with a ghastly soullessness that reduces any song to lifeless banality, Hancock’s suffocatingly heavy-handed, stereotypical lyrics (“I might go dancin’ or shootin’ pool/It’s a hip trip, baby, and the cats are all cool”) are as bereft of dignity as they are lacking in heat and emotion, and an insult to the legacy of Lone Star state geniuses Ernest Tubb and Bob Wills.
7. Jason Boland & the Stragglers
Boland is held as a modern spearhead of the generally dreadful Oklahoma/Texas “Red Dirt” subgenre, a sort of swaggering, populist, frat-boy style that is typified by redneck bluster and artifice. Boland’s lumbering bellow (he actually managed to rupture a vocal cord once) comes attached to a stodgy brand of second-rate country-rock with aimless, overactive fiddles and mandolins scratching away at the edges. At their core, Boland & the Stragglers trade in quasi-anthemic fodder that scrupulously avoids any real introspection or meaning. It’s all pretense — loud, overdone and, more than anything else, unimaginative.
6. Shovels & Rope
Sort of like The White Stripes meet Lady Antebellum, only even more full of themselves. And SO cute. Just. Go. Away.
5. The Devil Makes Three
This cringe-inducing novelty trio from Santa Cruz work a blend of lame blues covers, ersatz swing, embarrassing harmonies and synthetic folk revival, which, with the release of their eponymous 2002 debut, instantly qualified them as one of Americana’s most gimmicky acts. Completely lacking any tangible conviction or sense of emotional involvement, their happy-go-lucky, nu-folk sound is so completely hobbled by its inability to connect to its sources that it becomes a marvelously perfected exercise in futility.
4. Gillian Welch
Brittle, rigid, always outside looking in, Manhattan-born, Los Angeles–raised Welch has been perpetrating the most egregious form of wannabe Americana hokum for decades: counterfeit bluegrass. Painfully artificial, achingly affected, consistently low-impact, her Method actor's Southern accent and tradition-bearing veneer grow more ridiculous with each grimace and twang. Decades into a career hawking her Appalachian snake oil, Welch has achieved unchallenged stature as one of the most reliable frauds in the business. Hell, she makes Carrie Underwood sound like Mother Maybelle Carter.
3. Jason Isbell
A disastrous confluence of predictable singer-songwriter damage and contemptible faux-Nashville power ballad mediocrity, moon-faced Americana wonder boy Isbell specializes in bloodless, plodding monologues passed off as musical compositions. His vanilla bleat imparts all the emotional gravity of a stuffed bunny rabbit and his strikingly consistent inability to come up with a melody, any melody, ranks him as one of the most uninteresting voices in contemporary popular music. No wonder the Grammys love him.
2. Robert Ellis
Houston singer-songwriter Robert Ellis’ passionate romance with cliché and midtempo sound-alike trainwrecks qualifies him as one of Americana’s most homogenous practitioners. His stunning proclivity for unvaried, emotionless flights of self-indulgent droning, bookended by a gift for ridiculously bad songwriting (“Oh you helped me understand, you took me by the hand …“) and unerringly bad taste in pop archaeology (he once covered Paul Simon snorer “Still Crazy After All These Years”), combine to create a dismal aesthetic that’s dazzling for its sheer gracelessness.
1. Lucinda Williams
As overrated as she is Insufferable, Lucinda Williams has been complaining about everything since her first album almost 40 years ago. Universally lauded by the press for her “soulful” qualities, Williams’ overwrought vocals, loaded with half-cracked affectations, and ceaseless vacillation between loss and dissatisfaction just come off as whiny. These are rich, timeless themes, but Williams’ tendency to self-focus — rather than evoke the human experience’s shared, empathic reality — brings it all down to the uninteresting level of a bruised ego, imparting a sour, car-wheels-going-nowhere-on-a-gravel-road atmosphere of “who cares?”