Welcome ladies and gentlemen to Saving Country Music’s most comprehensive list of top-rated albums for your listening consideration. As has happened every year since the site’s inception, more albums were reviewed this year than ever before, meaning this list has become more expansive than ever before. And in 2019 with the amount of top-rated albums being released, there are more “most essential” albums than ever before, meaning albums that you definitely should at least give a sniff next time you’re looking for something new to listen to.
Since nobody can sit down and listen to 80 records straight, bookmark this page and come back to it next time you’re on the search for your next favorite artist or album. Please note the ground rules below, especially the fact that the Album of the Year nominees are NOT included on the list since they’re already received their fair share of attention, and that more albums will be reviewed and included here before 2020 releases come at us hard and heavy in mid January.
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. Every year people overlook this rule and say, “Hey, where’s so and so?” So and so was probably an Album of the Year nominee.
- There is no specific order to the list, aside from the first 20 albums being considered the “Most Essential,” or albums that just missed the bubble to be considered Album of the Year nominees.
- More albums will eventually end up on the Essential Albums List. More albums will be reviewed into the first few weeks of January, and potentially beyond that period if appropriate, and will be added here. Once again, Saving Country Music reviewed more albums than any previous year, so please no whining about 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 – Taylor Alexander – Good Old Fashioned Pain
You’re gonna want to listen to Taylor Alexander’s Good Old Fashioned Pain. You’re gonna want to add it into your heavy rotation, where it will reside for many months and maybe years to come. If it comes available on vinyl, you’re gonna want to purchase one, even if it just sits on the shelf, simply to assure yourself it’s there, and if the digital music grid ever goes dark you know you’ve got a backup copy. It’s is the kind of record that you hope and pray crosses your path as country a music fan. It’s the type of record that you crave will be delivered to you each Friday on release day to liven your spirits and satiate your country music soul. And undeniably, Good Old Fashioned Pain is country.
This record refuses to let you down. The songwriting is like the resuscitation of one timeless classic country theme after another, only even more smartly written from dedicate study of the medium, and sculpted to fit Taylor Alexander’s specific story. And for the music, Taylor Alexander went all out to make it the traditional country record he heard in his mind, yet it includes a kinetic energy to it as opposed to the same old phrase turns and guitar licks that work, but don’t render the music fresh. (read review)
MOST ESSENTIAL – Georgette Jones – Skin
Georgette says Skin is the record she has always wanted to make, and the results speak for themselves. What you want to say when you hear the name Georgette Jones is, “Oh, I know her. George and Tammy’s kid.” But what she illustrates on Skin is that you don’t know her, you only thought you did. That’s the theme of the title track, and it couldn’t be any more true about this record.
Skin may be one of the best albums released in 2019, or it may not be. That’s up for the listener to decide. But it’s certainly one of the most surprising. You dive in and are very pleasantly surprised by what the daughter of George and Tammy has turned in here. And it’s a good reminder that no matter what her name is, Georgette Jones is her own woman. (read review)
MOST ESSENTIAL – Tyler Childers – Country Squire
Country Squire is country music to its core. Country Squire is a collection of songs worthy of critical acclaim. Country Squire may be the high water for the career of Tyler Childers thus far, only fair to question due to the quality of his last record Purgatory and his previous releases as well. Country Squire feels like an achievement and a victory for independent country fans.
Five seconds into Country Squire, and all is right in the country music world. The raw Kentucky sound and songwriting fills your ear canals like supple graces of angelic manna. The authenticity drips from the tracks. The instrumentation is adept, but steeped in that raw, mountain music sound that is true to Tyler Childers. This record is even more Kentucky than Tyler’s previous record Purgatory, if that’s possible. Placing the burden of “country music savior” on the shoulders of anyone is presumptive an unfair. But unquestionably, Tyler Childers and an album like Country Squire go a long way in the effort to help save country music. (read review)
MOST ESSENTIAL – Nick Shoulders – Okay, Crawdad
It is not a spurious notion to consider Nick Shoulders one of the most unique and gifted vocal acrobats of roots music from this generation or any other. The splendid highlonesome yodels, the exquisite whistling, the occasional run on the throat trumpet, or just the timbre of his voice when he’s singing straight with no frills is something that immediately sets him off against the weary peloton of average performers. With range, control, and confidence, Shoulders can sing whatever he wants, however he wants, and does.
In previous eras, Nick Shoulders would be a marvel of American music with a handsome recording contract and an open invite on the Grand Ole Opry any night he was in town. They would have written bad Westerns for him to star in just to showcase his voice. Instead Nick Shoulders is self-releasing his second record with no publicist and little praise from the press. But that’s why you don’t just wait for your next favorite artist to pass under your nose. You dig for them, and seek them out. Because when you come across a modern marvel like Nick Shoulders, it’s so incredibly rewarding. (read review)
MOST ESSENTIAL – Erin Enderlin – Faulkner County
Slowly but surely emerging from the songwriting shadows over the last few years, Erin Enderlin is now more poised than ever to enjoy her own opportunity at center stage, and sets the table for this emergence in the new album Faulkner County. Produced by Jim “Moose” Brown and Enderlin champion Jamey Johnson, the record pulls out all the stops, calls upon an impressive cadre of harmony singers and co-writers, and creates the country music equivalent of a cardiac stress test. There’s no cutting the whiskey with water in this joint.
Erin Enderlin songs cuts so deep, they should probably given them their own subgenre. They’re in a class all their own, categorically more potent that your average country music tearjerkers. She’s been helping to keep country music sad on the records of others for years now, while releasing music on her own in relative obscurity. Hopefully Faulkner County will be her moment to soak up some of the worthy spotlight herself. (read review)
MOST ESSENTIAL – Jason Hawk Harris – Love & The Dark
Jason Hawk Harris gives you a lot to digest and ponder in Love & the Dark, stimulating your country music synapses through the compositional expertise, leaving your brain seared by the severe honesty embedded in some songs, and overall presenting a towering work of country music that puts any and all notions of the genre being a tired art form to bed.
It’s true, country music must evolve to stay relevant. But it doesn’t have to be at the expense of honesty, creativity, or the roots of the music. If you need a road map, an example, corroborating evidence to this important maxim, just pull up Jason Hawk Harris’s Love & the Dark, and be amazed. (read review)
MOST ESSENTIAL – Michaela Anne – Desert Dove
Incredible care goes into the compositions of Desert Dove, from the writing, to the use of steel and strings and keys to create the ethereal and airy mindscape that allows you to float above mundanity and lose yourself in these songs. Long-time Michaela Anne collaborator Kristin Weber creates lush, spirited string arrangements, while the lead guitar parts include notions of Tom Petty and Mark Knopfler. Both delicate and confident, just the sound Desert Dove makes feels like a precious thing.
As the first release from Michaela Anne on Yep Roc Records, the hope is Desert Dove will take her from a struggling songwriter moonlighting as a piano teacher, to one of those names we regularly mention as an artist helping to lead the independent roots resurgence. Many could learn from the hard work Michaela has put in to make it here, and the care and passion put into this project from all involved, while we all benefit from the pleasing results. (read review)
MOST ESSENTIAL – Croy and the Boys – Howdy High-Rise
This is the kind of weird shit country music needs way more of. Somewhere, Kinky Friedman and Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen are all smiles, because the true legacy they started of hippies and cowboys sipping mushroom tea in their manly footwear in the courtyard of the Armadillo World Headquarters is alive and well in one of Austin, TX’s very last surviving honky tonk bands, the wild and rambunctious, and wickedly fun Croy and the Boys.
In their new record Howdy High-Rise, Croy and the Boys rear back on the big ol’ 16D Penny nail that is the rapidly deteriorating environment for Austin’s musicians and working poor, and sink that sucker flush with the wood surface in one mighty swat. To say this record is absolutely dead on still doesn’t do it’s level of dead on-ness justice. Here you go all you gentrifiers and Big Tech transplants, put this in your vape pen and smoke it. (read review)
MOST ESSENTIAL – Caroline Spence – Mint Condition
A voice like Caroline Spence’s that demands compulsory attention for an audience is one thing. Writing songs to compliment it is another. Stiff debate could ensue about which attribute—singing or songwriting—is what makes Mint Condition stand out, with no wrong answer to be had. Spence had already presented herself as a preeminent songwriter of the independent Nashville scene with 2015’s Somehow, and 2017’s Spades & Roses. But Mint Condition is where a consistency emerges, offering no lulls in the enchantment of her storytelling and conveyance of emotions.
Mint Condition will be favored by those who’ve rooted for Caroline Spence for years now and hoping for this moment she’s been finally afforded, while also being a worthy introductory point for a wider audience by displaying just the kind of incredible talent waiting to be discovered within country and roots music’s independent realm. (read review)
MOST ESSENTIAL – Shane Smith & The Saints – Hail Mary
Shane Smith and the Saints aren’t down home country or Southern rock. They take an entirely different approach to roots music, specializing in making moments that soar upon the pulsating rhythms and four-part harmonies of something much more akin to a Gothic form of folk rock as opposed to Oklahoma Red Dirt.
Like the landscapes and experiences one may encounter on a lengthy journey, Hail Mary guides the audience through a wide range of moods and moments, from fears to euphoria, with Shane Smith composing involved stories and lessons in songs that are made to feel even more monumental by the earnestness of the music. Understand this album is made to be considered as a whole, and is emboldened when heard consecutively. Though it unfurls like a travelogue, love and the mastery of it is what’s at the heart of Hail Mary. (read review)
MOST ESSENTIAL – Bruce Robison and Kelly Willis – Beautiful Lie
Don’t try this at home. The fourth album pairing together the Texas music power couple of Bruce Robison and Kelly Willis is a veritable workshop on how to write songs, and select others out of the tome of recorded works like choosing the perfect wine to pair with an entree. And needless to say Kelly and Bruce comprise their own consummate blend of textures and aftertastes, so much so that it’s easy to conclude they would make the ideal collaborative duo even if they weren’t playing house together.
Bruce Robinson can’t help but be country, but not in the starched shirt, George Strait sort of way. It’s more folksy and earthen. Kelly Willis has that little touch of soul in her writing and singing, and brings this matriarchal care to all her efforts. Blend it altogether and you get most all of your musical taste buds satiated with Beautiful Lie. (read review)
MOST ESSENTIAL – Gethen Jenkins – Western Gold
An album like Western Gold by Gethen Jenkins is important because it doesn’t just announce your next favorite album, it announces your next favorite artist. Gethen Jenkins is not exactly new to the scene. But this album is the moment where he brands his stamp on the traditional country and Outlaw music movement, and folks far and wide should, and will pay attention.
Western Gold is really nothing more than just a straightforward honky tonk Outlaw country record, but that’s also what’s so great about it. And the guess is after this album, you’re going to be seeing the name Gethen Jenkins a lot more on playlists and festival bills right beside the other big names of the era helping to keep traditional country alive. (read review)
MOST ESSENTIAL – Aaron Watson – Red Bandana
Red Bandana comes boasting a full twenty tracks of music that are all penned by Aaron Watson alone. That’s quite a sizable and impressive feat in itself. But honestly, you might rather hear there’s only 10 or 12 tracks, and Watson had recruited some of the best of his fellow Texas songwriters to help polish up some of the songs. The music is always developed and recorded well when it comes to Watson and his band, but some of his song ideas can feel tired, refried, formulaic, or downright silly.
But Red Bandana is anything but typical, for Aaron Watson or anyone else. When Watson says this is his most involved and personal work that he rates at the top of the heap, believe him. When others say they’re shocked or ecstatic about how good this record is, take their word for it. With Red Bandana, Aaron Watson defies his own odds, and the odds of many others in his weight class, and 10 studio records deep into his career, puts out arguably his best album yet. From the very first track, which is a poetic recitation in tribute to Guy Clark, you get the sense of the inspired and ambitious nature of this work. (read review)
MOST ESSENTIAL – The Steel Blossoms – Self-Titled
If you’re a closet fan of the kitschy country songs of Kacey Musgraves, or the unabashed attitude of Maddie & Tae, but just wish it could all be a little more country and organic, the Steel Blossoms have bloomed just for you. A cunning take on the classic country duo with songs that will make you laugh, make you cry, and make you think in a listening experience that covers a lot of ground, the two-part harmonies and harrowing tales of the Steel Blossoms are worth seeking out.
Whatever your mood or sensibility, the Steel Blossoms have you covered, and show a pretty unbelievable range and proficiency with whatever they choose to pen and sing about. Putting your finger on exactly what the Steel Blossoms are may be a little tough, but concluding that they’re enjoyable, engaging, and intriguing is quite easy. (read review)
MOST ESSENTIAL – Garrett T. Capps – All Right, All Night
The 2nd installment in a three-part album trilogy, All Right, All Night is imaginative, interesting, stimulating, and unique, but none of this is to imply that it is too unusual for your average redneck, or not especially country, or that it takes a trip on mescaline to comprehend. On the contrary, the record feels like an aggressive work of Texas honky tonk music, from the bursts of steel guitar and fiddle, to the songs of fading love, heartache, fear, and loneliness.
Expanding the boundaries of country music to the outer reaches of the Universe while still keeping it firmly tethered to its roots and origins is not an easy task, and one commonly fumbled by those who try. But being isolated in San Antonio away from the trend chasing of East Austin or East Nashville, and being just the right amount of weird, Garrett T. Capps is the man to get it done. (read review)
MOST ESSENTIAL – Billy Strings – HOME
In a world fraught with musical villains, you look for heroes. In a musical landscape converted to grayscale from the rabid commercialization sweeping the industry, you seek out color. Where sameness has spread out across the fruited plane like a pandemic from the impending proliferation of the monogenre, you search out something that reminds you of where you came from, and where you’re going. And in the country and bluegrass world, those roads should all lead you to the tabernacle of Billy Strings.
Billy Strings is a pinnacle talent in country, roots, and bluegrass, and should be celebrated as such in way that makes the awareness of his music permeate throughout the entire music world, and puts him out there as an inspiration to us all in an increasingly pallid environment ravenous for something to surprise us, for something to connect to, for something that connect us to each other and to something bigger than ourselves, and allows us to explore possibilities we once thought unattainable. The music of Billy Strings gives us the ability to dream once again. (read review)
MOST ESSENTIAL – Charley Crockett – The Valley
When it comes to the roots of American music and how they all intertwine and mingle into a vast tapestry of sonic possibilities, you can speak extemporaneously about how it all fits together and hope you’re right, or you can quickly get bogged down in over-intellectualized minutia about origins and ethnicities, and run the risk of sapping the joy and mystery out of the music. Or, you can put on a record from Texas native Charley Crockett and have it all illustrated right there in front of you in a lushness that makes you not just understand the similarities between country, blues, soul, and boogie woogie, but feel it deep in your musical marrow.
Charley Crockett’s latest record The Valley almost didn’t get made. After going to the doctor seeking routine hernia surgery, he found out about a life-threatening heart condition that required risky surgery. Not knowing if he would survive, Crockett set out to write and record The Valley, which he concluded just a week before going under the knife. Everything worked out fine, but if it hadn’t, Crockett’s story, and his unique combination of country and roots influences would at least be chronicled in this work. Dead or alive, the urgency and importance with which he approached these recording sessions is enshrined in the results. (read review)
MOST ESSENTIAL – The Quebe Sisters – Self-Titled
The allure of The Quebe Sisters has always been their archaic perfection at instilling new life into harmonies. But on this new self-titled record, they set out to explore the mystery in their music, sowing suspense and intrigue into it like never before. Just as much as the words, the melodies and compositions take you on a journey and tell a story where you can’t see what’s lurking around the next corner, and are moved to the edge of your seat, fascinated by what might be coming next.
If there was ever any concern about the gravitas of The Quebe Sisters, it is quickly dispelled with this effort, which is named for themselves on purpose to be a stamp of their own original expressions. They have paid their dues and more, playing the old standards of Western Swing for appreciative audiences from a tender age into adulthood. But now it’s time for them to leave their own mark on music, and with The Quebe Sisters, they do so in indelible ink. (read review)
MOST ESSENTIAL – Ben Jarrell – Troubled Times
Wondering where the hell all the hard charging, kick ass, phase guitar and pedal steel-filled good ol’ Outlaw country music has gone in 2019, and without skimping on the songwriting? Well it all seems to have been sucked up and put to good use by Alabama native Ben Jarrell and his debut LP Troubled Times. Either you’re paying attention to this thing and telling all your friends and co-workers about it, hitting up that second cousin of yours who can’t stop listening to that Kane Brown mess, or you’re failing as a country music fan.
Troubled Times is the kind of record you wish some of your favorite country artists would release, but never seem to get around to. Good thing that Ben Jarrell did, because it’s red meat for hungry ears. Alive, vibrant, full-bodied and energetic, while in other moments intimate and heartfelt, it’s the kind of debut that doesn’t just fulfill your country music needs in the present tense, it announces your next favorite artist. (read review)
MOST ESSENTIAL – Vincent Neil Emerson – Fried Chicken and Evil Women
Good ol’ vintage Texas country music bliss is what greets your happy ears when you pipe up this album. It’s a little bit of Western Swing flavor added to Texas Troubadour Ernest Tubb styling that nestles right in your sensibilities as an old soul, filling you with fuzzy feelings. With the steel guitar, the brushes on snare, Fried Chicken and Evil Women doesn’t try to fix what’s not broken, it understands that classic country music done right is timeless in its appeal.
From Fort Worth, Texas, Vincent Neil Emerson is already familiar to quite a few after opening for the Turnpike Troubadours, American Aquarium, and other bigger names over the last couple of years. This is the kind of record you put on to enjoy a lazy summer afternoon, or a late Sunday morning. It pairs well with front porch swinging, chili and cornbread, and peach pie. (read review)
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***REMEMBER: Album of the Year Nominees are not included on this list***
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Tylor & The Train Robbers – Best of the Worst Kind
The best way to describe the sound of Tylor & the Train Robbers would be a version of Texas or Red Dirt country. Initially this may not make a lot of sense coming from a bunch of Idaho boys. But those boned up on their Lone Star music lore know that the Braun Brothers of Reckless Kelly and Micky & the Motorcars are originally from the land of the russets as well, and annually hold their Braun Brothers Reunion in Idaho, resulting in an influx of talent and influence from the Texas and Oklahoma region every year.
Arguably Idaho’s best version of a songwriting first country folk band, Tylor & the Train Robbers give us something great to chew on with Best of the Worst Kind, and band whose output we’ll be looking forward to for years to come. (read review)
The Franklin County Trucking Company – The Further Adventures of the Franklin County Trucking Company
If your hat is mesh and your right foot heavy, and if you consider Red Sovine and Dave Dudley just as much country music Gods as Willie and Waylon, then the Franklin County Trucking Company is right for you. No, we’re not talking about a fulfillment business with a yard full of Peterbilt’s idling away ready to facilitate all your commercial freight needs, we’re talking about a country music outfit that specializes in delivering country trucking songs with a high-powered Benzedrine kick.
Specializing in trucking songs and trucking songs only, The Further Adventures of the Franklin County Trucking Company is one hell of a fun time, running through a handful of new original country music trucking songs they hope to cement as classics of the subgenre, along with a couple of timeless and recognizable trucking tunes. (read review)
Whiskey Myers – Self-Titled
The six members of Whiskey Myers chose to make their latest record a self-titled affair to symbolically declare that his is the end of Whiskey Myers: the scrappy little band from East Texas, and the beginning of Whiskey Myers: one of our generation’s top Southern rockers. Working with Dave Cobb and others in the past, this is their self-produced signature statement, and just like previous records, it shifts gears from sincere country songwriting to straightforward rock songs in an instant, while also finding the sweet spot between the two.
In that fine Southern rock tradition, they brought in a chorus of backup singers, enlisted some fiddle in spots, added a little steel guitar care of “Cowboy” Eddie Long, and with their two lead guitarists and dual drummers, they do their worst on 14 tracks they hope will make them household names. (read review)
Kelsey Waldon – White Noise/White Lines
If you’re looking for the experiences of rural America spun into songs devoid of diluting agents or phony embellishments, this is where to start. There’s no dulling the edges of Waldon’s molasses thick and unapologetic Southern accent. There’s no effort to commercialize these songs with any sort of electronic beeps or pop sensibilities. It’s just sounds and stories native to Kelsey’s Waldon’s experience set to unrepentant country music.
What makes country music so unique and engaging is the separate regional dialects and perspectives that all come together to constitute what country music is. Kentucky’s stubbornness to let the future in makes it fertile ground for holding onto those lush expressions of its native people that are still mostly untouched by the monoculture. If you want to know what Kentucky sounds like, listen to Kelsey Waldon. (read review)
Weldon Henson – Texas Made Honky Tonk
Texas Made Honky Tonk is Weldon Henson’s fifth record in the last 10 years, and over this time he’s yet to deviate from the strong influence of Texas honky tonk that infers his well-written original songs. Where perhaps some artists get bored with the pure country approach, or pursue rock & roll dreams by chasing trends, Weldon Henson keeps his eyes straightforward. Sure, he probably wouldn’t pass up an opportunity to become widely popular beyond Texas, but he damn sure isn’t going to change his sound, style, or approach to do it.
If you want to know what the pure, uncut sound of Texas honky tonk is, listen to Weldon Henson and Texas Made Honky Tonk. (read review)
Joshua Ray Walker – Wish You Were Here
His name is Joshua Ray Walker, and he’s from Dallas, TX. And with his debut album he’s slinging out the deep and ugly gut bucket country blues with enough brokenhearted bad times and broke bad regrets to get you curled up in a fetal position and sobbing like a little girl on the cold, hard, sawdust floor in that good kind of country music way you crave.
This is music that sounds like it’s oozing out of a grease-stained 70’s truck stop every time a lot lizard or gear jammer opens and shuts the door. This is music that makes you palpably feel the raw emotions of run down life and ragged dreams with no perfumes or filters to soften the pain, yet underneath the dirt and stink are these sad poetic notions that speak to the wisdom behind a life hard lived. (read review)
George Strait – Honky Tonk Time Machine
It seems strange to characterize George Strait’s latest record as a return to his roots. After all, this is George Strait. But nonetheless, it’s a fair accreditation to make, and a welcome conclusion to settle upon when you appreciate the authority with which George Strait can deliver a honky tonk heartbreaker, or a barroom boot scooter, which he does on numerous occasions on this new album.
Now completely free from having to even consider the commercial implications of his music, George can just be George, and record the music he wants to, the way he wants to. A small but noisy minority of country fans always love to question Strait for writing so few of his own songs. But Honky Tonk Time Machine finds George co-writing eight of the album’s 13 tracks. (read review)
Gabe Lee – Farmland
In the next year or so, you may struggle to find another collection of 10 songs so well-composed with wit, insight, and soul than the ones found on this debut album from Gabe Lee. That comes with a caveat or two mind you, but that in no way injures the conclusion on the quality of the songwriting contained in this effort. If songs are the foremost requisite of appeal to your listening sensibilities—not just simple music to tap your toe to—you’ve stumbled onto a treasure trove of undiscovered goodness that will satiate your listening desires for some time into the future.
More folk than country, but more country than most of what you hear on the radio, Farmland is a bold stroke of confident and articulate songwriting prowess filled with stories of broken heats, failures and frailty, and cutting insight into the trappings of American life. (read review)
Hayes Carll – What It Is
This album marks a bit of a return of the old Hayes—the one that’s just enough unhinged to kiss a guardrail with a bumper on the ride home, but still salient enough to pen cutting insight into life, and luck into poetic flourishes that make you envy his wit. It’s a louder affair than his last one, sauntering through some dancehall stompers and folk rock episodes, but still able to convey a song, mood, and lyric thoughtfully when called upon. He remains a contemporary of Americana, but with his own bit of Texas kick born on steel guitar and fiddle in certain songs.
Listening to What It Is gives you the sense that Hayes Carll has come full circle. Like many of us, there’s been ups and downs, and we try to hold onto our younger selves as best we can as life’s circumstances work to shape and mold us in their own image. Hayes might be older and settled down, but the poetic marksman you fell for early on is still there, and still willing to get a little rowdy when the situation calls for it. (read review)
Yola – Walk Through The Fire
Some country audiences may be frustrated that Yola Carter isn’t more country, while many gospel, R&B, and Americana listeners may be surprised just how country she is. There is no hiding the fiddle and steel guitar in some songs, though the best description for this music probably is soul country, or country soul. One of the reasons many genres and sub-genres will step up to claim Yola Carter as their own is due to the powerful voice she possesses.
More and more, the agents of division and tribalism want to utilize music as a tool to wedge apart groups of individuals, as opposed to respecting the institution of music as one of the few places left that can unite people across cultural, racial, and political lines. An artist like Yola, and an album like Walk Through The Fire help remind us all that music is for everyone. (read review)
Zach Bryan – DeAnn
Drawing from both the bleeding edge of authenticity that has made the performers of Kentucky like Tyler Childers and others define the current country music insurgency, and the spellbinding songwriting magic of Oklahoma’s preeminent writers like Evan Felker, John Moreland, and John Fullbright, Zach Bryan stuns in one song after another in DeAnn, with lines that seem to be ripped right out of your own personal history, yet could be stuck on a bumper sticker and be universally appreciated by everyone.
The songs of DeAnn are nothing short of stunners, and don’t need any window dressing for those listeners with keen ears and open hearts to fall in love with. In fact those musical suitors might insist they don’t want any further development in these songs—that the rawness of the experience is what makes it so magical. (read review)
Tom Russell – October In The Railroad Earth
October in the Railroad Earth is as alive as the ground when a freight train trundles by, and as resonant as the sound a steam whistle makes as it lets loose on the walls of a wide canyon. Tom Russell is past the point of having to call upon sheer imagination, chemically-induced inspiration, or dogged determination to compose a story. He simply has to access his memory banks for a good tale, trust his proven capacity with language, and the rest handles itself.
This album is a story of America, and who better to tell it than Tom Russell. His years have only embellished and refined his wit and craftsmanship, and he never lost his hunger along the way. There are good reasons why Russell is so revered by his musical and literary peers, and those reasons remain evident on this record. (read review)
Dallas Moore – Tryin’ to Be a Blessing
Just like all the actual Outlaws of country music, the hard exterior of Dallas Moore gives way to more sentimental and introspective moments in the music itself. This record doesn’t find Dallas self-affirming what a badass and belligerent drunk he is like some of the blowhard “Outlaw” performers who only have a surface understanding of what the careers of Waylon Jennings and David Allan Coe were all about. Most of the songs on Tryin’ to Be a Blessing are about the love Dallas has for his wife, and how he’s working to be a better person, despite the demons and shortcomings of his Outlaw nature.
Working with Dean Miller to emphasize what he does best, and bringing the best out of himself and maturing when it comes to composition, Dallas Moore has gone from a guy looking to walk in the footsteps of country music heroes, to making some footprints of his own. (read more)
Kalie Shorr – Open Book
Open Book is a standout in the usually cotton candy world of country pop. It’s always sunny in Nashville, at least west of the Cumberland River, or unless you’re eliciting for alligator tears in some sappy, formulaic radio ballad. But Kalie Shorr isn’t having any of that. Open Book is just that—an unabashed revelation of bad decisions, naked sin, sadness, anger, personal issues, and self-loathing, making her persona more dark and manic than most of the Americana artists on the east side of town who love to lie about the pathetic nature of their lives to give their songs “soul.”
What Kalie Shorr has also done in Open Book is what every true artist wishes to do whenever the make a record, which is capture raw emotions in bold strokes that resonate deeply with an audience and connect us with our shared humanity. Even when she’s doing wrong, you want to root for her, because you’ve been there too, but didn’t have the guts to put it out there for public consumption like she does. (read review)
The Rhyolite Sound – Mojave Gold
Breaking out of Las Vegas like a bunch of bad characters that just knocked over a bank and have an appointment to keep at a high desert cathouse, here comes The Rhyolite Sound roaring out of Southern Nevada, seasoned in the seedy lounges and casino bars of Sin City where it’s not just smoking that’s still allowed inside, soaked in the kerosene of countless nights playing 3-set gigs, and lit on fire from a high passion for authentic country music.
The Rhyolite Sound is not for the faint of heart. The bass drum is pounding, the amps are cranked, the train beat is rolling, and though they butt right up to Southern rock, they still remain decidedly country. Songs of bad decisions and desperation are what they’re all about. (read review)
Allison Moorer – Blood
Putting one’s personal story into song is the timeless way to deliver music with resonance and lasting impact irrespective of whatever trends are hip in popular music, or whatever current events are roiling the world. That is what legacy Americana singer and songwriter Allison Moorer has done with her latest record, Blood. The inspiration for this record was so personal, it was paired with a memoir of her life of the same name.
Americana music and many of it’s proprietors are having a mood in 2019. Compelled to speak about the current social climate, and swept up in this fashionable notion of not wanting to be hemmed in by genre has resulted in a few really compelling projects, and many records that felt bogged down in process and intent as opposed to just letting inspiration take control and compiling quality songs and recordings. Allison Moorer bucks this trend on Blood by simply putting pen to paper and letting the mood of the music choose its own direction. (read review)
Jason James – Seems Like Tears Ago
It takes all of 12 seconds to fly by in this new Jason James record before you decisively know that you made the smartest of all country music decisions by giving this young man your time and attention. Where have all those true sounds of country music gone? Straight into the lungs of Texas City’s Jason James to be crooned back out in one classic-sounding country song after another, presenting themselves like a parade of forgotten hits from the 50’s and 60’s. In short, a swim through Seems Like Tears Ago by Jason James is like a trip to country music Heaven.
Close your eyes and put yourself back into a simpler time and a more enriching era of country music by piping up Seems Like Tears Ago by Jason James. (read review)
Reba McEntire – Stronger Than The Truth
Reba promised the most country music album of her career, and she most certainly delivers with Stronger Than The Truth. First and foremost, Reba McEntire’s thirty third studio album is a breakup record, and not one where fictitious notions are brought to life through country music cosplay because whiskey tears set the best mood for true country songs. Stronger Than The Truth comes in the aftermath of Reba exiting 26 years of marriage to steel guitar player and manager Narvel Blackstock.
In one song after another, Reba McEntire and producer Buddy Cannon deliver the fine traditional country goods, and maybe this is extra special coming from someone with the weight behind their name such as Reba McEntire. But the music is not what makes this album special. It’s the songs and the stories, and of course Reba’s Hall of Fame voice. (read review)
Flatland Cavalry – Homeland Insecurity
Cleto Cordero is a thoughtful and gifted songwriter who feels challenged by his contemporaries in the flatlands of west Texas to pen songs that say something, but that also implement a study and development of melody that renders compositions widely appealing and enjoyable live. Flatland Cavalry is also an assemblage of old souls who have studied the legends and are looking to put their own spin on the music, spelled out perfectly in the song “Old School.”
By creating networks of fans, touring opportunities, local radio station support, and nationally-impacting festivals and events, artist who choose the Texas country scene don’t have to compromise who they are to see their musical dreams realized. If Flatland Cavalry and Homeland Insecurity are any indication, than the future of Texas country is secure indeed. (read review)
The Highwomen – Self-Titled
Forget that Amanda Shires promised early on that this project would not be “man haters,” and that the content of this record is only political or polarizing in fleeting passages at best, the press wants to declare that the Highwomen are subverting country because it makes for a good narrative and clickbait.
This Highwomen album is subversive alright. It’s subversive because it’s actually country. It’s subversive because it’s women recording what they actually want to record. It’s subversive because it puts strong feminine perspectives up front, and ones that have always been in country music, but have been lost recently similar to the twang and grit of the music. Highwomen is subversive because it dares to mix talent and efforts between independent Americana and the country mainstream. And it’s subversive because it proves country music doesn’t need to “evolve” outside of its long-established sonic parameters to stay relevant. (read review)
Joseph Huber – Moondog
A deftly-skilled multi-instrumentalist, Joseph Huber presented himself as one of the best banjo players in our generation while with the .357 String Band. Now there’s nothing with strings he can’t find a melody in. In shades of folk, bluegrass, Celtic modes, and even some uniquely honky tonk moments on this record, the songs of Huber give words, rhythm, and melody to the cool-minded reflections that we all come to in the few quiet moments in the detritus bustle of everyday life, but that pass so fleeting, we forget their wisdom in the proceeding moments.
Great rewards await those music fans who don’t just accept whatever audio options are presented easy to the consumer, but those that require a little digging to unearth. Tapping your toes can help get you through a day, but a Joseph Huber song can change your life. But you have to slow down, you have to unplug, you have to take a deep breath and let the wisdom of life that’s all around us seep into your brain, and prevail. (read review)
Tanya Tucker – While I’m Livin’
It’s the voice of Tanya Tucker that compels the country listener to seek her records out. It’s always been a mixture of worn leather and honky tonk smoke, even at a tender age. It’s hard not to fall prey to the “lived it” notions the tone of Tanya Tucker conveys, and how it cracks in all the right places to punctuate emotions in the most important moments. At 60 years of age, the voice of Tanya Tucker is no worse for the wear. It’s is better for it, building from her history both on and off the stage to become synonymous with pain and country music itself.
The greatest asset of While I’m Livin’ was the ultimate aim of the record, which was to remind the world of the contributions and talent of Tanya Tucker, and to reboot her career for a new generation of country fans. So often country legends fall into obscurity in the final decades of their lives. That won’t happen with Tanya Tucker. While I’m Livin’ assures this, and feels like the first step in a revitalized career. (read review)
Matt Carson – No Regrets
If you really want to test your mettle as a country music fan, if you’re one who thinks they can handle songs of heartbreak one after another like shots of Jack lined up across the bar, if you want to put your emotional capacity through the paces and stress test your country music heart to see if you can compete with the big boys of pain tolerance via country tunes, Matt Carson’s No Regrets is the album for you. This is not for the amateur sad song connoisseur out there. Neophytes to this most severe side of country should start first with records that mix a few sad songs in with other stuff to steal them for what they’ll experience here.
Completely blind from the time he was born, this South Carolina native doesn’t need to embellish his story to make you wholeheartedly believe his songs of loss, leaving, and regret. When Matt Carson croons about missing someone’s touch, and still smelling them in the hall after they’ve left for good, your own sense of smell and feel are heightened to the emotional toll this man has felt. (read review)
Cody Johnson – Ain’t Nothin’ To It
Cody Johnson’s major label debut Ain’t Nothin’ To It is just as country as his previous records, if not more. And it may be just as well-written, if not better. That’s the concern when you have when a Texas country artist finally gets his shot at the big time, especially if they already have a bevy of releases under their belt like Cody does. Also, did they shoot all their best bullets off getting there, only to arrive with nothing left in the chamber? That’s definitely not the case with Ain’t Nothin’ To It.
Blessed with a good variety of songs that fit many specific moods and tastes, if there was any specific takeaway from Ain’t Nothin’ To It, it’s that Cody Johnson is maturing at the right time. Better albums were released in country music in 2019. But just appreciate that Cody Johnson’s Ain’t Nothin’ To It is a mainstream release. It went #1 in all of country music. This is the moment that a truly independent Texas music artist went to Nashville, did it his way, and succeeded. It’s country, and cool, and twangy. And all of country music is better off for it. (read review)
Dee White – Southern Gentleman
One sector of country music’s history woefully under-represented by younger artists looking to preserve a specific discipline is the late 60’s, early 70’s style of folk country that can awaken nostalgia and stimulate warm feelings the same as any other.
Dee White is just now reaching his 20’s, but an old soul comes welling up through the 10 songs of his debut album. If you’re wondering where the smooth sounds of the 70’s run through a country style have gone, this is where your search should begin. Some of the songs could simply be catalogued as country, and you would find no qualms from anyone with that. But the more prevailing sound and compelling aspect of this record is the 70’s folk pop accoutrements in the writing, instrumentation, and production. (read review)
Alice Wallace – Into The Blue
Alice Wallace is perhaps the greatest yodeler not just in California, but that can be procured in a talent search from sea to shining sea. But she happens to have been born in a time period when such a skill is not especially in demand compared to previous eras. This is the era of the song, and of the voice. But lucky for Alice Wallace, she also boasts these attributes as primary assets, and in large measure, even if her California country style is not as commercially viable as it once was, or is tough to catch the ear of the tastemakers back in Tennessee.
Into The Blue is a worthy and compelling showcase of Alice Wallace’s stellar voice and refined songwriting skills, all steeped deeply and proudly in Southern California textures and lore. Though more classic in style, the work is fiercely relevant in moments, almost eerily so, from the second song on the album called “Santa Ana Winds” that swirl visions of the devastating wildfires that recently ripped through the region, to the timely “Elephants” written by Andrew Delaney about the fear many women face simply walking down the street. (read review)
Randy Houser – Magnolia
Tag Randy Houser’s Magnolia as yet another entry into the evidence file that the era of Bro-Country continues to wane, and it’s slow but steady expiration has allowed the latitude of some established artists to return, giving them the ability to select and record the material of their choosing, and reuniting them with their more natural sound and their own voice instead of being tethered to keeping up with certain fickle trends infecting radio.
Whether you think Magnolia by Randy Houser is any good depends on your perspective. But from the perspective of an album released in the mainstream where often you’re just happy to get through most of the songs without suffering a drum machine, it’s pretty great. Randy Houser not only co-writes all twelve tracks of Magnolia, he sings the shit out of them. You’re almost caught off guard by the power, soul, and potency in his voice in these songs. (read review)
Elijah Ocean – Back to the Lander
Built around recording sessions captured in the barn of Elijah Ocean’s parent’s home in Maine back in 2017, Back to the Lander finds Elijah in a deeply reflective mood, rattling off memories like turning pages in a travelogue, fondly recalling the people, places, and moments of the last many years, and taking the listener on an immersive and mood-inducing journey in the process. A map would be just as useful of a companion to this record as the track list and liner notes since Elijah takes you from sea to shining sea in these 11 songs, utilizing some of his oldest musician buddies as a backing band, with the environment where he grew up making a ruminative backdrop.
Back to the Lander has a great feel to it, country for sure, but with folk rock elements intertwined to broaden the audience and give a bit of a late 60’s vibe—perfect for songs on the move. This album is always going somewhere, sometimes with imperative times and places to make, and others with completely untethered itineraries delivering complete freedom, but coming with a deep, unspoken loneliness, while characters and feelings fade in and out of the picture, with “home” never perfectly defined, but always quietly hoped for. (read review)
Dori Freeman – Every Single Star
Different from her first two albums that were built around old-time notions like a capella performances, acoustic solo tracks, and public domain material, Every Single Star has a distinctively 70’s folk pop aspect to it with a bit more body to the music overall. It still has that intimate feel of a Dori Freeman record, but this effort may open her canon of work to a wider audience beyond the Appalachia roots realm.
The magnetic appeal for the music of Dori Freeman remains, and despite her mood-altering quality being an ethereal attribute, Dori and producer Teddy Thompson are once again able to capture and enhance it in Every Single Star. (read review)
Graham Reynolds – Marfa: A Country & Western Big Band Suite
For those searching for something a little more elaborate and offbeat in the country and roots realm that isn’t just another litany of drinking songs and verse/chorus repetitions—something that lets the music create the tension, drama, and suspense as opposed to a poetry of words—this slightly fey, but fully inspired and involved work by Austin-based music composer Graham Reynolds is worthy of a spin.
It is sure to be a strange experience, just like a trip to Marfa, TX. You have to be a little brazen to journey forth, but you will be better off for it, discovering certain truths about yourself and the world that were always right in front of you, and shaking loose of internalized thoughts and memories that weigh you down like burdens. Or perhaps you just discover some twangy and jazzy tunes that get you tapping your feet. Either way, Marfa is worth the drive. (read review)
Ags Connolly – Wrong Again
This isn’t British-style country music. This is country-style country music, written to pack and dress the wounds of those with bad luck stories and broken hearts. Of course the voice of Ags Connolly is not going to come with some sincere form of Southern twang. It would be silly if he tried. But all the turns of phrase and heartfelt storytelling that are dead giveaways for a country song are here, along with the instrumental accompaniment that true country music requires.
Ags Connolly is so country and his catalog deep enough now, it veers towards insult to feel like you must explain away concerns about his authenticity simply for where he’s from. Though region of origin will always be something that certain performers can use as cred in country music, Ags Connolly is case study #1 of why being from rural America is in no way a prerequisite. (read review)
Roger Alan Wade – Simmering Rage
There are songwriters, and then there is Roger Alan Wade. There’s no frills to his craft, and no accompaniment on his records. With just himself and an acoustic guitar, and perhaps a little harmonica here and there, Roger Alan Wade sets out to encapsulate and articulate emotions from love to fear to rage in ways that the canon of modern words and music have yet to discover, and to tell stories to make you cry or laugh more than most of the ones you’ve heard before.
Thematically, Simmering Rage offers a ground level perspective on the rigors and frustrations of American life, from the disillusion of broken dreams that are encapsulated in the title track, to one of the best dissertations on the dissent dividing the United States in “Best Out Of The Blues.” (read review)
Stoney LaRue – Onward
You can use all kinds of colorful language to describe Red Dirt music or diagram it to death. Or you can just cue up the music of Stoney LaRue and have it illustrated right there for you. Stoney’s primary collaborator on the project is noted songwriter and Grammy winner Gary Nicholson, who not only produced the record, he co-wrote 10 of the 12 tracks, most with Stoney, but some with others.
Onward is a resurrection of sorts for one of Red Dirt’s most important figures who is willing to express his faults and vulnerabilities, and is eager to prove he’s moved on from them, while also not being afraid to sing about kicking back and having a good time. (read review)
Dalton Domino – Songs from the Exile
From numerous underlying familial issues and the death of loved ones, to odes of heartbreak and misfortune, Songs From The Exile is like a document dump from Dalton Domino’s suppressed memory cache of the highest order. Dalton isn’t just facing down the demons staring him down everyday, he’s on a quest to delve into the deepest recesses of his psyche to ferret out the most hidden ones and slay them for good.
In the same vein of many West Texas songwriters, the sound of Dalton Domino and Songs From The Exile is just as much rock as it is country, just like it was with his first two records. But paralleling the maturity in songwriting and approach is also a more refined stylistic approach to the music. (read review)
Molly Tuttle – When You’re Ready
It’s with this understanding and a reasonable desire to expand her musical dimensions beyond bluegrass that Molly Tuttle recorded her debut record When You’re Ready for Compass Records. Venturing beyond the more bluegrass approach of her 2017 EP Rise, Molly explores accessible compositions that could be labeled acoustic folk rock, or even folk pop just as much as traditional string music. Certainly the sound still expands out from Molly Tuttle’s acoustic flat top, but the appeal and acceptance it searches for yearns for a wider audience.
Bridging her guitar talent with her desire for a songwriting-first approach will be Molly Tuttle’s greatest challenge, but one worth undertaking. In the present and for years to come, Molly Tuttle will be the benchmark all other acoustic guitarists measure themselves against. When You’re Ready is a great start, and one that will branch her appeal out beyond bluegrass aficionados, while putting a much-needed burst of youth into the acoustic roots scene. (read review)
Rod Melancon – Pinkville
It’s a record rooted in the swagger of 80’s heartland rock, the honest truth outlaw country, and the restless troubadour spirit of the best Texas singer-songwriters. If his two previous albums, Parish Lines and Southern Gothic, were filled with insightful, personal, and well-crafted country and Americana songs, Pinkville inhabits a looser, tougher, sweatier sound that feels like it was as much crafted in a dingy garage as a recording studio. “On other records I’d say ‘We gotta gritty this up, it sounds too clean.’ I’d be in the vocal booth trying to get every lyric perfect. But on my favorite records that’s never the case.”
It’s Rod Melancon’s personal geography and family history—as opposed to the broadly unspecific set of shorthand clichés depicting “The South” that so much of country and Southern rock relies on—that make the songs truly strong, not merely just believable. (read interview/review)
Tracy Lawrence – Made In America
Tracy Lawrence promised that Made in America would be “very country,” and he doesn’t disappoint in the 12 tracks of the new record, eight of which were penned by Lawrence. Though his voice may not be iconic in the sense of someone like Dwight Yoakam or George Jones, it’s distinct enough to stand out. And just like with all true country stars as their careers elongate, the tone of their voice becomes even more compelling with age as the weight of their contributions to the genre result in warm recollections from the listener.
Made in America isn’t just traditional in the sense of the music and style, but in the theme. Tracy Lawrence has a message here, and that message is that America is worth standing up for, and so are the principles of hard work and personal responsibility. (read review)
The Randy Rogers Band – Hellbent
Randy Rogers is the master of making songs that immediately sit well in your heart and soul, and are hard to shake. It’s not just the melody construction, it’s the stimulation of memory with relatable moments that make a Randy Rogers Band song so easy to warm up to, and so hard to not hum along with. Randy Rogers songs come hard wired to be played in front of a big crowd with everyone lost in the moment and singing along. Saturday nights were made for the Randy Rogers Band, and the Randy Rogers Band was made for Saturday nights.
Yes, the songs of the Randy Rogers Band are more practical than poetic as a whole compared to country music’s critical favorites. Randy Rogers is not going to make a short list of this generation’s most naturally gifted singers, and any twang is balanced out by rock tones. But the music resonates with fans both young and old, and in the regular circuit the Randy Rogers Band plays, the band is just as big as many of the bands of the mainstream. (read review)
Chuck Hawthorne – Fire Out Of Stone
Fire Out Of Stone is a classical singer/songwriter record, with sometimes sparse arrangements letting the story swell to the forefront. Chuck Hawthorne writes songs for you to lose yourself in, with lush characters you feel like you’ve known your whole life, dropped into scenes you can see and smell and touch, with all the little artifacts of life and references in the writing at or near perfect. From the best years for vintage motorcycles to the sacred rites of Native American traditions, it’s that lived-in feel of a Chuck Hawthorne song that makes it special.
Hawthorne’s use of plain-spoken phrases is cunning and brilliant, yet accessible. Being able to refer to something as “Broken Good” as a term of endearment is not just a skill, it’s a art form, and one Chuck Hawthorne has his hands around. (read review)
Tim Bluhm – Sorta Surviving
We could say that it’s a strange time in country music when someone like the front man of the California indie rock band The Mother Hips is releasing a record, but it’s 95% more country, a leagues better than most of what you’ll hear in the mainstream of country today.
This isn’t country by close approximation, or rendered through indie rock sensibilities. If Bluhm was going to make a country record, he was going to do it right, while still keeping some of those California country textures that make it unique and cool. This isn’t a country rock record, this is country record to the core. (read review)
Luke Combs – What You See Is What You Get
You are kind of surprised just how country this record is—probably more country than Luke’s breakout album This One’s For You. You still definitely have some of that post Bro-Country list-style lyricism lingering on a host of these songs, but not enough to make you switch it off. A Luke Combs song will never cut deep. The last thing he wants to do is lump himself in with the Americana crowd, and erode the blue collar/high school-educated cred that’s at the heart of his appeal. He’s also never going to offer a replacement to your favorite records if you’re an independent country/Americana fan. But a Luke Combs song will never make you feel stupid for listening like most of mainstream country.
Beyond his refusal to rap or adopt 808 beats, what separates Luke Combs from the Bro-Country crowd is that you believe him when he sings about beer and fishing. (read review)
David Quinn – Wanderin’ Fool
Like the mother find from an excavation effort into the burned out ruins of a vintage recording studio, exhumed from a rusted shut 2-inch reel-to-reel tape canister containing some lost and forgotten country music classic, David Quinn’s Wanderin’ Fool sets you back some 70 years in time as soon as it’s cued up on your listening device of choice. Whether your question is where country music came from, or where it has gone, the answer is contained in this record.
For fans of Luke Bell, Pat Reedy, The Deslondes and the like, Wanderin’ Fool will find favor with your ears as one of those throwback country efforts that doesn’t forget the vital roll piano, a little bit of swampy boogie woogie, and Johnny Cash Sun Studios-style rhythm played early on in country music’s cool factor and contagiousness. Purposefully distressed in its audio quality as a dimension of artistic expression and in an effort to make the heart wax nostalgic, Wanderin’ Fool is nourishing food for the old soul. (read review)
Aaron Lewis – State I’m In
State I’m In is the kind country record that will get the Americana crowd catching you later, but is chock full of red meat for the blue collar and biker crowds who grew up on alternative rock and Ol’ Waylon. Twangy, hard-driving, and uncompromising, there’s no effort to achieve radio play here, or to bridge the gap between country and some other genre.
This is an impassioned, well-produced effort by Buddy Cannon, and with moments of surprise songwriting depth and vulnerability despite the otherwise hard-edged “modern Outlaw” approach that garners Lewis most of his attention. He may not sound like he’s from south Alabama, but Aaron’s voice comes with a familiarity and richness of tone that endears itself to the songs he writes. (read review)
Matt Woods – Natural Disasters
Matt Woods gives no ground to the overlords of alt-country as both a wordsmith and musical provocateur, making believers of the men and women who’ve ventured out to local venues to see him over the years, or been clued into his impressive records released independently. The Knoxville, TN native specializes in those songs about heartbreak in the Heartland, where broken dreams and bad decisions give way to audible desperation by those land locked in their home towns, or incarcerated from their unlawful decisions.
Natural Disasters is quite a bit more on the up-tempo and agreeable side from its predecessors in the Matt Woods catalog, but in a good way. Leaning more in the rock direction will cause some to miss the steel guitar and such that has textured his music in the past, but the energy and attitude embedded in the ten tracks of Natural Disasters make it feel powerful and fresh. (read review)
The Revelers – At The End of the River
It’s been way too long since we had a proper Cajun album with enough country tie-in’s for honky tonkers to sink their teeth into and not feel traitorous towards to their stack of country records, and Lafayette, Louisiana’s Grammy-nominated The Revelers have just plopped a doozy of one in our laps called At The End of the River, or ‘Au Bout de la Rivière’ if you prefer the local vernacular.
Get ready to bop your head and shuffle your feet, and not feel at all weird about it because this is not the next Gen Z viral hit launched via Tik-Tok, this is the real deal Cajun swamp stuff marinated in jerk sauce, blackened just right, and spread out for your inspection and partaking like a Creole feast. (read review)
Vince Gill – Okie
Vince Gill and Okie come completely out of left field in both the power and scope this project contains. We had a sense it would be one of Gill’s most personal records to date, and it most certainly is. And now that the Hall of Famer doesn’t need to hassle with recording radio singles or keeping the suits happy, he can write and record whatever he wants. All twelve of the tracks on Okie were co-written by Gill, and eight were written all by himself.
His faith is at the forefront, his concern about the tempest-tossed nature of today’s societal upheaval is sincere, and his wisdom is sharp and biting in a record that speaks to our time poignantly and surprisingly free of judgement. In short, a 62-year-old with grown kids who is well past his commercial prime has released the album that we needed right now, and not because it leans on popular platitudes about social causes, but because it avoids them for the cool and calming nature of eternal truths. (read review)
Damn Tall Buildings – Don’t Look Down
If you like your bluegrass served with a little punch, attitude, grit and gravy, with that busking spirit that was so present and palpable in the early incarnations of Old Crow Medicine Show and made your realize that string band music could be so much more than fuddy-duddy reenactments by crusty ol’ relics, then the Damn Tall Buildings will slide in nice as a welcome edition to your listening rotation.
Bluegrass at heart, but pulling from a wide range of influences including swing, ragtime, jazz, and even a hint of contemporary perspective in the songwriting, they offer virtually unmatched energy and enthusiasm, underpinned by intelligent songs that don’t skimp on the infectiousness. (read review)
Bruce Springsteen – Western Stars
The intimacy of Bruce’s earlier “West” records is replaced by a truly cinematic scope, because things are still possible here. Pedal steel and throaty, tremolo guitars paint pastoral soundscapes interwoven with sweeping strings and orchestral horns; more Countrypolitan than country. Glen Campbell, not Gram Parsons.
On Western Stars the West is finally a place of redemption…for some. Others are still wandering, but they haven’t given up. The aging cowboy actor of the title track—here Bruce uses “stars” as a sort of pun—still happily gets free drinks for his past exploits and still drives out to “ride and rope” in what still sounds like a landscape of endless imagination. (read review)
Country Side of Harmonica Sam – Broken Bottle, Broken Heart
Welcome into your country music-loving hearts The Country Side of Harmonica Sam ladies and gentlemen. That chill of of nostalgia and warmth you feel when you hear an old classic country tune billowing out of a vintage Wurlitzer jukebox envelops every note of this band and their new album Broken Bottle, Broken Heart. You’ll be berating Mr. Google for telling you this band and their music aren’t some 70-years-old, but it’s not a hiccup in the algorithm, it’s the old souls of this quintuple taking you back to a time some believe was the greatest era in country, and bringing it back to life once again.
For The Country Side of Harmonica Sam, this isn’t just about taking you back in time. This is about making country music the way it’s supposed to be, the way it originally was when electric instruments first came about, and the way it still should be made, with reverence for the roots and history of the music, and a passion for telling stories that will always be relevant to wounded hearts. (read review)
Dale Watson – Call Me Lucky
Whether it’s his singing style, his high arching silver pompadour, or even down to specific songs and albums Dale’s recorded over the years like his Dalevis project from 2012, Dale Watson has always had the soul of Memphis coursing through his blood and music. Dale even has a dedicated rockabilly category as part of his annual Ameripolitan Awards. Now a part-time resident of Memphis, it makes sense that the sound of the city would make the basis of Dale’s latest record.
From the modulating chord changes of “The Dumb Song” with its Luther Perkins boom chicka boom guitar style, to the brass and swing beat of “Tupelo, Mississippi & a 57 Fairlane” (Elvis was born in Tupelo, if you didn’t know), to even the style of a song about a farmer trucker from West Texas named “David Buxkemper,” this record employs all the nostalgic signifyers to the vintage Memphis sound to awaken nostalgic yearning in the listener. (read review)
Jon Pardi – Heartache Medication
It’s a good thing that Jon Pardi is a big guy. Because bravely, and with little regard for life and limb, he’s chosen unilaterally to use himself like a human bulwark against the invading hordes of pop, hip-hop, and EDM descending from the surrounding hillsides like unwashed hordes of undead creatures looking to consume every last bit of roots and twang still left clinging onto the picked-over carcass of mainstream country by releasing an album that actually sounds like country music cover to cover.
Heartache Medication was the best country record in the mainstream in 2019. Some will poop on it simply because it is from the popular side of country, while others may laud it too much simply because it’s head and shoulders above its mainstream competitors. But no matter where it lands in your little country music ethos, it’s undeniable Jon Pardi is putting himself in a leadership position towards returning twang to country in all its forms. (read review)
Townes Van Zandt – Sky Blue
Sky Blue is a rare collection of 11 unreleased songs from Townes Van Zandt that were recorded 46 years ago in a session with journalist, musician, and close Townes Van Zandt friend, Bill Hedgepeth. Recorded in Hedgepeth’s home studio in Atlanta, GA, it finds Townes working out compositions such as “Rex’s Blues” and “Pancho and Lefty” that would go on to define his career. The 1973 recordings also include two unheard songs called “All I Need,” and the “Sky Blue” title track, giving this release some gravitas beyond new renditions of old favorites.
Sky Blue is not for everyone, and may be ripe for cherry picking for others as opposed to a straight through listen. But you will struggle to find another recording that captures Townes in his most intimate and unguarded element than this album. (read review)
Jimbo Pap – It Can Always Get Worse
For all those who love to bray on and on about REAL COUNTRY and don’t want any damn hipster pretty boy Prius-driving Californians interloping in their By God music, best to turn back now. But for those who want something well-written and performed, offbeat, wildly-entertaining and adventurous, while still sticking strictly to country music’s roots, a swim through this debut record by Jimbo Pap will be a hoot, and right down your alley.
It may start off sarcastic, hipsterish, and a little surly, but in one song after another, it impresses you more and more with the depth of perception embedded in the songwriting, and the simple appeal of true country written and performed right. Yes, perhaps Jimbo Pap does not have the “authenticity” some outfits have behind them, and the lead singer Jim Bowers may not have that woody or whiskey-weathered twang that is ideal for a country singer. But these guys (and gal) get it, and put out a record that one would venture to say Roger Miller and The Flying Burrito Brothers would highly approve of. (read review)
The Cactus Blossoms – Easy Way
Though it’s probably not completely fair to compare the Everly Brothers to the Cactus Blossoms in direct parallel, it’s hard not to. The Cactus Blossoms embellish their brother harmonies with instrumentation that is just as much classic pop and folk as it is country, just like the Everly Brothers did. The “less is more” approach is employed in a similar fashion, with the voices and the words put out front. And both will give you chills and awaken a nostalgia from this primitive and timeless approach to music making, allowing simple compositions to tingle the skin like orchestral movements.
Awakening the power of sibling harmonies in a way that is evergreen in country music, but slightly new for The Cactus Blossoms is at the heart of Easy Way, and it’s hard to not enjoy, especially with extended and patient consideration. (read review)
Rhiannon Giddens w/ Francesco Turrisi – there is no Other
The purpose of this record is to trace the lineage of traditional music back so far, the differences in expressions, vocal cadence, rhythm, and mood are almost imperceptible no matter the region of origin, or the influence. What’s most important is these expressions emote a human feeling in notions that are universal, even though sometimes the dialects couldn’t be more different, and their modes may sound fey to many ears. The objective is to use music to illustrate how humanity is more of a collective as opposed to legions of warring tribes as many would lead you to believe.
A collaborative record with Italian multi-instrumentalist Francesco Turrisi, there is no Other is two adept musicians drawing from deep wells of musical knowledge and instrumental proficiency to offer an involved and moody musical encounter that is both inspiring and informative. (read review)
Lukas Nelson and Promise of the Real – Turn Off The News (Build a Garden)
Turn Off the News (Build a Garden) is probably even farther than previous efforts from the country music legacy forged by Lukas Nelson’s famous father. It’s a full-blown rock affair for the most part, but no matter how your musical leanings tilt, you’re too busy laying back and losing yourself in the sweet vibes and calming of spirit this record imparts to worry about such trifles.
Turn Off the News (Build a Garden) is not a record of bubbling brooks and Buddhist platitudes. There is plenty of grounded songs about relatable themes, and ample invigorating guitar work from Nelson to keep this album well into the accessible category. Though Promise of the Real has its jam band tendencies, they keep the rock mostly classic on this record. (read review)
Leo Rondeau – Right On Time
It’s Leo Rondeau’s understated nature, both in the studio and on the stage that create a slow, rolling boil of appeal in him. There’s no pretense to Leo, no show, no lofty ambitions that would inhibit him from being himself. There’s no latency between Leo Rondeau and what he sings about. What you see is what you get, and that sincerity is the reason people buy into his music so deeply, including many of his fellow musicians. Call it the Blaze Foley approach, of whom Rodeau covers on the last song of this new record. It may or may not be in this lifetime, but the honesty and authenticity of Leo Rondeau will prevail where other legacies will falter.
Leo Rondeau’s new album Right On Time gives no quarter on the emotional faculties of the listener. It’s a brutal account of bloody autopsies delving into the broken hearts of honky tonk characters. Rondeau doesn’t jab you with quick wit, he lays waste to you with one haymaker after another in steady succession. (read review)
Midland – Let It Roll
The effort to save country music must be a pragmatic one. Classic country like the stuff Midland is peddling has become a hot commodity in the mainstream and beyond in the last couple of years, and don’t question for a second that Midland and their big radio singles haven’t been a catalyst for this positive development.
Midland will never be the authentic Austin honky tokers they tout themselves to be. But they can be authentic to themselves, which is the challenge we all face when trying to find ourselves, when trying to win acceptance from the world at large, while also trying to carve out our unique place in it. And if they did, it would allow their music to reach an even wider audience of true country fans who want to like their music through all the trepidation. Because the music is there. (read review)
The Mavericks – Play The Hits
The real impetus behind Play The Hits is for Raul Malo to tee off on some of the greatest songs ever released in country and beyond. We talk about singers having “moments” in songs when the combination of mood, lyrics, tone, and performance all conspire to raise the hairs on the back of your neck. You lose count of how many of these “moments” Mr. Malo has in some of these songs.
We tend to forget about The Mavericks since they don’t fit snugly in country music or anywhere else. But the brilliance of this band is undeniable when you’re attentive and listening. It’s one thing to keep your relevance and freshness 30 years into your career and counting. It’s another to tackle the often bungled effort of releasing a covers record of popular songs and not have it feel like a mailed-in effort or a cash grab. The Mavericks play it just about perfectly in Play The Hits. (read review)
Other Albums Receiving Positive Reviews:
Miranda Lambert – Wildcard – (read review)
Ryan Bingham – American Love Song – (read review)
Koe Wetzel – Harold Saul High – (read review)
Dillon Carmichael – I Do For You EP – (read review)
Justin Moore – Late Nights and Longnecks – (read review)