2017 was a bumper crop yer for great country and roots records, and this is reflected in Saving Country Music’s 2017 Essential Albums list, which has expanded once again to include a total of 65 albums, each of which was reviewed in-depth during the year, and each which can be seen with a summation of the review below. Along with that are included other albums that were reviewed with a positive grade in 2017, along with a list of other records that are either awaiting review, are “on the radar,” or should otherwise be considered worth checking out.
A few ground rules:
- This does NOT include the Album of the Year Nominees since 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 1o nominees also “Essential.” Every year people overlook this rule and say, “Hey, where’s so and so?” and we all point to this rule.
- There is no specific order to the list, aside from the first 11 albums being considered the “Most Essential,” or albums that just missed the bubble to be considered Album of the Year nominees.
- 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. 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, so please don’t complain that something was overlooked, be thankful this free resource to music listeners continues to be offered and expanded year after year.
- 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. Just no “Hey, this list is entirely bunk because so and so wasn’t included!” or “so and so WAS included.”
MOST ESSENTIAL – Dori Freeman – Letters Never Read
In such busy and cluttered times as these, when all information and music seems filled with acrid sentiments and divisive tones, Dori Freeman is separating herself from the gaggle of country’s most encouraging prospects by mining the simple beauty from Appalachian dialect and tone, taking deprecated compositions in outmoded tongues and making them feel more relevant than the most modernized hip-hop beats, and then contribution her own original expressions in tastefully and intelligently arranged moments, ushering the listener away to a place apart from the constant friction of modern, stifling noise.
With her self-titled debut in 2016, Dori announced herself as an immediate attention-getter in the Appalachian country space. But there was a still a timidness present, especially in her live show. She was unwilling to participate in social media, or expound on personal information like the fact that she was a single mom. A year has done wonders for her confidence. Her consent to share the inspiration behind her songs now makes them even more personal to her audience. And as Kitty Wells, Loretta Lynn, and Emmylou Harris before her, she’s proven that bearing young is not the death sentence on a musical career the patriarchal society often decrees, it can be the impetus and inspiration for creative exploration and the pursuit of personal goals. (read review)
MOST ESSENTIAL – Jason Eady – Self-Titled
Jason Eady can do what they can do, but they can’t do what Jason Eady does, which is strip it all back and have the appeal for the music rest entirely on the written composition of a song. Even the most minimalist of performers have to rely a little bit on style, groove, or some sort of window dressing. But for Jason Eady, it’s almost like a type of Zen to him—trying to find the slimmest, most fragile accompaniment to his words as possible where you can’t help but allow the theater of the mind to take over, and your thoughts be submerged in the story and message.
What comes across most starkly on this record is Jason Eady’s use of perspective in his writing. To put himself in the shoes of the man let free so Jesus could be crucified involves a depth of insight most of us just don’t have the discipline to explore. The timely “Black Jesus” pulls a similar maneuver, only more involved. This song is only capable from someone with a knack for seeing the world through someone else’s eyes, but exhibiting even more dexterity of perspective, Eady then looks back at himself through that same pair of foreign eyes to gain a whole new level of insight on his own original perspective not just to see the differences, but to espouse on the universal similarities. (read review)
MOST ESSENTIAL – Colter Wall – Self-Titled
Like opening an old chest long ago stashed away in an attic or crawl space and ages forgotten, but once it’s cracked and the odoriferous concoctions emanating from its bowels mix with the memories tied to the contents in an overwhelming waff almost too much to behold, the yawning of Colter Wall’s vocal aperture is like the spontaneous appearance of a hoary portal into the past where the present day escapes the mind and you find yourself amidst the ghosts of a by-gone epoch.
Colter Wall’s voice is truly a thing to behold. No descriptor or accolade employed to convey its powers of conjuration can be accused of embellishment. The only detriment is that future generations will be burdened to find fresh adjectives to describe it, while us currently present in its audience have the unfair opportunity to attempt to recount its effects while it’s still being presented in its nascent state. (read review)
MOST ESSENTIAL – Rodney Crowell – Close Ties
Crowell has not been caught napping in the last few years—releasing a couple of well-received duet albums with Emmylou Harris while pumping out original records as well. But Close Ties feels like something much more calculated, purposeful, and inspired, like he’s been saving up material, and waiting for the right time when the wounds aren’t so fresh, but the memory and sense of loss is still ablaze in his mind.
Close Ties finds Rodney Crowell getting incredibly personal, naming names, and using candid language with incredible honesty and a colloquial candor most artists are too inhibited to communicate. Rodney Crowell is one of the very few people who can refer to the great Susanna Clark as a “bitch,” because that’s how close he was to her. If you or I tried that, he’d kick our asses, and for good reason. (read review)
MOST ESSENTIAL – Valerie June – The Order of Time
The songs of The Order of Time are delicately crafted and incredibly deliberate. Though Valerie June’s music has been naturally slated into this whole soul roots revival thing that we’ve seen carried forth by folks like Leon Bridges, Anderson East, and even Sturgill Simpson, there’s a primitive country element here that goes overlooked and misunderstood. The almost monotone and stripped-down “Man Done Wrong” and the beginning whisper vocals on the autobiographical “Long Lonely Road” are not the type of thing the slick roots hipsters are likely to comprehend, at least at the beginning.
Valerie June is a niche performer who’s found a wider acceptance—the fate we pray will befall many of our favorite niche performers in hopes to improve music for the general population and not just ourselves. But unlike some of those niche performers, Valerie June was able to hold onto herself while finding a bigger audience. This means she will remain misunderstood by some, which might be a sign of quality in itself. But The Order of Time finds new ways to express old things, which is the hardest task for old music in the new era. (read review)
MOST ESSENTIAL – JD McPherson – UNDIVIDED HEART & SOUL
All you east Nashville hipsters with your weak-ass white boy throwback soul records stretching to capture even a modicum of the spirit of the Muscle Shoals era after you decided country wasn’t cool anymore, and thinking horn sections alone would be enough to get your songs placed in hip ads for iPhones or The Gap, step aside and vacate the stage because one of the masters of our generation at drilling down to the essence of old school music and revitalizing its spirit has just released a new album, and taken your ass to school.
That is what McPherson has done on UNDIVIDED HEART & SOUL. Just as the title and all the tracks are capitalized in the metadata like your crazy uncle does in his Facebook posts, this record is JD McPherson fearlessly asserting his vision on what modern old school rock and soul music should be, not necessarily trying to re-interpret those sounds and relying simply on nostalgia to find appeal with an audience, but trying to put himself in the shoes of the old soul greats and ask what they would sing and play if they were still around, and still had enough fire in their belly to do it. (read review)
MOST ESSENTIAL – Willie Nelson – God’s Problem Child
Willie Nelson has always been one to defy his nature. His performing career didn’t take off until he was nearly 40. His youthful indiscretions were replaced by his transformation into an iconic health nut. Willie has stated that he wants to die on stage, and that very well may happen. But there’s something about Willie’s aura that makes you believe he will live forever. That’s why it’s a little strange to hear him pondering on the next stage of life, and singing about losing faculties like on “Old Timer” about coming to grips with one’s own age, or the slow and reflecting “It Gets Easier” about breaking commitments as opposed to defying odds to keep them. Even “Butterfly” from God’s Problem Child seems to be about trying to capture something later in life that always remains elusive.
However Willie’s voice remains strong on this recording, and his guitar playing is spirited. Willie also has a little fun in “Still Not Dead Again Today” with the fact that as one of the world’s most revered characters, even outside of music, internet hucksters have likely made millions via ad revenue from fake death stories and other internet exploitations surrounding embellished takes on Willie’s health status. Willie is one of the very last of an era, and this is never made more clear than when he sings the tribute to his late friend Merle Haggard written by Gary Nicholson, “He Won’t Ever Be Gone.” (read review)
MOST ESSENTIAL – Sam Outlaw – Tenderheart
What you’ll hear most about Sam Outlaw’s new record Tenderheart is that it’s California country, yet more Laurel Canyon than Bakersfield; more Gram Parsons than Buck Owens. This all may be true, and it’s not like Sam Outlaw’s debut record Angeleno was some hard country shit kicker, but this only tells part of the story. Tenderheart has 13 tracks, and Sam Outlaw uses every one of them. Instead of some change of direction or softening of Sam Outlaw’s sound, the best way to describe Tenderheart is more like two albums merged together.
Sam Outlaw and his music have always been a lot more complex than what you can preface in a few sentences of bio information, or fit in a summation of his music. The guy is his own animal. A country fan may half expect to hate this record, not for what it is, but for what it isn’t. But as an unapologetic country fan, I found everything I wanted from this record, while someone who self-identifies as more of a folk rock fan may feel the same. That’s not a sign of confusion from Sam or a lack of cohesiveness, it’s just shows that Sam decided to be himself on this record, and for him that requires satiating a wider swath of West Coast roots. (read review)
MOST ESSENTIAL – The Brother Brothers – Tugboats
Based out of Brooklyn, The Brother Brothers is the closest thing you can find to Simon & Garfunkel in this century, yet with a primitive country sound. Incredible singing, some of the sweetest fiddle playing and cello accompaniment I’ve heard, and songs that are amazing in both their simplicity, and their ability to put rhyme and reason to complex human emotions.
All we have at the moment is an EP, but in six songs and 18 minutes, The Brother Brothers accomplish what entire folk labels and festival lineups struggle to not accomplish, which is honing in on something so timeless and carnal to the musical intellect, the music resonates in the soul like echoing within the walls of a great cavern. The notes, and the words are not enough. You must have chemistry. And that’s what The Brother Brothers have in bushel baskets. Enough can’t be said positively about The Brother Brothers and Tugboats. (read review)
MOST ESSENTIAL – Shinyribs – I’ve Got Your Medicine
I don’t give a shit what you call it, Shinyribs and I’ve Got Your Medicine is just a damn good time. It’s a jambalaya of influences. Country, Dixieland, and other herbs and spices are certainly in there, but the main ingredient is that Louisiana soul that has somehow found a vessel in Kevin Russell and can’t be contained. And this music isn’t just presentation and fluff. Russell writes all but three of the twelve songs on this record, and of all the other assets to it, songwriting might ultimately be its strongest.
What I’ve Got Your Medicine does best is to sell you on the idea that Shinyribs is something that you should be a connoisseur of. The first part of this record is not all wild-assed like much of their live show. Kevin Russell really takes the time to hone in on his singing to ingratiate this music to you without all the visual aids and antics of the live experience. You think of Russell as an A-list performer, but not an A-list singer necessarily, though not to knock him. Yet this record really pulls out the best of his singing talents, allowing him to focus all that energy of performance into producing recorded magic. (read review)
MOST ESSENTIAL – Parker McCollum – Probably Wrong
Strikingly brilliant of composition, richly diverse, both progressive and traditional, a tour de force of songwriting, and incredibly textured with strong instrumentation, Probably Wrong has just about everything you could want from any record, whether you count yourself a country fan, more of an Americana type, a country rocker, or whatever may be in between, man or woman, young or old. Whatever your roots music persuasion, Parker McCollum seems to have you covered, as long as you’re willing to open your heart to a new name, and a forward-thinking approach to a powerful expression of country music.
The argument is often made how country music must evolve to stay relevant. This reasoning is often employed to justify some of the most egregious examples of country perversion ever subjected to the human ear which are often much more akin to devolution than forward progress. That argument also discounts all the artists in bluegrass, Texas country, and Americana who actually are actively moving the music forward by bridging more contemporary sounds with a staunch adherence and appreciation of country’s roots. There might not be a better example of attempting to define country music’s creative horizon and pushing the possibilities of country forward than Parker McCollum’s Probably Wrong. (read review)
MOST ESSENTIAL – Sarah Shook & The Disarmers – Sidelong
***NOTE: Saving Country Music originally reviewed this album in 2015. It is included here since it was reissued by Bloodshot Records in 2017.
Sometimes it takes a bad seed to make good country music. That’s just the way it is. Just how bad Sarah Shook is probably depends on your perspective, but she was born into a good Christian home and raised in a wholesome manner that taught her to do everything in virtually the exact opposite way she eventually did it. Home schooled and only exposed to worship music at an early age, Sarah rebelled when she got the chance and her first band was named “Sarah Shook & The Devil.” Sorry mom and dad, but there was something inside Sarah that had to come out, and though this isn’t devil music by any stretch, it’s certainly not scriptures.
Who knows what whims govern the exiled ghost of authentic country as it scans the fruited plain looking for souls to possess? But it found Sarah Shook in North Carolina, and her destiny was inescapable. Sidelong may find itself in a dark and troubled place much of the time, but it’s good old country music at its heart. (read review)
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***REMEMBER: Album of the Year Nominees are not included on this list***
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Whitney Rose – Rule 62
Whitney Rose could be a candidate for one of these throwback ultra-stylized mod classic country fashion plates with her beehive haircuts and vintage hot pants and short skirts. Don’t think I’m complaining about her fashion sense; I’m a man with a beating pulse no different as any, and predisposed to find favor with how old clothes denote old souls. But you don’t watch a record, and Whitney Rose elevates herself by writing and selecting songs that do what all the best classic country artists did: say something in a way that’s never been said before, giving perspective to universal emotions and moments, and making you feel something deeper than simple nostalgia.
Whitney Rose and Rule 62 don’t adhere as much to genre as they do to era. The heart is definitely classic country, but Whitney is also willing to get a little jangly and classic rock and roll in songs. Having Raul Malo on board, who is so fluent in the era Whitney looks to evoke, as well as players who understand the textures of this time period, make the transitions feel fluid and organic. (read review)
Country Side of Harmonica Sam – A Drink After Midnight
If Country Side of Harmonica Sam had been around in the 50’s, they’d be in the Hall of Fame right now, and rival the other old greats in the influence they forged simply from the quality of the songs and performances. Just like the songs of the old greats, these offerings are short, to the point, quick and catchy, leaving you looking for the repeat button. Yes, it’s more of an interpretation of an era than an original expression. But the precision and success of that interpretation deserves elevated recognition in itself.
Making the whole enterprise of Country Side of Harmonica Sam that much more astounding is that this is not even a North American band. Harmonica Sam and his band are from Sweden of all places, but you would never be clued into this by listening to the music from the incredible expertise the entire band evidences in recreating the old sounds. “Shocking” is really the only appropriate word here when you behold what they’re capable of. For those that feel marooned in the modern world, or just love the simple, by-gone nature of classic country, Country Side of Harmonica Sam is a marvel, and a welcome treat to the senses. (read review)
Rhonda Vincent & Daryle Singletary – American Grandstand
Take a good hard think on it and ask yourself, do we we really need yet another version of “Above and Beyond” floating out there in the world, or especially the incredibly worn-out “Louisiana Woman Mississippi Man” that’s been rung through the ringer in drunk sarcasm by off-key singers in every karaoke bar from hell to breakfast? The answer is a pretty resounding and unilateral “no.” The music world is so cluttered with releases these days, better to focus on original material than once again rehashing once great compositions rendered lifeless by incessant, tired renditions.
But there’s just something about certain pairs of voices that makes it imperative they collaborate, and all rules and worries get thrown out the window. Rhonda Vincent and Daryle Singletary is one of those pairs of voices. It’s almost criminal to contemplate them not collaborating, and specifically on some of the most iconic country music duets of all time, if for no other reason than to have their particular versions cataloged in the annals of the genre. If there’s any concern here, it might be why it took these two so damn long to pull this together, and if they’ll stop here. (read review)
The Secret Sisters – You Don’t Own Me Anymore
The purest kernel of what is true country music, is pairs or groups of family members singing together for the edification of each other, often in the form of ancient melodies and songs passed down through generations. The point of country music has always been to carry those traditions on from previous generations to the present day, and that is why some get so sideways when the term “country” is employed for music that couldn’t be farther afield from those picking parties on family farms and back porch gatherings in mountain hollers. When it comes to neotraditional singing duos, The Secret Sisters are regarded at the very top of the discipline.
You Don’t Own Me Anymore is sad, pleading, powerful, and poignant. Yes, it’s an album of empowerment, but the stains and bruises of repression and heartbreak are still what are top of mind, and need to be sung out through verse to have their pain expelled, similar to how settlers sang starkly of the death, loss, heartbreak and fear that surrounded them in early America. (read review)
Hellbound Glory – Pinball
Pinball is for Republicans who like to party, and for those that like to go along for the ride, either personally or vicariously. Yet don’t think this implies that the articulation is any less intelligent than the more genteel, hoity toity Americana fare. The way Leroy Virgil can weave a phrase is incredible. It’s just his subject matter is often about crushed prescription drugs mixed with rural aphorisms. He speaks to the fallen angels of society and victims of the American dream forgotten in the Heartland and beyond the city limits, proud of being scumbags because there’s no other resort. This is the real America that you won’t find represented in a Luke Bryan song. It’s Hank Williams Jr. on Adderall; it’s anthemic affirmations for the age of the opioid epidemic.
Pinball is a fun record, featuring really enthralling songwriting at times, with a few selections worthy to be installed in Leroy Virgil’s resume as top flight material. Scumbags need heroes too, and people to sing about their lives uninhibited by the uptight norms that keep country music a space apart from the reality that some find themselves living amongst. Leroy Virgil and Hellbound Glory are those heroes. (read review)
The Wild Reeds – The World We Built
Never has confusion and indecision been graced with such articulate, yet poetic explanation, and accompanied by such melodic aptitude. The Wild Reeds are a collection of ill-fitting parts that happen to fit perfectly together. They don’t fit together well because of their lack of flaws, but because of them. They each fill in right where the next one fails until they make for a smooth, shiny, dazzling object, devoid of flaws from a surface inspection. Yet it’s the imperfections in the interior that give rise to the inspiration to their music.
The Wild Reeds and The World We Built is wide, sweeping, bold, expansive, and exploritative in the way they skip right over the same old verse/chorus 1-4-5 structures, and would rather craft these quiet moments leading into soaring crescendos that do more justice to the emotional roller coaster present in the lyrics, and in life. Though The Wild Reeds are comprised of three primary songwriters, it’s challenging to pick out the individual composers of each song in the way their styles meld just as well as their singing voices. (read review)
Billy Strings – Turmoil & Tinfoil
While some try to sell you on the idea that adhering to certain genres or traditional instrumentation is a severe limitation on creativity, some of the most brilliant musicians are the ones who are able to work within the confines of severe limitations and still tap into originality and undiscovered musical vistas that dazzle the spirit in unique ways. This is what come of age prodigy and revered bluegrass player Billy Strings does in his debut solo LP Turmoil & Tinfoil. Having worked alongside fiddle and mandolin player Don Julin along with other apprenticeships in the past, this new album is Billy Strings spreading his own wings for the first time, and soaring.
Bluegrass, just like all of music, must evolve to stay relevant to modern ears. Yet doing so within the discipline where the roots of the music remain in tact is the trick that takes an additional level of ingenuity and passion to accomplish. And this is what Billy Strings does with Turmoil & Tinfoil. (read review)
John Baumann – Proving Grounds
Both sides of Texas country are well-represented in upcoming artist John Baumann’s third official release, Proving Grounds. You don’t have to go digging for a bio on Baumann to find out what he’s all about, it’s all articulated right there in his songs. Hailing from all over Texas, including San Antonio, Lubbock, Amarillo, and now Austin, he speaks from the experience of growing up with the music in the album’s opening track, “Here I Come” about being inspired by those flatland legends like Jimmie Dale Gilmore and Joe Ely, and looking at the photos at Floore’s Country Store or Gruene Hall and wanting to emulate the success and songs of those founders of the Texas sound.
John Baumann has plenty of songs that get the blood pumping and the alcohol flowing. As fun as some of these songs can be, they will not be the indelible mark of John Baumann’s career, though they may be the gateway drug for many to get there. It will be his deeper material that will keep the fans he makes begging for more like “Pontiacs,” “Old Stone Church,” and “Lonely in Bars.” (read review)
Justin Townes Earle – Kids in the Street
Kids In The Street can claim consistency throughout, and for more than 30 minutes of music, which is something Earle has struggled to deliver in the past. There’s a good variety of emotions and textures here. Justin Townes Earle sounds healthy, focused, and engaged. The music is peppy when it needs to be, and morose when that fits the mood. It might deliver his most across-the-board quality performance yet.
Justin Townes Earle will not get the press buzzing with Kids In The Street. He won’t have Music Row shaking in their boots about what the record symbolizes for the future. But he does deliver a consistent and heartfelt effort that should remind folks that the gains in country roots were not earned overnight, and are deeper than the few names the press continuously harps on. Earle has been offering a healthier alternative for 10 years now. He helped turn the tide when the heroes under 40 were few. And he has a musical catalog that is strong and worthy of attention. (read review)
Lindi Ortega – Til The Goin’ Gets Gone
With Lindi Ortega’s Til The Goin’ Gets Gone, the idea to go EP is just about perfect. Go longer, and the mood that Lindi captures for the time and places she’s in at the moment would have risk getting diluted. Wait for the next project to come along and put these songs on it, and perhaps the emotional potions that inspired these compositions and performances would not be as potent. Til The Goin’ Gets Gone is like an exhalation from Ortega’s time in Nashville, and an honest take about the dark head space she found herself in when she nearly decided to walk away from it all.
Many more albums will be released in 2017 that required much more effort to produce than Til The Goin’ Gets Gone. It’s is a sparse, four song affair recorded in parts in a bathroom and rushed to market to coincide with Ortega’s exit back to Canada. But it also does what every great piece of art requires—whether it’s a photo, sculpture, painting, film, or audio recording. It captures the bubbling up of an emotion-filled moment that one never wants to forget, even if the pain is unbearable, because it reminds one they’re still alive. (read review)
For those fans of The Louvin Brothers and the Cactus Blossoms, those keen on intricate harmonies and acoustic textures who don’t need to be told why The Everly Brothers are one of the most important acts in American music and deserve every square inch they occupy in the Country Music Hall of Fame, here comes a duo from Southern California called Mapache that will put you right back in that warm spot all those excellent old country and folk records did, only with the ownership of discovering and loving them in your own time.
With only two people and one mic, Mapache can fill up a room with more soul soaring harmony than most symphonic assemblies, carried to great heights by melodies that are incredibly supple and bursting with delight, timeless in their textures and delivery, yet with subtle new turns that give Mapache the benefit of originality to go along with the nostalgic yearning. (read review)
Emily Herring – Gliding
Emily Herring shouldn’t be considered exclusively a Western Swing performer. Though a few tracks would beg to differ, it’s more appropriate to call her Western Swing influenced. Overall, the impression of Emily Herring and Gliding is much more individualized than any one country subgenre. In fact listening to the opening title track, you may find yourself a little worried she has gone a bit more contemporary than you might wish. But when she leans into an incredible original Western Swing tune like “Balmorhea,” or the hard-stomping honky tonk tribute “Last of the Houston Honky Tonk Heroes,” all of a sudden you hear why Emily’s contemporaries in Austin sing her praises.
Some of Emily’s best songs are when she takes those old school influences and expounds on them with her own individual experiences, like she does in the sweet, waterfalling melodies of “Best Thing I’ve Seen Yet,” or in the pining of “Yellow Mailbox.” Still, some will gravitate immediately to some of Herring’s classic covers, like the blazing take on “All the Millers in Milwaukee,” or Commander Cody’s “Semi Truck.” (read review)
Cody Jinks – Less Wise (Modified Reissue)
Less Wise was recently re-released in a remixed and remastered form called Less Wise Modified, which includes a couple of alternative takes of original songs and a cover of Hank Jr.’s “Whiskey Bent and Hell Bound.” The original recording was sort of a no budget affair according to Cody, leaving a bit to be desired when it came to the final production quality. It’s also probably fair to state that Less Wise doesn’t have the same spice musically that subsequent releases would. The upgrades and bonus tracks in the new version are nice additions to an album that’s already legendary in the minds of Cody Jinks fans. But if you’re jumping in mid stream to the whole Cody Jinks thing, these additions are not where your focus should be.
It is mostly the result of two very important songs that would make Less Wise the record that would resonate so deeply with fans, Cody Jinks could circumvent all need for “scene,” he wouldn’t have to compromise by soliciting for industry help, or kowtow to the press to find the traction he needed. And these two songs have since become standards of Cody’s live shows, and some of the most streamed songs from his catalog right beside the bigger tracks from his more recent and better-promoted projects. (read review)
Lee Ann Womack – The Lonely, The Lonesome and the Gone
Lee Ann Womack’s latest album The Lonely, The Lonesome, & the Gone has more co-writes from Womack than any other album she’s ever released, arguably making it her most personal. It also feels like the spreading of wings a bit in the stylistic approach. But moreover it is Lee Ann doing what has made her a favorite among many, which is finding the songs that somehow have sifted through the fingers of the rest of Music Row with its skewed priorities, and singing the bejesus out of them with a voice that has been raised to the level of the iconic from how many recordings its graced that have gone on to become the definitive version of a composition.
There’s a reason why Miranda Lambert—who shares many of the same songwriters and the same producer as Lee Ann—decided she needed to release two discs instead of one for her last album. During an era in country music when some of the best songs are being overlooked by Music Row, and it seems like a severe risk that this material maybe be resigned to demo tapes and legal pads for eternity, Lee Ann Womack is stepping up to give these songs breath and life, and contributing her own words more than ever, benefiting from the rest of country music’s shortsightedness. The rest of us benefit too when a record like The Lonely, The Lonesome, & the Gone gets pressed. (read review)
Robyn Ludwick – This Tall to Ride
Strap yourself in, buckle up, and mentally prepare yourself as best you can, because there isn’t anywhere Robyn Ludwick won’t go on This Tall To Ride. Unabashedly exploring the dark underbelly of life where cocaine and sex are the ruling currency, and creatures of the night cuddle up with each other for comfort while attempting to coax upstanding citizens to explore their vices in the gutters of life, This Tall To Ride is like a docudrama looking into American addiction and debauchery, yet told in poetic pentameter.
There’s a saying, “Dance like nobody’s watching.” Robyn Ludwick writes like nobody will listen and judge her personally. Let’s hope she never has to stand before a judge and explain why so many of her songs reference cocaine and sex via solicitation. She takes a devil may care attitude about it all, because these are the textures and hues she feels are her best medium. And she wouldn’t be wrong in that assessment listening to the results. Whether it’s the escapism, the intrigue, or perhaps the ability to relate to the material for some, Robyn Ludwick’s songs command your rapt attention, and repeated spins. (read review)
Chris Stapleton – From A Room: Vol. 1
The greatest artists never settle. And it feels like From A Room: Volume 1 is Stapleton settling on a sound, on an approach, on not getting the proper resources from his label, and on what worked in the past. It just happens to be that Chris Stapleton can fall out of bed and still out sing any male country artist, and many artists beyond country, and knows how a write a song to prove it. And this just might be enough to continue the wave of momentum he’s been swept up in, despite everything else.
The appeal for Chris Stapleton is his voice, and that is the focus of the new From A Room: Volume 1. Moving forward with the confidence that Chris Stapleton could sing the phone book, they found nine compositions in Chris Stapleton’s vast song library that compliment his voice in separate ways. One of the biggest challenges for any singer is to write songs in a way that showcases their vocal talent and challenges their range. For Stapleton, this is his greatest asset. (read review)
Charlie Parr – Dog
Dog is just one of now fourteen Charlie Parr records, but it’s almost as if you forget just what an exceptional player and lyricist Parr is in between. Surrounding himself with the most lowly, sustenance experiences of life, Parr is really able to burrow deep down through all the layers of comfort and bullshit to get to the raw human emotions that ultimately infer us all through our daily lives: loneliness, self-doubt, a desire for love, a longing for something bigger than ourselves, and ponderances on the nature of the soul.
On this particular record, Parr uses the mirror of man’s best friend to convey those emotions and thoughts, and a lesson on the sameness of all living creatures. “A soul is a soul is a soul is a soul” is not a redundant statement from a stammering musician, it’s a necessary reminder about the universal bonds we are all a part of, no matter how much we want to remove ourselves from it, or try to shield ourselves from it via wealth, security, and walls to rid our world of what are supposed to be shared experiences of mankind. When you see the look in a homeless person’s eye when you’re handing them over the food to survive, there are no divisions in wealth or class. When you see the scared look in a dog’s eyes when they’ve lost their way, you’re stricken by how human that emotion feels. (read review)
Natalie Hemby – Puxico
Puxico meanders through a small town perspective, sometimes lovingly, sometimes frustratingly, but always authentically when it comes to Natalie Hemby’s case. “Time Honored Tradition” sets the record off with a folky, stripped-down country vibe that immediately lets you know this isn’t going to be a repository for Hemby’s commercial material that didn’t sell, but the record she’s always wanted to make. Puxico IS Natalie Hemby—her places, her people, her stories and perspective set to rhythm and melody like a breathing, beating memory.
This record is an assemblage of what feels like Natalie Hemby’s most heartfelt material compiled over years, with each song holding a deep importance, and each conveying an expression that is dependent on the others, however subtly, to paint a picture that exists in her mind so wound up in memory and emotion she feels an imperative to share it. Puxico is for Natalie Hemby, but as is often the case with a personal work, the result was something that resonates personally for others as well. (read review)
Moot Davis – Hierarchy of Crows
Part rockabilly maven, part honky tonk shit kicker, part heroin-era Rolling Stones Sticky Fingers revivalist, for going on 16 years now the moniker ‘Moot Davis’ has been synonymous with the top shelf of cool in the underground country and roots scene with those smart enough to know where to look to find the best stuff that the mainstream doesn’t want you to hear about, and holds up through repeated spins.
Moot is just as important to the formation of underground roots as just about anybody, and specifically in the Northeast where he’s been swimming upstream for years trying to convince the locals on the virtues of the honky tonk sound and the moan of the steel guitar, and succeeding through his infectious grooves, vintage songwriting chops, and smooth, effortless style. Hierarchy of Crows finds Moot with a decidedly heavier sound than his previous efforts, flirting with that line between rockabilly and straight up rock, and at times inching his big toe just every slightly over it, but never to the point where it puts the roots revivalist spirit of his music in peril. (read review)
Porter Union – Self-Titled
Somewhere, the spirit of the country music duo got lost. This isn’t just about the conjoining of two voices. It’s about the mixing of two perspectives on the same theme, telling a story from two angles, making the yearning in the heart that much more aching by adding two sob stories, or uplifting joy that is magnified that much more because it’s shared with someone else.
This is the spirit with which the duo Porter Union from Springfield, Missouri approaches their craft. Consisting of Cole Michael Porter and Kendra Porter, the pair dives headlong into the lost art of the country music duo in their debut, self-titled album. Though there are some efforts that would be fair to characterize as more solo in nature, most of this album features the intertwining of voices and points-of-view in ways many modern songwriters struggle to capture. You can’t just take a song and have two people sing on it, or have someone else sing one verse and call it an authentic country music duet. It must be a truly a collaborative effort like you have with Porter Union. (read review)
Charley Crockett – Lil’ G.L.’s Honky Tonk Jubilee
A collection of songs from Hank Williams, Ernest Tubb, Loretta Lynn, Tanya Tucker, Roy Acuff, Webb Pierce, and others, the 16 tracks of the album find Charley Crockett interpreting timeless compositions with such love, you would have thought they were his own. Not just your average traditional covers album, the Honky Tonk Jubilee is Charley building a country music foundation, and proving his studious discipline and appreciation for the past greats before he ventures to contribute his own compositions to the American songbook in earnest.
Though the songs might be familiar, it’s Charlie Crockett’s signature voice that makes the compositions come alive anew. Heretofore, Charley Crockett has been thought of just as much as a blues singer as a country one, but in Honky Tonk Jubilee he draws lines between America’s roots cousins and proves they’re not as different as some would like to think. And even though you’ll hear the New Orleans influence in his voice, Honky Tonk Jubilee is doggedly traditional country. (read review)
Bobby Bare – Things Change
There have been many true country music “Outlaws” over the years, and many more that claim to be. But there can be only one original Outlaw, and that is Bobby Bare. Without Bobby Bare, there may be no Waylon Jennings. When Bare discovered Waylon in Phoenix, AZ in 1964, Waylon was still very much a regional act. It was Bobby Bare that introduced Waylon to Chet Atkins at RCA in Nashville, and helped bring Waylon’s career to the national stage.
Now at 82, and with his name already enshrined in the Country Music Hall of Fame, Bobby Bare doesn’t owe anything to anybody. Unlike Willie and some older artists, he doesn’t seem to have the desire to die on stage. But he does have the desire to keep moving forward as long as his energy allows, and the crowds assemble to see him. Bobby Bare’s days of hit records and heavy influence in the music industry are over, but life goes on, and so does the music. Things change, but Bobby Bare’s legacy will remained cemented in time. (read review)
Steve Earle – So You Wanna Be an Outlaw
Steve Earle isn’t just your average aging thinning-hair post-mainstream relevancy Americana dude who was kind of big in the 80’s. At 62-years-old, he’s probably the youngest guy who can legitimately claim honest ties to the original country music Outlaw movement of the 70’s. As an understudy of Guy Clark and Rodney Crowell, whose fresh face and stringy hair can be seen sitting around Guy Clark’s kitchen table in the iconic Heartworn Highways documentary, the Texas native wasn’t there when it all went down, but he arrived shortly thereafter, and took the spirit of shaking up Nashville.
Steve Earle is one of these characters who makes you accept the good with the bad. He doesn’t make it easy for you to be a fan and sometimes it’s messy, but some people love to sift through rubble in hopes of finding that shimmering gem, however unpolished. Most artists worth their salt are a little messy. They’re just usually better at hiding it than Earle. Steve doesn’t give a shit what anyone else thinks, like the rest of us wish we could. And that’s why when it’s bad, it’s easier to ignore it. And when it’s good, you pump your fist a little bit harder for him. He’s Americana’s anti-hero: hard to love, easy to hate, and happy to oblige his fans and enemies alike. But he’s got your attention, and sometimes that’s what matters the most. (read review)
Sarah Jane Scouten – When The Bloom Falls From The Rose
From British Columbia’s Bowen Island, Scouten was born into a household where she was exposed to the music of Hank Williams and Canadian folk singers such as Stan Rogers from an early age, and those influences have gone on to infer her strong roots-based style that has been recognized in independent country and folks circles alike in Western Canada for a few years now. Her songwriting is stark, often reminiscing back to the frontier era with its more primitive narratives, and often intertwined with the brambles and underbrush of North American natural history in the way that nature’s bounty, wonder, and cruelty offer such seductive illustrations for the emotions and moments inherent in the human experience, underscored by the title of this new album.
When The Bloom Falls from The Rose doesn’t represent just one, but many reasons why music styles from the past can hold just as much sway on the modern heart in the present tense, whether the themes are the plight of rural people and workers, nursing a broken heart, or trying to find that one person or thing that gives you meaning and speaks to your sensibilities in a world listing in a sea of sameness. (read review)
Richard Lynch – Mending Fences
If you enjoy the 80’s era of traditional country from artists like George Strait, Randy Travis, and Moe Bandy, then Richard Lynch will be right down your alley. Traditional country, but told from a more modern perspective, and with hints of more classic-era influences and even a little bit of Outlaw, Richard Lynch is like a blast from the past for those old soul country fans, but with a strange newness only possible from an artist you’ve just discovered.
Richard Lynch resides in the country music world you might see featured on RFD-TV. This is classic, wholesome, values-based traditional country, not your young hipster throwback retro stuff focused more on style than substance. Richard writes and sings songs from his own perspective as a rural dweller from Waynesville, Ohio. The quality of both the songs and the recordings is shockingly good. Songs like “Mending Fences” and “In Over My Heart” remind you of a much simpler time and perspective. It’s like a warm breeze and fishing out on a lake, and the music carries not just quality efforts in the songwriting, but a moral and message missing from most modern country. (read review)
Kody West – Green
The title of this record is Kody West fessing up to his 21-year-old status as an up-and-coming Texas singer and songwriter, and isn’t it refreshing to see a young performer acknowledging their naivete as opposed to puffing their chest out and telling anyone in their way they’re old and part of the problem?
Yet listening to the songwriting and the developed sound on Green, this record feels anything but freshmen. It has a maturity in the subject matter well beyond Kody’s 21 years, and beyond the output of many artists who are nearly twice his age. Isn’t that the beauty of self-awareness. When you’re able to see yourself as the rest of the world does, and when you look up as opposed to look down at the elders and heroes you’re surrounded by and came before you, all of a sudden a lack of real-world experience isn’t as much of a burden, it can even be an asset. (read review)
Ira Wolf – The Closest Thing to Home
John Steinbeck is best known for writing The Grapes of Wrath, but Travels with Charley was also well-loved and influential in its time. And though there are an incredible amount of songs about wanderlust and road life in the annals of country and classic rock, a true travel album articulated just as much as a journal as a work of fiction is hard to come by.
That’s what you get with singer and songwriter Ira Wolf’s The Closest Thing to Home. An inspiring collection of stories that highlight her superb songwriting, it is bound together by Ira’s real life travels in a Volkswagen named Ruby. Though the theme is travel, this album will feel as comforting as home to anyone who spent a portion of their youth roaming the West or the world’s other forgotten spaces, or those that dreamed about doing so, and still hold onto those dreams today. (read review)
Justin Dean Payne – Coal Camp
These aren’t the bleeding heart moans of a privileged intellectual looking to earn brownie points with the poor by interpreting their plight through mimicked characters composed via research on the internet, or resuscitations of some hipster looking to revitalize some by-gone style because it’s retro cool in their gentrified community. As an honest to goodness coal miner in the infamous Boone County portion of West Virginia, the songs of Justin Dean Payne’s Coal Camp EP are the everyday itineraries of a true working man set to rhyme. He makes his money from the coal mine so he can music for the music itself.
The story of coal in America may be more in the past than in the future, and possibly for fair reasons as technology offers alternatives that treat both humans and their homes with higher regard. But it’s an embarrassment how the hardships of the coal region are often cited for political gain, while the growing concerns of the region remain unresolved. At least it has resulted in some meaningful music, from the very formations of the country music genre in the early settlement of the Appalachia region, to some of the most important songwriters and performers of today. The story of coal and country music are intertwined, yet they may have never been more intimately conjoined as they are in the music of Justin Dean Payne. (read review)
Aaron Vance – My Own Way
Aaron Vance is from Mississippi, and the son of a preacher. You can bet that making country music never came across as a foreign endeavor to him. When you hear Vance sing, you know it’s his true calling, and what he was born to do. His passion for authentic country is articulated right there in his original songs.
It may be a stretch to call My Own Way Aaron Vance’s “Outlaw” album, but he certainly uses it as his opportunity to tell Nashville, his fans, and maybe himself that he’s not changing for anything. He came to Music City to make country music, and that’s what he’s going to do. He’s not changing course, or shifting what the term “country” means just to make his way easier. What good is living the country music dream if you’re not making country when you get there? If you come to town with ideals and tell yourself you’ll just compromise a little to get ahead, next thing you know you’re sliding down a slippery slope, and end up sounding like a knock off of Luke Bryan. (read review)
Old 97’s – Graveyard Whistling
Graveyard Whistling is just about what you would expect from the Old 97’s, in a good way. For those bred in the roots scene from more recent sounds emanating from east Nashville that are a little more neotraditional or Muscle Shoals in nature, the Old 97’s might sound a little dated because the band’s germination point was the mid 90’s. But for those Gen X’ers still holding onto some of that angst, it’s sounds about right when the kiddos are in bed, and you want to crank some tunes.
The Old 97’s are what they are, and still remain so, which is an influential and often overlooked alt-country band who gets your bobbing your head, and not feeling self-conscious about it. They’re never going to be the darlings of Americana like they once were for alt-country, but they’re still providing a very necessary sound fusing country, folk, and rock, and Rhett Miller deserves equal billing right beside Ryan Adams, Jeff Tweedy, and Jay Farrar as founders of one of country music’s most important and influential subgenres. (read review)
Eric Strickland – Black and White and Blue
This new album Black and White and Blue isn’t just about Eric Strickland making a bluegrass record, it is about Eric exerting his desire to not be pigeon holed, and pulling away from the whole “Outlaw” moniker that has become so compromised in recent years, co-opted by the mainstream, and used to peddle subpar music that only takes shallow observances from the careers of Waylon, Paycheck, and Coe, missing all the sentimentality and moral. And what better way to do that than by saying “screw it all, I’ll make a bluegrass record.”
Bluegrass these days has its own set of dilemmas, including how it sometimes feels more like a skills competition as opposed to a musical art form. But Strickland returns the music to the back porch style as opposed to the pentatonic acrobatics of most modern bluegrass. Don’t expect a bunch of songs about foggy mountain bottom tops or a crazy uncle’s moonshinin’. Black and White and Blue is 12 songs you would expect to hear from Strickland, only with acoustic tones and no drums. Just like Strickland’s other records, it was produced by the well-respected Clyde Mattocks, who also plays dobro on the album. (read review)
Lukas Nelson & Promise of the Real – Self-Titled
In simple musical skills, the talent of Lukas might even surpass that of his famous sire. Of course songwriting and style are a bit harder to tabulate, but Lukas is no slouch in these departments either. Yet nearly 10 years into the performing game now, and Lukas Nelson still feels like he’s attempting to find his footing. The issue is not his talent, or his ability to tell a story through song. If anything, it’s astounding how still under-the-radar Lukas Nelson is when measuring these attributes. It’s his inability to choose or discover a definable lane for his career that keeps him curiously obscure when compared to his skill set.
In certain respects you see this indecision play out in his new, self-titled album with The Promise of the Real. The album showcases everything that makes Lukas Nelson an exceptional performer, and worthy of praise for a name all his own, completely divested from his famous father. But Lukas Nelson is not country, until he is, and he’s rock and blues, until he isn’t. Naturally country audiences want to gravitate towards him, but he’s not the traditionalist they may hope to find. The psychedelic nature of some of his cuts attract a younger audience, but Lukas also feels like an old soul, implementing steel guitar and backup singers on certain tracks. (read review)
Angaleena Presley – Wrangled
Angaleena calls this her “F-you record,” and it is certainly that if nothing else. Close followers of the Pistol Annies and of Presley’s writing—including her debut record American Middle Class—know that the Annie with the darkest wings has always been Angaleena. It’s just now she’s able to spread them in full flight.
Uncaged, unhinged, and at times even inappropriate, Wrangled is Angaleena Presley making the record she wants to, be damned of the bridges left aflame and the apple carts upset. It is an unusual record, in both sound production and theme. But it also remains solidly country, Angaleena country, where no recess of the unsettled mind is off limits, and at times little psychotic voices like from demons perched on one’s shoulder get eerily uttered through bullhorn filters in the background. (read review)
Sons of the Palomino – Self-Titled
When the famed Palomino Club in Los Angeles closed its doors for good in 1995, it symbolized the end of an era for many in the area, and for country music itself. After the rise of the “Class of ’89” and the robust commercialization and popification of country, a lot of the old guard was getting lost in the shuffle. Some lasted into the 2000’s, but most of the outliers have now given way to Bro-Country songwriters and performers, and synthesized “producers” who sit behind a computer rendering many of the musicians who made the most memorable recordings in country music irrelevant.
So Jeffrey Steele started The Sons of the Palomino, expressly because it covers the era and the style of country music that doesn’t really seem to be getting championed by anyone, yet still has incredible value to the people who listened to it, grew up on it, or participated in its creation during its native era. Having played bass for seven years as part of Ronnie Mack’s Barn Dance on Tuesday nights at the Palomino Club where it wasn’t unusual to see folks as far ranging as Dale Watson to Dwight Yoakam stop by, or witness Redd Volkaert or Jim Launderdale sit in with the band, the Palomino was ground zero for the country music universe for Steele and so many others. They were all “Sons of the Palomino” because the venerable club helped them get their start and forge their country music identity. (read review)
Slaid Cleaves – Ghost on the Car Radio
On Ghost on the Car Radio, the songs take you down a mournful road bemoaning the shifting world that seems bound and determined to leave the old of soul behind. It’s a little bit of nostalgia, but more of an epitaph for an era when neighbors knew neighbors, family businesses spanned generations, and the world seem well-ordered to a set of priorities that put people first. Ghost on the Car Radio is about folks landlocked from an eternally local perspective, and all they have left is reflecting on the the past, and perhaps some good old country songs to get them through the rest of a life where all dreaming has been exhausted, and the inevitable inches nearer every day.
Yet Cleaves uses the perspective of world-wearied small town locals not as a wet blanket on the spirit, but as a way to uplift their existence, to canonize and commemorate their incredible perseverance to not acquiesce to the outside world, and to be content with who they are, even as everything they care about crumbles around them like Rome falling. (read review)
Dead Man Winter – Furnace
Furnace is about Dave Simonett’s (Trampled By Turtles) divorce, and more about Simonett’s divorce. And what is interesting is how he resists the temptation of doing anything other than blaming himself. For an album with such a singular theme inspired by a breakup, there is no true bitterness or vitriol that gets communicated, or if it is, it’s too subtle for the anger to be palpable in these songs. The music is rock or folk rock, maybe alt-country at most, maybe even pop rock at times, but the power of the songwriting and the sensible but still intelligent arrangements keep you engaged. (read review)
Whitney Rose – South Texas Suite
Listening to Whitney Rose’s South Texas Suite can elicit a magical image of what the Texas music scene is all about. In truth, many of the honky tonks are under siege, the musicians are being forced to leave, and a lot of what makes the region special is getting trampled under foot. Sometimes it takes a bulldozer digging its blade into the side of a building, or an imminent domain notice to appreciate the history and character of places that are slowly getting lost through time. The truth is Austin is not like what is portrayed on the South Texas Suite. That only still exists in tiny little enclaves dotted throughout the city as the encroachment of boxy, prefabricated high rise developments casts shadows over these dying institutions, and the people that love them.
All the more reason to experience them while you can, put that love into song, and preserve the memory while these moments last. This is what Whitney Rose does on South Texas Suite. (read review)
Left Lane Cruiser – Claw Machine Wizard
Think the blues is a tired old fuddy duddy art form not fit for doing much more than influencing later forms of music like country and rock & roll? Then apparently you’ve never gotten a snoot full of the deep blues scene’s surviving members Left Lane Cruiser from Fort Wayne, Indiana. Call it deep blues, call it punk-inspired—Left Lane Cruiser prefers the term “gut bucket blues.” But no matter what your wording, it’s a head-banging, chest-pounding damn good time.
Exhibiting growth while sticking to your roots and the heart of your sound is something every artist and band struggles with, and where many ultimately stumble. But on Claw Machine Wizard, Left Lane Cruiser walks that line with authority, and the result is maybe their most forward-thinking and accessible album yet, while leaving plenty of meat on the bones for those hardcore followers. (read review)
Liz Rose – Swimming Alone
The fact that Liz Rose is still around and writing relevant songs is a testament to her resolve and the respect she commands from the industry. Say what you want about her output, Liz Rose has figured out how to do what 90% of her other professional songwriter peers couldn’t, which was simply survive.
What’s really great about Swimming Alone is it has this sort of 80’s, early 90’s simplicity and sweetness to it that is so critically missing from today’s country. It’s pure nostalgia. Liz sings about working in at the family-owned Five & Dime store, and sneaking away at 13. The songs on Swimming Alone aren’t just incredibly personal, they’re true-to-life autobiographical. You find out that Liz Rose was a bit of a wild child, but with a simple country heart and perspective on the world. (read review)
Dalton Domino – Corners
Out of the ranks of Texas music artists is not the most expected place to witness the emergence of someone that takes the foundation of country themes and modes, and greatly expands them in a way that is only fair to couch as “evolutionary,” but that is the case for songwriter and performer Dalton Domino. For his sophomore album Corners, he doesn’t slowly try to acclimate you to the idea of going in a different direction, he drops you right into the deep end and tells you to sink or swim.
Songs are at the foundation of what makes Dalton Domino’s Corners so stunning. Written mostly by Dalton himself amidst a move to sobriety, it captures the moments during a transitional phase in life that go on to define us as people, set the stage for the rest of time, and stick out in memory no matter what else fades away. These periods are when the juices of life are at their most robust, and if you can capture them in song, and do so with honesty and eloquence, the result can be something compelling. (read review)
Ags Connolly – Nothin’ Unexpected
Nothin’ Unexpected isn’t just a traditional country album, it should be considered a songwriter album first, and a heartbreak album. Many of the songs are stripped of excess instrumentation as to be fair to categorize them in most any roots genre, or to just call it singer/songwriter material. Similarly to how Ags has meticulously studied true country music, his tireless work at purifying his songcraft results in tunes that are compelling and impressive.
Nothin’ Unexpected is an album of songs that Ags has slaved over and seriously thought out, yet even the songs may not be the most impressive ingredient. That may fall to how this singer from Oxfordshire is able to sing on some of these tracks with such natural timing and tone. “Neon Jail” is mind-blowing in how it’s sung. All that nuance and subtlety most U.K. country singers miss is exactly what Ags includes in this song. There’s no telling where or how the Holy Ghost of country music finds its souls to inhabit, but with results like this, it’s hard to argue that it hasn’t found a home in Ags Conolly. (read review)
Pete Schlegel – J-Town
Think of Pete Schlegel and J-Town like a cross between Don Williams and Mark Chesnutt. The themes are centered around reinforcing the most important things in life like family, and how to value time and love over money. It’s refreshing to hear any music these days from a mostly adult perspective. J-Town isn’t for the kids, it’s about the kids and for the adults. Yes, most humans actually grow up and get married, and some of them even cherish their parental and adult moments as opposed to constantly harking back to high school.
Taking catchy, repetitive beats and laying lists of buzzwords over them to immediately attract the ear is the easy way to make music. It takes keen skill to purposely limit yourself to traditional country parameters, stick to themes that pertain to actual country people, and still make something that feels new and fresh. Pete Schlegel and J-Town prove you can be traditional, but not be tired. (read review)
Madison Lewis – Back to the Blue
The music of Madison Lewis ranges from primitive country, to authentic blues, to old-time jazz and rag time influences, and is anchored by her billowy voice. Like all great artists are able to do, she understands the mood that her voice evokes, and writes her music and styles it accordingly. Listening to Madison Lewis is a fully-enveloping experience, not requiring any need to suspend disbelief as it transports you to a different time and place. Whenever Madison Lewis is singing, it feels dark outside, and you’re within a dim tavern, taking in the music with other forlorn souls searching for comfort in song. But styling aside, it’s the songwriting which comes across as the most spellbinding in its development for any age.
With Madison Lewis, it almost feels insulting to bring up her age in the context of her music because she’s so skilled and mature. But it also helps enhance the marvel at what she was able to accomplish on Back to the Blue. (read review)
Chris Stapleton – From A Room Vol. 2
Despite all the obvious concerns for the sameness of the music released in such a short period, From A Room: Vol. 2 remains pretty great when taken with an honest assessment. It takes a pretty staunch cynic and hard heart not to hear the distorted kick from Stapleton’s Fender Jazzmaster and his Kentucky coal country yawp at the beginning of “Midnight Train to Memphis” and not get the adrenaline pumping, or feel the steam begin to build around the eyes in the throes of the sincere and sad “Drunkard’s Prayer.”
Chris Stapleton remains a master at his craft. Similar to a magician, perhaps the same tricks tend to get old if you watch them too many times, but that doesn’t make the slight of hand any less deft. You want to take Chris Stapleton for granted? Just go watch Sam Hunt or Thomas Rhett. Is Stapleton not country enough for you? Ditto. How quickly some have lost sight of the time when it was Luke Bryan and Florida Georgia Line setting all the records and winning all the awards, and just how remarkable it is that Stapleton is receiving this level of recognition, acclaim, and widespread acceptance. And that his talents are quite worthy of it. (read review)
Randy Howard – A Pair of Knees
On June 9th, 2015, country music songwriter and performer Randy Howard made national news, but it wasn’t for his country career he’d spent his entire life cultivating. While laying in bed in his home in Lynchburg, TN, the 65-year-old who was once signed to a major label, and shared the stage with the likes of Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, and Charlie Daniels throughout his country music tenure, was killed by unlicensed bounty hunters who entered his home to serve a bench warrant.
In the months before his death, Randy Howard was working on a Gospel record named A Pair Of Knees after one of his original Gospel compositions. Randy’s career was best known for penning country songs with salty language, and for railing against the Music Row establishment. There was a lot of humor in Randy’s approach to country, but like so many musicians over the years, the demons Randy struggled with in life were real, and he leaned on the strength of Gospel music to help overcome his personal struggles.
In this era of acrid opinions and judgemental mindsets that too often look down at the religious, what is often overlooked is the role that faith and Gospel music can play for some to help give them the strength to persevere over personal issues and hardship. It’s a shame that at a time when Randy Howard was renewing his faith through Gospel music that his life was taken from him in a senseless act over an incidental issue. But it’s also fortunate that his final breaths in music were captured in moments of faith and servitude before he passed on. (read review)
Lost Bayou Ramblers – Kalenda
It’s the forward-thinking textures throughout Kalenda that make it more than just another Cajun record. At times the band is willing to go on ambient journeys not traditionally allowed in the genre, and broach subject matter beyond Cajun’s established borders. Yet it is still so darn traditional and authentic at its heart, it’s hard to characterize it as some version of progressive music. Moving forward while preserving the past—that’s the challenge every roots artist faces, and the one the Lost Bayou Ramblers accomplish admirably on this record.
Kalenda is quite striking, harsh in its tones and message sometimes, and certainly not for everyone. But in a genre lost in time and oft forgotten in popular music, yet so essential as a building block to melodies and modes that bubble up through most all popular music today, a musical journey with the Lost Bayou Ramblers—for those brave enough and willing of spirit—can be a fulfilling, enjoyable trek, however fey some of the twists and turns may feel. (read review)
Sallie Ford – Soul Sick
Once considered rockabilly by some since most of her music carries an old-school backbeat and 50’s styling, it’s probably more relevant now to call Sallie Ford just plain rock, yet with a decidedly strong bent towards vintage modes which allows it to slither right into the soundscape of all old souls looking for something more their speed than the present day noise.
The music of Sallie Ford is endearingly silly, catchy yet smart, cleverly stupid in places, just kitschy enough without overdoing it, and cool in a dorky way. It’s fairly straightforward music with a throwback vibe, and Sallie’s unabashed, sometimes clumsy, yet curiously fetching vocal delivery takes a little warming up to, but ultimately becomes an asset. It’s like a high school band that is extremely good by accident, and you just love to root for because they remind you of your own awkward self. (read review)
Th’ Legendary Shack Shakers – After You’ve Gone
Most great art, regardless of the medium, is the stuff that is able to suspend a deep, roiling human emotion in a captured moment. After You’ve Gone is inspired by the heartbreak of JD Wilkes, and takes a decidedly Shack Shakers approach to extricating the pain from Col. JD’s rib cage in blistering, candid honesty that needs little to no road map to understand its origins. Nine records deep into a career, you can easily question, “What’s next?” Frankly the band’s last album, 2015’s The Southern Surreal felt like “just another” Shack Shakers album. But After You’ve Gone gets personal, and finds the outfit in top form.
This is vintage Shack Shakers in the way the cork is unscrewed, and blood and sweat come shooting out of blues guitar riffs with a punk overdrive, and crazy harmonica runs punctuate punches to the gut. There’s also a surprising amount of piano on this record. JD Wilkes has always been a fearless venturer into the depths of the human id, exorcising what may evidence itself in sidewinding showmanship, but these bursts of energy and expression have exhalations of the spirit behind them that borders on the religious. (read review)
AJ Hobbs – Too Much Is Never Enough
AJ Hobbs has a little more grey in his muzzle than you might expect from someone peddling a debut album, but he’s actually been around for a while, sometimes performing under the pseudonym Cal King. Growing up in a small California desert town, the ghosts of Bakersfield country haunted him from an early age, and hearing all the greats on the radio never left him. After getting married and getting sober, he’s ready give the whole music thing a try, even though an inversion of that plan is usually how these things go in the business.
They say you have your life to write your first album, and there is a lifetime’s worth of stories and experiences in the very personal Too Much Is Never Enough. Adding backup singers and a hot shit band behind him only helps to enhance it all without denting the grease and authenticity of the record. (read review)
Ray Wylie Hubbard – Tell The Devil I’m Getting There As Fast As I Can
Ray Wylie Hubbard says himself on this record that ain’t nobody in the halls of commercial enterprise looking for his style of arcane country folk blues. But that’s okay, it just means more heaping helpings for the rest of us who don’t want to partake in whatever is being served up by the evildoers programming pop culture. Ray Wylie Hubbard is just the type of stripped back, served raw, powerful and potent stuff that true roots music fans seek out.
Complain all day this music is not relevant. But there is a reason acts like Eric Church and The Cadillac Three are name dropping Ray Wylie Hubbard and asking him to share the stage with them. It’s because when you start digging deeper into the modes and styles of American music, you discover crusty old criminally-overlooked guys like Ray infer even the most popular stuff. Ray is the kind of cool everyone wants to be, but few have the cred, stories, and skins on the wall to capture. (read review)
Gregg Allamn – Southern Blood
I don’t know if Gregg Allman’s final album Southern Blood will go on to birth any iconic songs like his efforts with the Allman Brothers did, or even some of his solo stuff like “I’m No Angel” and the second coming of “Midnight Rider.” If nothing else, we get a really great Gregg Allman version of Little Feat’s “Willin”. But nonetheless, Southern Blood makes for just about the perfect epitaph for a legendary man of music. Executed with incredibly-rich tones and compositions, and capturing Gregg’s voice without a single hint of weakness or pain aside from when those emotions that are meant to come through the lyrics, Gregg Allman takes his final bow not with a whimper, but with a resounding exhale.
Gregg Allman’s legacy was well secured before even a note was sung or played on Southern Blood. He didn’t owe us anything more. But like he did for half a century, Gregg Allman delivered, and not just for himself, but for one final hurrah of The Allman Brothers legacy that now has a life of its own, beyond Gregg and Duane, influencing artists, and entertaining fans for many more half centuries to come. (read review)
Wheeler Walker Jr. – Ol’ Wheeler
It was said by many after the release of Wheeler Walker Jr.’s first album Redneck Shit, “Okay, that was fun. But where do you go next?” Give all credit in the world to Ben Hoffman for seeing a gaping hole in the country music market, having the insight and skills to fill it by writing incredibly witty songs, and playing guitar, singing quite well—including recording his own harmonies which isn’t always easy—all while learning how to be a professional musician on the fly. But the problem with joke songs is that just like a joke, you hear the punch line, laugh, and move on. The next question from the audience is, “What else you got for me?”
Wheeler Walker Jr. has an entirely new album’s worth of songs. That’s what he’s got. And he’s got ’em in a pretty short turnaround, and they’re just as funny and wit-filled as the first, if not more. The shock has now worn off, and we know what to expect, yet he still splits your ribs not just from the ribald verbiage, but from the way he uses it—his turn of phrase. (read review)
Lee Bains III and the Glory Fires – Youth Detention
Lee Bains and the Glory Fires don’t do anything half assed, and throwing 17 tracks at you, including six with exclamation points in the titles, Youth Detention is attention getting if nothing else. It’s still more punk than country or roots, yet it’s still immersed very much in the Southern experience. Southern punk rock maybe is the best descriptor, without attempting to box them into anything. They’ll get quiet on you though, and when Lee Bains wants to sing pretty, this is when he can be at his best.
Youth Detention is definitely raw, and in moments constitutes a bellicose racket set to Southern-inflected rock styles. But it’s also expansive, and slightly conceptualized, with some tracks bleeding into others, or certain themes or audio elements becoming recurrent. There’s the shouting and the loud guitars that made Deconstructed so destabilized. But it’s still an infectious and forward-thinking music project with enough Southern ties to at least pay attention to it as a roots fan, and should put Lee Bains and the Glory Fires back on the radar as one of this generation’s foremost Southern rock troupes. (read review)
John Prine – Beyond Words (book)
What Beyond Words does have is some amazing photos of Prine’s career, and not just of Prine himself, but many of the other famous music folks he hobnobbed with over his tenure. There’s Prine with folks like Kristofferson and “Cowboy” Jack Clement of course, but there’s also some unexpected photos, like the picture of John with a very young, and very cute Bonnie Raitt, and an ultra-suave and hungry Tom Waits all hanging out together at the Grand Ole Opry House in 1973 or ’74. It’s photos like these, along the family shots and scans of what would become iconic songs scribbled on pieces of paper that really help put into perspective just what a charmed and storied life Prine has lived. (read review)
Other Albums Receiving a Positive Grade:
Alex Williams – Better Than Myself (read review)
Margo Price – American Made (read review)
Brad Paisley – Love & War (read review)
Kip Moore – Slowheart (read review)
Aaron Watson – Vaquero (read review)
Zac Brown Band – Welcome Home (read review)
Dale Watson & Ray Benson – Dale & Ray (read review)
Blake Shelton – Texoma Shore (read review)
Koe Wetzel – Noise Complaint (read review)
Other Albums Waiting For Review / On The Radar / Worth Checking Out:
- The Steel Woods – Straw in the Wind
- Eilen Jewell – Down Hearted Blues
- David Rawlings – Poor David’s Almanac
- Alison Krauss – Windy City
- Garry Braddy – His Way Back Home
- Grant Malloy Smith – Dust Bowl: American Stories
- The White Buffalo – The Darkest Darks, The Lightest Lights
- Neon Moon – 6:53
- Rex Hobart & The Misery Boys – Long Shot of Hard Stuff
- Jeremy Pinnell – Ties of Blood and Affection
- The Mavericks – Brand New Day
- Radney Foster – For You to See The Stars
- Drew Kennedy – At Home in the Big Lonesome
- Travis Meadows – First Cigarette
- Willie Nelson – Willie and the Boys: Willie’s Stash Vol. 2
- Daniel Antopolsky – Old-Timey, Soulful, Hippy-Dippy Flower Child Songs from the Cosmos
- Kendell Marvel – Lowdown & Lonesome
- Chris Hillman – Bidin’ My Time
- Ryan Koenig – Two Different Worlds
- Rhiannon Giddens- Freedom Highway
- Petunia & The Vipers – Lonesome & Heavy and Lonesome
- Gethen Jenkins – Where the Honkytonk Belongs
- Jillette Johnson – All I Ever See in You Is Me
- Charley Pride – Music in My Heart