Saving Country Music’s Essential Albums List for 2016

saving-country-music-essential-albums-2016

Below you will find Saving Country Music’s 2016 Essential Albums List—this site’s most inclusive and complete list of recommended albums released in 2016. This year the list has been expanded to 60 albums, along with additional lists of positively-reviewed albums, and other albums that are currently on Saving Country Music’s radar. Please understand a few ground rules as you peruse the list:

  1. There is no specific order to the list, aside from the first six albums being considered the “Most Essential.”
  2. This does NOT include the Album of the Year nominees, seeing how they’ve already had a spotlight shined on them through the nomination process. In the spirit of highlighting what was overlooked and not what is obvious, they are not included here. Consider those 11 albums also “essential.” Every year people overlook this rule and say, “Hey, where’s so and so?” and we all point to this rule. Don’t be that guy.
  3. These are not all the albums that will eventually end up on the Essential Albums List. More albums will be reviewed before the end of the year, and into the first few weeks of January, and potentially beyond that period if appropriate. So just because something is not included here doesn’t mean it won’t be in the future. Once again, Saving Country Music reviewed more albums than the previous year (85 positive reviews so far), which is a lot for a one man operation to say the least, an not counting neutral and negative reviews, song reviews, and other artists features. So yes, not every single album in country music was reviewed, but Saving Country Music did review more albums than any other major publication in all of country music, those reviews were longer per capita, and this was all done as a one-man operation. So don’t complain that something was overlooked, be thankful this free resource to music listeners continues to be offered and expanded year after year.
  4. As always, suggestions of additional albums, lists of your essential albums, and opinions about this list are encouraged, and can be shared in the comments section.

MOST ESSENTIAL – Luke Bell – Self-Titled

luke-bell-self-titledThere is no justice in the music business. Consider a sports league where there worst teams always win, and do so because of seedy deals and backroom politics. That is music in a nutshell. But every once in a while there’s an outlier—a case where justice is served, and someone who deserves to be lifted up to the podium actually gets that opportunity. Luke Bell doesn’t come across as some aspirational go getter looking to “make it.” That’s why his particular brand of traditional country feels so authentic. And why he probably deserves to “make it” more than those participating in the hustle down on Music Row.

Luke Bell has a bright future in music … if he wants to. And that might be the biggest question remaining. This self-titled debut will be all brand new to most, and by the grace of some really amazing songs, his audience will continue to swell. Keeping his authenticity and voice as he transitions from a drifting Wyoming cowboy to a professional musician will be a challenge, but it’s one worth fighting, because country music needs more artists like Luke Bell who find the business and the yearning for the spotlight second nature, and less of the folks who crave the spotlight as their sole purpose. (read full review)

MOST ESSENTIAL – Brandy Clark – Big Day in a Small Town

brandy-clark-big-day-in-a-small-townAfter careful consideration of Big Day in a Small Town, it feels fair to say that this effort by Brandy Clark and producer Jay Joyce is worthy of being considered right up there with a very select few others as one of the best mainstream country music albums released in the last two or three years, and arguably trumps Clark’s previous effort that was also well-received, 12 Stories.

Here is the key to Big Day in a Small Town: Instead of solely looking down its nose at small town American life like Kacey Musgraves has made a career out of doing, Brandy Clark takes a perspective from behind the nose of an ordinary small town individual—still self-aware, but focused more on the everyday struggles themselves as opposed to who or what is to blame for them.

Big Day in a Small Town is not a concept record, but numerous songs run cohesively into each other, and a wise track order makes for an enhanced listening experience cover to cover. (read full review)

MOST ESSENTIAL – Justin Wells – Dawn in the Distance

justin-wells-dawn-in-the-distanceDawn in the Distance is Justin Wells getting it just about right. With stunning insight and honesty, Wells speaks upon the disillusion of dreams, the realization of new ones, the reality of the pitfalls of the rock and roll fantasy, and does so with cutting clarity and poetic facility. In a world where we’re all taught from young children to dream big, while reality remains inequitable and uncaring, we’re most all the products of broken dreams. Yet the ones who survive and stand tall after reality tries to break their backs are the ones who decide to grow through the experience and replace fantasy with the love of simple goals and daily purpose as opposed to drowning sorrow in dependency and self-loathing. This is what the songs of Dawn in the Distance speak to.

Music is a young man’s sport, and if you’re not able to get it to stick in your twenties, the odds begin to stack against you. The “Get In The Van” attitude may have worked for Henry Rollins, but it is no longer 1985. And the songs about whiskey and cocaine may have been cool in 2005, but now they sound cliche. Either you grow as a person, and grow with the times, or you risk being left behind. Without an ounce of regret, Justin Wells looks back at his time in Fifth on the Floor with bitter fondness and an splash of pride. But he’ll be damned if he continues to live in the past as life goes flashing by him in a windshield. Instead, he will write his own future. (read full review)

MOST ESSENTIAL – Sturgill Simpson – A Sailor’s Guide to Earth

sturgill-simpson-a-sailors-guide-to-earthThe personal nature of this record is almost startling. Sturgill can be hard to understand when singing, but if you lay out the lyric sheets to the songs, they read like the most intimate poems from a father to his son, and are nearly fearless in how they bare Sturgill’s feelings of guilt when leaving home, and missing out on important milestones in his young son’s life. This theme is reinforced when Sturgill re-imagines a song from his first band Sunday Valley called “Sarah” about similar guilt, only towards his lover.

A Sailor’s Guide to Earth is a good album, a valiant follow up to Metamodern Sounds in Country Music, and is yet another solid offering in an impressive and growing musical career for one of America’s and roots music’s most unique, interesting, and diverse artists. (read full review)

MOST ESSENTIAL – Dave Cobb – Southern Family

southern-familyThe “South” is the setting for the songs, and where the respective artists hail from, but “Family” is what makes this record universal for all listeners. And unlike many other concept records that may only have one or two songs that can be separated from the material, every song on Southern Family can exist independently, and many will go on to mark top-level career contributions to the artist’s musical canon.

Southern Family may not be a masterpiece, but there are some masterpiece songs included. The strength of lyric in Jason Isbell’s “God Is A Working Man,” Zac Brown’s “Grandma’s Garden,” and Jamey Johnson’s “Mama’s Table” not only make for some remarkable poetry, but touch on the moments and perspective that truly goes in to being “Southern.” If there is one cohesive sonic quality to Southern Family, it is the hushed intimacy of many of the selections, possibly pulled off with no better grace than in Brandy Clark’s cuttingly-emotional “I Cried.” (read full review)

MOST ESSENTIAL – Tami Neilson – Don’t Be Afraid

tami-neilson-dont-be-afraidTami Neilson is the greatest singer of any genre I have ever witnessed, and if there’s any justice in this crooked world, soon the rest of humanity will at least be given a chance to behold this for themselves. But just like it took Sturgill Simpson many years before his talents were recognized beyond a few dedicated fans and studious bloggers, it may still take a while for Tami Neilson to come into her own. But she is not going to wait. She’s going to continue to refine her music, record her songs, and perform them when and where she can. And if the right people pay attention and want to help, even better.

Like an incredibly talented individual who allows their gifts to fritter away from apathy or boredom, it is a sin of humanity to not push our best and brightest individuals forward. Luckily the living will always be here to remember the contributions of those who never got their due in the mortal coil, just like Tami does for her father on this record. But the name “Neilson” has been niche for too long. It’s time the world knew this name, because it needs it, and before it’s only remembered in reflection. (read full review)

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

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Ned LeDoux – Forever a Cowboy

ned-ledoux-forever-a-cowboyThe Forever a Cowboy EP is rough and rugged as the world that inspired it, hewn out of high timber and antler, and strapped together with rawhide. This is a Western album in every sense, and will find thirsty ears in an era when such sounds and sentiments are hard to come by.

We grow so attached to our favorite country and Western artists that when they pass on, even if it’s before we lived, we look for the closest living bridge to them to continue on their legacy. There is a pedigree to country music, and even though it’s a fair assessment of most any second, or even third generation country artist that we may not pay nearly as much attention to them if it weren’t for their family name, Ned LeDoux, like others, is in the unique position to carry on that legacy better than anyone else. And as Forever a Cowboy proves, he’s not only uniquely qualified, he is more than capable. (read full review)

Aaron Vance – Shifting Gears

aaron-vance-shifting-gearsWhenever you find an artist who doesn’t fit in the stereotypical mold of what we expect certain music artists to be, that’s when you know you’ve found someone with true passion because they’ve had to overcome those stereotypes and sideways glances when it might be easier to just fold and move on to something else.

Aaron Vance has that passion, and it comes through in his music. Where his early records featured a full range of electric country music production, Shifting Gears is a stripped down affair, with the primary instrumentation being acoustic guitar, fiddle, harmonica, and bass. No drums or electric guitar make it on this record. And you might also regard it has Aaron Vance’s most personal work to date. It’s great to see performers like Aaron Vance playing country music. Because we need those minority artists … you know, those that actually have the gall to play actual country music. (read full review)

Margo Price – Midwest Farmer’s Daughter

margo-price-midwest-farmers-daughterMidwest Farmer’s Daughter is mostly a classic country record, but Margo explores various textures within classic country and beyond. There’s a little funky country a la Jerry Reed and some late era Loretta in “About to Find Out.” The banging drums at the beginning of “Tennessee Song” are indicative of the Jack White / Black Keys influence prevalent in East Nashville, and like so many East Nashville artists, Margo Price gets swept up in the Muscle Shoals influence in the bass line of “Hands of Time,” and in the moog-y, and jangly “Four Years of Chances.”

Midwest Farmer’s Daughter is a very fun album though, with lots of unique moments for a country record, a cool, anti-establishment song “This Town Gets Around,” and a little funkiness that for whatever reason is never employed enough in throwback country. (read full review)

Brent Cobb – Shine On Rainy Day

brent-cobb-shine-on-a-rainy-dayListening to this debut record from Brent Cobb doesn’t feel like a new release, but one from an overlooked influencer of the Outlaw era whose under the radar effort went on to become a cult classic, like a record from Willis Alan Ramsey, or fellow Georgian Larry Jon Wilson that never found the commercial success it deserved in its own era, but went on to inspire high-profile peers by presenting a sound that will never tarnish over time and songs that remain relevant even today.

Produced by his cousin Dave Cobb, Shine On Rainy Day is more country than it is anything else, but the soul and folk rock influences are palpable on the tracks that roll out so smoothly, they envelop the consciousness not just in enjoyment, but in the presence of nostalgia like a thick memory that feels so present in the here and now, it’s haunting. (read full review)

Mamma Coal – Raven-Haired Vixen

mamma-coal-raven-haired-vixenThough duty as a mother has given Mamma Coal new priorities in life beyond those as a musician, it has also compelled her to compose and perform her most ambitious musical effort yet. Attempting to reconstitute what many consider the greatest album in the history of country music is ambitious to say the least, arduous for sure, and some may even consider a bit ostentatious. But the proof would be in taking the theoretical concept and seeing it through to a thematic recording that could both honor the lineage from where the inspiration emerged, while also by expressing something truly original.

Mamma Coal has made an answer to Red Headed Stranger from a strong female point of view, and in a way that both rises to the challenge, honors the original effort, and perhaps most importantly, highlights her gifts to music as a singer and songwriter. (read full review)

BJ Barham – Rockingham

bj-barham-rockinghamRockingham is a travelogue though certain Southern towns in various states of disrepair and dejection in the aftermath of the implosion of the agrarian and industrial American economy. No punches are pulled, and names are named in regards to the particular towns Barham chooses to highlight, or more accurately, bemoan. Broken people and broken homes are sung about with cutting, merciless honesty, with the worst details not just uncensored, but emphasized. Rockingham is an ode to desperate people out of money, out of work, and out of options, eaten up with the wanton emotions of not being able to provide for themselves and their families, while the illusion of small-town simplicity is shattered by the gavel of broken dreams.

There’s a Rockingham in all of us, just as there’s a place of happiness. Part of it has to do with where you’re born and your upbringing, but part of it has to do with how much you decide to control your own destiny and mindset. There is no doubt to the authenticity of the people, places, and stories of Rockingham. But for me, this record was like a mirror reflecting back judgement for every time first world problems frazzle your nerves while so many other folks struggle not just with their circumstances, but their perspective on them. (read full review)

William Michael Morgan – Vinyl

william-michael-morgan-vinylThis is it folks. Without qualifiers, caveats, or commercial dalliances outside of his tightly-knit traditional-leaning comfort zone, William Michael Morgan has released a mainstream country record that is quality cover to cover, true country at every turn, and most importantly, one that might actually pique the interest of the masses as its lead single eyes a top spot in the charts and people are actually paying attention.

This isn’t Hank Williams or Waylon Jennings country mind you. But it’s not Garth Brooks or Brooks & Dunn either. It’s not even Chris Stapleton, who despite his singular talents and true country treatments, still leaves a bit to be desired if you’re looking for country music straight down the middle. There’s no wiggle room here, no play in the action, no latency in the line. Like a pearl snap Western-patterned Wrangler shirt and starched jeans, you can count on William Michael Morgan. There’s no compromise, no pandering or pop-related material. If the heyday of the George Strait / Alan Jackson era is what you wish country music would hearken back to, then ladies and gentlemen, here it is embodied in a young and promising talent who will hopefully have years of similarly-minded music coming. (read full review)

Flatland Cavalry – Humble Folks

flatland-cavalry-humble-folksThere’s a lot of flat land in Texas and beyond, but nowhere is the land as flat as it is on top of the Llano Estacado stretching between Lubbock and Amarillo in the west Texas panhandle region. Beaches may inspire romance like none other, mountains may uplift with their majestic vistas, the vast lakes and dense forests may create wonder in the beholder, but it’s the emptiness of the Texas plains that have charged songwriters for generations now to fill that void with words and song, to try and impart to listeners the lonesomeness one feels when surrounded by nothing, and what it means to have something that seems so bereft of obvious beauty mean everything to you.

The latest to take up their little musical instruments and songwriting tools to the task is the Lubbock-based country band Flatland Cavalry. Young, fresh-faced and hungry, they’re looking to carve their own little spot out in Texas music and beyond for fans that that don’t just want to hear, but listen. “Easy on the ears, heavy on the heart” is how the group presents themselves, and this is probably a fair representation of their first full length album Humble Folks. (read full review)

Travis Tritt – A Man and His Guitar

travis-tritt-a-man-and-his-guitarIf anyone could burst through the prejudice against live acoustic records, it would be Travis Tritt. It doesn’t matter what you think you may know about Travis Tritt, whether you only know him through his redneck anthems like “T-R-O-U-B-L-E” and “Here’s A Quarter,” or during his heyday for being the bridge between full tilt electrified country and Southern rock with the locks of his atomic mullet whipping in the breeze of the stage fan like the tentacles of Cthulhu. When Travis Tritt straps on an acoustic guitar and sits down on a stool with a single spotlight on center stage, it’s like he’s piloting a country music battleship that 10 modern mainstream country bands and their legions of laser lights and auxiliary personnel could never match the firepower of.

Every artist has their ideal element. For Travis Tritt, it happens to be with no accompaniment. Put an acoustic guitar in his hand, and he’ll out perform most 5-piece bands from any era. (read full review)

Erik Dylan – Heart of a Flatland Boy

erik-dylan-heart-of-a-flatland-boyHeart of a Flatland Boy is refreshingly raw and energetic, with tightly-wound songs all written or co-written by Dylan, and a straightforward but effective production approach, blurring the lines between country and heartland rock in both the sound and themes, and painting a mental picture of places and people that are filled with a meaningfulness that’s just not embodied by those dwelling in the prosperous regions of America.

It’s an unbreakable spirit in the face of insurmountable odds, a self-reliant attitude wrapped up in an underdog appeal. That’s what Erik Dylan encapsulates in songs like “Flatland Boy,” “It Ain’t Broke,” and “Astronaut,” which all are delivered with a snarl, holding fast to an indomitable attitude that hides from itself and others the ever-present possibility of failure around every corner. (read full review)

Parker Millsap – The Very Last Day

parker-millsap-the-very-last-dayParker pays attention to something that many astute songwriters unfortunately gloss over—giving attention to the entertainment value that must go into a song so it’s not just well-written, but wide reaching with its infectiousness. Parker writes to his vocal strengths, which is a challenge to even some of the best singers.

It’s hard to argue against On The Very Last Day as Parker Millsap’s defining moment, at least up to this point. Like Hank Williams did when he cut “Lovesick Blues,” Parker has identified his strengths, honed in on them, refined them, written or selected songs to favor them, and dedicatedly molded his craft until he’s become a master of his discipline. (read full review)

Austin Lucas – Between The Moon and Midwest

austin-lucas-between-moon-and-the-midwestThe fact that Austin Lucas was able to get folks like John Moreland and Lydia Loveless to appear on his record shows the respect he receives among his artist peers. The fact that he was ever signed to New West, or shared a stage with Willie Nelson shows that he has the material and acumen to make it at the next level. And Between The Moon & the Midwest proves that his best days, and best material aren’t behind him, but are happening in the here and now.

No review, no endorsement, no label deal or radio promotion or touring opportunity makes any artist. There are performers who’ve been given twice the opportunities and support of Austin Lucas, and they are waiting tables right now, or working at The Home Depot. Nobody knows the formula, or how to navigate the whims of music to steady and sustainable employment, or God-forbid a modicum of stardom. But what we do know is Austin Lucas is an artist worthy of being heard, whether the music industry agrees or not. (read full review)

Michaela Anne – Bright Lights and the Fame

michaela-anne-bright-lights-and-the-fameWhere many of the learned textures of Michaela’s jazz and bluegrass study made their presence known more profoundly on earlier records, Bright Lights and the Fame is more about the hard tack style of honky tonk music. This is music where the cutting realities of love and heartbreak are explored in tear-soaked stories of tattered hearts unfiltered.

Michaela and Bright Lights display a lot of depth and diversity, with the melodies becoming more enriching with each listen, and her voice displaying incredible strength and emotion in moments, especially when she holds out notes in the higher register. Michaela Anne is more than just a pretty-faced firecracker in some vintage-inspired duds. There’s some really developed songwriting, structure, and themes here, while not forgetting to have a good time. (read full review)

Robbie Fulks – Upland Stories

robbie-fulks-upland-storiesUpland Stories is one of those records that deserves subsequent spins and dedicated contemplation before coming to any hard conclusions over. Songs such as “Alabama At Night” and “Never Come Home” really challenge the listener to grasp a message that requires seeing through layers of perspective to the heart of the matter, while the simplicity of a song like “Baby Rocked Her Dolly” has much more depth than what rises to the surface.

Robbie Fulks is not interested in reaching the casual listener in Upland Stories, he is looking for those intellectuals and rootsy Audiophiles who enjoy deciphering musical Rubik’s Cubes because of the fulfillment that lies at the end. An understanding of Southern philosophy and literature, and a historical context of the region may help, but is not required. And Robbie does make sure to include some more easily digestible morsels to at least lure in the audience to delve deeper into this project. (read full review)

Union Sound Treaty – Next Year

union-sound-treaty-next-yearWest Virginia is as good a place as any to find huddled masses of hard working folks who are constantly facing down hard times, or having to work jobs many of us would not wish on our worst enemies. Union Sound Treaty from Morgantown speaks to those burdens and fears better than most in their debut album called Next Year—titled for the eternal hope that smolders in the hearts of many laborers that the future will be better than the present despite the constant dousing of that flame by the daily disappointment of a despondent life.

With Next Year you also feel like you’re listening to a record of a band that is only going to continue to get better, and you’ll be listening to them and Charles Godwin for years to come. These guys have a bead on what really resonates in country music with listeners. (read full review)

Reckless Kelly – Sunset Motel

reckless-kelly-sunset-motelSo often in music we focus too keenly on the hot hand or the new thing. While the Drive-By Truckers had fortuitous timing to release a politically-charged album amidst a Presidential election, and everyone in Southern rock is talking about the continued success of Blackberry Smoke, Reckless Kelly somewhat quietly released a record that combines some of the best of both those bands while finding a bit more of an even keel in the delivery. You won’t feel completely alienated if you’re in more of a red state of mind, and they don’t rely simply on the infection of the power riff. Yet Reckless Kelly still has things to say, and still knows how to have a good time doing it.

Reckless Kelly continues on doing their thing, including organizing some of independent country music’s biggest charity events like their annual softball jam and reunion show in Idaho, and continue to battle to win the full recognition they’ve deserved for now going on two decades. (read full review)

Julian Davis – Make Americana Great Again

julian-davis-make-americana-great-againIt’s hard to know if the topmost praise for Julian should lie with his flatpicking guitar skills, which rise to the peak of that discipline where it’s truly impossible to physically move fingers any quicker than he can, while also knowing how to instill taste and melody into the runs—or whether it’s his other-worldly ability to channel the by-gone legends of American roots music and make a collage of their greatest attributes accumulated into one voice every time he opens his mouth to sing. So let’s just call it a draw, and sit back and be stunned.

And after having no choice but to listen to this record multiple times in a row from the infectiousness and energy it renders, possibly the most astounding development is when you start poking around behind-the-scenes to discover that Julian Davis is only 16-years-old. It almost seems impossible, especially when you hear the maturity in Julian’s singing style. (read full review)

Hayes Carll – Lovers and Leavers

Hayes-Carll-Lovers-LeaversLovers and Leavers finds Hayes less in the character of some self-loathing drunk and disorderly, and more in the pattern of self-reflection and the introspective songwriting of a seasoned writer who can take simple observations and turn them into poetry. “Stripped-down” is not just an adjective in this case, these songs are nearly butt naked. A little bit of percussion and bass, maybe some lead parts sprinkled here and there, and a few louder songs. But overall this is a minimalist effort, and there’s nothing keeping you from reflecting on the words to Carll’s songs.

Just like leaving your drinking buddies behind, it’s not always the most popular decision, but for Hayes and his music, it was the right one. Hayes has moved on, and so has his music. And the true friends are the ones who don’t resent you for maturing or try to enable your backsliding tendencies, but take that journey forward with you. (read full review)

Slim Cessna’s Auto Club – The Commandments According to SCAC

slim-cessnas-auto-club-the-commandments-according-to-scacFor almost 25 years now, Denver, Colorado’s Slim Cessna’s Auto Club has tapped into that primitive, carnal narrative of country music’s earliest incarnation to re-imagine the foreboding mood that hung like a pall over American’s early primitive settlers. Not for everyone, and more artistic expression than sheer entertainment, Slim Cessna’s is one of the most unusual, yet enthralling experiences to grace the musical stage. Though it is something that may be best experienced live, this is in no way a count against their recorded efforts.

The Commandments According to Slim Cessna’s Auto Club is both peculiar and absorbing. Whether the themes of the songs are actually tied to the Ten Commandments is either hard to tell, or up for interpretation. Part of the Slim Cessna experience is you’re not ever really sure exactly what is going on at any point. The mystery and confusion in their music is essential for the immersive capacity it has on listeners, so it may not be worth questioning too keenly. (read full review)

Curtis Grimes – Undeniable Country

curtis-grimes-undenaible-countryIt’s always worth a chuckle when you hear someone say that country music must “evolve” to stay relevant, or hear an artist bellyache about how constricting country music is to their creativity. And then you put on a record like this and hear just how much a true artist can do with a simple message and melody, and three chords and the truth.

Whether it’s proclaiming that the best of country died in 1989 in “If You Ask Me,” or bemoaning what has become of Music City in “Ten Year Town,” Undeniably Country isn’t just posturing, it’s taking positions about country music it’s hard to peddle back from. Meanwhile the music of the record is country and country only, with plenty of steel guitar and fiddle, and half-cut beats and shuffles so the music meets up with the message. If nothing else, Curtis Grimes lets us know he’s not afraid to show his stripes on Undeniably Country, and doesn’t care whose feathers he ruffles on the way in a refreshingly candid and personal project. (read full review)

Hart Valley Drifters – Folk Time

hart-valley-drifters-folk-timeYou certainly can find better bluegrass albums released in 2016, but it might be hard to find one more remarkable or historically significant. For generations now, the true devotees of the Grateful Dead have known that Jerry Garcia’s passion for bluegrass, old time, and country music was much more than some simple lark or a passing era in the legendary jam band’s lineage.

Otherwise Garcia’s career was bookended and bisected with serious specimens of country and bluegrass passion that were much more constructive for spreading the kernel of love for country and roots on the West Coast than the simple side projects of a rock guy. Jerry Garcia was for real, and even though it’s nascent and maybe even a little bit amateur in spots, this very early recording of one of America’s most iconic music artists shows his study and passion for bluegrass and roots was well beyond skin deep. (read full review)

Jesse Dayton – The Revealer

jesse-dayton-the-revealerJesse Dayton has an unfair ability when it comes to writing country songs. It seems like he can do it as easy as falling out of bed, while it takes other folks weeks of struggling to come up with something half as good. Like Corb Lund, there’s most often a little dollop of humor interwoven into his verse, and he’s not afraid to make a little fun of how sentimental and self-referential country music songwriting can sometimes be. And just as Jesse Dayton shifts mediums for his music, so will he when it comes to style. A little bit of punk-inspired rockabilly and Southern blues is always at the heart of Jesse Dayton’s music.

All of these attributes and more can be found on his latest record, The Revealer, which if it accomplishes nothing else, reveals most all of the reasons so many famous folks want Jesse Dayton putting in time on their projects, but why Dayton should always make sure to reserve some time for his own. (read full review)

Chris Stalcup & The Grange – Downhearted Fools

chris-stalcup-downhearted-foolsFrom Atlanta, GA, Chris Stalcup, in middle age, along with his backing band The Grange, decided a while back to give music the ol’ gung-ho, resulting in Stalcup losing many of the things he’d avoided music full time for so many years to keep, namely his love interest. It was life imitating art if you will, but if the lack of a head start has hindered Chris Stalcup in the young man’s game of music, he sure hides it well on his most recent album Downhearted Fools.

Full of true-to-life stories run through a gritty filter, Downhearted Fools is Chris Stalcup singing about what he finds right smack dab under his nose—the adversities and self-doubts that smack him in the face like every rising sun so rudely blasting through tattered shades, reminding one of the heartbreaks and sordid affairs of the night before in the way only the throbbing reality of morning can amplify. (read full review)

Wayne “The Train” Hancock – Slingin’ Rhythm

slingin-rhythm-wayne-hancockMany have wondered what the career of Hank Williams might have looked like if he’d lived past 29. Would he have given into the trends of the burgeoning country music industry and eventually become part of the Countrypolitan sound? Would he have stuck to his guns and become a surly old performer refusing to change with the times and trying to hold onto his past glory until he was eventually forgotten by time? Would Hank Williams be regarded as highly as he is today if he hadn’t died such a tragic and poetic rock star death before the world even knew what a rock star death was?

We’ll never know for sure, but one living legend of country music might provide at least a little insight into the question. It’s probably fair to officially begin referring to Wayne “The Train” Hancock as a country music legend. Maybe he’s still a little young for the model definition of a “legend” to fit, and maybe he never reached the tops of charts like Hank Williams and many of the others we consider country legends did. But very few, including many legends, can claim bringing a signature sound to country so unique that it launched its own subgenre, inspired countless new artists in an entire neotraditional movement, and few find such artistic respect from such a wide range of musical peers as Wayne Hancock. (read full review)

Zane Williams – Bringin’ Country Back

zane-williams-bringin-country-backZane Williams is a smart one, and like many others are recognizing, he understands that the new trend in country music, is actual country music. And this has been exemplified in the Texas scene as much as anywhere with the success of more authentically country performers like the Turnpike Troubadours and Cody Jinks, and with the surprising reception for Randy Rogers and Wade Bowen’s Hold My Beer Vol. 1 in 2015.

Zane Williams senses that people want by God country music again, and that’s exactly what he delivers on the aptly titled Bringin’ Country Back. It isn’t just an album of country music, it is an album about country music, what country music means, what it’s like to be a fan, and maybe even a guidepost to fans and artists explaining what country music is since the definition of “country” has been so besmirched and bastardized recently. From that perspective it makes sense that the songwriting was a bit simplified, almost like a lesson of what country music is supposed to be while not sailing over the head of the average listener. (read full review)

Karen Jonas – Country Songs

karen-jonas-country-songsKaren Jonas does not boast a stereotypical country music songwriter back story, where she can cite being reared on Waylon Jennings or George Strait, or say how her years on a ranch instilled her with an undying passion for rural sounds and themes. Yet instead of this becoming an anchor on her country cred, through her honesty Karen discovered the theme of this record, and specifically the theme for the title track that embodies the classic heartache that regardless of who you are or where you’re from, country music is the best cure for.

In spite of the progress made in independent country and even mainstream country in the last couple of years since Karen Jonas’s debut to shine a brighter light on the better talent going overlooked in the industry—especially artists who have such promise for future output—there are still holes in the filter where artists like Karen Jonas fall through. Karen’s songwriting is strong enough to deserve a top-level producer and independent industry support. Hopefully Country Songs is the vehicle to help her find that. (read full review)

Courtney Granger – Beneath Still Waters

courtney-granger-beneath-still-watersBeneath Still Waters is a covers album of old classic country tunes that are familiar enough that you may recognize a few, but others will probably be new to you. Dallas Frazier, Max T. Barnes, Hank Cochran, Hazel Dickens, Cindy Walker, and Keith Whitley are just some of the names that make it into the songwriting credits. Every single one of these songs feels carefully selected, is cohesive with the mood and style Courtney wanted to present, and worthy of being re-recorded.

Beneath Still Waters is officially an album of non-original material, and so you have to preface it as such when weighing it beside classic country records of new material being released. But shoving that concern aside, Courtney Granger delivers a surprising, touching, well-rounded, and frankly stunning performance of classic country tunes made anew by the power and passion behind his voice. (read full review)

Caleb Klauder and Reeb Willms – Innocent Road

caleb-klauder-reeb0willms-innocent-roadSometimes we get so unnecessarily swept up in who’s rising and falling in music these days that the sheer joy of music is overlooked. The parade of charts and sales numbers aid this enterprise, and it seems that cultural front-running and rooting for your favorite music artist like a sports team has become the norm for so many dedicated music fans.

One of the great things about Caleb Klauder is that he is such a world apart from all of that nonsense that you can just immerse yourself in the melody and story of classic country music modes until all other cares of life fade away. Country music is supposed to be the music of working people who used it to pass the time and forget about the ever-present hardships in their lives. Caleb Klauder has contributed such amazing compositions to the old school country music canon on previous projects; songs like “Worn Out Shoes” and “Hole In My Heart,” and Innocent Road has a few more to add to that legacy. (read full review)

The Divorcees – From Labour to Refreshment

the-divorcees-from-labour-to-refreshmentAt first you wonder if there is enough going on in the new record to hold your attention. A band known for going a bit out on a limb in country is decidedly sedate and simplified on this record. There’s nothing wrong with the music, but it sticks pretty close to home in the well worn grooves of country; songs about trucking and drinking and such, not really covering any new ground.

But subsequent listens reveal the idea behind From Labour to Refreshment. It is a purposely laid back and simple approach to a record, looking to pay homage and gain inspiration from classic country, while hoping that the organic nature of live recordings with very little overdubbing or guest appearances will result in music that is more meaningful in its own simple way, and that’s exactly what From Labour to Refreshment accomplishes. (read full review)

Whiskey Myers – Mud

whiskey-myers-mudMud comes out swinging with its two most outspoken tracks, steeped in the true history of the American South instead of the idyllic Candyland those on the radio attempt to portray. It’s a life where you’re greeting by hostiles from the word ‘go,’ the land barely gives under the plow despite all your toil and trouble, then only to have the river rise and sweep all the meager progress by you and your ancestors away in one merciless moment, leaving you standing there drenched and knee deep in the black gumbo of broken dreams. This isn’t just about backroad bonfires in cornfields. It’s land disputes and the sense that at every moment you’re standing within an inch of your life, and moments from missing your next meal.

Mud‘s portrayal of the South is not only accurate and diverse, but poetic and enticing, while the musical overlay is just about perfect throughout in both the production and mood for each song. Not for the faint of heart, but those looking for a full tilt take on life below the Mason Dixon, Mud is a high water mark for Whiskey Myers, and makes sure the legacy of Southern rock is in secure hands. (read full review)

Ryan Scott Travis – The Guadalupe Breakdown

ryan-scott-travis-the-guadalupe-breakdownThe Guadalupe Breakdown by Ryan Scott Travis is not a 70’s era folk album. It is a country album with fiddle, steel guitar, some banjo, and songs of heartbreak. But it has just enough of the textures of the country folk era—the melancholic chords, the mild volume, tasteful percussion treatments, and swooning melodies that re-imagine human memory in song. It’s this treatment of country that allows certain emotions to be stirred up in a manner that traditional country just can’t.

The Guadalupe Breakdown is lost between towns, lost between loves, and told in a musical language lost in time. Excellent songwriting is combined with tasteful, well-crafted arrangements that bring rise to the nostalgic sentiments of acoustic folk, while also delivering essential country ingredients like twangy steel guitar and choruses set in half time. It is the best of both of worlds conjoined together with reverence. (read full review)

Wynonna & The Big Noise – Self-Titled

wynonna-and-the-big-noise-albumThe magic ingredient here is Wynonna. She’s had to face many of her demons over the years in public. Personal tragedy has helped define her career. And being a celebrity doesn’t help to insulate you from adversity as some people surmise, it exacerbates it. So there’s a lot of weight hanging on the shoulders of Wynonna, and when she starts to sway back and forth, and taps into that real world emotion, she can have as much soul as the Staple Sisters.

The difficulty is how to get that out of Wynonna, and that’s what Cactus Moser does here. Moser has his own adversity to fight through.  He lost one of his legs in a motorcycle accident in 2012 shortly after he and Wynonna were married. But taking the oath of “in sickness and in health” to heart, the accident made the couple stronger, and one can’t help but hear that living and breathing entity that is the relationship between these two artists embedded in this record. (read full review)

Wheeler Walker Jr. – Redneck Shit

wheeler-walker-jr-redneck-shitIt’s the wholesomeness of classic country music that makes a completely crass album so effective. One could argue that the adult side of country music has been dramatically under-served in the last couple of decades. You start digging deep enough and you’ll find quite a few X-rated artists and parody personas, but none of them recently have received the type of push behind them or been quite as crass as Wheeler Walker Jr.

The genius of Redneck Shit is how each of the 11 songs is perfectly structured and stylized to reflect a specific era or influence in classic country music, making the album a really strong country music experience beyond the lyrics. The music of Redneck Shit is excellent. And so are the lyrics if you’re looking for belly laughs. By the 11th song, since the lewdness is 95% based around sex, it does get a little bit tedious, especially with subsequent listens. But the music never does, and most of the songs have things in the lyrics that make them more than just lewd words. It’s intelligent toilet humor in how it’s able to pull as much wit out of the same premise. (read full review)

Tim Easton – American Fork

tim-easton-american-forkLike his singer-songwriter forefathers—sometimes posing as many questions as answers, but in a way that leads to understanding—Tim Easton has something to say on the American ideal, and how we’ve let forces outside ourselves drown out the inner voice. It’s the singer-songwriter’s perspective that’s able to drift above the grid of mundanity and ask the serious questions about our direction as people, and in a way that’s articulate and entertaining enough that it forces us to listen. It’s the word play and rhyme that pulls you in, but it’s the message that lingers.

It’s not the music or production that will take you in, it’s the words. It’s Tim Easton’s ability to turn a phrase—sometimes pointed, and sometimes subtle—that allows one to be awoken from the passing of everyday human events, and makes American Fork more valuable than just a collection of songs. (read full review)

Nathan Kalish and the Lastcallers- Continental Breakfast of Champions

nathan-kalish-and-the-lastcallers-continental-breakfast-of-championsWhen you turn on country radio, you may get the sense that America’s small towns are like a Disneyland of delights. Everyone has brand new jacked up trucks, the beer is flowing and always cold, it’s perpetually summer, and hot girls in daisy dukes are willing to slide up next to you as you spend every day chilling out near a river or lake.

The reality of things in America’s rural areas is much more grave: bombed out communities and abandoned downtowns, multi-generational agrarian economies plunged into ruin by corporate farming, rampant unemployment, and the scourge of the prescription drug epidemic gutting families and destroying lives. It’s the real, true-to-life version of forgotten America that songwriter Nathan Kalish and his country band The Lastcallers from Grand Rapids, Michigan sing about in their new album Continental Breakfast of Champions; not some fairy tale to help prop up a false sense of escapism for bored suburbanites. (read full review)

Jim Lauderdale – This Changes Everything

jim-lauderdale-this-changes-everythingJim Lauderdale decided that since he’d never made a Texas country record, he’d head down to Austin and assembled a hot shit band of Texas pickers and players, and record himself a Texas country project in one day at Arlyn Studios. Lauderdale wrote or co-wrote every song on the record, and each one has a Texas flavor of some sort.

What does Jim Lauderdale know about country music from Texas? Well in truth he helped define it in a certain way. He wrote 14 songs for George Strait. Can Texas country also be considered Americana? With its emphasis on songwriting, instrumentation, and preserving traditions, it’s as worthy as anything else for the distinction. And now that Americana’s grand marshal has cut a Texas country record, it’s all but official. (read full review)

Al Scorch – Circle Round the Signs

al-scorch-circle-round-the-signsHide your faces, and duck and cover because Al Scorch is here to prove the banjo is like the battle ax of American traditional string instruments, and he’s coming out swinging. With his chest puffed out and the energy of ten men, this Chicago native and Bloodshot Records signee turns his banjo into a bullhorn of change and a mechanized weapon against the forces of social injustice and a champion for the poor. With blazing runs and a ballsy message, Al Scorch sets your ears ablaze, and whether you’re running to it or from it, it will be impossible to stand still.

There’s just something about lighting into a song with the abandon of a wild bull, but still being able to evidence complete control that baffles the mind, lifts the spirit, and inspires the senses. (read full review)

Jackson Taylor and The Sinners – Which Way Is Up

jackson-taylor-sinners-which-way-is-upWhich Way Is Up is only eight songs long and includes two covers, but like most every Jackson Taylor release, including the ones of old material done anew, it is worth the effort to acquire. Unlike some of the other true Outlaw artists who can be guilty of being too stuck behind the times or that cut corners on the recording side, Jackson Taylor and the Sinners have an unique attack to their music, bred from a distinctive “chuck chuck” raking of the electric guitar strings that drives the songs and gives the music an energy that is almost unmatched in country.

These guys exude a good time. The second song on the album laments “Sad Bastard Music” and reminds folks the best way to mend a broken heart is to get back on the horse and on with life. It’s a reminder that music doesn’t always have to be deep to be good. It just doesn’t always have to make you feel stupid for listening like so much of the mainstream fun-loving material of today. (read full review)

Cheryl Desere’e – Self-Titled

cheryl-desere'e-albumCheryl Desere’e lists “model” and “pinup girl” right beside her musical resume, so it might be easy for some to write her off as just someone with a lark for country music with no real world experience to convey the pain and heartbreak all real country needs, or the dedication to hone the skills of singing and songwriting to be considered a serious artist.

But those people would be foolish to so quickly write off this Samoan goddess from the California desert as nothing more than a pretty face. With a sultry, smoky, jazzy style, a hot shit cast of studio players, and original songs penned by Cheryl herself, she has let her presence be know in the traditional country world with her self-titled album. Cheryl Desere’e may have purple hair, but when she starts to sing, she’s all country, aside from mixing in a lounge-like jazzy feel that fits her smoky voice like a glove, and constitutes her signature sound. (read full review)

Cody Johnson – Gotta Be Me

cody-johnson-gotta-be-meIsn’t it funny how sometimes when you think you have someone pegged and hung up all hope on their future, they’ll haul off and surprise you. That’s exactly what Cody Johnson has done with his latest record, Gotta Be Me. The Auto-tune that saddled his previous record was not just dialed back, it sounds virtually non existent, while the instrumentation veers much closer to what people consider traditional country throughout the track list.

If Cowboys Like Me was Cody Johnson selling out in an attempt to garner more national attention with a super-polished and radio-friendly product, the appropriately-titled Gotta Be Me is Johnson reeling it all back in and being truthful about who he is, where his sound lies, and what his prospects are. Gotta Be Me is Cody Johnson being Cody Johnson again. If anything, you wonder if it’s too traditional and straight-laced for passive fans to find enough to latch on to. (read full review)

Jack Klatt – Shadows in the Sunset

jack-klatt-shadows-in-the-sunsetFor those of you who wear out your Pokey LaFarge records on a regular basis and regard Wayne “The Train” Hancock as a musical God, another name worth checking out is the old-time throwback singer and songwriter with a hobo’s hat and a belly full of songs named Jack Klatt.

This isn’t about setting forth a new paradigm in music, this is about authentically interpreting ageless music with a new enthusiasm to make sure the old ways of making melodies never wane. Klatt may not be the next hot name in country music, but he will be the minstrel to dazzle intimate crowds looking for a portal back to a simpler, and more enriching time in American music. (read full review)

Bill Kirchen and Austin De Lone – Transatlantica

bill-kirchen-austin-de-lone-transatlanticaFrankly, you see records like this released all of the time from aging artists with recognizable names that might be looking to fulfill a promise they made to themselves or to keep from getting bored. But one of the things about Kirchen and De Lone is they never stopped being hungry. Transatlantica is fun, energetic, diverse, and despite a handful of recognizable covers, quite original in its scope. The recording is even a little bit rough in spots as far as the tightness of the music, probably due to the fact that the album was recorded partly in Austin, and partly in London. But it has that authentic Austin country rock energy and uniqueness to it that made the Texas Capital the bell weather for originality back in the 70’s.

Transatlantica is fun and interesting to listen to, with something different at every turn, a lot of heart turned in from everyone involved, and strong ties back to when new music from Austin, TX was interesting and forward-thinking, yet still respectful to the traditions of both country and rock n’ roll. (read full review)

The Hackensaw Boys – Charismo

hackensaw-boys-charismo“Charismo” is not just a more masculine variation of “charisma,” or the name of the Hackensaw Boys’ new album. It is a percussion instrument derived from found objects strapped to the chest similar to a washboard. String and jug bands have been accessorizing their washboard setups for years with extra bells and whistles, but the Charismo is an animal all unto itself, with cans and other primitive noise makers extending out from it like a wearable drum set.

But “charismo” could have a double meaning for this new album—meaning a mix of charisma and machismo. The songs are primarily about broken men and their stories, having to learn to live with less, trying to love someone with their warts and all, and hard to handle women. Charismo is this cantankerous take on life from the perspective of tomcat’s past their prime, refusing to change their ways, yet recognizing that time has moved on. (read full review)

Mo Pitney – Behind This Guitar

Mo-Pitney-Behind-This-GuitarMo Pitney is music for a simpler time and a decidedly rural and laid back sentiment. He’s an old soul who used songwriters like Dean Dillon and Don Sampson to bounce ideas off of instead of the usual Music Row songwriting crowd. Though this makes Behind This Guitar undoubtedly country, some of the songs could come across as corny to younger country fans, especially if they’re converts from the punk and rock worlds.

But once you get Mo, his simplicity of approach and undeniable authenticity become quite endearing, while his sense of performance, even when it’s just him and an acoustic guitar, can go as far as jerking tears. “It’s Just a Dog” might seem like sappiness to some, or many. But damn if Mo’s delivery and sense of timing don’t suck you in, or at least they did when he released the song acoustically. (read full review)

Husky Burnette – Ain’t Nothin’ But a Revival

husky-burnette-aint-nothin-but-a-revivalFor his latest record Ain’t Nothin’ But a Revival, Husky gets downright evil with it, but shows incredible breadth from the various version of the blues he covers. Possibly his most diverse record yet, Husky starts with the blues/ punk /metal sludgy grove and tone-heavy songs that have been his signature over the years. If nothing else, the 10 Husky-penned songs of Ain’t Nothin’ But a Revival show the variety of knowledge and aptitude of skill Husky brings to the blues.

You might feel like you’re spitting out shotgun pellets and parts of your teeth after listening to this record, but that’s what happens when you get a face full of the real deal. Ain’t Nothin’ But a Revival ain’t nothin’ but a blues explosion, and it’s a record with enough variety and surprises to call it one of Husky’s best yet. (read full review)

The Lumineers – Cleopatra

the-lumineers-cleopatraThe dedication to space and minimalism in their music is incredible, and impossible to pull off unless ego is completely left on the sideline by all the players. If you’re listening to The Lumineers, you’re basically listening to an aggressive conservation of sound arranged around the words and melody for the listener to think the sounds are just an emotive extension of the story. Melody is where the Lumineers’ songs spring from, and the songwriting is luring and insightful. Take the title track, which may seem theatrical and pretentious if you’re looking for reasons to hate this band.

Go ahead and write off The Lumineers as hipster rubbish, or for having no idea how to engage an audience aside from eepish tones and catchy singalongs. But you’re missing out on a band that didn’t run away from the delicate and artful attention to noise that made them unlikely superstars, they doubled down on it because it’s who they are, and they’d rather die being themselves than worry about being defined by a moment in time four years ago. (read full review)

The Golden Ponies – Unstabled

the-golden-ponies-unstabledChock full of humor, endearingly sloppy and unfocused at times, and enjoyably stupid, The Golden Ponies are like your favorite local band who plays weekends at the downtown watering hole, and are made that much more enjoyable and endearing because you know them. They’re your band, from your town, working a bad job right beside you, and drinking a beer with you between sets. With all the attention paid these days by artists and bands looking to “make it” in music, there’s something warm about a band that’s only looking to entertain the people standing in front of them.

Don’t think of the foul-mouthed escapades of Wheeler Walker Jr., the parody efforts of Cletus T. Judd, or the protestations of some angry underground country band. The Golden Ponies do offer their own commentary on today’s country, as well as adult humor about drinking and dipping with the ladies. But it’s all done with a sort of wild-eyed, tongue-in-cheek, humor-laden attitude, yet in a way that still holds an element of truth within the songs, making them that much more entertaining. (read full review)

Randy Rogers Band – Nothing Shines Like Neon

randy-rogers-band-nothing-shines-like-neonNothing Shines Like Neon has all the liquor, beer, bar scenes, and sultry interactions with lovers you might hear on some mainstream country record, except it tells the story from the opposite perspective—the more realistic perspective. It’s where libations aren’t just flowing to party hearty, but to help douse heartbreak. It’s the story of the millions of people who search for love every night in the neon-filled bars all across the country and world, and how despite some happy times, the loneliness and endless search for love can weigh heavy on the heart. Neon also delves deeply into the issues of lovers in the present, and lovers in the past.

Like many of the top names in Texas country, the Randy Rogers Band has built a legacy upon a pragmatic approach to country music, building in some rock and even pop influences to soften the sound and allow crowds to swell. This has earned the band a mixed reputation with some ironclad country fans, and a poor one with others. But Randy Rogers promised this would be a more country effort this time, and he mostly holds to that promise in the finished product. (read full review)

Pat Reedy and the Longtime Goners – Highway Bound

pat-reedy-longtime-goners-highway-boundDrifting from one place to another, living out the tunes he sings, writing songs and recording them when he can, and playing thrown together tours with friends that traverse the country based on an itinerary has more to do with the places he wants to see or the cool spots he wants to hit along the way, or a carpenter job he has waiting for him when he arrives instead of the most intuitive trajectory forward, this is Pat Reedy’s way of making music.

If you listened to that Thirty Tigers debut of Luke Bell’s and wonder where he pulled out that faraway voice and classic style of songs, Pat Reedy is the guilty culprit. And you get a huge new helping of a similar thing if you run down Pat Reedy’s new album with his backing band The Longtime Goners called Highway Bound. Painted in vintage colors and etched out with rustic implements, Highway Bound isn’t just a journey in distance, but in time. (read full review)

Jeff Shepherd and the Jailhouse Poets – Self-Titled

jeff-shepherd-jailhouse-poets-coverProducer Matt Woods is a great example of putting songwriting first, and that’s what rises to the top in this album. The first song “Gone” could be a top track from the Turnpike Troubadours, or could be an Americana hit. And with steel guitar and banjo, it’s authentically country.

Songwriting is what becomes the ultimate takeaway from Jeff Shepherd and the Jailhouse Poets. As you listen deeper into the album, the writing continues to mature, and mature more, and becomes more vulnerable and personal until the final song “Son” virtually has you in tears. From lost love to personal tragedy, Jeff Shepherd is uninhibited in sharing and unburdening his heart in these songs. (read full review)

Dolly Shine – Walkabout

dolly-shine-walkaboutYou can’t judge Dolly Sine by the first song you hear, because they shift gears more than almost any band in the Texas scene, while still staying comfortably within the confines of it. The opening song called “Blackbird” has all the earmarks of hard rock until a menacing fiddle comes blazing in, but the very next song “Come Out Swingin’” sounds like an early Randy Rogers tune. The droning and dirty “Hitchikin’” would get a nod of approval from Ray Wylie Hubbard for minding the grit and groove, while “Snakeskin Boots” evokes the uncensored storytelling of Robert Earl Keen.

If you’re looking for some more Texas country in your diet and are impatient for the arrival of another Turnpike Troubadours record, Dolly Shine will certainly speak to you, and get you excited about what the Texas scene and Stephenville, TX have to offer for the future. (read full review)

Rachel Brooke – The World’s Greatest Anchor

rachel-brooke-the-worlds-greatest-anchorRachel’s voice remains her most virtuous gift to music, and it blossoms in this mostly naked forum. Some of the entries of The World’s Greatest Anchor are scarcely a minute long, more like snippets of ideas than songs, including a couple that end quite abruptly. It was meant to be something special for dedicated fans, to tide them over until she releases an upcoming album with husband Brooks called Modern Mal. But she struck a bit of genius here, however brief. Ideally, it could have used just one or two more entries to find slightly greater reception and interest, but try and stretch this simple approach out into a full-length and it would have been exposed.

Many will not get this, but it’s not meant for them anyway. Others who will heed the lessons and take the advice of The World’s Greatest Anchor to slow down and cherish moments, and appreciate the white spaces and bits of story life bestows, however abruptly short-lived they may be in the modern age. (read full review)

John Moreland – The Spotify Sessions

john-moreland-spotify-sessionsTraditionally many steer clear of live albums and acoustic albums, and albums of previously-released material unless they’re hardcore fans. So in theory John Moreland’s Spotify Sessions recorded during SXSW 2016 starts off with three strikes already against it. But in Moreland’s case, this release might be his best yet, and just about the perfect introduction for someone whose heard the name before, but not the music.

Moreland arguably selects his greatest songs and performs them in the same simple way he does every night out tour, hushing rooms with the sheer power of story, employing a voice that is perfect for the forlornness he sings about, and displaying surprising alacrity with his acoustic guitar. This intimate element is where John Moreland and his music thrives—live and alone, sitting on the stage in front of a microphone, bearing his soul with sheer honesty and brutality. And it’s this element that has won him so many loyal fans. (read full review)

Dwight Yoakam – Swimmin’ Pools, Movie Stars

dwight-yoakam-swimmin-pools-movie-starsJust the idea of Dwight Yoakam making a bluegrass album is like some sort of gift from the country music Gods. Before a lick of music was heard, the news of Swimmin’ Pools, Movie Stars was its own viral event. But this album was never going to live up to whatever expectations fans assigned to it. Swimmin’ Pools, Movie Stars is a good, solid, fun bluegrass record that may be more novelty than substance, but still is something all Dwight fans should at least give strong consideration, and is a neat side project to compliment his legendary catalog.

If you come to this record expecting some groundbreaking bluegrass project, especially if you weren’t in the loop that this is a covers record, you’re probably going to be disappointed. But if you look at it as Dwight trying to keep things spicy and interesting, and releasing a side project of cool bluegrass versions of some of his previously-released material, you’ll have a good time, enjoy the listen, see a different side of Dwight, and satiate your desire to hear what he’d be like in the bluegrass realm. (read full review)

Other Albums Receiving a Positive Grade:

Kacey Musgraves’ – A Very Kacey Christmas (read review)

Folk Uke – Starf*cker (read review)

Miranda Lambert – The Weight of These Wings (read review)

Kree Harrison – This Old Thing (read review)

Willie Nelson – Summertime: Willie Nelson Sings Gershwin (read full review)

Aaron Lewis – Sinner (read review)

Jon Pardi – California Sunrise (read review)

Craig Morgan – A Whole Lot More to Me (read review)

Brothers Osborne – Pawn Shop (read review)

Paul Cauthen – My Gospel (read review)

Midland EP (read review)

Tracy Byrd – All America Texan (read review)

Lydia Loveless – Real (read review)

David Nail – Fighter (read review)

Other Albums Waiting For Album Reviews / Worth Checking Out:

  • Left Arm Tan – Lorene
  • Chelle Rose – Blue Ridge Blood
  • Lucinda Williams – The Ghosts of Highway 20
  • Matt Woods – How To Survive
  • Adam Lee – Sincerely, Me
  • Loretta Lynn – Full Circle
  • Billy Don Burns – Graveyard in Montgomery
  • Kirsty Lee Akers – Burn Baby Burn
  • Shane Owens – Where I’m Coming From
  • Mandolin Orange – Blindfaller
  • The Jamestown Revival – The Education of a Wandering Man
  • Matt Haeck – Late Bloomer
  • Waylon Jennings – Lost Nashville Sessions
  • Sweet GA Brown – Weapons
  • Urban Pioneers – Feast or Famine
  • Bradley Walker – Call Me Old-Fashioned
  • And many more…