Saving Country Music’s 50 Essential Albums for 2014

2014-essential-albumsIn 2014, Saving Country Music reviewed more albums than ever before, and correspondingly the much-anticipated Essential Albums list has also been expanded all the way to the half century mark. Yes, there are still some album that were reviewed or not reviewed that are still worthy of acclaim, but as with all things, a line must be drawn somewhere. You are encouraged to leave your thoughts on what albums you feel were essential from 2014 below.

Also, since no significant mainstream project made any of this year’s end-of-year’s lists, Saving Country Music intends to post a separate list highlighting some of the best of the mainstream in 2014.

PLEASE NOTE: This list only includes albums that have been reviewed so far. There are a more good and important albums from 2014 that have yet to be reviewed, and that will hopefully be reviewed shortly and added to this list if deemed fit.

PLEASE NOTE: None of the Album of the Year Nominees are included on this list, so look over there before complaining about omissions. After the first 5 albums considered the “Most Essential,” the albums are listed mostly in the order the albums were reviewed, not in order based on recommendation/quality/etc.


MOST ESSENTIAL – Doug Seegers – Going Down to the River

doug-seegers-going-down-to-the-riverOf course Doug Seegers was a homeless man living on the streets, because that’s about the assessment of value American society has placed upon the classic style of country music.

It very well may be true that Doug Seeger’s story could be anyone’s, and that you could crash the streets of Nashville, Austin, New York, or Los Angeles, and put together an entire roster of remarkable talent that is currently sleeping on the streets, as even more worthy musicians sit teetering on the brink of homelessness themselves because they’ve been overlooked by the industry. But that doesn’t make Doug Seeger’s talent any less worthy of being singled out as it has, and as Going Down To The River attests, any and all praise Seegers has been showered with over the last six months and counting is worthy and warranted. (read full review)

MOST ESSENTIAL – Kelsey Waldon – The Gold Mine

kelsey-waldon-the-gold-mineThis petite little native Kentuckian rears back and gives you twelve new original songs on her album The Gold Mine that rivals most any other batch of tunes from any other female or male for that matter from this calendar year. Strikingly traditional, yet still fresh feeling with enough evolved moments to be connected to the current mood, The Gold Mine is a boon of audio treasures mined from the great American music unknown.

It may seem almost intimidating to navigate through all the worthy female country and roots artists you can resign your music time to these days. But if your leanings are more towards traditional country, Kelsey Waldon and The Gold Mine aren’t just the perfect starting point, they’re the current apex. (read full review)

MOST ESSENTIAL – Luke Bell- Don’t Mind If I Do

dont-mind-if-i-do-luke-bellLuke Bell is all peeling paint, and plaid jackets that smell like old men. He won’t wow you with his originality, but his authentic interpretation of classic country sounds and modes is uncanny. This is one of those albums that right after you push play, you find yourself saying, “Yes, this is what I’m talking about.”

Luke Bell and Don’t Mind If I Do prove that no matter what dispersions they may cast under the name of country music, no matter how many cool old building they may bulldoze, no matter how many traditions they may burn, and no matter how many times they try to tell you classic country is no longer relevant, it will always remain alive, harbored in the hearts of its six string-toting, singing shepherds, and the crowds that gather to hear them. (read full review)

MOST ESSENTIAL – Jason Eady – Daylight & Dark

jason-eady-daylight-and-darkIf you were asked to populate a list of current country music artists that with no frills and no variations lay down country music as country music was meant to be, Jason Eady would very have to be at or near the top of your list. And if you found yourself beset on all sides by ravenous legions of flesh-eating pop country music fans whose only bane was the authentic sound of true country music being blared in their general direction, Daylight & Dark just might be your ideal go to to win your ultimate escape.

Sure, when you get this deep into the essence of true country music, you’re going to leave some folks behind. But Daylight & Dark isn’t for them, it’s for the folks that were left behind by what they now call country music many years ago. (read full review)

MOST ESSENTIAL – Joseph Huber – The Hanging Road

joseph-huber-the-hanging-roadHuber was known for his breakneck banjo and as one of the primary songwriters for the .357 String Band, but when he went the solo route, suddenly his deftness as a composer shined through with such blinding insight and poetry, he abruptly elevated himself from a superstar picker with some cool songs to something worthy of great acclaim.

Joesph’s third album The Hanging Road is his most ambitious release yet, heavy with musical mastery and weighty themes, bred from the fiddle that Joseph Huber has shown favor to recently. The Hanging Road is an exposition of Huber’s multi-talented musical skill set, engaging and vibrant, yet humble and rootsy as he takes his country, folk, bluegrass and blues influences into heavy account. (see album premier)

– – – – – – – – –

***REMEMBER: Album of the Year Candidates are not included on this list***

– – – – – – – – –

Willie Nelson – Band of Brothers

willie-nelson-band-of-brothersLet’s face it. Willie Nelson could take his sweaty, old man-smelling headband off, slingshot it out to center stage, and it would still be more enriching than what most of modern country radio has to offer. Simply the tone of his voice immediately puts the inertia of nearly a century of noble contributions to country music behind whatever he does. A few plucks of his guitar “Trigger,” and the woody tones can can make you break out in bone-deep shivers. Just the visage of Willie the Pocahontas braids and the folds of wisdom feathered by white whiskers enveloping one of the world’s most respected faces commands immediate reverence, and a warm feeling usually reserved only for the proximity of close family. (read full review)

Whitey Morgan – Born, Raised & LIVE in Flint

whitey-morgan-born-rasied-live-in-flintBorn, Raised, & LIVE From Flint captures a well-seasoned 78”²s band with a couple of extra pieces like harmonica and organ/piano for good measure reprising Whitey’s most popular songs with a live energy any studio effort just can’t match. Along with being a live album, you could also consider this a Greatest Hits package from the first half decade-plus of the band.

The fact that Whitey Morgan & The 78”²s are good live is one of the reasons they could go darn near half a decade now without releasing any new music, yet still build up their legacy and fan base to the point where they’ve never been bigger. Born, Raised, & LIVE gives hardcore Whitey fans a home version of the madness and magic that sets the hair of honky-tonk crowds on fire all across the country and beyond. (read full review)

Arlo McKinley – Arlo McKinley & The Lonesome Sound

arlo-mckinley-and-the-lonesome-soundUnless you’re clued into the right sectors of the Cincinnati music scene, his name is likely one of a stranger. But just as music worth hearing tends to do, it has slowly been bubbling up from word of mouth until some of those mouths have begun to speak about this record as one of the best music offerings all year.

McKinley’s ear for matching emotion with sound is quite skilled. Even the more upbeat-sounding numbers like “Don’t Need to Know” or the pounding final track “Dark Side of the Street” deliver a bravely vulnerable and depressing account of the life and times of this adept Ohio songwriter. It takes courage to unburden your soul and air your personal frailties in the way Arlo McKinley has done in this album, and it takes insight and study to do it in a way that sounds so so good. (read full review)

Adam Hood – Welcome to the Big World

adam-hood-welcome-to-the-big-worldAdam Hood did his time on big stages, gave his shot to Nashville where he still haunts songwriting rounds with some of his friends, and his mark will forever be left on the music even if his pen fell silent tomorrow. But now he seems content with the world and his place in it.

It was a random performance at the Tavern In The Gruene that landed Adam Hood on the greater country music map, but the songwriter never left the spirit of the intimate performance and the conveyance of a personal feeling that spoke to Miranda Lambert that night, and still rings pure and potent in the 11 tracks of Welcome to the Big World. (read full review)

Wade Bowen – Wade Bowen

wade-bowen-self-titledAhead of this self-titled release, the buzz was immense. There was a sense this wasn’t going to be simply another Wade Bowen album that his experiences of the last few years helped Wade see himself for who he really is, instead of who everyone else wants him to be. Two songs in, and this album already delivers on any promises and expectations preceding it.

Releasing a self-titled album seven albums deep into your career is making a statement. “This is me,” Wade Bowen is saying, and with a cadre of great songs turned in on this album, “me” in regards to Wade Bowen is something worth listening to. (read full review)

Those Poor Bastards – Vicious Losers

those-poor-bastards-vicious-losersImagine condensing the dark sentiments from all of the early country pioneers together, and adding a few new methods of composition and sound from more modern apparitions such as Tom Waits and Nick Cave, and you have a sound that however niche it might be, has cast a wide net of loyal parishioners all over the world who collect Those Poor Bastards’ short run colored vinyl projects and pour over their artistically-oriented music as fine art, no matter how hauntingly it may screech and moan to get its dreadful point across.

Words and textures are one in the same with Those Poor Bastards, and one thing Lonesome Wyatt can never get enough credit for is his prowess as a vocalist that is virtually unparalleled in conveying mood and character with such range. (read full review)

Stoney LaRue – Aviator

stoney-larue-aviatorWith his new album Aviator, you not only get that great, signature Stoney LaRue sound, you get it with Stoney and all the involved parties buying in by not just showing confidence, but even showing a little boldness and willingness to do some things a little offbeat, run some songs together and carry others out a little longer than they should be, and this all results in that enriching Stoney LaRue mood becoming even more enhanced.

Aviator is one of those albums that defines a career when many of the Red Dirt originators are growing long in the tooth, and a lot of Texas country headliners are letting the Nashville influence seep in a little too much. (read full review)

Eliot Bronson – Eliot Bronson

eliot-bronson-albumProduced by Dave Cobb.

This is the type of album we wished all our favorite old songwriters would make again. This is the type of album that made us first love all of those old songwriters.

You get the sense listening to this album that Eliot Bronson is not just releasing his latest album, but the one he sacrificed pieces of his soul to make. This is “the one” so to speak, and that sense of purpose, if not desperation and pent up frustrations at being a 30-something songwriter still struggling to find his place and the proper attention from the public results in a passion that is palpable, and music that is memorable. (read full review)

Shakey Graves – And The War Came

shakey-graves-and-the-war-cameHow to evolve into a full band setting while still holding onto what won you such rabid grassroots support was the precarious challenge Shakey Graves was asked to pull off with this new Dualtone release And The War Came, and it’s what he accomplishes with such alacrity, the listener remains delightfully unaware any such challenge even existed. You’re simply listening to Shakey Graves blossom from an obscure one man band for people in the know, to an artist worthy of a wide ear who could and should help define what the vanguard of roots music is in 2014.

And The War Came is tell tale folk wayfaring blues with a dash of country roots, but like all artists who in turn help define their epoch in music, Shakey Graves elevates himself beyond definition. (read full review)

JP Harris & The Tough Choices – Home Is Where The Hurt Is

j-p-harris-home-is-where-the-hurt-isIf you’re looking for a brand of country music that is country and country only, not country rock, country punk, “evolved” country, alt-country or Americana, then J.P. Harris & The Tough Choices just might be right in your wheelhouse. J.P. lets it be known he’d rather you leave your hyphenated country labels and long-winded qualifiers clear of what he does. And when you listen to his music, that’s exactly what you get: country music as the original concept of what the term “country” implies with very little wiggle room.

“For the last 50 years in American history, country music is the one thing that is universally identifiable as an American soundtrack, as an American kind of music. More than any other type of exclusively American music old rock and roll, old black blues, old-time bluegrass or fiddle music I think that country music more broadly represents a bigger segment of people in America. Keeping that tradition alive and seeing that country music has played an amazing role in unifying different segments politically and culturally of American people, it’s worth fighting to keep that identifiable.” (read JP Harris Interview)

Marty Stuart – Saturday Night / Sunday Morning

marty-stuart-saturday-night-sunday-morningI don’t know how Marty Stuart does it. He’s like Gandalf on the back of his white steed, galloping here and there and everywhere in his pursuit to save country music. He’s scouring the country to secure important country music artifacts for preservation. He’s opening a cultural center in his hometown. He’s starring in The Marty Stuart Show and touring constantly. And here he is releasing a double album through his Superlatone record label.

Once again Marty Stuart and the Fabulous Superlatives prove they are at the core of keeping the traditions of country music alive, while doing so in a manner that is energetic, inviting, informed, and broad-based where people of all stripes the Saturday night and Sunday morning people can come together and enjoy the gift of good country music together. (read full review)

Sweet GA Brown – Wordsmith

sweet-ga-brown-wordsmithSweet GA Brown is the real deal when it comes to songwriters sweating under a blue collar all day to earn the right to sing in swill joints at night. His music emanates from the small town of Ringgold, GA just outside of Chattanooga; that’s the Georgia-Tennessee-Bama region that has seen the rise to other songwriters who like to cut their hard-hitting realism with humor like Roger Alan Wade.

Sweet GA Brown and Wordsmith are a pleasant surprise and shouldn’t be frowned upon because of somewhat crude production, potty mouth language, and religious leanings. Within this music is the message of living life with a grin on your face and kindness in your heart, and no matter what your stripes, that’s a message that can resonate with all of us. (read full review)

The Whiskey Shivers – The Whiskey Shivers

the-whiskey-shiversWhat the band was lacking heretofore was a really good record to represent the energy they ignite on stage for the folks who wanted to take the Whiskey Shivers home with them. The few homespun offerings available at the merch table over the years had a lot of spirit, but did not do their live show justice. So for this effort they solicited the services of rising Americana star Robert Ellis as a producer, and set out to make what they hoped to be their definitive studio album that would set them apart from the string band hordes. I’m happy to report this album does just that.

Taming the beast without destroying its wild wonder is what this self-titled LP accomplishes, and it should frame the Whiskey Shivers as one of the string bands worthy of more wide, national recognition as young band on the rise. (read full review)

Lee Ann Womack – The Way I’m Livin’

lee-ann-womack-the-way-im-livinLee Ann Womack has earned the listening public’s undivided attention already from her years of stellar contributions, but this one has a little more special meaning for Womack since it is her first release without a major label, and a release that helps rate of progress for both women and traditional country artists looking to revitalize their place to a wider audience.

There may be a few more albums that are better than The Way I’m Livin’ that will be released this year, but none that are this good that will reach as many ears. Lee Ann Womack is a heavyweight for women, for hard country, and now for independent artists, and with this Sugar Hill release she releases and lands a haymaker. (read full review)

Michael Goodman – Unbreakable Heart

michael-goodman-unbreakable-heartUnbreakable Heart almost feels like two separate albums fashioned together. Though “rockabilly” may be the easy way to describe the one half, this album is a little less Brian Setzer and Reverend Horton Heat, and a little more Nick Curran and JD McPherson. But where Michael Goodman won over this critic was with his country fare. Coming at you hard and straight, this is traditional country music in every sense, yet approached with a freshness and enthusiasm so it doesn’t feel drabby or anachronistic.

Like walking into Sun Studios circa 1956, Michael Goodman and Unbreakable Heart take you back to a time when the music of American was uncorrupted, the sentiments were sincere, and the promise was unending. (read full review)

Otis Gibbs – Souvenirs of a Misspent Youth

otis-gibbs-souvenirs-of-a-misspent-youthA troubadour in every sense of the word, Otis Gibbs is an artist who can inspire even the most timid among us to shush a burly bar troll talking over one of his performances. This is music to lean in and listen to. This is music to get lost in as the lives of characters you’ve never heard of before become as intimate and familiar as family in the span of four minutes, until you find yourself weeping at their struggles, celebrating their victories, and worrying about their fate.

Otis Gibbs is a storyteller’s storyteller, and one that makes you see life unfurling in poetry and prose. He may never tell his stories to the wide masses, but the ones wise enough to lean in and listen will find riches and wisdom no man would ever dare lay a monetary value on. (read full review)

 Justin Payne – No Place Lower Than High

justin-payne-noplace-lower-than-highFrom the fertile Outlaw country ground that comprises the hills and hollers of Boone County, West Virginia comes a homespun, but inspired and deftly-written insight into the American experience called No Place Lower Than High. Composed and performed by the virtual unknown singer and songwriter Justin Payne, this no budget project cut in a 100-year-old coal camp house is rough-hewn, scratchy, and sometimes hard to listen to through the production shortcomings. But hiding under all of the coal dust is a soul-bearing, bare-chested, and unfettered account of one man’s dreams and demons more than worthy of listening in on.

No Place Lower Than High is a superb underground gem sifted out of a mess of coal rubble, in an era when such discoveries seem much too far between. (read full review)

Cory Branan – The No-Hit Wonder

cory-branan-the-no-hit-wonderThis is old school country rock at its finest, with exquisitely-crafted, cunning lyrical runs that make you laugh, amazing insight enhanced by brilliant timing and pentameter, and musical clothing that enhance each song’s strengths and endear them to the audience, pointing them the way to the album’s enjoyment.

This is the album Cory Branan needed to write, record, and release. Enough time had passed since his earlier works in the 00”²s, and a whole new crop of listeners have emerged for this type of music to where it was necessary to re-introduce himself to the musical world in a way that could open his entire body of work to a hungry audience always looking for new songwriters to sink themselves into. (read full review)

Ben Miller Band – Any Way, Shape, or Form

ben-miller-band-any-way-shape-or-formThe Ben Miller Band from Joplin, Missouri is one of those bands, and they illustrate their prowess and commitment to the music in their new album on New West Records called Any Way, Shape, or Form. Procuring the foundation for their music from the pre-war and Delta blues, and jug and string bands of the deep South, their amorphous sound is like a seance for the creaky bones of past generations to animate back to life from the inalienable pull of an infectious groove.

The Ben Miller Band carves out a distinctive niche for themselves, and one that elevates them above the common, overdone ruts, while not traveling too far from the primal familiarity of roots music that makes it such an eternal gift. (read full review)

Billy Joe Shaver – Long In The Tooth

billy-joe-shaver-long-in-the-toothWe have waited seven damn years for the 74-year-old to finally put out another album of original music, and Long In The Tooth is well worth the wait. The album finds Billy Joe Shaver sitting tall in the saddle, shouting and spitting, brandishing his fists and taking potshots, and shining in moments of unexpected sentimentality.

Blame the seven year hiatus for helping to refine his material, blame his immortal spirit that refuses to let him sit down, or blame the talent within him that appears to be bottomless. But at 74-years-old, Billy Joe Shaver is still schooling an army of artists who would love to label themselves Outlaws, but don’t have the acumen to truly understand what the word even means, let alone the skills to pull it off, or the history to back it up. (read full review)

Bradford Lee Folk – Somewhere Far Away

bradford-lee-folk-somewhere-far-awayA simply-stated, wholesome, traditional yet original bluegrass album, Somewhere Far Away delves into the emotion-stirring exploration of melody like few other projects inside or out of the bluegrass world. Bradford’s voice is warm, soothing, and understated in a good way, never getting too exercised like the ideal voice of wisdom and reason, which is only fitting for the sage-like sentiments these songs convey. The high lonesome tone that seems as effortless as breath to Bradford evokes the majesty of wide vistas, stoking the imagination.

Somewhere Far Away may not win any grand accolades from the bluegrass circuit because it doesn’t represent an extreme of the discipline. But unlike some of the speed demons, compositional wizards, and purists setting the pace in bluegrass proper, it is simply a joy to listen to. (read full review)

Petunia & The Vipers – Inside of You

petunia-and-the-vipers-inside-of-youHailing from high on the Western Hemisphere in Vancouver, British Columbia, Petunia & The Vipers shift from primitive country, to rockabilly, to jazz chording and Latin rhythms like they’re one in the same like a Canadian version of Wayne “The Train” Hancock with a sound that is completely original while still being referential to the better days of music.

Some bands and artists are so creative, their stories etch a tragedy of never finding the commercial recognition they deserve. Other artists must take their inspiration and interpret it to a more accessible audience. Petunia & The Vipers are one of these creative generators and innovators, and their music and moxy can be found defining the cutting edge of what is considered creative in country and roots today. (read full review)

Old Crow Medicine Show – Remedy

old-crow-medicine-show-remedyOld Crow Medicine Show is the band that showed up in Nashville and were able to maintain their true and original form of expression, and have it stick. The trendy string band craze of 2012 topped by Mumford & Sons came and went, and Old Crow Medicine Show is still here.

Somewhat predictable, but very enjoyable, Old Crow Medicine Show’s Remedy continues their reign as America’s preeminent string band, while ushering in a new era of success and recognition that will see the band go down in history as an important influence. (read full review)

Dale Watson – The Truckin’ Session Vol. 3

dale-watson-the-truckin-sessions-trilogyThe key to a good truckin’ song is to not take it too seriously, to have fun with it, but to not be all ham and eggs either. Dale Watson finds that ideal balance on this 3rd installment, and beyond just being really damn fun to listen to, the album has some great variety of moods that do the legacy of the truckin’ song justice.

Should Dale Watson start to be considered for induction as a country truckin’ song overlord in the company of Dave Dudley, Dick Curless, and Red Sovine? They were the originators, but Dale is definitely making a strong case that he is the best modern day equivalent. Whether you want to buy the whole trilogy or just this installment is your truckin’ business. But if you’ve never listened to any of them, The Truckin’ Sessions Vol. 3 is definitely the place to start. (read full review)

Dex Romweber Duo – Images 13

dex-romweber-duo-images-13Half the time you don’t know what the hell is going on, and that’s half the fun of it. Dex Romwever goes wherever his whimsy takes him, and with such a handsome tool chest of musical skills to call upon at any notice, and a music encyclopedia for a brain, he can. He’s like the American music version of silly putty. It’s the sound of America longing for a simpler past, and finding horror movies about haunted houses and flying saucers, sun-drenched beaches with dangerous undertows shaded through sepia tones, and Memphis sweat corroding the lacquer of catalog guitars.

It blows my mind any time I’m talking to a fellow music nerd and they give me a “Dex who?” But isn’t that always the way with the originators of a sound, especially ones whose influences are so varied as this one. (read full review)

Zoe Muth – World of Strangers

zoe-muth-world-of-strangersLike the faces of children, each song on World of Strangers has something hard not to be endeared to. The faraway cry of the steel guitar on the opening number “A Little Piece of History”, the empathetic character at the heart of “Mama Needs A Margarita”, the aching in “Annabelle”, the timelessness of “Waltz of the Wayward Wind”, and the story so easy to relate to in “What Did You Come Back Here For?”

World of Strangers does not grab you by the gruff and make you listen, it’s a creeper that burrows itself into your bones. It’s not a flood that comes crashing in with waves, it’s the one that rises unexpectedly until you’re knee deep. (read full review)

John Fullbright – Songs

john-fullbright-songsFor a 26-year-old who must feel the pressure of fulfilling the expectations his first album set, Fullbright is positively fearless in Songs. And in between the first, middle and last song of this album that sketch the moral arc of his intended message, he entertains with wistful mentions of love, and extended bouts of storytelling, built just as much upon piano and organ tone as it is guitar, and with generally sparse, but always ample and appropriate musical arrangements that achieve the goal of highlighting the words and little else.

With Songs, John Fullbright sets the standard by which all other songwriters will be measured by in 2014. (read full review)

Ags Connolly – How About Now

ags-connolly-how-about-nowAfter studying and listening to country music for years, including a few forays over to the United States to see James Hand on his home soil, and even share the stage with Dale Watson at Austin’s famed Continental Club, Ags drew up the confidence to release his debut album How About Now.

Drop all the qualifiers, discounts, and rhetoric about origin, Ags Connolly deserves to be considered right beside his Stateside counterparts as one of the carriers of the country music holy ghost whose carefully-crafted songs can speak to the human heart universally, irrespective of borders. (read full review)

Willie Watson – Folk Singer Vol. 1

willie-watson-folk-singer-vol-1To become a solo artist, Willie Watson didn’t decide to create a more sensible approach, or learn how to be more personable and well-rounded as an entertainer. Instead he drew even further inward, took what he did and boiled it down even further to the kernel of his creative genius where he’s channeling with almost ghostly authenticity the very folk singers, country troubadours, and blues men he seeks to resurrect through his music. Stern faced and focused, he comes out and sings with such a fierceness, dedication and heart to the emotions and humanity behind the stories he’s singing about, I’ll be damned if Willie Watson doesn’t come across more like Woody Guthrie than Woody Guthrie. (read full review)

Nikki Lane – All or Nothin’

nikki-lane-all-or-nothinGetting the truth out of Nikki Lane isn’t something that needs to be coaxed. Whether it’s the surprising, if not shocking honesty of sinful behavior coming from a female voice evidenced in the songs “Right Time” and “Sleep With A Stranger”, or the vulnerability presented in “Good Man” or “Out Of My Mind”, you don’t have to squint to see that these songs are the truth through Nikki Lane’s eyes.

Nikki Lane is seesawing from one debilitating set of emotions to another, but always doing her best to translate and capture those emotions in songs to share with the rest of the world in a way that makes us both sympathize and share in those experiences, embellishing the rich textures of being alive. (read full review)

John Howie Jr. – Everything Except Goodbye

john-howie-jr-everything-except-goodbyeJohn Howie Jr. has always loomed large as a frontman and singer, but there’s a few tracks on Everything Except Goodbye where he figures out how to downright outdo himself. He simply sings the hell out of the songs on this album, testing his range and dexterity like never before, resulting in him really squeezing the true emotion out of the story and drawing your ear in.

John Howie Jr. & Rosewood Bluff really have the country music formula down of how to sound familiar, while still sounding fresh and original. A great country album. (read full review)

Doug Strahan – Coal Black Dreams & Late Night Schemes

doug-strahan-cold-black-dreamsMany try to resurrect that heroine sweat sound of the 70”²s. They throw reel to reel seances. They blow all manner of money on vintage gear. But I’ve never heard someone get so close to the true heart of that sound as Doug Strahan does on this album.

Maybe a little more classic rock than country for the most part, but still with some excellent country songs, Cold Black Dreams, Late Night Schemes has a little something for everyone ”¦ well except for those glow stick-twirling EDM freaks and Florida Georgia Line losers, but they can go suck black lemons; we like it loose and a little off-time, and that’s what Doug Strahan delivers with blurry-eyed beatnik coolness. (read full review)

Nickel Creek – A Dotted Line

nickel-creek-a-dotted-lineA Dotted Line very much starts where Nickel Creek left off bravely challenging the conventions and boundaries of bluegrass with not just a progressive approach, but an aggressive approach that delivers thought-provoking composition and instrumentation, dazzling just as much from its acrobatic adeptness as it does from its infectiousness.

This is not an album to be heard, but listened to, and appreciated for its gilded, artistic merit more than it’s gritty authenticity. However by challenging the ear, Nickel Creek can also open the heart to new appreciations for music and composition in an era when commercial concerns often begrudge the brightest musicians of our time. (read full review)

The Secret Sisters – Put Your Needle Down

the-secret-sisters-put-your-needle-downTheir Southern harmonies were born with such a purity that can only be found in sister siblings. When The Secret Sisters harmonize, it is the sound a pining heart makes, or the sound emitted when a crack cleaves the soul. Or it’s the salve that mends the heart and soul, depending on the theme of the story their soaring voices carry.

T Bone Burnett’s production doesn’t seem to have any sense or respect for the time and place The Secret Sisters’ music naturally evokes; their music seems only the canvas for T Bone to do his worst. But damn if I don’t love virtually everything The Secret Sisters themselves do on this album. (read full review)

Bob Wayne – Back to the Camper

bob-wayne-back-to-the-camper“Every record I’ve done so far I’ve been pretty happy with. This one has got a lot more story songs. It’s got a couple of hellraiser-type ‘yee-haw!’ songs. But I get a little bit more into my storytelling side. I spent a couple months at my property in Alabama, and I just sat by the fire with my banjo and guitar. I don’t know, the story songs were just really hitting me.

“Overall I’m super, super happy with how that all turned out. It has a different feel.”

(read full interview)

Moot Davis – Goin’ In Hot

moot-davis-goin-in-hotFrom shit kickers like the rousing “Midnight Train” or the Yoakam-like “Love Hangover”, to more somber, singer-songwriter tracks like “The Reason” that very easily could have been written by Merle Haggard, Moot grabs the country-leaning listener by the scruff right off the bat and pulls you into this album; steel guitar moaning and squalling high in the mix like Ralph Mooney, “Cousin” Kenny Vaughan (Marty Stuart’s guitar player) playing producer and putting his proven country music touch all over this record, and the sweet and talented Nikki Lane lending her voice to the effort in spots. they make a record that is both timeless and relevant, and satiates all sectors of your salivating country music palette. (read full review)

Johnny Cash – Out Among The Stars

johnny-cash-out-among-the-starsJohnny Cash left music, and left the world behind at the top of his game, having been revitalized and resurrected in the public consciousness as the result of his American Recordings era, leaving the crowd wanting more as all great entertainers do. Though Out Among The Stars may not reach the high critical acclaim Cash set for himself in the last era of his career, it is a more than worthy offering allowing the Man in Black to once again live among us in our hearts and imaginations, leaving the listener ruminating on the historic accomplishments of a man whose musical accomplishments will never be equaled. (read full review)

The Urban Pioneers – Addicted to the Road

urban-pioneers-addicted-to-the-roadThe key to the success of the Urban Pioneers project was their decision to take it in a primitive, old time country direction. It is perfect for the skills that Jared McGovern and Liz Sloan bring to the table, is complimentary of their strengths and weaknesses, while giving them the ability to mostly re-create what you hear on the album in the live context.

There’s a lot of Hackensaw Boys and Foghorn Stringband in the Urban Pioneers approach: authentic, energetic, while resisting the urge to pass completely into the punk roots realm. (read full review)

Red Eye Gravy – Dust Bowl Hangover

red-eye-gravy-dust-bowl-hangover2Destitution and heartbreak are the theme of Dust Bowl Hangover, however the music itself is a very enjoyable experience, with great melodies, catchy hooks, smart and engaging arrangements, and a remarkable amount of spice and variety in the instrumentation to really elevate this album to something much higher than the band’s humble, undiscovered status.

The greatest virtue of Dust Bowl Hangover is that if I was trying to lure an Americana listener into this album, I could pick out a couple of songs that would immediately speak to them. Same could be said for the cowpunk/hellbilly crowd, or for the folks whose hankering is for Texas country. (read full review)

Lake Street Dive – Bad Self Portraits

lake-street-dive-bad-self-portraitsLake Street Dive is a neotraditional, throwback group that blends elements of jazz, roots, Motown, and other smoke-filled, bluesy and soulful influences that both awaken the spirit in classic American music while still cleverly residing within its own little niche of the current zeitgeist.

The success and interest in Lake Street Dive means the looking back in music to times when music carried more meaning is still in full swing and continues to nip at the fringes of popular consciousness. Lake Street Dive is a classy, smart, yet accessible and fun band that will help instill a new measure of substance in American music at a time when it is most needed. (read full review)

Whiskey Myers – Early Morning Shakes

whiskey-myers-early-morning-shakesThe band put out their first album in 2008 and have since become one of Southern rock’s most emboldened and energetic torch bearers, tearing it up across the country to packed houses of both country and rock fans.

With Early Morning Shakes, the now well-seasoned Whiskey Myers crew affirms themselves as one of the preeminent bands in Texas music and beyond.

(read full review)

Scott H. Biram – Nothin’ But Blood

scott-h-biram-nothin-but-bloodThe fried chicken-eating, truck-wrestling, twisted metal, wild-assed, guitar-plucking, gray-whiskered, screaming and shouting, foot stomping “Dirty ‘Ol One Man Band” known as Scott H. Biram is back with a brand new album called Nothin’ But Blood from Bloodshot Records, and it’s a shoot-a-belt-of-whiskey and run-buck-wild-in-the-woods kind of good time, followed by the old-school repentance and cool-minded reflections of a Sunday morning. It’s all porch picking and domestic disputes, flashing cop lights and shack shows deep in the woods. Bury your no good woman with a shovel, and then sing a gospel song as the human soul pinballs between good and evil in the ever-restless struggle of a man baptized in the blood of his own sins. (read full review)

Rosanne Cash – The River & The Thread

rosanne-cash-river-and-the-threadThe River & The Thread is an album that was worth waiting for. Produced and co-written with Rosanne’s husband, accomplished musician John Leventhal, this album is exhaustive, thematic, all-encompassing, and compromises nothing when it comes to desiring the highest degree of quality in songwriting and production.

The beauty of this album is how it conveys with such reverence the spirit of the river region, with Rosanne’s birthplace of Memphis very much the fulcrum. The River & The Thread doesn’t discriminate in its description of human lives and the landscape in which they live amongst. They are all bound together into this universal body, connected by a cohesive filament sewn into the fabric of every life, artifact, and element, which in turn constitutes a tapestry that unfurls out like a linear story. (read full review)

 Jackson Taylor & The Sinners – Live at Billy Bob’s

jackson-taylor-sinners-live-billy-bobsJackson Taylor & The Sinners are the best hard-driving country band you’ve never heard of. How do I know you’ve never heard of them? Because nobody has, except for the people that have, and as those people can attest, nobody has heard of them.

Jackson Taylor is one of these guys you can’t take too seriously or you lose touch with the total enjoyment you can get from him, while at the same time he can be deceptively deep when you read between the lines, or when he performs a song like “Faulkner By Dashboard Lights” a true and personal track from Jackson and one of the standouts from the set. (read full review)

Ben Davenport Band – Slow Start

Ben-Davenport-Band-Slow-Start-CoverBen Davenport’s album Slow Start feels like a victory. Reflecting back on a lifetime of memories, accomplishments, failures, and the fortunes and lessons that come with both, it is a self-critique and cathartic, fiercely personal, and an album you can tell Jim Yoss made for himself, be damned if anyone else likes it; a bookend on his life exposing vulnerability, toughness, honesty, and frailty an album he had to make so the next chapter in his life could begin.

This is a good one. (read full review)

hurray-for-the-riff-raff-small-town-heroesHurray For The Riff Raff – Small Town Heroes

(not reviewed…yet)