2018 was another stellar year for great country and roots records, and this is reflected in Saving Country Music’s 2018 Essential Albums List, which has expanded once again to include a total of 78 albums, each of which was reviewed in-depth during the year, and each which can be seen with a summation of the review below. Also included are albums that were reviewed with a (slightly) positive or neutral grade in 2018, along with a list of other records that are either awaiting review, are “on the radar,” or should otherwise be considered worth checking out.
Sum total, 2018 set another record for the amount of albums reviewed at Saving Country Music, and reviewed positively. There’s even more when you consider mixed and negative reviews. If anyone wants to question Saving Country Music’s commitment to the music, the below illustration should put your mind at ease. Nonetheless, there are still records that go unreviewed simply due to time and resource constraints, or just the old fashioned issue of not knowing what to say about a certain project. The more albums that get reviewed, the more it appears like some albums are being purposely excluded. But that is not the case. Apologies to albums and artists that were not covered in-depth in 2018.
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 15 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 – Pistol Annies – Interstate Gospel
Beneath the Southern female glitz and unruly frivolity on the surface of the Pistol Annies’ persona is perhaps the trio’s most involved work, and one that is more revealing and personal than even possibly their solo efforts. From a band that has made its name running up against stuffy Southern customs and exposing small town hypocrisy, it might be the deep personal revelations from the Annies themselves that makes this record the most potent in perforating antiquated social mores.
This record should not be regarded as a repository for B-level material from these three A-list songwriters. On the contrary, Interstate Gospel includes arguably some of the best songs from each that have been released in recent memory. (read review)
MOST ESSENTIAL – Cody Jinks – Lifers
Lifers might not be the best record Cody Jinks has ever released, but that’s more a testament to the stout competition Cody has created for himself over his career, making such a feat difficult to impossible to attain. However Lifers might be the record best suited to introduce Cody Jinks to the hungry masses of country music fans looking for something authentic in an increasingly plastic and unfulfilling industry. It has the right combination of easy and amiable tunes to perk the ears of everyday listeners, while also delivering some of the more deep efforts Cody Jinks has forged his name around with his devoted fans.
Some artists build their careers behind major marketing campaigns or riding the wave of some short-term trend. Cody Jinks has build his momentum by singing songs that seem to be direct recitations of the lives of his supporters. His appeal to the self-proclaimed “flockers” is not that he stands on a stage and commands a superhero status, it’s that he feels just like one of them who happens to be the man in the middle of the spotlight. This is blue collar music, and not in the pandering way the mainstream handles such business, but in a way that fills the audience with meaning, self-worth, and assurance as individuals with strong backbones, worthy convictions, and value. (read review)
MOST ESSENTIAL – The Brother Brothers – Some People I Know
Identical twins Adam and David Moss have done something that is not just remarkable in roots music, but in modern music in all its incarnations. They have re-connected with that original magic that compels you to stop, take a deep breath, shove everything else to the side, and truly give yourself to a listening experience. Where most modern music is getting louder to command your attention in a distracting world—ripping through torrents of rhythmical stunts and layers of production to vie for your attention—The Brother Brothers work across the grain, stripping it all back, slowing it all down, exposing the bones and roots of sound and story, demanding you lean in to listen, and compelling you to clear your mind to focus lest you miss a single moment of the magic they conjure.
In a word, the Brother Brothers’ debut full-length album Some People I Know is astounding, and only short of declaring a masterpiece because time must be allowed to give its own fair judgement upon a given work of music before settling on such significant praise. Some People I Know certainly leans in the direction of highly-crowned company though, spellbinding with the purity it conveys, cunning in the attention it commands, and generous with the welling emotions it inspires in an audience. (read review)
MOST ESSENTIAL – Tom Buller – When A Country Boy Gets The Blues
Tom Buller opens his mouth, and you’re immediately transported back to the Golden Era of country music, whichever era you choose the ‘Golden’ one to be. Where has true country music gone, you ask? It’s gone right down the gullet of Tom Buller, and comes back out in the form of one of the purest country voices you’ll hear, and in songs that are deep, classic country expressions, interpreted through Tom’s original perspective. His voice is the reason country legend Lorrie Morgan says, “Tom Buller is the best male country singer out there today.”
His first true release, When A Country Boy Gets The Blues holds up the promise of the title, revitalizing the blues influences in traditional country first adopted by Jimmie Rodgers and Hank Williams. Some will tell you that when the blues was washed away from modern country, that’s when it all went so bad. Listening to this record, it’s hard not to confirm that hypothesis. This is not your average throwback country record performed by a young and hip revivalist. You hear the ghosts of George Jones and Gary Stewart in Tom Buller’s voice, and the blues embedded in the songs makes his sound unique to the modern ear. (read review)
MOST ESSENTIAL – Colter Wall – Songs of the Plains
The legacy of roots music is bigger than any one song, album, artist, or era. It is a living, breathing entity that spans epochs, finding shelter in the souls of its performers, proprietors, and fans, and is passed down from generations like genes along a human chain to survive the onslaught of progress. It takes acolytes and champions of music traditions for them to endure the inevitable erosion of time, especially through an era such as the present one when such naive notions of “progress” and “evolution” endanger the modes of traditional music more than ever.
Canada’s Colter Wall is one of those champions, and without an ounce of hyperbole, one can decree his voice as a one-in-a-million phenomenon among humankind, and find very little resistance to that pronouncement. Yet the most remarkable thing about this young man from the plains of middle Canada is that he’s chosen to employ that gift in the service of keeping the most primitive forms of North American roots music alive in the hearts and ears of its modern devotees, and to continue its legacy for future generations. There’s most certainly the more commercially applicable roads Colter could have chosen to go down, or a smoother path to popularity. But here he is, plying his archaic craft with unwavering conviction. Colter Wall isn’t an old soul. He’s an ancient one. (read review)
MOST ESSENTIAL – Jason Boland and the Stragglers – Hard Times Are Relative
The man who’s most responsible for keeping the traditional country backbone in Red Dirt music strong and rigid for many many years is probably not the one your would finger as being the most enigmatic of all the founding fathers. But that’s exactly what Jason Boland has become as his mane has gone silver, and his career has now stretched to 20 years of service. This is a guy that has a tattoo on his forearm that quite literally says “Forearm,” after all. If you mistakenly thought there wasn’t a thinker in there, or someone not apt to screw with us all if he so chooses, you’ve been missing out on the full breath of the Jason Boland genius.
A mid-career record from a guy like Jason Boland can get easily overlooked. It won’t create all the buzz of the younger guys, and it’s not like he’s at the Willie Nelson or George Strait level of legendary status at this point. But Hard Times Are Relative will most definitely go down as one of the best true country releases of 2018. It’s easy to love, and ol’ Boland has kept things interesting, yet still grounded to where the whole experience feels fresh and smart. It’s fun. It’s touching. It makes you think. It keeps you interested and entertained by delving into a range of emotions. And it’s country. It’s Jason Boland and the Stragglers. (read review)
MOST ESSENTIAL – Brent Cobb – Providence Canyon
Somewhere on the highways and byways of Heaven, Country Music Hall of Famer Jerry Reed is driving a semi truck full of Coors on a delivery for Jesus, slapping the dashboard maniacally with a big ol’ Georgia peach-eatin’ grin screaming “Hot damn son, get after after it!” as the tunes of Brent Cobb’s new album Providence Canyon come blaring out of the speakers.
This is some smooth pimpin’ sweaty and dirty shit. Pure sex on vinyl. Hide your daughters. Coffee smudges and axle grease stain each note, and the guitar grooves are glued together from the tar of the road. Not since the days of Cledus Snow and J.J. Cale have we heard such authentic and infectious country soul scratched into vinyl. (read review)
MOST ESSENTIAL – Brandi Carlile – By The Way, I Forgive You
How in the world is it that here in the Year of Our Lord 2018, Brandi Carlile is still not considered a household name? All this woman has done over the last number of years is release records featuring terrific song craft and composition, exquisite harmonies from her and the twins (Tim and Phil Hanseroth), and deliver a sound that traverses folk, country, and rock in a good way, endearing itself to most everyone, and with a respect for the music that doesn’t alienate anyone.
We don’t need to look to the left and the right and wonder where all the great women of country and roots are. They’re right under our noses and in plain sight, releasing records like By The Way, I Forgive You that are begging to be heard and understood by an audience, with songs that go on to live in your soul. (read review)
MOST ESSENTIAL – Cliff Westfall – Baby You Win
Hot damn. I don’t know who the hell Cliff Westfall is or where he’s been hiding out for so many years, but he just released a hot shit country record that will whip the pants off of most others released this year and many from years prior, and get you making room on your list of favorite artists. Called Baby You Win, it’s a self-released project with all but one of the songs solo written by Westfall himself, and it includes some of the sharpest and true country music material you can latch your ears onto, and enough twangy lead guitar and a little bit of old school Chuck Berry boogie to get you feeling right.
You will not be able to get enough of Baby You Win, and it will continue to impress you at every turn. It starts off with the songs, which one after another work in that intelligently simple way all great classic country songs do. Pining to be somebody’s someone special as a stop gap in “Till The Right One Comes Along,” or competing with a younger version of yourself in “The Man I Used To Be” is the type of sardonic and heartbreakingly true-to-life stories that nearly everyone with a pulse and a penchant to fall for the simple poetry of country music will immediately find favor with. (read review)
MOST ESSENTIAL – Lori McKenna – The Tree
Mother of five Lori McKenna from Stoughton, Massachusetts is saving country music. You no longer have any legitimate license to say, “Oh, I’ve heard the name. Isn’t she a songwriter or something?” and consider yourself and enlightened music fan. Brushing Lori McKenna off is brushing off one of the greatest living songwriters of our generation, right up there with whatever field of heavyweights you want to amass as challengers or contemporaries. Just as we mourn the loss of songwriters gone by and wonder aloud who will ever be capable of filling their shoes, future generations will say the same of Lori McKenna.
If you wanted a keen insight into American life, you could burn a weekend weaving in and out of documentaries on middle America and small town sociology. Or you could put on Lori McKenna’s The Tree, and gain way more enlightenment into the emotional ties that make life in American households truly tick. Lori McKenna’s gift is the way she canonizes common people, the cycles of life, and soliloquizes the shifting of time as the most meaningful and eloquent elements living souls ever encounter. She exposes the mystique and meaning in simple duties, how when you make a meal or sweep a floor, it’s not a mundane chore unworthy of logging into memory, it’s one of the most sincere expressions of love, especially when it’s being performed by a mother. (read review)
MOST ESSENTIAL – Frank Newsome – Gone Away With A Friend
The simplest way to describe Frank Newsome’s Gone Away with a Friend is to imagine Ralph Stanley’s rendition of “O Death,” amplified by two, and multiplied by twelve. On the surface, this may seem like a listening experience that would ultimately become tedious, but the exact opposite is true. Listening to Frank Newsome sing with zero accompaniment is trance-inducing, immersive, cathartic, haunting, and most of all, transformative.
People love to use words such as “masterpiece” and “pure” when referring to music, which are hard to logically justify. But with Gone Away with a Friend, these accolades are hard to argue against. Of course your heart must be open to these type of primitive expressions, and the willingness of the audience to listen and let Frank Newsome into their soul is likely the music’s biggest adversity. But pure and flawless is exactly what it is, not as words of flattery, but in the actual study of the performances, like a figure skater who doesn’t let a single flaw enter into their routine. (read review)
MOST ESSENTIAL – Trixie Mattel – One Stone
It’s the songs that make One Stone remarkable. The songwriting is intelligent, clever, poetic, extremely well-crafted, universal in message, and remarkable to behold regardless of who it came from. If you completely eliminate the image and name from this music, fans of songwriting from all stripes would praise this effort to the rafters, just like they did when they first heard the voice and songs of Charley Pride without know who they were listening to.
This is not music that is meant for fans of cross-dressing drag queens. There’s no political messaging here. This music is strikingly universal, and not just respectful to the traditional country audience, it is meant for them, and meant to grow the appreciation for true country music in whomever listens. (read review)
MOST ESSENTIAL – Joshua Hedley – Mr. Jukebox
There are no close approximations on Mr. Jukebox. This isn’t about taking in the classic Countrypolitan sound as an influence, and then reinterpreting it for the modern context, or blending it with something else in a fusion of creative expression. This isn’t an instance where the music is classic, but the words are contemporary, or vice versa.
What Joshua Hedley has done on Mr. Jukebox is compose a haunting reenactment of country music from the 50’s, from the writing, to the phrasing, to the instrumentation and approach, marked by incredible detail, inferred by studious comprehension and tireless devotion to the effort, until there is no difference between what has been done here, and what you might have heard Chet Atkins and Owen Bradley preside over in Nashville’s historic Studio ‘B’ during the Eisenhower Administration. (read review)
MOST ESSENTIAL – John Prine – The Tree of Forgiveness
John Prine’s new album The Tree of Forgiveness is no victory lap. This isn’t Prine resting on his laurels, soaking up embellished praise simply from the weight of his legacy as he coasts into the twilight of his life, cashing out with old cobbled together recordings left on the cutting house floor from previous sessions. His first album of all original songs in 13 years includes those same little sparks of magic and charm that keep his back catalog fresh after all of these years, and make you infinitely happy he’s still around and kicking out songs.
John Prine writes kids songs for adults. His whimsical tales enhanced with tiny observances of life’s perfect little details are like treasure troves of wit, hiding a deeper wisdom that helps breed understanding of larger meanings, sugar-coated so they go down easy, but with all the potency of the most powerful odes.
Put John Prine in that distinct category of performers that future generations will marvel that you got to see while they were still alive—a legend of music, even if he never filled arenas, or found himself at the top of the charts. That was never the point. The point was the song. And perhaps the cruel critics, which Prine calls “syphilitic parasitics” in the album’s final song, understand, and are serving John Prine his due. Finally. (read review)
MOST ESSENTIAL – Courtney Marie Andrews – May Your Kindness Remain
The imagery of the average Courtney Marie Andrews song is so vibrant, it sucks you straight into the story. To her, it’s not always about embellished a song by stoking the imagination through opaque poetry, but breeding mental imagery through incredible insight and specificity. Imagining making love on a pile of laundry, or meeting a boy arriving on a Greyhound is what helps makes the songs and stories of Courtney Marie Andrews seem so real. Only other top-tier songwriters like James McMurtry are able to use references to artifacts and places to put the listener right into the setting of a song like Courtney Marie Andrews does on her newest album, May Your Kindness Remain.
From snowy and decaying Buffalo, New York, to a convenience store in Austin, out to Denver and locations in between, Courtney Marie’s own wanderlust gives her such great insight into location, culture, and character that she then bakes into songs that despite who they’re about specifically, real or fictitious, still seem to be about all of us in one way or another. The world she sings about in May Your Kindness Remain is one of meager means, of dying places and decrepit houses, but finding the beauty beneath the ugliness due to the love that remains untarnished, and a simple appreciation for the act of living. As bad a the news may portray the world to be, it’s still better than not being around to hear it at all, or being alone while it unfurls. (read review)
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***REMEMBER: Album of the Year Nominees are not included on this list***
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Ward Davis – Asunder EP
One of the challenges of EPs is how to build a compelling narrative and fully immerse your audience in the listening experience in only a few songs. Sure in the mainstream, music is now a singles-driven market. But for those who don’t just want an audio distraction on their way home from the office, you need to deliver a more engrossing effort. With the Asunder EP, Ward has navigated the most difficult challenge of an EP, which is saying a lot with a little.
In the four songs of Asunder, you’re taken on a engaging and compelling narrative arc that starts in the quiet desperation of a relationship that has clearly lost its magic, to the decision to move on, to the inevitable remorse, and the eventual resolution. These are the four phases of virtually any breakup, and the ones succinctly but acutely represented in Asunder. The broken wedding ring on the cover leaves little room for interpretation of what these songs are about, and what inspired them. (read review)
Carson McHone – Carousel
It’s not just the words, but the music of Carson McHone’s Carousel that help create an audio illustration of this emotional battlefield that it’s haunting at times in how well it mirrors our own experiences. Like a carnival ride spinning us around, we do our best to hold on, sometimes coming through the harrowing experiences and even enjoying the ride, while at other times our sweaty palms lose their grip, and we get thrown to the side while life goes spinning past without us.
McHone’s experiences in the Austin honky tonks have forged a seasoned songwriter with a perspective and wisdom beyond her years, while battling for set times on crowded stages has refined her understanding of music and performance. Some of the songs on Carousel were featured on a previous release, including some of the album’s best, such as “Gentle,” and “Dram Shop Gal,” and “Goodluck Man.” But this record is Carson McHone’s attempt at establishing a national narrative around her music as she begins to tour more outside of Texas. This is her opportunity to slip out of the “velvet handcuffs” of Austin, and create a wider recognition for herself. Carousel is worthy of that charge. (read review)
JP Harris – Sometimes Dogs Bark At Nothing
Enough trying to settle for the latest Eric Church record simply because it’s better than most of the stuff in the mainstream, or squinting at Luke Combs and trying to make him the second coming of Waylon. You’re in the mood for a honky tonk fix? Quit throwing darts at the Billboard charts for suggestions, and pick up the latest from JP Harris.
You get all the honky tonk fury you can handle here, with the opening song “JP’s Florida Blues” grabbing your attention right off the bat, the double threat twang of “Hard Road” getting your boot heel pounding the floor, and the part autobiography, part Jimmie Rodgers tribute “Jimmy’s Dead and Gone” turning the tired old country music trope of a train song on its head and bringing it back to life. “You’re goddamn right I wrote a song about a train!” JP snarls, while the tempo nearly flies off the rails. But it’s the ballads and sentimental stuff that makes the record’s impact and listening enjoyment deep and enduring.
The mold of authenticity is tried on by everyone in country music, from the biggest superstars to the sad singer songwriters playing corner stages at local bars. But few embody what true country is all about like JP Harris. (read review)
Kristina Murray – Southern Ambrosia
It’s the hidden mysteries of the South that become the wellspring of expressions contained in Kristina Murray’s new record Southern Ambrosia. From behind sad eyes that seem to be fighting back the enduring and persistent pain of the slave mother relinquishing her offspring, the Confederate mother burying her dead son, and the homesteader trying to provide food for a starving family, Kristina Murray doesn’t just articulate the sorrows of her own experience, but all the accumulative sorrows of the Southern region as she sings.
Whether it’s crying over bills at the kitchen table, pondering the impact of an absent father, or fearing that life itself is nothing more than a slow process of death, Murray at times is merciless in her effort to make you feel the pain of personal and fictional stories that feel all too patently real to yourself as they hit the ear. But within these tales is also the little everyday riches life in the South affords, from the supple goodness of a cling peach, to the strong persistence of self-identity. The Georgia native sings to the full-bodied Southern experience. (read review)
Jesse Daniel – Self-Titled
Rambunctious, edgy, greasy and gritty in a good way, Jesse Daniel brings a lot of wild-eyed exuberance to a traditional country sound mixed with just enough of an old school rockabilly edge and true-to-life lyrics to keep it youthful and interesting. This record is home spun for sure, meaning the recordings and Jesse’s songwriting aren’t ready to call slick or polished just yet, but the album does capture Jesse streaking out of the gates, and doing something much more entertaining and compelling than those aiming for audio perfection.
There isn’t much hidden between the lines on this debut record. With songs like “Soft Spot (For The Hard Stuff),” “Hell Bent,” and “SR-22 Blues,” Jesse takes his experiences and hard scratches them right into the grooves of the melodies. But beyond the lyrics, the album is full of ultra-twangy telecaster, and bouts of steel guitar and piano that get the juices of traditional country fans flowing. And even though this is no high production project, Jesse procures whatever his songs call for, like the saxophone in the old school, Jerry Lee Lewis-style “Gracie Henrietta.” (read review)
Wes Youssi and the Country Champs – Down Low
The sound of Wes Youssi and his new album Down Low is definitely a throwback, Golden Age, old-soul style of country, indicative of Hank Williams, Earnest Tubb, Jim Reeves, and early George Jones, even if a few of the themes in the songwriting are a bit more contemporary. This is certainly more interpretive than original country music, but it’s also really, really good. The twang on the Telecaster and steel is just about perfect, Wes Youssi has his pentameter and style down pat, and the songs are fetching.
Not every country fan likes this type of old-school throwback sound, even true country fans who would rather listen to George Strait sing in his starched jeans. But for those who can’t get enough of the old school style—so much so they’ll go rummaging through Bandcamp profiles looking for their next fix—Wes Youssi and the County Champs will be right for you. (read review)
Randall King – Self-Titled
A fourth generation hay hauler from the West Texas plains, Randall King is originally from the tiny town of Hereford, just west of Amarillo. He’s been kicking around the Texas scene for a while now, releasing an EP in 2016, and recently signing to the booking agency Red 11, allowing him to share some tour slots and stages with the finest in the Texas scene. Now he’s got the record he hopes takes him to the next level, and so far it’s earning big praise from listeners, and some of the biggest names in the genre.
With the same deft accuracy and studious understanding other country artists have evoked certain eras in the modern context, Randall King comes out swinging and fleetly re-imagines 90’s country with one sharp song after another. Some of the terminology and subject matter might be a little more tweaked to modern sensibilities, but the music is authentic, and you keep having to check the liner notes, telling yourself this must be a song you heard before from Alan Jackson, John Anderson, or early Garth Brooks. (read review)
Western Centuries – Songs from the Deluge
Songs From The Deluge gets right what so many throwback country outfits get wrong. In their rush to prove how country they are, so many artists and bands fail to imprint each song with a distinct dialect. With Western Centuries, each song tells a story, and each story comes from a place, and those places are represented with how the music is written and sung, and with what instrumentation and rhythms are selected, until this record acts not just as an enjoyable listen, but like a travelogue through locations and eras overlooked and forgotten in the modern mindset, but ripe for revival, full of vitality in their expressions, and relevant as ever in the ears and hearts of listeners if just given a chance.
Sometimes it’s the smallest of textures that pricks the grand awakening of memory and nostalgia in music, and transforms mere words and musical notes into an immersive experience. This is where musicians, songwriters, and producers become like alchemists, and the experience and talent assembled in Western Centuries has resulted in some incredible musical apothecary magic. Songs From The Deluge is an album to drown in, to let pull you under to a time and place in the Louisiana bottomlands where the accents are thick, the characters one of a kind, the food and music is incredible, and you couldn’t dream of pulling yourself away to suffer once again in the mundane swale of the present. (read review)
Lindi Ortega – Liberty
Like all concept records, Liberty benefits from patience and subsequent listens, ultimately revealing recurring themes and deeper narratives, with sonic signifiers telling the story just as much as the verses. Complex melodies that may take a few passes to reveal their beauty soon bury into your bones until they become addicting, while the ghosts and characters of Lindi’s story start to become as real to you as the events of last week.
Liberty isn’t just about Western scoundrels and bloodthirsty revenge. It’s about the struggles we all go through to arrest control of our own destinies, to face down demons sometimes of which exist just as much within ourselves as apparitions of the outside world, and ultimately prevail through the perseverance of our efforts and the assertion of our own personal will, just as Lindi Ortega has done in this sweeping epic. (read review)
Ashley McBryde – Girl Goin’ Nowhere
We’re at war for the soul of country music ladies and gentlemen, and recruiting cute little pop stars from affluent Southern suburbs, and then attempting to refine their sugary styles to be even more pop, and more cute under the misguided notion that this is how to tap into the passion of the masses has only resulted in continuing losses in that fight. As Waylon Jennings once said, “We need a change.”
On Ashley McBryde’s major label debut Girl Going Nowhere, there are no edges shaved off, and no punches pulled. That goes for the stark honesty and detail embedded in “Livin’ Next To Leroy,” to the emotionally-wrenching storytelling of “A Little Dive Bar in Dahlonega.” It ranges from unrepentant Heartland rock anthems like the guitar-driven “El Dorado,” to totally stripped down and soul-wrenching love sonnets like “Andy (I Can’t Live Without You).” Girl Going Nowhere doesn’t hide the tattoos and scars, it bears them. There’s no powder foundation to buff out the bad parts, there’s a circle drawn around them, and a show-and-tell undertaken. Ashley McBryde reveals the true America, warts and all. (read review)
Red Shahan – Culberson County
Culberson County isn’t a conceptualized work in total, but drawing from the inspiration of emptiness and forgotten spaces, the impressiveness of 8,000 ft. desert mountain peaks, and the lonely coyote that Shahan calls his spirit animal, the album sets everything in a semi-arid audio landscape favorable to stoking the imagination. This record is safe to call country rock, gritty, graveled, with a growl to the guitar tone at times, but one that calls to mind the rust of abandoned rails, and the splinter of shiplapped barns decaying into the parched soil.
Texas is as vast and diverse as some countries, and so to are the inspirations and influences that can be found within its borders. As painful as it can be for some from outside the state to be constantly bombarded with praises of Texas by their favorite artists from the region in braying anthems, Red Shahan takes his turn not by reveling in the beauty of the state’s women and rivers, or praises for its beer and beaches. He instead decides to focus in on the ugly, overlooked, forgotten places where sorrow runs high, luck runs low, yet a wellspring of beauty and inspiration still exists if you know where to look for it, or maybe more importantly, how to look at it. (read review)
Charley Crockett- Lonesome as a Shadow
Rarely, if ever before have we seen an artist who illustrates both the complexity of American roots music, yet ratifies their striking similarity as Charley Crockett. He possesses the ability to intuitively blend various roots forms together naturally because he holds by God authenticity in multiple cultures where specific strains of roots music originated from. He is of both Caucasian and Creole decent, raised partly in both Texas and Louisiana, and is able to draw a direct line of descendants between himself and a famous American folk hero named Davy. Charley Crockett’s accent isn’t an affectation. His style isn’t adopted. Like other old souls such as Pokey LaFarge, this is not an act. Charley Crockett is acting the only way he knows how, which is to be himself.
American roots music is a brilliant tapestry composed of rich and diverse cultures all coming together for strength and camaraderie in an era when the past is to easily, and to quickly cast off or left behind. Authentic characters like Charley Crockett remind us of who we are, and where we came from, regardless of our disparate backgrounds. They act like buffers to the rabid gentrification of culture, and awaken ghosts in the sounds they compose, and the stories they tell. Lonesome As A Shadow feels more like a start than a peak, but it’s a very promising one from a performer who embodies the spirit and compositional makeup of American roots music like few we’ve seen before. (read review)
The Church Sisters – A Night At The Opry
A Night At The Opry is packed with quality songwriting, stirring performances from The Church Sisters, and enough steel guitar to consider it a traditional country record, even though as you could expect for a record from the Valory Music Co., it veers into the contemporary upon occasion, though never in a way that completely disrespects the roots.
Despite the name of this record, The Church Sisters haven’t even been bestowed an Opry spot—something Big Machine could pull off with a simple phone call if they had a sincere passion for promoting this artist. Instead, the closest The Church Sisters have come to the Opry is opening from Brian Setzer at the Ryman. A Night At The Opry still remains a dream for The Church Sisters, which imbibes this project with even more real world appeal. (read review)
Robbie Fulks and Linda Gail Lewis – Wild! Wild! Wild!
This idea by Robbie Fulks to (mostly) write an album for someone else to sing is certainly unintuitive and unique, but leave it to Fulks to pull it off with flying colors. To be able to use personal insight into the history and perspective of an individual, yet anchor and process the subject matter objectively by not having lived it yourself is certainly an interesting methodology to the songwriting craft. It also takes a lot of passion in the songwriter to buy into the process, which Fulks has clearly done.
Wild! Wild! Wild! really is a great country record with a few moments of rock and roll abandon to keep it interesting. As Linda Gail sings in the first tune, “This ain’t an old folks reunion, this ain’t a Johnny Cash song.” Instead it’s a stroke of collaborative magic underpinned with a deep passion, strong friendship, killer instrumentation, and songs that give insight into the life of Linda Gail Lewis, and by proxy, our own. (read review)
Rhyan Sinclair – Barnstormer
The 17-year-old Rhyan Sinclair proves this Kentucky wave of country music is no anomaly. It’s broad-based, and multi-generational. She like a chute of new country music life rising from the soil. But don’t slot her as just another name in a gaggle of artists emerging from Kentucky. She has the voice, the style, and songwriting to stand out, and at an age when most are busy navigating the throes of post adolescence, not penning songs that put them in superior standing compared to many writing songs in that state just south of the Kentucky border.
Sinclair has been writing and performing since she was 11 in the band All The Little Pieces. It was falling head first into the allure of the landmark Trio album combining Dolly Parton, Linda Ronstadt, and Emmylou Harris that inspired Rhyan’s country music roots to rise to the surface and manifest themselves in a way that felt less like a lark, and more like a lifelong passion to be pursued. What started out to be a tribute project to Trio gave rise to an album’s worth of original songs and a passion to want to share them, eventually resulting in her debut solo album Barnstormer. (read review)
Jay Bragg – Honky Tonk Dream
Add Jay Bragg and his new album Honky Tonk Dream to the list of names and projects you need to check out, and don’t feel bashful shoving it to the very top of the heap. Previously of the band North of Nashville where Bragg spent 13 years cutting teeth in bars and honky tonks, he finally decided to take the big leap and permanently locate to Nashville in 2015. Now like a number of old school-style pickers and singers looking for their niche in Nashville, he’s ended up with a gig fronting the house band at Alan Jackson’s Good Time Bar on Lower Broadway when he’s not playing four hour sets at the Nashville Palace near the Opry.
It’s this level of commitment to the legacy of country music that often results in some of the best original tunes. Honky Tonk Dream holds nothing back, rearing out of the starting gates with the very fun, twangy, and infectious “I Can Only Dance to Country Music,” which is a good old-fashioned shit kicker reminiscent of the best juke box hits of Alan Jackson’s heyday. “I Know You’re Gonna Break My Heart” is another example of the energy and enthusiasm Jay Bragg and his band bring to country. It’s old school and classic, but still lively. (read review)
Thomas Gabriel – Long Way Home
Now at 44-years-old, and 15 years after the passing of his famous grandfather Johnny Cash, Thomas Gabriel finally has control of his demons to the point where he can pursue music with purpose, and with a handful of songs—many he wrote while in prison—that are more than worthy of the Johnny Cash legacy. Just as importantly, Gabriel is also graced with a voice that hauntingly awakens memories of the Man in Black himself, similar to how the yodel and moan of Hank Williams III evokes memories of his famous grandfather. This is not an affection. This can’t be faked. Either you know it when you hear it, or you don’t. And with Thomas Gabriel, you know it.
In his album Long Way Home, Thomas Gabriel takes you through an autobiography of a very turbulent, incarcerated, addiction-riddled life with an eerie connectivity and continuation of the Johnny Cash story. There is no “Boy Named Sue” here though. This is the Johnny Cash of the American Recordings era, and his early moments of delving deep into the Gothic underpinnings of the Carter Family, and the sowing of cautionary tales. This is Johnny Cash the doomsday preacher, and the vampire slayer. Yet the story is all Thomas Gabriel, strikingly so, brutal in its honesty, and unquestionable in its authenticity. (read review)
Old Crow Medicine Show – Volunteer
You are pleasantly surprised at just how good and entertaining Volunteer is, though probably shouldn’t be. At around the 20 year mark of a band, that’s about the time when the sound begins to get tired. The new car smell has long worn off, and they’re not old enough yet to be mythological. But the key to Old Crow Medicine Show has always been their enthusiasm for the music brought from the hard work mentality of the busking world, trying to impress and endear for your ragged and crumpled dollar.
With so much attention being paid to the latest up-and-comers from East Nashville, and the legends getting long in the tooth, bands rounding the 20 year pole don’t always get their fair due. Volunteer from Old Crow Medicine Show proves why you should never overlook these middle career artists or their albums, because Old Crow just released one of the most entertaining and culturally important records in 2018. (read review)
Willie Nelson – Last Man Standing
Last Man Standing is a spirited, humorous, entertaining, and touching record in moments, with no wear or weariness evident in Willie when he sings a verse, or takes a solo on Trigger. This is a lighthearted record in many respects, where instead of delving into life’s deep questions, Willie takes moments to make keen observations with a sense of amusement and appreciation, even if the subject is his own mortality, which comes up often. The music directed by Buddy Cannon appropriately rises to meet this playful mood.
Part of the marvel off this man is that he’s still here, still soldering forth, and frankly, still out foxing so many of today’s successful performers and songwriters. With 85 years of wisdom and legacy behind every word he sings and every note he plucks, it all comes across as scintillating magic. What an incredible gift it is that one of the most iconic humans to ever walk the earth chose country music as his pursuit. And after so many iconic voices have passed in recent years, here Willie still is living among us, the true last man standing, sharing music with others with the same passion and dedication he’s been displaying now for seven decades. (read review)
AHI – In Our Time
In Our Time fasts forward past all the bad stuff, and immediately gets to the part where belief in one’s self and perseverance results in achievement and fulfillment, giving rise to not just great music, but wisdom, and a boost to the spirit. Despite all the odds, you can still find success if you have the talent for whatever you’re striving for, and the fortitude to see it through in the face of adversity if you trust in yourself more than the naysayers and negative thinkers. Often if you’re on the right path, it’s like the riches of the earth open up to you, while adversity is often the imposition of those who’ve strayed from their true purpose.
Music can be utilized for many purposes, and they’re not always positive, even if the songs come across as amiable. But from symphonic movements, to Gospel spirituals, to traditional folk ballads that canonize the common man, few things can truly inspire the human spirit like the right song at the right time. AHI understand how to tap into those channels of inspiration, and not just evidenced from the way his music moves you, but in how his own story and experience is a living example of how the perseverance and belief in one’s self he preaches about can ultimately pay off in fulfilled dreams. (read review)
Drew Moreland – Self-Titled
If you want to listen to a fine example of a record and an artist who embodies this Texas spirit in sound, song, and substance, Drew Moreland and his self-titled debut with his backing band The Neon Hustle is a great place to start. The nine songs announce the Luckenbach regular as an up-and-comer worth paying attention to, and one of those songwriters in Texas that the bigger artists will cut a song from while he builds a respectable foundation to begin pushing his own name to the forefront of festival posters and radio charts.
This isn’t a songwriter record though, this is a Texas country barnstormer with hardcore honky tonk songs mixing a little bit of an Outlaw growl and bite. Like legendary Texas songwriters before him such as Billy Joe Shaver, this self-titled album finds Drew Moreland pinballing between sin and redemption, traditional values and the tests of temptation, sometimes winning, but often losing. (read review)
Various Artists – Texas Cotton Movie Soundtrack
But some soundtracks are so good, you can enjoy them without having even seen the movie. Like a good album, a narrative plays out in your mind as you’re listening, not unlike a motion picture. This soundtrack for the little independent film called Texas Cotton falls into that category. And like any quality soundtrack, it also gives a good introduction to a bevy of important artists that can then make your listening experience sprout tentacles as you seek out further works from the respective contributors.
Matt Hillyer of Eleven Hundred Springs, Colter Wall, Carson McHone, Mike and the Moonpies, Charley Crockett, Summer Dean, and Tony Kamel are all names of cool artists from Texas and beyond that the Texas Cotton soundtrack gives you a quality introduction to, and not via tracks that fit a movie scene and not much more, but songs you could easily slide right onto one of the respective albums from these artists and still hold their piss. (read review)
John R. Miller and the Engine Lights – The Trouble You Follow
As real as the sharp curves of mountain roads and the abandoned shucks of coal towns, John R. Miller weaves his stories of struggle and survival with a poetic wit, honesty and abandon, and a palpable authenticity. These are songs so tucked away up a holler, to find them you have to creep past No Trespassing signs, pit-mixed guard dogs, grandpa with a shotgun above the cabin door, and slip into a thicket where trees grow up through the ruins of old mine shaft openings. You creek open an old ramshackle door on rusty hinges, and there you discover the music you seek that is unblemished by commercial concerns or calculating adherence to current trends. This is music that smells like the smoke from an old wood stove that refuses to draw, and warm Pabst in a can with cigarette butts swimming in it.
Ornery and attitudinal, but sweet when it wants to be, The Trouble You Follow is about taking all the wrong forks in the road and never being dealt a lucky draw, but deciding to be content and live your life anyway, the mess be damned. It’s fair to draw parallels with Tyler Childers who touts John R. Miller and the Engine Lights a fair bit himself from stage after weaving the same tour circuit for a while, but this is more the unpolished version, in a good way. (read review)
James Steinle – South Texas Homecoming
James Steinle’s debut album South Texas Homecoming is a songwriter’s record driven home at times with a hard country backbone. Finely-crafted, erudite, and thought-provoking in moments, and then bouncy and playful when it needs to be, it touches plenty of erogenous zones on the country music palette, underpinned by well-produced songs and Stenile’s pronounced south Texas drawl.
South Texas Homecoming is full of thoughtful moments, while not being afraid to have a little fun. Though putting the full package together and finding a more original sound may be more in the future than present for Steinle, South Texas Homecoming presents an audacious start, and if noting else, is a pronouncement by the young man that he’s a songwriter to be reckoned with, and a name to keep track of moving forward. (read review)
Comanche Moon – Country Music Deathstar
Not exactly a country music space opera, nor a full-blown concept record, Country Music Deathstar by Texas Panhandle country band Comanche Moon nonetheless makes a compelling argument for itself with an advanced and forward-thinking approach to country rock, while keeping the music and songwriting grounded in everything that’s great about authentic country music.
Country Music Deathstar takes you on a journey. Little audio vignettes help bind the songs together, while the stories of love, loss, struggle, and restoration flow one into another, and tell a bigger tale. At times the stories necessitate slimmed-down traditional country interpretations, with fiddle and steel guitar painting the picture. Other times the guitars come at you loud and heavy, with the bark and dissonance needed to find the appropriate mood for the moment. Still other times the music is a mix of both country and rock, but with neither impinging on the other. It’s a wide sound coming from Comanche Moon, stoking the imagination. (read review)
Scott Southworth – Hey Hillbilly Singer
If you don’t like Scott Southworth, then you don’t like country music. And if you want to know what I mean when I say “country music,” listen to Scott Southworth and that should clue you in. You may have never heard of him. He’s not on mainstream country radio or CMT. That’s how you know he’s good. Perhaps you’ve heard or seen him in passing on RFD-TV or WSM. That’s another positive sign. Scott Southworth also has a serious following in Europe—yet another indication how seriously good and authentic his music should be taken.
From his vantage point in Nashville, Tennessee, Scott Southworth can see the unwelcome sea change in country music spreading across the city like a third world virus, but he ain’t jumping ship from his authentic country sound anytime soon. That’s squarely evident on his new record Hey Hillbilly Singer! No need to check this dude’s country music ID card to make sure he’s not just another East Nashville hipster disguised in pearl snaps. You can tell immediately he’s the real deal. (read review)
Chris Hennessee – Ramble
If you’re familiar with the name Chris Hennessee, you were more than likely hipped to him by Jamey Johnson in one capacity or another. A band member of Johnson’s band since 2012 and a pretty regular opener for the bearded one, Hennessee’s also penned songs for guys like Cody Johnson, Corey Morrow and Rodney Carrington. He’s the journeyman songwriter and side player you’ve seen on the stage and in album credits that perhaps you always meant to delve into, but maybe never took the time to because there’s so much music out there to explore.
But Chris Hennessee doesn’t deserve to be in anyone’s shadow, or delineated by who his boss or collaborators have been at different times. Don’t let his willingness to be a side player for others fool you into thinking that when the spotlight shines upon him, he’s not worthy of soaking it up, or commanding a crowd from center stage. He’s his own man, and if there’s any evidence this is the case and not just the sucking up of some music journalist, it’s Hennessee’s latest record Ramble. (read review)
Darci Carlson – Self-Titled
If there was ever a personification of the ladies canonized in Hank Williams Jr.’s self-penned tune “Outlaw Women” from Whiskey Bent and Hell Bound, it would be Darci Carlson. Or at least that’s the character she portrays in her new, self-titled album with convincing authority. Only appropriate she includes a cover of the Hank Jr. classic on this new record. And whether these tunes are true to life stories of drug-infused carousing that are meant to be fun vicarious romps of uninhibited mind play by the listener, or cautionary tales about the kind of men and women you may encounter on life’s winding path, it makes for some good country music, especially if you like to dabble on the dark side of the genre.
Nothing is held back on the album, with all the swear words, drug references, and scandalous incidents sung about unedited and unabridged as Carlson takes her raspy mezzo-soprano into stories of dancing in her skivvies, hitchhiking with truckers, and taking shots of cocaine as she scampers away from some guy trying to tie her down. Ma and Pa Kettle back home would be appalled to hear of such behavior, but Darci Carlson’s harrowing tales come straight from many Outlaw and underground artists, only sung in the female perspective. Not for everyone, but for those who like their country music dressed down, juiced up, and DIY style with no frills, Darci Carlson’s self-titled release is a raucous good time. (read review)
Brothers Osborne – Port Saint Joe
So here are the Brothers Osborne with their second album Port Saint Joe being praised to the rafters, and for the most part it’s worthy, not just for the overall quality, but in making headway against the burden of the Brothers Osborne being unable to define themselves and separate from the herd. You don’t hear really any of the poppy singles. They’re definitely gravitating more towards a rootsy and rock ‘n roll sound, which at least limits the scope they try to cover. And there’s quite a few by God country songs in the mix, both in the style and the writing, making them much easier to get behind.
For the Brothers Osborne to work beyond winning awards, they don’t need radio necessarily, though any artist would be a fool to turn it down. What they need are those grassroots fans, those Chris Stapleton converts and serious country listeners who will nod their head in approval, even if they don’t count themselves as dedicated followers. Port Saint Joe goes a long way to securing that. (read review)
Nick Shoulders – Lonely Like Me
If artists such as Luke Bell and Pat Reedy suit your fancy, Nick Shoulders will slide right into your wheelhouse. But where these artists perhaps own a deeper arsenal of original songs at the moment, Nick Shoulders distinguishes himself by possessing an incredible, world-class high voice and yodel the likes of which we’ve rarely heard since the days of Slim Whitman. Almost other-worldly, the purity of this gift immediately awakens visions of the Singing Cowboy era in country, and all the vistas of the mind that era conjures.
You really have to look towards some of the most adept yodelers in country and roots of our time for peers of Nick Shoulders, people like Southern California’s Alice Wallace, and Vancouver, Canada’s Petunia in the Vipers to find this type of adeptness and control in singing quality. And it’s not just the yodel, but Nick’s whistling, throat trumpet, and general high vocal abilities that make Lonely Like Me a truly enchanting listen, however niche in appeal it may be. (read review)
Folk Soul Revival – Self-Titled
10 years into the music game is when you’re supposed to start screwing everything up so that curmudgeon fans can complain about how your new stuff will never sound as good as the old. Someone forgot to clue Folk Soul Revival in though, because they’ve done hauled off and put out what might be their best record yet, and a full decade and five albums into the business.
I know, if you’ve never heard of Folk Soul Revival before, just the name might evoke images of post grads turning in their anthropology degrees for banjos and suspenders. You can almost hear the whoops and hand claps now. Sorry to disappoint you, but all you’ll hear on this new, self-titled record is hot shit pedal steel and lead guitar chicken pickin’ served with a side of gravy and some pretty damn good songs. (read review)
Blue Yonder – Rough and Ready Heart
For over six years now, the trio of John Lilly, Robert Shafer, and Will Carter have held forth every Tuesday night Charleston, WV under the name Blue Yonder. Playing original songs directly inspired by the classic recordings of country music with a little Western Swing, jazz, and rockabilly mixed in, Blue Yonder has become a beloved local fixture, with music worthy of consideration from an international audience.
Their new album Rough and Ready Heart includes 12 originals that could have been plucked off of old 45’s and 78’s, and you wouldn’t tell the difference. Yet they remain relevant today because of the eternal themes, which on this particular record revolve around the coming and going of the restless spirit. Whether you approach it like a vicarious ride or a more autobiographical account, Rough and Ready Heart goes places, and takes you with it. (read review)
Ted Russell Kamp – Walkin’ Shoes
There’s not a lot of space carved out in the music sphere for guys like Ted Russell Kamp. Music is a career path where aggressiveness, arrogance, and self-aggrandization are rewarded, and those who put the music before themselves often get left behind. But nothing gets very far in music if it isn’t for guys like Ted Russell Kamp—the side players and behind-the-scenes songwriters that make the guys or girls at center stage look and sound so good.
Where a few of Ted Russell’s previous albums center around the Southern California state-of-mind, Walkin’ Shoes is decidedly a road record. It finds Ted coming and going, and the only time really feeling at home is when he’s leaving. Whether it’s the hot twang of the opening number “Home Away From Home,” or the solemn and lonely bass-only moments of “Highway Whisper,” Walkin’ Shoes is Ted Russell Kamp reveling in the adventure travel can afford, but acknowledging the hardships and heartbreak often underpinning what can be a lonely life. (read review)
Tim Culpepper – DUI (Drinkin’ Under Influence)
Performing regularly at the George Jones museum and restaurant near lower Broadway in Nashville, Tim Culpepper serves up the country music most of the rest of Nashville has abandoned. What you get on his latest record DUI (Drinkin’ Under The Influence) is straight-laced traditional country at its finest, full of steel guitar and twang, and embellished with quality writing, like the opening number “Drove Her Away” which feels like an instant classic.
How to serve traditional country without cutting the sauce or steering off track and still make it compelling and original is a challenge, and one Tim Culpepper rises to on DUI. From the heartbreak of “She Only Loves Me” to the true to life “Daddy’s Old Guitar,” Culpepper keeps it interesting throughout. But the theme he keeps coming back to again and again is the importance of true country music, and sticking to your roots. The “Under The Influence” is a double entendre for alcohol and authentic country roots, and both are cited in ample doses on these eight tracks. (read review)
Shotgun Rider – Palo Duro
Just south of Amarillo and north of Lubbock is a strange piece of topography that carves its way through the flat and semi arid landscape like the etch of a painter illustrating the crag through a freshly broken heart. It’s called Palo Duro, and though it’s no Grand Canyon, in the hearts and minds of West Texas flatlanders, it can loom just as large.
Shotgun Rider is a duo consisting of Logan Samford and Anthony Enriquez from two small Texas towns within short distances of Palo Duro Canyon. They have come together to share their stories of love and heartbreak that they hope resonate far beyond the Texas border, or the circuit of bars and clubs they play in the greater Texoma region. With a sound they self-describe as being part George Strait, and part Kings of Leon, they’re considerably country, but in a pragmatic and contemporary manner. (read review)
JD McPherson – Socks
Christmas is officially cool again after years of American popular culture being too cool for Christmas. But there was never a time when Christmas and music was cooler in America than in the 1950’s. There’s also never been an artist in the modern era aside for maybe Brian Setzer and a few select others who’ve truly understood what was so cool about that cultural era, from the rambunctiousness to the innocence, and all the musical identifiers that can be called upon to take you back to that time. It’s not just the surface styling, but the attention to minute details that really awaken the ghosts of Christmas past in Socks.
Sorry if you like your Christmas music doused in sleigh bells, or burdened with schmaltzy sentimentality. That’s not what JD McPherson is steering for here. Delightfully silly and steeped in deprecated language that awakens a time when life was simpler, Socks is the classic Christmas record that was never written. McPherson has made a career of acting like a living archivist via original songs perfectly interpreted into the styles of a different era, and he does it again here. (read review)
Sean K. Preston and the Loaded Pistols – Forgive
Like many underground roots bands, Sean K. Preston and the Loaded Pistols aren’t just country. They mix in a healthy dose of rockabilly, surf, North Mississippi Hill Country blues, and serve it all with a dark punk attitude, punctuated with a grit and a growl which makes going to the concerts, or getting a snoot full of the music a more wild and frenetic experience. These artists aren’t performing, they’re testifying, and the inspiration for the tracks are taken directly from the passages of their tour itineraries while trying to do what they can to keep the fire burning in front of crowds that often struggle to fill even small clubs, but come with an undying loyalty.
There’s flames painted on the quarter panels of this record. The hard-charging psychobilly of “Ain’t a Dog” and “The Widower” get your blood pumping. “Last Call” is a song all lonely boys leering towards closing time can relate to. A song like “Snakeskin Boots Boogie” is about the best version of a blue-eyed blues song you’ll hear all year, and served with a country music kick. But when Sean K. Preston sings the sentimental “Homeward Bound,” he shows a different side of himself, and one with incredible singing skill, and soul. (read review)
Pharis and Jason Romero – Sweet Old Religion
The music of Pharis and Jason Romero is stripped-down and rootsy, born from the traditions of country and folk similarly, and steeped in songwriting customs and the interplay of harmony. If you’re looking for an entry point into what Pharis and Jason Romero are capable of as a steadfast country fan or otherwise, Sweet Old Religion is it.
It’s a flaw in the human design to believe that dutiful preparation and the surplus of resources is what results in the best output. Often it’s adversity and accident that give rise to the most compelling art, or the greatest inventions. In the case of Pharis and Jason Romero, having their comfort zone razed and everything they love placed on tenuous footing resulted in their survival instincts kicking in, a confidence in themselves to not just reincarnate old songs, but to make songs worthy of being reincarnated by future generations, and a new relationship with love and community not just as a compelling concepts, but as a working model of how to get through the hardest patches of life. All of this is captured in its own poetic way in the 11 songs of Sweet Old Religion. (read review)
Left Arm Tan – El Camino
Left Arm Tan won Saving Country Music’s Song of the Year in 2010 for “Wish” off their debut album Jim. Their ambitious, 18-song effort from 2016 called Lorene never got it’s proper due here or anywhere else, despite delivering some excellent songs like the driving “Daylight Redemption,” and the deep yet infectious “Break Even.” Left Arm Tan songs are always headed somewhere, or just getting back, and reflecting on life in a way that gets you both feeling and thinking.
Their new album El Camino is no different. When they first released the title track in late 2017, it was immediately taken to by dedicated fans, and went straight on Saving Country Music’s Top 25 Playlist. Though Left Arm Tan isn’t exclusively a country band, “El Camino” is an excellent country road song, yet with those melodic rock and Americana sensibilities that make a Left Arm Tan effort so infectious, and far ranging in appeal. (read review)
The Bottle Rockets – Bit Logic
If you’re looking for a little levity amid a world gone mad, and music served with a surprising bit of twang, the latest release from long-standing alt-country stalwarts The Bottle Rockets will do you good. Called Bit Logic and brought to you by the fine folks at Bloodshot Records, they put the “country” in front of the “alt” on this one, and make a superb entry point for new country fans, or an opportunity to reconnect with the band for those who’ve gone from smoking grass behind clubs in Gen X attire when The Bottle Rockets were hot, to raising babies and banging out mortgage payments (and still maybe smoking grass when they’re cool enough to know where to find it).
Bit Logic is a fun, entertaining listen, giving your ears and mind a deep breath from this otherwise raucous moment in history, while still serving a few important points of wisdom and an enlightening perspective. (read review)
Eric Church – Desperate Man
Desperate Man won’t go to battle with the absolute best that all of country music has to offer in 2018 when considering the strong field of independent artists, but it probably will come out near the top when it comes to the mainstream. Is Eric Church really a “Desperate Man”? Of course not. Desperate Man is definitely more Ray Wylie Hubbard than George Strait. But is that a bad thing? Of course it isn’t. It should be seen as an achievement to push something like this out on the mainstream level.
Through his efforts to build a strong fan base apart from radio, Eric Church has earned the latitude from his label to record and release whatever the hell he wants. That’s an important victory in itself. But what you do with that freedom is what’s most paramount. And what Eric Church has done is released an interesting and entertaining record a place apart from the norms of the mainstream that awakens the roots of American music. It may not be a masterpiece, and it may not appeal to the entirety of the independent crowd. But it is a major accomplishment considering the parameters. (read review)
The Stryker Brothers – Burn Band
The problem with trying to perpetrate the Stryker Brothers mythos too far is that the country fans down in Texas and beyond are just too damn smart, and too damn loyal to not notice the voices of their favorite singers straight off the bat. These voices have helped get them through the hardest of times, been playing in the background during their fondest memories, and fit like a glove around their soul. So it didn’t take long for the public to finger Randy Rogers and Robert Earl Keen as the names behind these masked men, though the initial mystery was appreciated as an extra effort in the often predictable and ordinary cycle of album releases to keep things interesting.
Burn Band is not a screw off project by any stretch, despite the silly back story and incognito nature of the participants, and the levity involved in the opening song about astronaut Charlie Duke taking country music to the moon (which is a true story). There’s a few other lighthearted moments on the record, but overall Burn Band is an album combining some of the best new material from two legendary songwriters down in Texas, and is solidly country for most of the journey, even though both Keen and Rogers have been slightly to the left or right of country for most of their careers. (read review)
William Clark Green – Hebert Island
It seems like just a few short years ago we were thinking about William Clark Green as the “Next Big Thing.” Now all the young frat bros in Lubbock have moved on to Koe Wetzel, and William Clark Green has graduated to headliner status. He still plays before folks like Wade Bowen and the Randy Rogers Band at Texas music festivals and such because they’ve been hacking at it for longer than him, but William Clark’s bus and band are just as big, and so is his draw in certain places.
Texas Music is building a more healthy alternative to the mainstream by discovering, developing, sustaining, and succeeding with talent. William Clark Green it’s no longer the next big thing, he’s the big thing, period, and putting down foundations for the next crop of artists to find their own success. And they’re doing it through pragmatism that still respects the importance of a good song and the roots of the music, like Hebert Island does. (read review)
Vivian Leva – Time Is Everything
Vivian Leva is still in college, and Time Is Everything should be considered as just the start of what could be a long and involved contribution to the traditional American songbook. But even at this early stage, it is so much more enchanting than many contemporary efforts or big budget affairs because it’s genuine, heartfelt, inspiring, and honest. Vivian Leva has an incredible capacity for stoking empathy in a listener, and putting songs to the emotions we’re all face and fear.
The love of country music, and the desire to perform it is not an uncommon affliction. But it is much more rare to see it manifest with such breathtaking results, endure through adolescence and the precocious nature of young performers as it did with Vivian Leva. Time Is Everything is a testament to perseverance, pedigree, the strength of community, and the resolve of timeless American music to endure, and the talents Vivian Leva looks to unfurl for our listening edification for years to come. (read review)
Dierks Bentley – The Mountain
For years, Dierks Bentley has played a critical role in pulling people together as opposed to forcing them apart as a pragmatic and likeable star in the often polarizing realm of pop country. In a time in music where it can almost be impossible for everyone to agree on a single artist, Dierks was one of the few to create a consensus. Even if you didn’t like him, you still didn’t hate him, at least until his last album Black where Dierks put a lot of his good will in peril by crossing very perceptible lines of creative decency. It wasn’t just how bad the music was. It was that Dierks Bentley knew better. And no matter what happens henceforth, that record and the efforts within will always and justifiably leave a bad taste with certain fans.
Bentley’s new record The Mountain is not some dramatic return to his bluegrass roots, and it’s probably not even fair to call it rootsy aside from a few songs. But it is a return to Dierks Bentley doing what he does best, which is putting out good, quality, often inspiring songs that are raised in importance since they’re something you can enjoy with others that may otherwise not fit your musical alignment—your relatives, your co-workers, your wife or husband. And as diametrically opposed as the world is today, this positive attribute may never be more important. (read review)
Courtney Patton – What It’s Like to Fly Alone
Deep, enriched storytelling is a family business for Courtney Patton. She may be Jason Eady’s wife, but it’s just as apt to say Jason Eady is Courtney Patton’s husband. Truth is this “First Songwriting Couple of Texas Country” are like two sides of the same coin since both take the business of songcraft so seriously, both help to enhance each other’s output, yet they both challenge each other to up their game, turn in a better, more touching or insightful turn of phrase, until there’s no loser aside from the bad music that’s left aside as listeners in-the-know soak up the authentic country spirit wrought in Courtney Patton’s songs.
Most any catchy beat or hum-able tune can impart some sort of spark to the spirit, but it’s a select few songs that can make you soar, especially when there’s nobody else around but yourself to rely on. It’s you, and music. Courtney Patton captures quite a few of those soaring moments in What It’s Like to Fly Alone. (read review)
Josh Ward – More Than I Deserve
There’s no mistaking Josh Ward as anything but country. We’re not talking about close approximations or the blending of styles in some way. When you think traditional country in the style of classic George Strait, this is Josh Ward. It’s steel guitar, it’s fiddle, it’s twangy lead guitar overlapping lyrics of heartache, sin, and redemption. If country music was a skills competition in keeping it between the lines and sticking the landing, Josh Ward would score a 10.0.
Josh Ward’s effort here is solid, quality, and most certainly country. If you’re looking for traditional country music that keeps it right down the middle, and if you’re wondering where the true sound of country music has gone, then you get everything you want with More Than I Deserve. (read review)
Larry Peninsula – Country Music Only
Often the ranks of traditional country artists are populated by people who feel like prisoners to their time, out-of-place in the modern context, or enslaved by their native geography. They just don’t seem to fit quite right in their world. But in the realm of country music, everything feels familiar. It’s astounding how far this country music passion can travel, and in the case of Larry Peninsula, it made its way to to Scandinavia, and Peninsula’s home country of Finland where he’s been obsessing over everything tied to traditional country music and the American West for many years.
Working tirelessly in his home studio for over three years, Peninsula has finally revealed his debut album Country Music Only. As the name implies, this is no close approximation of American country music. Sure, maybe the foreign accent finds its way through in some of the annunciations, and some use of idiom and language doesn’t translate exactly like it does in country music served in the genre’s native tongue. But what does shine through in stark brilliance is the passion for country music Peninsula and his players exhibit, the studious attention to detail and authentic modes they craft into these songs, and frankly just the overall appeal for the music, regardless of the country of origin. (read review)
The Hellroys – Hellroys Is Real
Humor in country songs is just so much better when you have to beat around the bush a little bit, and rely on innuendo and metaphor to get your point across. It gets the imagination of the audience stirring, and it takes a lot more cunning to craft. Not that the Hellroys don’t let a dirty word slip in here and there, but they let your imagination go to the bad places first. They just light the spark.
The Hellroys call themselves the “Sole Purveyors of Dumb Country Noise.” That’s probably an appropriate subtitle. But it’s also tightly-crafted and dare I say kind of intelligent for what it is. But most importantly, it’s really funny, and just downright entertaining. (read review)
Brandon Jenkins – Taillights in a Boomtown
Like so many of the great artists of our day, you have to dig to find Brandon Jenkins. But that’s okay, because if you’re a long-time fan, you have an intimacy and a sense of ownership with the music, and if he’s a new discovery, the reward is that much greater as you begin to delve into the backstory and musical output. Not many took notice when Brandon Jenkins announced he would be releasing a new album on February 9th called Tail Lights in a Boomtown. He’s released many records over his career. There was no big media push for the new record. There were no “exclusive premiers” or big interviews preceding or following the release. Instead it was Jenkins playing a run of shows to promote it, and purposely kept it intimate. It was just him, and his songs.
All the love and attention flowing to Brandon Jenkins in the aftermath of his heart surgery and the subsequent complications that followed is because his fans know what he’s capable of when he sits down to write a song, or goes into the studio to record an album, and what a loss it would be to the world if these things were taken from us, and in this case, so prematurely. The emotionally-moving moments of Tail Lights in a Boomtown are the perfect example of the power of Brandon Jenkins to stir the soul, uplift the spirit, and impart a story that encapsulates the emotion of a moment near flawlessly. (read review)
Urban Pioneers- Hillbilly Swing Music
Banjo Player Jared McGovern, fiddler Liz Sloan, and upright bassist Martin Sargent make up the fun-loving, lighthearted, yet hard-charging string band trio the Urban Pioneers out of north Texas. First meeting as bandmates for the backing band of Bob Wayne, and later becoming a big part of Jayke Orvis’s Broken Band, Jared McGovern and Liz Sloan are underground roots music survivors and dedicated lifers if there ever were any, resigned happily to the road life in smelly vans and sleeping on couches with a smile and simple goals, and entertaining fans with a by-gone sense of earnest showmanship delivering an arm full of witty original songs.
Their new album Hillbilly Swing Music is true to the title, filled with fun ditties and infectious reels that reawaken the simple joy of primitive American string music in a way that is invigorating and fun, yet still enriching with intelligent turns and deceptively-smart songwriting. By leaving some of the pretentiousness and the genteel perfectitudes of much of modern string music behind, the Urban Pioneers are able to set themselves apart from the stuffy reenactments of the profession to make something that feels more authentic to the true traditions of back porch hillbilly bands. (read review)
Dallas Moore – Mr. Honky Tonk
There’s still a few Outlaws left. And no, we’re not talking about 5’4″ guys signed to Big Machine Records, or stadium acts with Ray-Ban Aviators permanently affixed to their faces. We’re talking about the guys who believe the term “Outlaw” is synonymous with fierce independence. We’re talking about guys with door deal gigs and vans, not buses. True Outlaws. And chief among their small, but fervent ranks is singer, songwriter, and frontman Dallas Moore.
If you’re looking for the Outlaw experience in 2018 that is 100% authentic and completely uncompromising, Dallas Moore is the answer. Mr. Honky Tonk is a hell of a good time, true to itself, and a testament that there’s still real Outlaws out there, you just sometimes have to dig to find them. (read review)
Lauren Morrow – Self-Titled EP
Laura Morrow fronted the Georgia-based band The Whiskey Gentry for some eight years, and they had a successful run, releasing a few well-received records, including 2017’s Dead Ringer, and did some serious touring and landed some big opening gigs and slots at important festivals. But they were never able to separate themselves from the peloton of independent roots music, despite efforts that Laura and her band members can look back upon as fulfilling for themselves and their devoted fans.
Generally speaking, EPs should be discouraged from artists large and small. They’re half efforts, and accordingly, often get omitted in an artist’s discography, and overlooked by the public in a cluttered and busy music marketplace. But Lauren Morrow has hit on one of the few moment when an EP isn’t just acceptable, but advantageous. As she starts a new era of her career, she needs something to advantageously represent herself that isn’t The Whiskey Gentry, and this is what she accomplishes with these four songs. (read review)
Kenny Chesney – Songs For The Saints
If Kenny Chesney hadn’t spent the last 20-something years of his career beating down the country music listening public with his barrage of island and beach songs, we probably would be talking about how his latest record Songs For The Saints is a striking piece of conceptualized album making, benefiting a good cause with certain proceeds going to the hurricane-ravaged island chain the record is named after, and touting the elevated songwriting and organic production that avoids many of the pratfalls of the modern mainstream sound and style. And even still, when approached with a critical ear, and a bout of amnesia about Chesney’s previous output, all of these observations arguably remain to be true.
Even for someone like Chesney, there’s too many sea songs here for it to see enough positive reception for four hit singles on country radio. At least by mainstream standards, this really is a concept record, going to benefit a charitable cause with very personal ties to Chesney, and that promotes good songs and songwriters in a manner only Miranda Lambert has done in recent memory in the mainstream. (read review)
Parker Millsap – Other Arrangements
Though his song “Truck Stop Gospel” was an auspicious introduction off his 2014 self-titled record, Parker Millsap was still very much a pup at the time. Perhaps it all happened too early for him, and he had yet to find his footing, or true voice. He morphed into the the blues howler that is the true character of his soul on 2016’s The Very Last Day. Now here on Other Arrangements, he takes it even to another level. If you think Parker Millsap is a known quantity maybe after you breezed through his first record, you’re taking him for granted. He’s one of the most dynamic performers out there right now—Stapleton level as far as passion and delivery, but not as pretty, in a good way.
The songs of Other Arrangements are short, catchy, and often, but not always electric. Parker makes his point and then gets out, usually with a gut punch of a tight ending beat from one of the best backing bands in roots music. He’s still carrying a fiddle player around with him, and I haven’t seen many pop bands do that. This music is pop because it’s short perhaps, but it’s rootsy and wild because it’s Parker. (read review)
Yellow Feather – And Gold
What will draw you towards Yellow Feather is the warm and clever songcraft and harmonies they sow in simple, yet involved stories that makes this one of those small, cut-and-pasted-together bands you love to root for. There is nothing extra special going on here. No soaring vocals from some our generation’s best crooners, no super-picking by an incredible assemblage if instrumental marvels. Not even the songwriting specific to its adeptness at turning a phrase or rhyming words is something that by conventional measurements would be anything to wow you.
But what Yellow Feather possess that so many other bands with all of those other positive attributes fail to embody is a chemistry, an honesty, and an unpretentious and warm vibe that is hard to not find endearing, allowing the music to create its own appetite in your heart until you find yourself falling in love with it. Outfits like The Deslondes, The Alabama Shakes, and Shovels & Rope have it—that indefinable magic that makes them better than the sum of their parts. And so does Yellow Feather. (read review)
Ugly Valley Boys – Iron Mine
From the lowly and remote outpost for underground country that is Salt Lake City, amid the spires of Latter Day Saints churches and the shimmering mountains cutting into the sky, you will find two old souls by the name of Ryan Eastlyn and Braxton Brandenburg, known collectively as the Ugly Valley Boys.
Molded very much in a similar approach to their debut Double Down, it once again features the finely crafted songs and voice of Ryan Eastlyn that deserve recognition well beyond Utah, and the rhythmic bass work of Braxton Brandenburg that shouldn’t go unnoticed for it’s vital heart to making the Ugly Valley Boys sound work so well. (read review)
First Aid Kit – Ruins
The gaze of the American roots consumer is too often criminally angled just over the heads of Swedish-born sisters Klara and Johanna Söderberg, known collectively as the singing duo First Aid Kit. Nowhere country enough for the shit kickers, way too esoteric for American pop, too involved for folk, the muse of the sisters instead procures it’s own path forward somewhere above it all—an amalgam of archaic music forms conveyed through a modern, but still roots-entwined perspective.
The Söderberg sisters don’t just sing, they soar. Their harmonies are so angelic and adept, the siblings come across more like deities than entertainers, untouchable and ethereal, blessed with immortal capacities, and brought to the Earth only to convey their wisdom in sonnet and rhyme. You fancy they’re more fantastic than real—Johanna’s face like that of a porcelain sculpture, Klara’s insight like that of an ancient ancestor, and the conjoining of their voices in harmony almost too pure for earth-bound ears. (read review)
Grace Basement – Mississippi Nights
Sometimes an album, artist, or song speaks to you, and you’re not exactly sure why. At first glance it doesn’t fit exactly within your wheelhouse or sensibilities. It’s not something all your friends are listening to, or all the critics are lauding, or the radio is playing ad nauseam until you ultimately succumb to its trace via osmosis. Maybe there’s something there that reminds you of something from the past, or unlocks some appeal you hadn’t identified in yourself previously. There’s just something about it that makes it “cool.”
That was the immediate experience with a band called Grace Basement, and an album released early in 2018 called Mississippi Nights. Though the principle member is a country and folk musician named Kevin Buckley, who is a beloved fiddle player and guitarist in the St. Louis country and roots scene, this isn’t a country record per se, and it’s probably even a stretch to label it Southern rock. It’s roots rock maybe, with prevalent fiddle. But it’s more the entire vibe Kevin Buckley and his conspirators capture in this self-proclaimed side project that is something definitely worth an audience beyond St. Louis club rats. (read review)
Trampled By Turtles – Life Is Good on the Open Road
Life Is Good on the Open Road feels like an exhalation of sorts. There’s a comfort in coming back together with old friends and flying down the highway together. But Trampled by Turtles songs have always delved into introspection, and moments of self-doubt, and there’s plenty of that here as well. You get most everything you want from a new Trampled by Turtles record, from the blazing fast instrumentation of “Blood in the Water,” to the encapsulation of emotion from Simonett‘s songwriting in “The Middle.”
It’s often the contrasts that make their music so interesting. They are one of the fastest bands in music, which creates an easy and wide appeal. But they keep you listening with the slower and mid tempo songs. There’s an attack and aggressiveness to the instrumentation, though it’s done with acoustic instruments, and the words often speak to fears, sympathies, and regrets. (read review)
Mickey Lamantia – Every Bad Habit
Most impressive with Every Bad Habit is how Lamantia resists the temptation to drench his songs in steel guitar, monotonous half-time beat, over-emphasized accents trying to sound like Jamey Johnson, and Waylon-esque phaser, which is often the bane of bad modern Outlaw country. Instead Every Bad Habit is refreshingly tasteful, and at times outright sedated. Many of the tracks are stripped down and acoustic, though there is still plenty of full band songs here, body to the compositions, and Robby Turner steel guitar to not make it feel like a half effort.
Most importantly Every Bad Habit lets you see both sides of the Outlaw coin, instead of just the one most country music fans want to believe. Being an Outlaw is big times and badass stories. But it’s also can be a precipitous fall when it all gets to be too much, and the reason we lost so many of our heroes too early. (read review)
The Devil Makes Three – Chains Are Broken
Despite the undeniable instrumental shift to amplification, Chains Are Broken still feels very much like a Devil Makes Three record, surprisingly so. The minor chords, the dark themes, and the punk roots attitude is still what’s most prevalent. You almost don’t notice they’ve basically morphed into a rock band. The songwriting still keeps everything familiar, as do the three-part harmonies, and the potency of the whole package.
What makes this band unique is their willingness to say something deep in their songs and make you think, but also not be too proud to employ melodic sensibilities and infectious grooves to make that message go down smooth. The Devil Makes Three write and deliver their songs to do the most damage live. The song “Deep Down” is about the deception lying beneath the surface of many upstanding citizens—a pretty heavy subject. But it ends in a call-and-answer-style groove that is perfect for ensnaring live crowds. (read review)
Courtney Barnett – Tell Me How You Really Feel
You think the reckless abandon of true rock and roll is dead, and to soak up whatever last dying vestiges are left you have to embed yourself within the fandom of Imagine Dragons, or pay $350 to see legacy acts in their 70’s from the nosebleeds? Well then you need to buy into the hype behind Courtney Barnett, and get yourself a big healthy snoot full of this greasy-haired Australian that’s slinging loud guitar like a boss and writing songs like the second coming of Patti Smith.
It’s not just country music that’s under assault. Any actual human playing an actual instrument is an endangered species these days, and that’s one reason a rocking singer/songwriter like Courtney Barnett finds herself rubbing elbows with the “Americana” crowd and being booked at the Newport Folk Festival as anyone looking for integrity and soul in music congregates around anyone who exudes it. Courtney Barnett certainly does, and though the sound is rock, the potency of the songwriting is universal in both it’s appeal and influence. (read review)
Other Albums Receiving Positive/Neutral Reviews:
Ashley Monroe – Sparrow (read review)
John Oates – Arkansas (read review)
Kacey Musgraves – Golden Hour (read review)
Jeff Hyde – Norman Rockwell World (read review)
Paul Cauthen – Have Mercy EP (read review)
Scotty McCreery – Seasons Change (read review)
Shooter Jennings – Shooter (read review)
Wheeler Walker Jr. – WWIII (read review)
Other Albums Waiting For Review / On The Radar / Worth Checking Out:
- Ruston Kelly – Dying Star
- Adam Hood – Somewhere In Between
- James Carothers – Still Country, Still King: A Tribute to George Jones
- William Elliott Whitmore – Kilonova
- Willie Nelson – My Way
- Bri Bagwell – In My Defense
- John Howie Jr. – Not Tonight
- Loretta Lynn – Wouldn’t It Be Great
- The Black Lillies – Stranger To Me
- Blackberry Smoke – Southern Ground Sessions EP
- Cheryl Desrée – Dreamy
- Grand Old Grizzly – Pure Country Pyrite
- Richard Thompson – 13 Rivers
- Bill Anderson – Anderson
- Asleep At The Wheel – New Routes
- Carrie Underwood – Cry Pretty
- Michigan Rattlers- Evergreen
- Town Mountain – New Freedom Blues
- Dirty River Boys – Mesa Starlight
- Hillstomp – Monster Receiver
- The Gibson Brothers – Mockingbird
- Tami Neilson – SASSAFRASS!
- Karen Jonas – Butter
- mmhmm – Self-Titled
- Cody Canada and the Departed – 3
- Lucero – Among The Ghosts
- Dave Alvin and Jimmie Dale Gilmore – Downey to Lubbock
- No Dry County – Panhandle Music
- Josh Card – With A Heavy Heart
- Erin Rae – Putting On Airs
- Jesse Dayton – The Outsider
- Milk Carton Kids – All The Things I Did, and All The Things I Didn’t Do
- Sons Of Bill – Oh God Ma’Am’
- Carolina Story – Lay Your Head Down
- Amanda Shires – To The Sunset
- Anderson East – Encore
- Mary Gauthier – Rifles & Rosary Beads
- Laura Benitez and the Heartache – With All Its Thorns
- Wade Bowen – Solid Ground
- J.D Wilkes (of Th’ Legendary Shack Shakers) – Fire Dream
- Caleb Caudle – Crushed Coins
- The Wood Brothers – One Drop of Truth
- Craig Gerdes – Smokin’ Drinkin’ & Gamblin’
- I’m With Her – See You Around
- Sam Morrow – Concrete and Mud
- Nathan Kalish – I Want to Believe