2015’s Album of the Year candidates might constitute the most wide open field of contenders since this exercise has been in practice. There’s no clear front runners, anyone could win, and each candidate has pluses and minuses.
Chris Stapleton might be the closest thing to a front runner since he’s already been such a big winner in 2015, but is that a reason to hand it a more unheralded candidate, or should the best record win regardless? And how does Chris Stapleton’s pop country songwriting baggage factor in, if at all?
Speaking of baggage, here months after Hold My Beer Vol. 1 by Randy Rogers and Wade Bowen was released, and there’s still people who haven’t given the album a chance since they don’t believe these guys can sing and perform traditional country. James McMurtry’s Complicated Game has to be in contention for the best-written album in 2015 if nothing else, but is he too much of a known quantity and an older name to create any buzz? Right there with McMurtry in the songwriting realm is Jason Isbell’s Something More Than Free, but is the album any better than Southeastern, and if it’s not, is is fair to make an Album of the Year out of something that isn’t even the artist’s best record?
Meanwhile Whitey Morgan and the Turnpike Troubadours are just as strong as any. Few will even have heard of Ward Thomas, but they may have released the most relevant record of them all. Don Henley’s surprising Cass County is as close to a country music masterpiece as anything in the field, with the rock legend not just making another record, but his definitive country record to stand for the rest of his career. And the one album that truly feels like an artist’s magnum opus—Yelawolf’s Love Story—is hip-hop. Could Saving Country Music really declare a rap record Album of the Year?
PLEASE NOTE: There will be a longer, more involved Essential Albums List posted in the coming weeks, so just because you don’t see one of your favorite records here, doesn’t mean it won’t get recognized. Albums by Jason Boland and the Stragglers, Rachel Brooke and Lonesome Wyatt, Roo Arcus, Brandi Carlile, Ryan Bingham, Jamie Lin Wilson, John Moreland, Mike and the Moonpies, Jason James, Lindi Ortega, Kacey Musgraves, and others were very close to making the list, but a line has to be drawn somewhere in an already crowded field.
Like every year, your opinion counts, and may even count more this year with no clear front runner. So please pipe up in the comments section, though it’s not just an up or down vote. Fans of a particular artist are encouraged to not just say who should win, but make a convincing case of why. This is not an up or down vote. In the end, I, Trigger, will make the final decision.
Whitey Morgan & The 78’s “Sonic Ranch”
Of the underground and independent honky tonkers I’ve had the pleasure of covering over many years, nobody has worked harder, and nobody has put in more miles than than Whitey. There’s been some that have shot to major fame seemingly overnight like Sturgill Simpson, others that seem to ride a boom and bust pattern like Leon Virgil Bowers, but Whitey Morgan is a case study all to his own.
Like rolling Buick sedans off the assembly line in Flint, Michigan one after another, day after day, year after year, not stopping to take breaks or reveling in little victories, but winning fans over one at a time, night after night, tour after tour in America’s derelict honky tonks until the word of mouth grew into a rumble, the crowds went from nearly empty to nut to butt, Whitey Morgan is now like a locomotive at full speed barreling down the tracks. Get in his way, and you’re liable to get trucked.
Named for the legendary studio compound outside of El Paso, TX known for coaxing some of the best recordings out of artists in their career, Sonic Ranch is the missing piece in what was already a well-apportioned arsenal of honky tonk firepower. (read full review)
Randy Rogers & Wade Bowen “Hold My Beer”
Boy howdy did Wade Bowen and Randy Rogers absolutely clobber the ball out of the park with this one. When I first heard they were making a studio version of their laid back, and sometimes poorly-promoted and hastily-booked “Hold My Beer and Watch This” acoustic shows annually embarked on between bigger tours, I thought we’d get a bunch of stripped-down covers, a few acoustic collaborations, and maybe a studio track or two; something more for the serious Red Dirt fan as opposed to a wide swath of the country music population. Instead we get a completely fleshed out album full of original songs that rival or potentially surpass the work either of these Texas country stalwarts have done on their primary projects, or any traditional country album released in a while.
And when I say traditional country, I’m not speaking in hyperbole or close approximations. I’m talking steel guitar and fiddle, I’m talking twang and texture, with really no departure from the traditional approach at any point. But if you come for the music, you stay for the songs, and Hold My Beer Vol. 1 showcases some of the best writing you can find in the achingly bereft country music landscape of today.
Beyond whatever assurances to prospective country music purchasers of this music that I could convey, or whatever superlatives might be levied in support of this effort, what Wade Bowen and Randy Roger do in Hold My Beer Vol. 1 is offer hope for the future of authentic country music, and once again prove that Texas does it better. (read full review)
Chris Stapleton “Traveller”
Well isn’t this cute. So the same guy that’s written songs for Luke Bryan, Lady Antebellum, and wrote that terrible Thomas Rhett single “Crash and Burn” decides he wants to release a traditional country record. I guess we’re all supposed to just hop to attention and try to forget all the trash that he’s carved his name into with songwriting credits and sally forth, huh?
Actually, that’s exactly what we’re supposed to do.
Is there a little voice in the back of my head that says, “Okay, this guy just knows how to write songs so well that he can hoodwink us into believing he’s the real deal, just like he hookwinks the rest when he’s writing pop country material?” There used to be. But the thing about Chris Stapleton is you can’t fake the passion behind that voice. There is something there that is tied so deeply with inspiration, it’s unavoidable as anything but an original and heartfelt expression of authentic emotion. (read full review)
James McMurtry “Complicated Game”
Venturing into ramshackle dive bars and overturning the stones of socioeconomic depravity to unearth the forgotten refugees cast off from the American dream and escaping the enslavement of technology by hammering out livings on the outskirts of society, Texas singer and second generation writer James McMurtry pens odes to the marginalized inhabitants of the margins, meticulously chiseling out curvatures with such intimate understanding and attention to detail that he eventually reveals canonized demi-heroes of everyday forgotten life tied to the land and living like prose in their tacked together existences while the masses speed past on the highway unbeknownst.
Six long years it took, and it may be six more before a fresh new batch arrives. But James McMurtry delivers on the promise of being one of our generation’s preeminent songwriters who can say the things that twist the rest of our tongues, create characters we never knew but feel hauntingly familiar, and fill us with and appreciation of life, both the good and the bad, and understand it is all part of the brilliant tapestry we’re all embedded in and unrolling before us. (read full review)
Don Henley – “Cass County”
Whatever you could want or hope from Don Henley’s Cass County as a country music fan, this album delivers it and in ample quantities. I don’t know that any country fan’s expectations can meet the actual enjoyment this music deals out. And this is a traditional country record. Sure there are a couple of songs you probably wouldn’t consider country at all, and maybe a couple more that would be considered more contemporary country than classic. But overall, it’s totally worthy of claiming the traditional tag. I’m talking Don Williams type stuff: slow songs, steel guitar, great songwriting, and maybe especially, some of the best singing by all the parties involved that I’ve heard in a long time.
It’s just kind of astounding how good Cass County is. Don Henley said he was going to make a country record inspired by his influences and upbringing, and that’s what he did. We’re just not used to this level of quality these days, or this level of uncompromising follow through. A tremendous amount of love and effort went into this record. This isn’t just another album, it’s Don Henley’s country album, and he wanted it to be memorable. (read full review)
Ward Thomas – “From Where We Stand”
Ward Thomas is Maddie & Tae without the baggage or the need for qualifiers or quips like “Oh, but at least it’s better than Bro-Country.” Ward Davis is First Aid Kit but with a more sensible, positive, and wide-appealing sound that doesn’t shed the intelligence or inspiration from the listening experience to get there.
if there was ever an act that American country music needed more, it would be Ward Thomas. And not because they’re traditional country, but because they’re pop country, but pop country that actually says something, assumes an intelligent audience, and attempts to inspire and entertain the public without making you feel stupid.
I’m not sure enough can be said about Ward Thomas. If country music is to be saved, then it has to happen in all sectors of the music, from bluegrass, to traditional country, to Outlaw and honky tonk, and to country pop that will appeal to young women, and to adults that are tired of the pop tart fest, and the poor messages it’s sending to listeners at large. Someone, anyone, get these girls over here and give them the support they deserve. American country music needs Ward Thomas.
Turnpike Troubadours (Self-Titled)
That’s the thing about the Turnpike Troubadours: they’ve exuded a patience and steadiness that has put them steadfastly in touch with the underlying spirit of country music. If they wanted to pivot just slightly and go some big rock route, they could blow up huge. But they didn’t and they don’t . . . and they still blew up huge. This isn’t old country. This is new country, only the roots are still attached, and the branches fan out wide.
You can look at The Turnpike Troubadours as an ass kicking live band, or you can look at them as a band behind a singer songwriter that happens to have some ass kicking songs. Their melodies could rise a little bit more. They could shorten some of their songs, or contemporize the instrumentation. This is surely what they would hear if they sailed their ship for Nashville looking for a larger slice. But they refuse to tinker with what has led them here. You get the sense they would rather quit than let down their long-term fans, or themselves. It’s still the same guys, and mostly the same sound. They remain the Turnpike Troubadours. And their destiny and prospects are better off for it. (read full review)
Yelawolf “Love Story”
So what is Saving Country Music’s interest in this new Love Story record? The serious threat of country rap seems to have waned significantly in the rise of Bro-Country, and country music faces much bigger problems now. But what Yelawolf has done with Love Story is pulled the curtain back and exposed the sheer lack of talent in the ranks of country rappers and other misguided genre benders by putting out an album that sets a creative high watermark, and bucks the narrative of commercial pandering and derivative clichÃ© in the space between country and hip-hop. Love Story is bursting with creative vision, respect for art forms, and most importantly, it is an album that tells a very personal, self-reflective, and at times vulnerable and self-deprecating story. It is Yelawolf’s opus.
Yelawolf’s Love Story could very well be a landmark American album, and could go on to influence countless other artists and albums in the coming years. And in this transfer of influence, there will be the bits of traditional country that are instilled in this record. I cannot assign a grade Love Story because I’m not a hip-hop critic, and therefore am not qualified to rate it on certain merits or against its peers. But will this record still be standing at the end of the year when the entire recording industry gathers to consider who released the most important and influential works? There’s a chance it might be overlooked or misunderstood. But it probably deserves to be. (read full review)
Jason Isbell – “Something More Than Free”
Jason Isbell is the big dog, and you better pay attention when he releases an album, whether your wool is dyed in Americana colors, or you’re a country, folk, or rock fan peering into the Americana world from the outside in.
Anticipation is not always an artist’s best friend. The problem with releasing a career album that is showered with critical acclaim is where to go next. You try the same thing again and the audience may feel it’s a flat effort. You veer to far out-of-bounds and you risk losing your direction and the momentum behind it. Isbell’s last record Southeastern is still racking up plaudits in certain sectors, and here he is trying to get you to pay attention to a new one.
Ultimately, writing a review for an album like this is pointless. If you fancy yourself a music fan, whether specialized to the Americana, country, rock, or folk realms, you probably already have an opinion on Jason Isbell, and you are going to want to be listening to this album and give it attentive consideration. Because it is the work of Jason Isbell, and it’s the one all others will be measured by. (read full review)