By Robert Ruane Jr.
I am in my late 50s, and there is no commercial radio format airing new songs designed for my age group and up. Even adult contemporary radio’s upper age limit is 54—and that format has been skewing younger. Country and adult alternative radio also seem aimed at a younger audience these days. However, I have found a vast amount of high-quality music online. One genre that has no age limit is Americana—an umbrella term for alternative country, folk, roots rock, bluegrass, blues, and jazz-tinged music.
I have my own song chart where I rank my personal favorites and update it about once a month. When I began this chert, about 45 years ago, it didn’t stray too far from what was on top-40 radio. Nowadays, I hardly know any song on the pop chart. Many of the titles on my list are sincere yet fun titles. They are well crafted but easy to listen to. These musicians realize that there is more to life than the endless pursuit of money, sexual conquest, and glamour promoted via contemporary hit radio and other commercial formats.
In the 2010s, senior acts such as Steve Miller, Neil Diamond, Cyndi Lauper, Neil Young, Paul Simon, Judy Collins, and many more made my top 10. Many younger acts with old-school sounds (Joss Stone, Adele, Jens Lekman, et al) have had big hits on my own chart. Jazmine Sullivan (“Lions, Tigers & Bears” and “If You Dare”) and blues-rocker Gina Sicilia (“I Don’t Want to Be in Love”) are examples of younger singers with a high-quality, old-school sound. Old-school music still lives on, and many artists—young and old—are still writing, recording, and performing. Chuck Berry’s “Wonderful Woman,” from his final album (Chuck) made my chart in 2017.
Alternative country acts such as Sunny Sweeney (“I Feel like Hank Williams Tonight”), Rodney Crowell (“Nashville 1972”), and the Mavericks (“Brand New Day”) have made my personal top 40. These—and other songs like them—either convey true
emotion or tell a fascinating story. Folk music is also is well-represented on my list: melodic guitar tunes by acts ranging from Patty Griffin to John Gorka to Tim O’Brien to I Draw Slow to Catie Curtis to Elaine Mahon. Topics of their songs range from living in the moment to recognizing long-lost family members to regrets over infidelity to environmental concerns.
Bluegrass has featured acts such as Steep Canyon Rangers, who have made my chart with songs such as 2015’s “Radio,” which gave a shout-out to my all-time favorite radio personality, Casey Kasem. Gospel is well represented as well, where acts such as Rhiannon Giddens (“Freedom Highway”), Kathryn Caine (“I Believe”), Mavis Staples (“Turn Me Around”), and more sing about their struggles to remain faithful to their higher power.
Blues-rock singers such as Carolyn Wonderland, Taj Mahal & Keb Mo, Joe Bonamassa, and Gina Sicilia have released melodic, high-quality songs over the past few years. Traditional country artists such as Willie Nelson and Alan Jackson have scored high on my list. Country-folk acts such as the Savage Hearts (“High Road”) and the bluesy Carolyn Wonderland (“Moon Goes Missing”) have also done well. Steve Martin and his excellent backup band Steep Canyon Rangers had a great new one, “So Familiar,” in 2018. Gregg Allman’s final album, Southern Blood, featured the song “My Only True Friend,” a plaintive Southern rock ballad. In late 2017, I heard the first new song by Toto in many years, “Alone,” a tune with a strong hook. Poco’s Rusty Young has the reflective ballad “Waitin’ for the Sun.”
There were many good cover songs in the late 2010s, such as the melancholy traditional country number by Sunny Sweeney, “I Feel like Hank Williams Tonight.” Shelby Lynne and Allison Moorer had an excellent cover of Bob Dylan’s 1997 song “Nor Dark Yet.” Bob Seger had a stellar remake of Lou Reed’s 1989 song “Busload of Faith.” The Wailin Jennys had a melodic new cover of Tom Petty’s 1996 song “Wildflowers.”
Among socially conscious songs include Jack Johnson’s “My Mind Is for Sale,” Rhiannon Giddens’ “Freedom Highway,” Bruce Cockburn’s “States I’m In,” and Ringo Starr’s “Give More Love.” On the happier side, Petula Clark had an upbeat 2017 song called ”Living for Today,” which had a bluesy pop rock sound and a springlike hook. She wants to live in the present and still sounds good at age 85-plus. Cat Stevens (Yusuf) had an enchanting recording called “The Laughing Apple,” a tune with a childlike vibe. He actually wrote it back in 1967—several years before his first American hit, “Wild World.” “Laughing Apple” has a refreshing autumnal aura, and it became an immediate favorite of mine. Regional folk singer Janet Burgan released an album of original songs in late 2016, including a melodic strummer called “Seize the Day.”
In 2018 I became acquainted with such stellar folk songs as Darling West’s “After My Time,” Mary Chapin Carpenter’s “Heroes and Heroines,” and Birds of Chicago’s “Roll Away.” Rita Coolidge returned to her roots with her new album Safe in the Arms of Time, featuring the song “You Can Fall in Love.” Brandi Carlyle had a reflective new tune called “The Mother.” Carlyle is a favorite of my sister’s because her music resonates. Americana artist Lori McKenna’s new song “People Get Old” will resonate with many listeners. Loreena McKennitt’s song “Spanish Guitars and Night Plazas” can be soothing after a long, stressful day.
Listening to good new music can help extend a veteran artist’s career, and he or she can feel needed. The artists whom I enjoy sing about a variety of topics—from racism to romance, from apples to angels, and from broken hearts to remorse over unfaithful actions. The performers are old, young, and in-between. They sing of persevering, striving, and long-lasting friendship. It is a refreshing alternative to the commercial formats’ fixation on salacious lyrics, money, and macho superficiality.