10 Years Ago: The Independent Country Revolution Begins in Earnest

It’s rather remarkable reflecting back 10 years at just how far independent country, roots music, and Americana have come in finding a seat at the table with their mainstream country counterparts. 10 years ago, we could only dream of our favorite artists securing number one records on the country charts, or minting Gold and Platinum singles and albums, or selling out big theaters and even arenas, and headlining huge festivals that rival mainstream ones in attendance.

This is the reality we now live in thanks to one artist after another building upon what artists before them helped start, and all with an independent spirit and commitment to being self-made and doing it apart from the Music Row and corporate radio system. Since the actualization of the country music revolution took 10 years or so to happen, it kind of crept up on us and can be hard to appreciate. There’s also so much more work to do with certain artists still sliding criminally under the radar. That doesn’t take away from the fact that we have come much farther than some would have ever fathomed.

But where did it all start? What was independent music’s Big Bang? Is there a moment in time we can point back to when the tide began to turn and the momentum shifted to lead us where we are right now? There are a few different moments and theories that folks could forward for sure. But one good one would be 10 years ago this week, on June 11th, 2013. This is the day that Jason Isbell released his magnum opus Southeastern, Sturgill Simpson released his debut solo album High Top Mountain, and for good measure, John Moreland released what many consider his landmark album as well, In The Throes.

In terms of independent country and roots music, this is like lightning striking three times in the same spot, or as uncanny as Dolly Parton writing “Jolene” and “I Will Always Love You” on the same day (yes, that really happened too.) Granted, most would point to Sturgill Simpson’s album Metamodern Sounds in Country Music as his most remarkable work. But High Top Mountain and it’s reception is what set the table for Sturgill’s remarkable rise, which in turn set the table for Tyler Childers, Chris Stapleton, Zach Bryan, and so on and so forth. High Top Mountain is also Sturgill’s straightforward traditional country record, which curries it even more favor with country listeners.

There are quite a few examples of the impact and influence of these albums, from the underground to the very top of the mainstream. Though it will make some Jason Isbell fans cringe, his song “Cover Me Up” is now a country standard thanks in part to Morgan Wallen and other mainstream artists covering the song, which speaks to the song’s reach and the scope. Chris Stapleton decided to record his landmark album Traveller live with Dave Cobb after witnessing what Jason Isbell and Sturgill Simpson were doing with the producer. Miranda Lambert found her affinity for John Moreland through In The Throes.

But moreover, we now live in a reality where independent country artists can create sustainable careers without having to secure permission from the powers that be on Music Row. And perhaps the best thing to ponder about all of this is where we may go from here. Independent artists aren’t nipping a pop country’s heels any more. They’re flipping the tables. And it arguably all started in earnest with these three albums.

All three of the albums released on June 11th, 2013 ended up making Saving Country Music’s Best Albums of the 2010-2019 Decade. They were all also released by independent label/distribution company Thirty Tigers.

The anniversary went by mostly unnoticed until Twitter user Kay Ess pointed it out.

John Moreland – In The Throes

If John Moreland was a boxer, he’d be a bruiser, a punnisher. No fancy footwork, no bobbing and weaving here. Every single line John Moreland throws out is like a lyrical haymaker meant to score an empathic knockout punch right between the eyes. Even the most emotionally-fraught songwriters tend to give you a short breath somewhere from the morose moments, but not Moreland. He is relentless in how he unburdens his soul without any worry of exposing his vulnerabilities, or how the emotional fortitude of the listener will handle such despondency delivered with such honesty.

In The Throes builds from a sparse acoustic footing, with some light country elements floating just above the surface in a classic Americana songwriter approach. This allows the listener to focus on the lyrics, and for the lyrics to come alive in the open space. At the same time, Moreland doesn’t get so enamored with his own stories to ignore the music and melody.

Does anybody give a damn about songs anymore? When taking a wide perspective of the popular music landscape, this generalization is certainly true. And with an album like In The Throes, it shows why this loss of focus on artistry by the masses is so unfortunate. (read review)

Sturgill Simpson – High Top Mountain

Emerging from the coal region of Kentucky, to working on trains in Utah, to Nashville, TN to tackle the nasty business of trying to make it in music, Sturgill’s path has been windy, but like the stitches on the cover of High Top Mountain, it has lead to a sunny ending of seeing the realizations of his dreams—dreams that we all benefit from in the form of a great new gift of country music. This record would mark the emergence of an artist that would turn country music on its head, and impact and influence music for the years to come.

And the scariest thing is that however good this album is, Sturgill left some talent on the shelf. He’ll tell you his guitar playing is novice compared to the caliber of pickers he’s surrounded with in his new home of Nashville, but I have to respectfully disagree. Though technically he may be junior to some players, when it comes to taste and originality, Sturgills bluegrass-inspired style of takeoff Telecaster is something few of the slickest session players could ever touch. You only get a nibble of this when Sturgill is holding an acoustic, but it’s give and take because the acoustic allows you to focus more on the song. To say this debut for Sturgill Simpson was auspicious is an understatement. (read review)

Jason Isbell – Southeastern

On Southeastern Isbell goes right for the gut with an elegiac knife, thrusting and stabbing in a morose and unrelenting ritual of emotional evocation. Southeastern is downright suffocating in spots in its weight. It is bold, and merciless in how in preys on the faint-of heart, and can make a faint-of-heart out of even the most devout Stoics.

The hardest thing for a songwriter to do is to write to their vocal strengths—to lead themselves out of their comfort zones so the emotions can come out in their tone and not just their words.And the album is refreshingly quick, lean and deft. And whoever said that sobriety was the pathway to bad music? If Southeastern is any indication, Isbell’s recent recovery has only purified his musical Tao. Completely unfair Isbell, completely unfair. And selfish too. You should have saved some of these songs for others.

Southeastern was the moment when both Jason Isbell and Americana at large arrived. “Cover Me Up” and “Elephant” from the record are now universally-recognized as standards from the American songbook. It’s not just a record that defined a decade, it’s a record that has gone on to define American music. (read review)

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