Welcome ladies and gentlemen to Saving Country Music’s most comprehensive list of top-rated albums for 2020. Let this be your field guide to 2020 releases in the country and roots world. As has happened every year since the site’s inception, more albums were reviewed this year than ever before in 2020, meaning this list has become more expansive than ever before.
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.
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 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 2020 albums will be reviewed in the comings days into the first few weeks of January before 2021 releases start coming in earnest, 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 below. Just no “Hey, this list is entirely bunk because so and so wasn’t included!” or “so and so WAS included.”
2020 Saving Country Music Album of the Year Nominees:
• Ward Davis – Black Cats and Crows (review) • Cahalen Morrison – Wealth of Sorrow (review) • Lauren Mascitti – God Made a Woman (review) • Zephaniah OHora – Listening to the Music (review) • Sturgill Simpson – Cuttin’ Grass Vol. 1 and Vol. 2 (review) • Juliet McConkey – Disappearing Girl (review) • Roo Arcus – Tumbleweed (review) • Arlo McKinley – Die Midwestern (review) • Tessy Lou Williams – Self-Titled (review) • Jesse Daniel – Rollin’ On (review) • Lori McKenna – The Balladeer (review) • American Aquarium – Lamentations (review)
MOST ESSENTIAL – Colter Wall – Western Swing & Waltzes…
Cowboy and Western artist Colter Wall is not cutting or diluting his music to conform to anything. His songs don’t just veer toward the most authentic and unfettered versions of Western’s music’s legacy, it’s the very embodiment of them. Often, they’re the very legacy songs themselves. By all measures and prognostications, old ranch and cattle tunes rendered authentically and anachronistically shouldn’t resonate beyond an incredibly niche audience of lost-in-time cowboys and the hipsters who love to emulate them. But it does, and it is.
Colter Wall’s authentic, rugged expressions and rich voice so compliment, caretake, and elevate what we thought were archaic themes with little appeal, it has awakened a renewed interest and vitality in the cowboy themes that are so critical to the foundations of country music, proving once again that country and Western doesn’t need to conform to be cool. It just needs to be itself, and to be championed by natural talent. (read review)
MOST ESSENTIAL – The Tender Things – How You Make A Fool
How You Make a Fool evokes strong memories of the Flying Burrito Brothers and similar outfits that melded country with rock sensibilities, while making ample signature statements all their own, and moving classic-sounding electric roots music forward in time.
The Tender Things come primarily from the sweat and vision of frontman and songwriter Jesse Ebaugh. Bred out of Northern Kentucky with the influences of bluegrass music hovering very near, Ebaugh is perhaps best known for saddling up with the Heartless Bastards as a bass player for the better part of a decade. Over the last few years he’s been laboring to refine and produce his signature expression through The Tender Things project, and that effort really comes to fruition in this new record. (read review)
MOST ESSENTIAL – Jaime Wyatt – Neon Cross
Neon Cross captures Jaime Wyatt leaning on honesty, and exhibiting a fearlessness of expression despite her shy disposition to reveal her most bruised emotions and recollections in song as an enraptured audience soaks it all in. Searing your heart is Wyatt’s voice that is perfectly imperfect like Emmyou’s, cracking and failing at all the right times, yet underpinned with a strength and beauty imbuing each note with shiver-inducing ions.
Neon Cross chooses to be daring in its message, in its music, and in the foot Wyatt has put out in front of it. And for the most part, her approach is very effective, resulting in a record that feels very alive and visionary, and if not redemptive, at least on the path to towards that goal. (read review)
MOST ESSENTIAL – Jordan Allen and the Bellwether’s – Give My Love to Jenny
If you want to sit down in a groove of Southern roots music goodness that doesn’t eschew the importance of quality songwriting, then you did right by screwing off at work to sniff around Saving Country Music. Jordan Allen and the Bellwethers are easy to love, and so is their new record.
A sort of part-time band with a full-time frontman whose sole purpose in life is writing songs, Jordan Allen and the Bellwethers pull out all the stops and make a record they can be proud of and that will withstand the test of time, and hopefully makes a mark not just in eastern Kentucky, but on the national map. (read review)
MOST ESSENTIAL – 49 Winchester – III
Hailing from Castlewood, VA in the heart of Appalachia, the five-piece 49 Winchester serves it up greasy, whether it’s Southern fried rock, honky tonk country, sentimental moments tickling the fringes of Americana, or a version of soul that takes all of those influences and stews them. It’s always Southern, but the variety of flavors you’re served keeps you on your toes for 10 tracks. And eventually an album you start off thinking might be good for a quick hoot turns out running through a range of emotions you may have not been ready for, though you sure do appreciate the ride afterwards.
49 Winchester puts out an album some people have been braying on about being the the best all year since it hit shelves in early October. If it hits you just right, maybe it is. But either way, it’s certainly fair to add to the discussion. (read review)
MOST ESSENTIAL – Hill Country (now The Wilder Blue) – Self-Titled
Hill Country is unafraid of being labeled copycats. They’re just here to let the good times flow. You can plug them in at a corner stage anywhere, and the crowd will probably find favor in them with warm melodies and strong hooks. Don’t take that to mean the songwriting is secondary or unoriginal though. Quite the contrary. Songwriting is one of the best assets of the record.
Whether Hill Country becomes a permanent home for Zane Williams, Paul Eason and the others, or a fun side project, the results speak for themselves, which is a full-bodied listening experience satisfying many cravings in country music and beyond, resulting in a warm feeling and a good vibe. (read review)
MOST ESSENTIAL – Caitlin Cannon – The TrashCannon Album
Like a tornado tearing through a trailer park, strewing the trash and dirty laundry everywhere, and leaving one side of a singlewide so totally exposed that every saucy detail of someone’s personal life is just sitting out there in the breeze for the entire neighborhood to see, Caitlin Cannon comes at you with this wild, attitudinal record filled with rampant oversharing and an ample bounties of wicked entertainment.
Caitlin Cannon’s trash is the audience’s treasure trove of country and rockabilly pleasure that will have you first in stitches, then later sobbing with empathy, and then recycling the experience over and over again as you can’t get enough. Whether you’re looking for steel guitar-soaked tearjerkers, the whip-cracking attitude of Bettie Page in leopard print, or something in the spectrum in between, Caitlin Cannon has you covered, all compiled into this record that can affectionately considered a beautiful mess. (read review)
MOST ESSENTIAL – Brent Cobb – Keep ‘Em On They Toes
If you’re looking for an opportune auditory retreat from the utter madness that is 2020, then Brent Cobb has just dropped one right in your lap, and not a moment too soon. Like taking a slow drive through the countryside, or sitting on the back porch on a Sunday afternoon with a jar of tea, give Brent Cobb about 45 minutes of your time, and he’ll get you to feeling right.
One song after another, Brent Cobb uses sweet melodies and slow grooves to remind us to not sweat the small stuff, live life, and let others live theirs, whether it’s direct like in the duet with Nikki Lane called “Soap Box” about avoiding divisive subjects, or “Dust Under My Rug” about being left alone, or the subtleties and truths of Cobb’s personal life found in “Sometimes I’m a Clown.” Brent Cobb has decided life is too short to stick his nose into scandal, or try to become a superstar. He wants to be a father and a husband first, and enjoy the ride. (read review)
MOST ESSENTIAL – Ashley McBryde – Never Will
Ashley McBryde was already considered one of the best artists from mainstream label crowd, and a bright spot for country music moving forward. With her new album Never Will, she cements her place as one of the best current artists in country music, period. Inspired, inspiring, well-performed and written, make ample room in your listening rotation for this one.
Don’t expect Ashley McBryde to change like so many stars do when they get a little scratch in their pocket. Because ultimately she knows who she is an where she came from. She’s the anti-star, the also-ran who happened to make it despite the odds. She’s one of us. And that’s why when she sings, we listen, and believe it. (read review)
MOST ESSENTIAL – Charley Crockett – Welcome To Hard Times
You could cobble together a collection of old records to try and illustrate for friends and neighbors the wide array of expression types the roots realm comprises and the relationship between them all, or you could just cue up a Charley Crockett record. His latest called Welcome to Hard Times would be as good of a place to start as any, if not the best one. From classic country, to the Bakersfield sound, to primitive folk, to blues and early rock ‘n roll, Crockett can do it all, and with a cohesive style and shared narrative that renders it all so seamless and musically seductive.
You listen to Charley Crockett, and you’re not exactly sure he’s real; like he’s an astral projection from a previous epoch. As Charley Crockett himself says, “Real country music is for everyone.” And Charley Crockett is real country. (read review)
MOST ESSENTIAL – Rattlesnake Milk – Self-Titled
Take yourself on a little trip to the dark side of country—the underground as it’s sometimes called—where the ambition is low, any plan completely absent, but the music is powerful and invigorating, uninhibited by style or scene or trend, true to itself, and tremendously potent. This is the world of Austin, TX’s Rattlesnake Milk.
Mashing together influences from traditional country, underground punk, and old-school garage surf, Rattlesnake Milk is unrefined, purposely unpolished, poorly-presented, completely unfit for primetime, and a powerful force of underground roots music perfect for getting lost in and cranking up loud. Rattlesnake Milk is the kind of dangerous and cool that all those rich kids in Americana love to fancy themselves as, but don’t have the courage to pull off in this raw, unbridled form. This is the music of the cotton rows and concrete bunkers, festering in the shadows, and forced into the alleys for the select few willing to dig a little deeper to eventually find and take ownership in as an unearthed gem. (read review)
MOST ESSENTIAL – Gabe Lee – Honky Tonk Hell
Honky Tonk Hell isn’t just a great record. It verifies that Gabe Lee will be one of the next great artists in country and roots music that we’ll hopefully be hearing plenty from and enjoying for years to come. From fire-breathing Southern rock, to delicate piano ballads, Hank Williams-style Southern poetry, to Dylan-esque harmonica and rhyme, Honky Tonk Hell covers it all, and with the authority of a performer who is not torn about who he is, or addled by worries of how he’s perceived by the outside facing world. Gabe Lee belts his original words out like a man born to do it and who knows nothing else. His effortlessness is uncanny.
Gabe Lee will continue to fly under-the-radar for many because he’s just too damn good. But the the more fleshed out approach of Honky Tonk Hell, along with the flavorful offerings that include something for everyone with country, roots, and Southern rock sensibilities, this record damn well better land him in the ears of an audience sizable enough to launch as sustainable career. (read review)
MOST ESSENTIAL – Zach Bryan – Quiet, Heavy Dreams
Zach Bryan is just touched in a way where poetic recitation or interpretation of events either real life or imaginative is so natural to him, the words flow like water, and order themselves in ways that are both intuitive and inviting to the audience. His effortlessness at writing songs is the envy of all writers.
As Zach Bryan has proved many times throughout his curious and incredible career so far, there is no conventional wisdom behind what’s happening here. He’s being spirited to the front of the class off the mere strength of his songs as we wish would be the fate of all of our favorite songwriters. And there’s no telling where this all leads. (read review)
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***REMEMBER: Album of the Year Nominees are not included on this list***
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Chris Stapleton – Starting Over
Starting Over is a combination of Southern soul songs and straight ahead rock tracks, and a few sentimental ballads that constitute the smattering of country tunes. Guilty of being country mostly by association, Starting Over is truly more an embodiment of elemental “Americana,” meaning an amalgam of American roots influences, presented with a relative seamlessness between them.
Chris Stapleton’s talent is still undeniable, his appeal worthy of the wide recognition he enjoys, and it’s all unmistakable and captured with renewed passion in moments very much worthy of your attention on Starting Over. (read review)
The Piedmont Boys – Almost Home
When rattling off a list of the most hard charging, unapologetic honky-tonk Outlaw country bands out there who tour until it hurts, don’t know when to quit, and will kick your teeth in with their live show, The Piedmont Boys based out of South Carolina never receive their fair share of recognition. Arguably the most underrated and overlooked band in the Outlaw country realm, if you like Whitey Morgan and artists of that ilk, and music that reminds you of Waylon and Merle, these guys must be in your rotation.
Uncorrupted by massive fame, and completely uninterested in chasing trends—whether in mainstream country or hipster Americana—The Piedmont Boys are a pure Carolina version of Outlaw country that honky tonk fans all around the world should be spinning. (read review)
Becky Warren – The Sick Season
Combining the splendid messiness of Lucinda Williams, the warrior poet heart of James McMurtry, the rock and roll abandon of east Nashville alley cat Lilly Hiatt, and enough grit and groove to make ol’ Ray Wylie Hubbard nod in approval, Becky Warren turns in a rough and tumble travelogue through angsty self-diagnosis and slogs through pits of despair called The Sick Season that’s certainly not pretty, but nails you between the eyes with a potency of lyric, melody, and attitude not often attained in the docile halls of Americana or anywhere else.
In the personal accounts of The Sick Season, she really finds her voice and a style that sets her apart. Nothing feels calculated or even intentional about this album. It’s one of those records an artist just had to make to exorcise the demons of sullen moments, for better or worse. In Becky Warren’s case, it’s for the better of us all. (read review)
Rachel Brooke – The Loneliness in Me
Apparently not enough hearts have been broken, not enough tears cried, not enough minds sent swooning, and not enough sorrow sown. If you want something done right, you often have to do it yourself, and the Queen of Underground Country is back to show all you whipper snappers how instilling pain and heartbreak in a country song is done.
Rachel Brook’s been defining the dark side of country before we knew there was one. Mixing her influences of classic country, old-school 50’s rock, and adding a pinch of punk panache to the approach, she serves up a witches brew of songs full of reverberating regret and despair on her new album The Loneliness In Me. (read review)
John Anderson – Years
What a great little late career record this is. With all the death and sadness country music has been suffering from lately, it feels so good to get something special from a guy you remember fondly from the past, who proves he still has plenty to offer in the present. You don’t need to rely on weepy-eyed reflection or nostalgia to get into this record, or rig the scales in John Anderson’s favor out of respect for what he’s done in the past. He just delivers here.
Taking a bit of a risk as an older country artist with an established style working so intimately with Dan Auerbach, and striking a deeper, more reflective mood than most of the music he’s known for, John Anderson turns in another record he will be fondly remembered for well into the future. (read review)
David Quinn – Letting Go
Consider the lineup assembled to track David Quinn’s Letting Go as a true all-star team of east Nashville musician talent. But where so many of the records emanating from this particular region seem to regularly fall short of expectations for a myriad of reasons, this one delivers that sort of sweaty, gritty, hard country sound that you crave with just the right amount of rock ‘n’ roll to not go over the line.
Though not considered a major part of the east Nashville scene, David Quinn may have put out a record that is one of the best examples of it, at least in regards to sound, and by using the players that help define it. (read review)
Alecia Nugent – The Old Side of Town
Whether you remember her from her days on Rounder Records as one of the premier vocalists in bluegrass, or if she’s just now raising a blip on your radar, Alecia Nugent and her new album The Old Side of Town is worth bending your ear towards. The Hickory Grove, Louisiana native is back after a decade-long absence from the studio, and re-emerging with an old sound that’s new to her.
Alecia Nugent did her level best to keep the proud traditions of bluegrass music alive earlier in her career. Whether The Old Side of Town is just a side junket into traditional country world or she chooses to become a permanent fixture (which would be fine by us), we’re happy to have Alecia Nugent’s voice and pen grace this side of roots music. It’s a bluegrass great gone country, and we’re here for it. (read review)
Casper McWade – Unraveled
With Casper McWade’s new album being released from a label called Death Before Pop Country Records, you can be assured of what you won’t find any of. And sure, there’s some of the studded attitude you get with much of modern Outlaw country music, including a rambunctious rendition of the Wayne Mills and Erica Sunshine Lee-penned “Whiskey Bent and Jail Bound” about a bad hombre with bad luck and worse tendencies. “That boy ain’t nothin’ but a country song…” McWade sings.
But similar to Cody Jinks, the song comes first with Casper McWade, not some stylized braying on about what a badass he is, which siphons away much of the substance and cool factor from some of today’s country “Outlaws.” Aside from a lingering rock influence that has more to do with attitude of approach than any sound, Casper McWade is straight ahead Outlaw-influenced traditional country. (read review)
Mike and the Moonpies – Touch of You: The Lost Songs of Gary Stewart
There’s no question how the legacy of Gary Stewart is regarded when it comes to Mike and the Moonpies. When they were coming up in the honky tonks of Austin playing multi-hour sets for two-steppers and crazy Texans, Gary Stewart songs were a strong portion of their repertoire, and a primary influence on their sound. So who better to hand off some previously unheard Gary Stewart material to, and have them do their worst?
As Mike Harmeier says, “A big part of this is turning people on to Gary who didn’t know Gary before. We wouldn’t be who we are without Gary.” But hopefully Gary helps turn some people onto Mike and the Moonpies too. Because similar to Gary in his time, Mike and the Moonpies are criminally underrated. And as Touch of You – The Lost Songs of Gary Stewart attests, they both deserve a hell of a lot more recognition. (read review)
Logan Ledger – Self-Titled
“Vintage” is the only way to fairly catalog this self-titled release, with the influences of classic country, traditional pop, mod, and even a little early psychedelia appearing throughout these eleven tracks. If you’re thinking country, think more of Jim Reeves or early George Jones, and less Waylon Jennings. Think The Byrds meet Nashville. This is a refined style of roots music, perhaps more suitable for the intimate theater than the honky tonk, but still and raw and real from the emotional experience.
Logan Ledger has a special voice and the songwriting acumen to pair with it to be worth hearing and being heard. Hopefully that fate finds him and lifts his music out of obscurity to feed ears famished for true musical talent. (read review)
Great Peacock – Forever Worse Better
Sometimes you just want to listen to something to help pass the time on a long drive, or to chill out to, but something that is still smartly composed. That’s what you get from Great Peacock’s latest album Forever Worse Better. Reminding you of all your old favorite alt-country records from folks like the Drive-By Truckers, Old 97’s, and Reckless Kelley where the songs just work, this album takes well-written lyrics and pairs them with sensible affects from across the country and rock real to make an enjoyable and widely-appealing experience.
Forever Worse Better doesn’t try to change music as we know it. And thank goodness for that. It’s just good American-based roots music that takes little effort to enjoy even though a lot of effort went into it, reminding you why you became a dedicated music fan in the first place. (read review)
Brandy Clark – Your Life Is a Record
Your Life is a Record is a little bit of a different approach for Brandy. Where usually her songs follow more of a proven methodology in the use of double entendres and witty turns of phrase and perspective to render themselves enjoyable—and emerge from songwriting sessions with other professionals—this record strikes a more personal chord. There are still those Brandy Clark-style songs with attitude, like “Long Walk” about finding a short pier, or the observational humor of “Bigger Boat” featuring Randy Newman—who you can tell through this collaboration has inferred a lot of Brandy Clark’s approach to the craft.
Brandy Clark does something she’s mostly avoided in her career heretofore, which is using the inspiration of her own mistakes and failed relationship as fodder for song material as opposed to knocking down nosy neighbors and white picket fences. (read review)
Porter Union – Loved and Lost
Comprised of husband and wife Cole Michael Porter and Kendra Porter, both Cole and Kendra are respected singer/songwriters, and simply the strength of composition would be enough to get you to pay attention to them, even if a decade of harmonizing together in front of fiddle and steel guitar arrangements didn’t draw you in like it does.
And the music of Porter Union is not all swooning ballads and intimate coos. Love is work dammit. There’s bumps in the road, and for some, it’s a brick wall they run right into. All of these emotions, the ups and the downs of love and relationships, they’re all crooned out by this couple in quality songs with two part harmonies that draw the emotion out of the verse better than going solo, until loneliness is the mood sought, and one or the other steps back. (read review)
The Panhandlers – Self-Titled
The Panhandlers supergroup aren’t just bound by their ties to the region. The geography and people of the upper portions of West Texas is what this music is all about. The ten tracks run through the trials and tribulations of the region with such insight and clarity that you taste the grit between your teeth, hear the wind in your ears, and feel the sun on your back until you find yourself alone on the flat plain yourself, beholding the self-reflective mood of the surrounding nothingness.
From falling water tables to failing farms, this is an account of an unforgiving land nobody would ever choose to call home. Yet people still do, and find the beauty in the few places it lingers. And no matter how unappreciative the rest of the world may regard this seemingly nondescript place, a deep appreciation rests in the heart of its residents, because it’s responsible for who they are. (read review)
James Steinle – Cold German Mornings
Just go ahead and add James Steinle’s new album Cold German Mornings into the canon of cool Austin, TX projects that are indicative of the city’s creativity. It’s a concept record that may set its foundations in country, but is too ambitious to fool around with confining itself to any given genre, aside from being strongly inferred by roots, both in Texas, and from Deutschland, but in a way that feels strangely familiar as opposed to foreign.
Horns, strings, bells, clarinet, and other doo dads are called upon by James Steinle and producer Scott Davis to bring these songs to life as they conspire to tell a deeper story and set a cinematic mood for the listener. But don’t worry, the album doesn’t bog down in artsy interludes, nor is it overly burdened by unusual dialects. (read review)
Cody Jinks – Red Rocks Live
Adding to his arsenal of studio projects, Cody Jinks unleashes his first proper concert album recorded professionally at the legendary venue of the same name situated between the painted boulders of picturesque Colorado. A sweeping work of 23 songs encapsulating the lion’s share of Cody’s song legacy with little banter or cover material, Jinks and his band capture a spirited rendition of what you experience live, which is a high-energy and tightly-performed hard country show, ranging from blistering fist-pumping moments to more reserved and meaningful ones.
More than just capturing the music, Red Rocks Live captures an important moment in the maturation of Cody Jinks. Filling every seat at Red Rocks was not just a bucket list achievement for Jinks, it was a shot across the bow of the mainstream, and an illustration of the commercial prowess emerging in the independent ranks—the picture of Cody on the cover standing at center stage in front of a sea of fans says it all. (read review)
Tami Neilson – CHICKABOOM!
CHICKABOOM! is a spirited and energetic mix of rockabilly, old school R&B soul, and classic country that has something for everyone with good taste, while presenting numerous new launching pads for Neilson’s voice to blow back the hair of spellbound crowds for years to come. Very much forged from the dual life Tami Neilson leads as both a dutiful and very busy housewife and mother, and a big bopping rockabilly goddess with big hair and a bigger voice, both these occupations are given a spotlight in these 10 tracks.
This album makes quick work and separates itself from the peloton of mild “Americana” with it’s energy and infectiousness, along with the messages that working moms and the men that love them can most certainly relate to. Tami Neilson has been here for a long time, but hopefully CHICKABOOM! is the moment she arrives. (read review)
Josh Turner – Country State of Mind
Let’s be honest. Do we really need yet even more new versions of old country songs? Weren’t the original recordings or the ones that became the most popular plenty enough, and always fit in our brains the best? Isn’t there enough original music out there for all of us to consume, with even more being added to the pile every Friday?
But the wildcard here, and what makes this record worth turning your attention to is that you have the once-in-a-lifetime voice of the great Josh Turner gracing these classic songs. One of the most potent weapons in the present-day country music arsenal, he’s back with a dozen country classics he’s cut, including many with some notable vocal contributors, and we’re completely here for it. (read review)
Yellow Rose – Original Motion Picture Soundtrack
The heart and talent Eva Noblezada brings to the original songs of Yellow Rose puts her well above par for performing country music. It’s not just her natural talent for range and pitch. Eva’s attention and to the subtleties of country singing, from knowing when to allow the voice to crack, and even adding a little bit of “twang,” there’s no suspension of disbelief necessary to fall for these songs that come straight from her heart.
True country is meant for the heartbroken and forlorn, the nostalgic and lost. It’s their compass, and their home, when none other presents itself. And as both the Yellow Rose film and its corresponding soundtrack illustrate—as does the fandom for country music that spans across the globe—country music is for everyone, no matter who they are, or where they’re from. (read review)
Ray Wylie Hubbard – Co-Starring
Co-Starring is a spirited, ambitious, well-written and performed late career effort by Ray Wylie that makes a strong case why he deserves major label backing, why all the praise and opportunities he’s been receiving lately (however late) are warranted, while also making a worthy introduction into why so many revere this man, for those who’ve never taken the time to listen to him before.
Far from a Sonny & Cher-style affair, though collaboration is one of the focal points of the record, Co-Starring is still very much a Ray Wylie Hubbard experience. He just roped in some of the most skilled co-conspirators he could find to pull off this heist, and the amount of talent and some of the specific names he was able to assemble speaks to the respect Hubbard has earned throughout the music scene, and the influence he’s peddled for half a century. (read review)
Chancey Williams – 3rd Street
A true rodeo cowboy who’s competed as a saddle bronc rider for years, Chancey Williams holds the unique distinction of being the only guy since Chris LeDoux to both ride and perform in the biggest rodeo competition of them all—Cheyenne’s Frontier Days. Chancey brings his real-world experiences to both lively songs and sentimental ballads that show off a sincere passion for country and Western while satiating a range of emotions for the audience.
Chancey Williams is what popular country music should sound like in 2020. It’s appeal is easy and its audience is wide, but it’s substantial enough to not feel like a guilty pleasure. He’s helping to put the Western back into country. (read review)
Johnny Falstaff – Glad You Made It
From the opening phrase of the title track, you know you’ve found what your honky tonk heart is yearning for. But even though Falstaff can crank the twang and croon out those beer-soaked honky tonk numbers as good or better as any, he steers clear of becoming a one-trick pony on Lost in the City Lights by getting a little cosmic too. Not afraid to let loose of the tethers of traditional country, yet still hold on to his roots, he takes you on a few little spins into the ether.
Hanging out in Germany and refusing to compromise his music to current trends or the ills of the music business has kept Johnny Falstaff once removed from the ears of many. But with Lost in the City Lights, Falstaff can, and should find the audience for his music he’s deserved all these years, and thirsty listeners will find that country music gold they crave, and have difficulty locating. (read review)
Nora Jane Struthers – Bright Lights, Long Drives, First Words
In the increasingly hard-to-define and omnivorous realm of “Americana” where everyone seems to be obsessed with getting caught up in feeling like they need to commentate through the current climate for everyone to the point of being trite, somewhere the idea of penning really good songs, and then recording them with your road band in a way that does the inspiration behind the compositions justice got sifted down the ladder of priorities.
But this is exactly what you’ll find with the latest record from Nora Jane Struthers. There’s nothing positively groundbreaking or unique about this effort. The songs are taken from little snapshots of Nora Jane’s life, well-written and appealing of course, but nothing too fanciful. The production is relatively straightforward country rock with a some growl in the guitar and a loose feel. But the simplicity is what’s so great about this record. It’s refreshing. Everything else melts away when you put this record on. There’s just a base appeal from the combination of music and message that gets you feeling right. (read review)
Victoria Bailey – Jesus, Red Wine, and Patsy Cline
If you’re looking for a honky tonk sweetheart, then you’ve found one in native Californian Victoria Bailey, who comes sauntering out of the painted desert on a Palomino like a singin’ cowgirl from the days of old, seducing you with eyes the size of flying saucers and a sweet soprano with the most perfect country warble, singing original songs that compliment the throwback style into a full package of country music goodness.
There are no incidental anachronisms to be found here. This is classic country music steeped in the Golden Era when all the old greats reigned, and emphasizing not just the Bakersfield influences in country music’s legacy, but that of the Western stars of the early silver screen—Roy Rogers, Gene Autry, Patsy Montana and the like, who always get overlooked when people cite the original influences and nascent performers of country and Western. (read review)
Joshua Ray Walker – Glad You Made It
Eschewing the hipness of east Nashville and Austin to instead walk the culture hungry streets of Dallas, Texas, Joshua Ray Walker is a big man with a high lonesome voice and heartfelt songs who is quickly rising up the independent country music depth charts. A songwriter and honky-tonker with a head full of words and a heart full of blues, his musings, yodels, and moans are featured on his second record called Glad You Made It that just might mark the breakout point for his young career.
The promise you heard on the first record begins to feel fulfilled on this second one. He’s learned how better to write to his vocal and thematic strengths, and he’s finding out what he has to contribute that is unique to music. (read review)
The Onlies – Self-Titled
The Onlies is just about a perfect next step in your fiddle tune journey as a testament to the vitality and appeal that old-time music and fiddle tunes can still hold to the modern ear, articulated by artists master skilled in the discipline, and full of passion to share it.
Old-time fiddle music is not for everyone, and some of the obsolete language may make some discount it straight off. But there’s a warmth to the simplicity, and a rhythm to the modes of this music that touches nerves otherwise rendered dormant. The Onlies help awaken those synapses and emotions, while doing the important work of shepherding old-time music into the next century. (read review)
Daniel Donato – A Young Man’s Country
A strong case can be made that Daniel Donato is the best young guitarist in country music. He has both the tenacity, attack and technique of the best shredders around, as well as the taste and sense of tone it takes to bring the soul out of a song and melody. And with twang taking such a strong position in his repertoire, the country music community should be both proud and honored Donato’s chosen to make his home within country’s confines.
But there is no confining Daniel Donato. He proves that time and again on his debut record A Young Man’s Country. He’s part honky tonk twang that was perfected touring with some of the best independent country names of the era and his tutelage with the Don Kelly Band at Robert’s in Nashville. But Daniel is also part jam band kid who’s been very directly influenced by The Grateful Dead and Jerry Garcia. A Young Man’s Country is a very intrepid and inspired concoction of two distinctly American music forms fused seamlessly together in a manner that has been done before in certain other variations, but never quite like this. (read review)
Paul Bogart – Won’t Have Far To Go
To sing it, you first have to live it, and Paul Bogart has. Those forged on the rodeo circuit have country music coursing through their veins more than most, and won’t be caught straying too far from the roots of the music like those civilian songwriters on Music Row. Rodeo country is synonymous with music that is buttoned up and squared away, emboldened with steel guitar and fiddle, and unafraid to be country.
Paul Bogart is so traditional, even when he covers the classic Bill Withers song “Ain’t No Sunshine,” or U2’s iconic “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” like he does on his now third full-length record, they still come out as traditional country songs. The familiarity with these songs and the authentic country voice Paul Bogart brings to them might be what draws some people in. But they will stay for his originally-penned material that often speaks to the appreciation of love, life, and family. (read review)
Brit Taylor – Real Me
Paired with names like Pat McLaughlin, Jerry Salley, Will Hoge, and most notably Dan Auerbach as co-writers, Brit navigates the difficult and prickly particulars of her personal narrative into songs whose emotions and revelations range from bitterness, to pining, to personal understanding. The songs of Real Me run the cycle of realizing a love is no good to an unfaithful man who can’t pull his own weight, but finding it hard to pull away from the allure that still remains, to the aftermath of leaving, and the search for love once again, only now with a more guarded heart.
Whether it’s the relationship with a loved one, or the relationship with a record label, country artists have been struggling to get it right and be themselves for going on a century. Country singers seem especially susceptible to falling into the messy business of divorce. Brit Taylor speaks to that legacy in Real Me. (read review)
Corb Lund – Agricultural Tragic
From recalling having to talk down a former Army Ranger from killing a group of horse thieves while on an elk hunting trip with Turnpike Troubadours frontman Evan Felker, to trying to remember the protocols from getting away from a Grizzly bear, to attempting to envision life without any horses to tend to because that’s all you’ve ever known, these aren’t the hypotheticals of some goofy suburban kid in a Howdy Doody outfit in a club in East Nashville or Echo Park trying to play cowboy. The stories of Agricultural Tragic are from a guy that lived them during the day, and wrote about them at night.
With plenty of highlights to take away and ample enjoyment rendered, Agricultural Tragic once again establishes that Corb Lund is the cowboy poet turned country artist for our generation. (read review)
Kyle Nix – Lightning on the Mountain
Envisioned as a concept record with interludes and elements inspired by the Spaghetti Western sounds of Ennio Morricone, Lightning On The Mountain and Other Short Stories is an ambitious, adventurous, varied, and diverse effort that keeps you on your toes for 17 tracks. Not everything is styled in Spaghetti Western sounds. There are ample love songs, and hard-charging country rock songs, and plenty in between. And even though some guitar solos are distinctly Ryan Engleman (Turnpike’s guitarist), and the same for Hank Early on the accordion or steel guitar, Lightning On The Mountain is distinctly a Kyle Nix record, and a country record.
Regardless of what happens, when you reflect back on the legacy the Turnpike Troubadours left, you will remember this side project from Kyle Nix, enjoy it with an extra vigor because of who it is and what it means, and verify he was one of the coolest fiddle players ever. (read review)
Bryan James – Politics or Religion
James pledges his allegiance to tried and true country music with his third record since 2016. You probably will draw strong conclusions about what this record sounds like simply from the title and cover, and once you give it a listen, you’ll conclude you’re right, but only partially. The title isn’t an ultimatum by the way, it’s about swearing off these contentious subjects in conversation.
The Southern accent is thick, many of the songs are gruff, attitudinal, and unapologetic, and the music is stone cold country. But if all the bluster from these modern day country music Outlaws and an album cover with a screaming eagle bathed in the stars and stripes really isn’t your thing, you still might be surprised at just how much quality songwriting is showcased on this record. (read review)
The Mavericks – En Español
With stellar frontman Raul Malo, The Mavericks have dabbled in Spanish language music before. Their big comeback record in 2013 In Time included a Spanish version of the album’s signature track, “Come Unto Me.” But En Español is the first time the outfit delves into Spanish language material exclusively, both in the form of some new, original compositions, as well as some tasteful, and deftly-selected covers.
Illustrating the beauty of the Spanish language while extending their ambassadorship for Latin influences in American music, The Mavericks and Raul Malo make an inspired record that some may find intimidating to delve into, but many will find rewarding if they do. (read review)
Blood Jug Band – Stranded
There’s nothing else quite like the Bloody Jug Band. Completely dedicated to making dark roots music, and to the jug band concept with washboard, harmonica, mandolin, and yes, a jug comprising the foundation of their sound, they’re the Gothic roots band that defies the niche and seasonal appeal of such an act with the way they take creepy music, and somehow make it so unbelievably infectious and appealing, you will be listening and grooving to it all year long.
Helmed by singer and washboard player Cragmire Pearce and his willing accomplice Stormy Jean, they growl and hiss about all manner of seedy and scary subject matter, while you bob your head to some of the catchiest melodies you can find in all of music. The guitar on this record is brilliant, and is really what sets it off. There are some solos here that will be the best you hear all year. Just the sheer overall quality of what is supposed to be obscure music from a local band is something to behold. (read review)
Brennen Leigh – Prairie Love Letter
It’s easy to soliloquize the expansive mountains or the rolling sea. It’s another to find inspiration in the expansive stillness of America’s midriff. But as Brennen Leigh can attest from her intimate acquaintance, those who’ve stood out in the vastness of the plains as a thunderstorm rolls in, or experienced the simplicity of life in a rural town or family farm, or been dazzled by the Northern Lights that you’ll never believe the brilliance of unless you’ve beheld them with your own eyes, the Upper Midwest holds a magic all its own.
In not one love letter, but 12 of them, Brennen Leigh puts words to the emotions that come welling up in memories of life on the Northern Plains, from the people in songs like “Billy & Beau” and “The North Dakota Cowboy,” to the places like the moving turn at the end of “Elizabeth, Minnesota.” Sometimes the picture is painted just as much or more with the sounds as the words like in the simple, but loving and forlorn, “I Love The Lonesome Prairie.” (read review)
David Adam Byrnes – Neon Town
Slapping you square across the face with steel, fiddle, and Telecaster guitar, David Adam Byrnes is here to answer where all the country in country music has gone. And no, it didn’t take flight to “Americana.” You want country damn music? Well here you go. So quit complaining about the latest Sam Hunt single and give this a spin.
There’s a lot of people out there professing the virtues of 80’s and 90’s country these days, but few really know how to dig into the heart of what made that music cool and timeless, and write and perform stuff inspired by that era where it resonates just like that old stuff did. David Adam Byrnes is one of those few. (read review)
Eleven Hundred Springs – Here ‘Tis
Over the years, Eleven Hundred Springs and Matt Hillyer would stretch their footprint beyond Dallas and Texas, but they found their calling as Dallas’s country music house band, becoming synonymous with the city, and the only right answer when someone asked who one of the coolest country bands in the DFW area were.
Here now over 20 years since their inception, maybe it’s fair to ask what a band like Eleven Hundred Springs can contribute to the greater realm of country music. But with Here ‘Tis finds Eleven Hundred Springs exactly where they need to be—in a somewhat reflective mood after more than two decades of service time, and perhaps leaning into their authentic country sound and songs more than ever, and growing old with their music instead of leaning on their past conquests. (read review)
Tenille Arts – Love Heartbreak, and Everything In Between
Shirking the bubblegum pop sensibilities that seem to sugar coat most of the new “country” music emanating from Music Row these days, Tenille Arts took a year full of spills in a bad breakup, and put them into the 12 songs of this surprisingly deep and smart record with Tenille herself taking a hand in co-writing every track. Originally conceived as a concept of three separate EPs covering the three phases of a relationship, the songs are slyly assembled here in a manner that takes you on the roller coaster of emotional up and downs that accompany a romantic split.
This album still resides well within the mainstream realm, but all of this contrasts against a record that surprises at nearly every turn with the amount of depth in the writing, the building in of acoustic, intimate, and twangy moments, and some real bright production decisions that bring the feelings of the songs to the surface. (read review)
Karen Jonas – The Southwest Sky and Other Dreams
The Southwest Sky and Other Dreams is an imaginative and inspired work of involved stories and finely-woven songwriting, with intermissions of enjoyable romps through country and roots escapism. Influenced from treks through desert California and West Texas, it gives rise to characters and scenarios so present and palpable in your mind’s eye, you can touch and smell them.
From honky-tonk country, sultry rockabilly, to genteel Americana, Jonas moves dexterously between them, aided by her right hand man, guitar player Tim Bray, who can bring whatever mood might be necessary to a song with chameleon-like acuity. (read review)
Bo DePeña – Self-Titled
Whether it’s tried-and-true traditional country, more modern Texas-style country with a little rock ‘n roll swagger, singer-songwriter stuff, or something in between, Laredo, TX-native Bo DePeña has you covered in this new self-titled record, and in only nine songs.
Who is Bo DePeña? What’s his story, and why should you care about it? Well give a listen to this self-titled album, and it all unfolds right in front of you. Often when an artist or band titles an album after themselves, it’s from the lack of a better option. In this case, it’s because this album is Bo DePeña, at least the life he’s lived over the last few years. You follow Bo from his birth in San Antonio, to his raising in Laredo, then on to Austin, New Orleans, Colorado and even New York City. What would take a boy from south Texas to such far flung destinations? As you can probably guess, a woman is partly to blame. (read review)
Tyler Childers – Long Violent History
Tyler Childers just doesn’t have the chops to do anything that would be regarded highly within this old-time fiddle music realm, or within the fiddle discipline in general. But that’s not what all of this is about.
No matter the attitude one brings to this unusual, and unexpected work by Tyler Childers, it’s undeniable that when his biography is penned, a dedicated portion will be transfixed on remembering that time during the crazy pandemic of 2020 that he released a surprise record full of old-time fiddle tunes, and cemented without a doubt that Tyler Childers is, was, and always will be the real deal Kentuckian that embodies the authenticity many in country music strive for, but few achieve to such a degree due to a heartfelt dedication to his Kentucky roots. (read review)
Mo Pitney – Ain’t Lookin’ Back
Articulating the kind of down home and wholesome side of country music that just like so many of the other more pleasing and enjoyable facets of the genre have been rendered patently absent in today’s popular realm, Mo Pitney has become a fan favorite over his burgeoning career with quality songs and a laid back demeanor that puts listeners at ease in a way that both the young and old can appreciate, and together.
Don’t expect raucous honky-tonk tunes about tears mixing with beer stains on wooden dance floors, or cutting loose on Saturday night, or somber moans from a worried man with a worried mind waking up in the gutter. No, Mo Pitney is not a troubled soul. He’s simply an old soul that sings about a simple life and simple pleasures from the distinctly country and devout life he lives. (read review)
John Baumann – Country Shade
With his new album Country Shade, John Baumann fortifies his spot in Texas music and beyond as a songwriter. Sure, there’s a lot of artists who write songs in Texas music. But with John Baumann, writing songs is the singular and pure pursuit—to find the perfect sentiment, to put a notion to rhyme that has the capacity and promise to change someone’s heart or perspective. It’s a purpose where any commercial value of a composition is a secondary concern.
Old soul ruminations mixed with everyday morals make Country Shade a must-have, and John Baumann a name worthy of the list of top contemporary roots-based songwriters. (read review)
Hellbound Glory – Pure Scum
Pure Scum is like a seedy travelogue down the sticky streets of one of the armpits of America. Instead of trying to apologize or rehabilitate Reno’s poor reputation, Leroy Virgil embraces the stereotypical and derogatory notions of the town, and parades them around as a point of pride. Ol’ Leroy is here to see how far he can take country music across the line of decency.
What passes for a love song in the world of Hellbound Glory is a stabbing victim pleading with his lover (and the perpetrator) to dial 911 before he bleeds out. The women in Hellbound Glory songs aren’t exactly vessels of virtue. Somehow, they’re often just as unseemly and morally compromised as Leroy. And this is all proffered forward in Leroy’s signature cocksure attitude and bravado. His songwriting hero might be Hank, but his stage hero is Hank Jr. Nobody can command the audience of a 2nd rate casino lounge like Leroy. He is the ultimate dive bar hero. (read review)
Tyller Gummersall – Heartbreak College
Tyller Gummersall is a singer and songwriter that rekindles the rugged lineage of the great cowboy poets and singing rancheros into beer-soaked ballads about the heartbreak in life that comes from real experiences instead of the regurgitated recitations of tired old country music tropes.
Traditional country to the core with three of the tracks produced by the legendary Lloyd Maines (the rest by Gummersall), this collection of twelve songs penned mostly by Gummersall himself, but with a few assists from Devon O’Day and the great Jim Lauderdale, is bound to slide under-the-radar due to the straightforward nature of the approach, but is determined to be heard by those willing to root out the best in traditional country, regardless of the general name recognition of the artist. (read review)
Rich O’Toole – New York
Rich O’Toole took the extra effort to make a record he could be proud of, not just for where he is now, but many years down the road, eschewing the effort to find that big hit that may launch him into the mainstream consciousness, and instead focused on making the best record he could. The result may be his most well-rounded and compelling work yet, and one country enough to present to that audience confidently, even if it’s named after the Big Apple, with O’Toole on the cover flanked by tenement buildings with their mazes of fire escapes.
On New York, Rich O’Toole finds his compass point, the sweet spot for his voice, the uniqueness of expressions that presents his music in an original and definable manner, and makes a record that finally answers, “Who is Rich O’Toole?” (read review)
Scott Southworth – These Old Bones
Enough with all the hipsters in east Nashville trying to emulate bygone legends, or straining to hear a fiddle or steel guitar in the mix of an Americana album so you can justify it as country. Nothing against those cats, but sometimes you just have to set all of that stuff aside and find a bona fide veteran of country music that never swayed from that timeless, classic sound, never played a role or chased a trend, and delivers country songs with no affectations or irony. That’s where the music of Scott Southworth comes into play.
There’s nothing fancy here, and nobody’s trying to reinvent the wheel. But isn’t that what’s beautiful about country music, how it’s not rocket science, and it doesn’t need constant reinvention? There will always be broken hearts, lovers in love, wild and rural landscapes to soliloquize, and guys like Scott Southworth skilled to sing about it in a way that will never be out of style. (read review)
Courtney Marie Andrews – Old Flowers
When we last left Courtney Marie Andrews, she was decked out in glitter and fringe, strumming on an electric hollow body, taking her folk songs in a decidedly soul rock direction, and earning a wide audience for her swagger, soaring voice, and enthusiasm. Now you’ve stumbled into a listening room, where even the slightest peep from the audience feels like a insult to the song. That’s what she wants from you—to hush up, lean in, and really listen. Those willing to adhere to this guidance will be rewarded handsomely.
Old Flowers may take the right perspective and patience to fully appreciate. But there is ample beauty to be found when approached with ponderance and proper composure. (read review)
Wayd Battle – Powerless
“Battle” is about the perfect last name for Wayd. Eternally situated between sin and redemption, rich and poor, sauced and sober, successful and forgotten, this is where you’ll find Wayd’s soul and songs, with these weighty forces constantly fighting for supremacy, and Wayd stuck right in the middle narrating it all in moving moments perfectly suitable for country music with an emphasis on rich songwriting.
For years, the left-handed Tuscaloosa native has been laboring away as a writer for BMG Nashville and a side player hustling on the stage, or maybe fronting his own band upon occasion. But his new album Powerless finds the attention squarely on him, and it’s well-earned from the assemblage of strong songs he compiles that for some other writers and singers would be as loaded as their Greatest Hits collection. (read review)
Steve Earle – Ghosts of West Virginia
Instead of simply putting together a new album of original songs or re-recording someone else’s, Earle was conscripted to assemble the soundtrack for a play called Coal Country that ran at New York’s Public Theater earlier this year. You’re gonna get a few songs on here that will not contribute much to the rich and rewarding canon of coal mining canticles from yesteryear, but beyond the songs meant to fit into the established narrative of the stage production, you get some really stirring moments, starting with the a capella Gospel performance “Heaven Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere” that starts off the record.
The album works very well for its purpose as a soundtrack, as well as a late career Steve Earle record, validating he’s still got the drive and the chops to take characters and stories and mold them into compelling songs. (read review)
S.G. Goodman – Old Time Feeling
Finding new ways to present old themes, submitting timeless modes with fresh perspectives, and offering it all up in a way that is compelling, original, and sonorous enough to rise through the grey din of modern music noise and strike a unique chord is what S.G. Goodman labored to put forth and rightly accomplishes with her debut album Old Time Feeling. Produced by Jim James of My Morning Jacket, the record captures blistering honesty, sparse beauty, spirited expressions, and stretches the possibilities of country music while still nestling within its sonic and thematic values.
Some will claim Old Time Feeling is one of the best of the yearly cycle, and thanks to the songwriting and an imaginative approach to the recording, that’s not an unfair discussion to have. (read review)
Jeff Crosby – Northstar
Northstar is one of those records that a first or even second pass doesn’t reveal the full magic of, yet all of a sudden if you listen long enough, you’ll find yourself in a continuous play loop you don’t want to escape from. And whether you’re an alt-country nut or a dedicated twanger, there’s something to love here. In fact as a country fan you perhaps grow to like the rock-style songs even more. That’s what happens when the writing is so consistently good, and so is the production.
Northstar is just the tip of the iceberg of the contributions of Jeff Crosby has lent to independent roots music, but it’s a really good place to start getting into this excellent but under-the-radar singer, songwriter, and stellar guitar player. (read review)
T.J. Hernandez – Destination Unknown
You can’t get 30 seconds into this new record from T.J. Hernandez without being convinced you’ve landed in the right place. The voice is somewhere between Cody Jinks and Jamey Johnson. The music is pure uncut country. The production is just about perfect. And the songs hit the spot. It’s a traditional country oasis in a COVID-cruded and contemporary-overrun country world that you couldn’t be happier to hear pouring out of your speakers.
Taking the age old advice of writing about what you know about, the songs of Destination Unknown are all about a man consumed with the passion for country music and songwriting, but trying to balance that with the requirements and constraints of a normal life and a loved one at home. The demons that rise to the surface when you become a creature of the night life are also sung about. T.J. Hernandez’s voice is perfect for this stuff. (read review)
Whitney Rose – We Still Go To Rodeos
We Still Go To Rodeos works more in the direction of the 80’s and early 90’s punk and Petty-infused rock. She’s aided and abetted in the effort by producer Paul Kolderie whose known for working with folks like Uncle Tupelo and The Pixies, which explains some of the alt-country meets power pop feel that puts a jolt into this record, aided by the appearance of guitar players like Gurf Morlix and Rich Brotherton from her adopted home of Austin.
There is ample heartbreak in We Still Go To Rodeos, it’s just delivered with a bit more rock ‘n roll punch and some wider appeal. Don’t worry, Whitey Rose is still sporting her boots. And so can you while listening to this record. Just don’t forget to have a little fun in them. (read review)
Jason Isbell & The 400 Unit – Reunions
The specificity of detail found in “Dreamsicle” makes for a dreamy and compelling story. The wordsmithing that had made Isbell so highly regarded across genre appears once again in the song “River,” while “St. Peter’s Autograph” has a very John Prine feel to it—only appropriate if not poignant because the two were such close friends over the years.
Reunions benefits from so much of Isbell’s personal life being interwoven into the narratives, and many fans of his being intimate with those details where you don’t need guideposts to decipher the messages and morals. “Overseas” about his wife Amanda Shires being away from home, and “Letting You Go” about his young daughter Mercy, they come with an extra weight when you know the names and faces. (read review)
Pam Tillis – Looking for a Feeling
The first solo effort from Pam Tillis in some 12 years deserves the serious attention of a true comeback record. It finds the 62-year-old and Grand Ole Opry member looking for a spark of inspiration, and finding it in reigniting her zest for music by adding a splash of soul and classic rock to the country mix, resulting in a loose and gritty good time, along with some truly touching moments.
Finding that little place in time when country got a little funky, folk fused with rock, and everyone was feeling a little less inhibited, Looking For a Feeling finds a cool mood and groove, and sits right down in it. She went looking for a feeling, and found it. (read review)
Dean Miller – 1965
What you get on 1965 is not exactly classic country, or a neotraditional throwback project. It’s probably fair to designate the album as Americana from the diversity of sounds Dean brings to it, or more specifically, sort of early 90’s alt-country, while including a few stellar classic country cuts as well. There’s a little something for everyone on 1965, and it’s all top quality. Written all by himself and self-released, 1965 is Dean Miller in all his many facets and influences. (read review)
Jessi Alexander – Decatur County Red
Columbia Records tried to make a star out of Jessi Alexander back in 2005, releasing a couple of singles that couldn’t make it into the Top 50. But that’s okay. Some artists are just too good for the radio. So screw it. There’s more dignity in keeping it low key, writing songs for others, playing bar rooms and clubs when you can, and doing it your way instead of compromising to commercial playlists.
In a just world, it would be Jessi Alexander standing there in the spotlight at center stage in an arena singing the songs she helped pen as opposed to someone else. She proves she has the talent and appeal for such a fate in Decatur County Red. (read review)
John Moreland – LP5
Getting to feeling good by feeling bad is the chemistry Moreland employs, drawing upon an avarice of talent that is unfair to other writers, no matter their forum, music or otherwise. His new album LP5 (named for being his fifth record) contributes further to this songwriting legacy via multiple songs that should and will be used to inspire and challenge others in the writing field to dig deeper, and exhibit more fearlessness to find their deepest, most inner voice.
The production of John Moreland records has always been the challenge, and understandably so. But is it John Moreland writing and performing these songs? If it is, then you better damn sure lean in and listen. And if someone is apprehensive to pay attention for whatever reason, don’t be afraid to set them straight. (read review)
The SteelDrivers – Bad For You
Taking the ancient appeal of both bluegrass and the blues, and adding a bit of attitude that’s probably more akin to Southern rock, The SteelDrivers fill a void in music we never knew existed before, but that would now feel gaping if it was ever vacated. The SteelDrivers are quickly graduating to being considered more of an institution than a simple bluegrass group.
With a reverence and aptitude at reviving multiple cherished roots disciplines within their sphere of the bluegrass realm, and with a new lead singer that can supercharge songs that already hold a cherished place in the minds of established fans, the SteelDrivers aren’t just weathering storms, they’re taming the sea, and possibly just now hitting their stride with Bad For You. (read review)
Possessed By Paul James – As We Go Wandering
Certainly roots-based in style by leaning on his adept skills as a fiddle, viola, banjo, and guitar player, he doesn’t fit anywhere in the music landscape snugly, but finds appeal to all those with hearts open to music that is written well, and delivered with a passion incomparable. Possessed by Paul James is less a performer, and more a medium for the spirits of loved ones and ancestors ever-present around us, but always just out of reach.
It’s really Possessed by Paul James’s mastery of melody, and his prowess at fingerpicking that draw the audience near and render them deeply attentive, allowing the words and moments to slip past the gargoyles of even the most guarded of hearts. As We Go Wandering is yet another impressive offering to place within the Possessed by Paul James canon that will hopefully breed many more. (read review)
James Ellis and the Jealous Guys – Country Lion
Country Lion feels perfect for listening to on a road trip through the country, or oozing out of a jukebox in a roadside diner or honky tonk. Transformative of time and place to a dusty, sepia scene where the moments are simpler and popular music was so much better than it is today, this is music you play to forget bad times and remember the good ones.
Written solely by James Ellis, the words are both steeped in country music style and lore, while also resonating within the modern soul and avoiding fuddy-duddy put-on’s and tropes. The music of the record rises to the occasion at every turn, even as Ellis asks for a bit of flexibility around the traditional country foundation in a few songs. (read review)
The Hellroys – Hellroys On Earth
This three-piece band wastes their otherwise great musical talent and songwriting chops on bullshit country songs about how disgusting the human body is, and a singlewide full of sisterwives turning the tables on their suitor. It’s immature, ridiculous, and extremely entertaining, while being a lot more smart than it may seem on the surface. Oh and yes, it’s country—in a wheels-off, rambunctious kind of way.
Yeah the world is screwed up and people are assholes. But if you can’t blow off a little steam and enjoy a little humor every once in a while, you might find that the asshole is you. The Hellroys offer the perfect pressure release valve in this infernal year with Hellroys On Earth. (read review)
Zach Bryan – Elisabeth
In two records and 10 months, Zach Bryan has delivered more gut punching songs and lines than some professional songwriters come up with in their careers—all while putting in overtime for Uncle Sam in fatigues. At this point, it’s just stupid. You almost don’t believe what you’re hearing, like there must be a host of ghost writers behind the scenes or something. But the back story of a kid from Tulsa who lost his mom and is pouring his heart out through music checks out.
Elisabeth does feature a little bit more instrumentation compared to the first record in the form of bass drum, an out-of-tune piano procured for free on Facebook, buddy harmonies, and some sparse drum set on a few tracks. But it’s still very much just Zach and his guitar, and a rag tag assemblage of recordings. (read review)
Randy Rogers & Wade Bowen – Hold My Beer Vol. 2
Where their first effort was a little more offbeat and irregular, but in a cool sort of way, after seeing the positive reception it garnered, Randy and Wade took this second go ’round a bit more seriously, working to write and find better songs, and tighten up the production. Hold My Beer Vol. 2 is like a love letter to classic country from a Texas perspective. In many respects, it’s a country music album about country music.
Some may bemoan why these two don’t bring more of these pure country influences to their respective solo projects. But now with a second strong country record under their belt together, Randy Rogers and Wade Bowen have left their mark on the legacy of what great country music from Texas is all about. (read review)
Justin Wells – The United State
Ambitious and involved, Wells himself says the album “is a life, from before birth til after death. The songs are a timeline. I’m somewhere on it. Every one of you are somewhere on it.” A work that looks to transcend all differences by digging down to our carnal similarities and the universal truths we all share, the album gives you a lot to digest and ponder, while presenting an entertaining amalgam of roots influences not entirely tied to country, but always a cousin or adjacent to it.
The United State is well-apportioned, from the approach to the tracks, to the artwork accompanying the record, and of course the writing of Justin Wells. Though enigmatic in scope in a way that may leave portions of the audience behind, the effort is nonetheless at least worthy of your consideration for the potential of it resonating prophetically for you personally. (read review)
Jonathan Parker – Broken Hearts & Broken Bones
Now peddling his fourth studio record, Jonathan Parker puts forth one incredible specimen of traditional country with an Outlaw kick that will immediately start your heart to pounding and your legs to twitching with those fine sounds of steel guitar, bass drum, fiddle, and twang to where you known you’ve landed in the right place. If you want a how-to of how best to fashion a modern honky tonk Outlaw record in the modern era, start with Broken Hearts and Broken Bones and work your way back from there.
Country music to it’s core and uncompromising in this capacity, Jonathan Parker always finds the best pickers and players possible to put music and vision behind his work. The influence and effort is regional in scope, but the appeal is international, as long as you find actual country music appealing, of which Broken Hearts and Broken Bones has plenty of. (read review)
Hot Country Knights – The ‘K’ Is Silent
Stuff a sock down your pants, unearth your razor shades, bust out the acid wash, and get ready to party like it’s 1989 because what started as a cover band stage gag back in 2015 has now become a full-blown major label release with original songs and radio single. It’s called Hot Country Knights, and it’s like nothing country music has seen or heard in a very long time.
Many artists, independent and mainstream, talk about doing something like this. Dierks Bentley actually did it, and did it damn well. It’s not a masterpiece of country comedy, it’s just amazing that an established mainstream country star was willing and able to release something like this in 2020, and the entire country world is better off for it. (read review)
Western Centuries – Call The Captain
These boys have always had a bit of a feel that reminds you of The Band, built in part from the timbre of the voices of both Ethan Lawton and Jim Miller, and how they draw upon Cajun and Arcadian traditions. Call The Captain seems to embrace this characteristic even more than previous works. It gives you a bit more variety and an Americana vibe, while still serving the traditional country listener.
These guys are just the masters of hitting a groove and filling you heart with the warm joy of music in a way that feels so natural and effortless. They don’t try to get too cute or make some striking creative expression. This is about mining tried and true elements of roots music and interpreting them in new, original ways. (read review)
Arna Georgia – Yes Girl
From the first crack of the steel guitar on the opening song “Just Passing Through,” you’re sucked in and attentive to what Arna Georgia has to offer. Loyal to the traditional modes of country and roots, but not inauthentic to herself from trying too hard to sing in some twangy Southern voice like some painstakingly do, Arna makes a name for herself and an expression all her own by bringing in bits and pieces of other associated roots genres to compliment her country sound.
Produced by Nash Chambers—who is the son of well-known Australian country artist Bill Chambers, and the brother even better-known country artist Kasey Chambers who’s had quite a successful career in the States—Arna Georgia makes a strong push to be regarded as one of the new generation of Australian country performers that help keep the American ones on their toes, and everyone well-entertained. (read review)
Amber Digby – Heroes, Mentors, and Friends
You can try to imbue your recordings with the influence of country royalty, or you can just invite them into the studio to record with you, which is what Amber Digby does on this new record, cutting duets with the likes of Loretta Lynn, Willie Nelson, the late great Johnny Bush, and Vince Gill among others. Fiddle start offs, steel guitar solos, and the blending of stellar country voices is what Heroes, Mentors, and Friends is all about.
What Amber Digby does is what she has been doing her entire career, which is paying the songs, traditions, and influences of true country music forward. Only now she’s doing it with the direct help of the artists she’s been toasting, tributing, and keeping alive in modern music for many years. (read review)
Shaker Hymns – The Ties That Bind
It’s probably best to consider the Shaker Hymns a Texas Southern Rock band to start. Envision Whiskey Myers, but maybe a little less serration in the tones, and a bit more soul and dedicated attention to songwriting. There’s not really a song on The Ties That Bind that if you pay attention to the lyrics specifically you won’t be impressed with. And some will outright tear at your heart.
This is one of those albums where you almost feel like the singer is spying on you in the way the songs and stories nestle right down in your personal little world, especially if you’re going through a breakup or just did. But be prepared to be blindsided by some full tilt hard rock. That’s possibly where these young men inch just out of their comfort zone and native sound. (read review)
Anna Lynch – Apples in the Fall
If you’re apt to fall in love with the albums and songs from sincere and critically-acclaimed songwriters such as Lori McKenna, Emily Scott Robinson, and Caroline Spence, take a listen to this new EP from Anna Lynch called Apples in the Fall that is likely to nestle quite smartly into your tastes and sensibilities. An excellent little effort with really well-written songs and sensational melodies, about the only gripe to raise with Ms. Anna is how she leaves you wanting more.
It’s the deftness at melodic composition that really separates the music of Anna Lynch from the everyday drone of singer/songwriter Americana. Anna Lynch’s melodies are perfect for the sweet tone of her voice, and the vision she brings to her stories. She shows a deeper understanding of how to infect the ears with a melody in degrees of appeal often only found in pop. (read review)
Jon Pardi – Rancho Fiesta Sessions
We shouldn’t be surprised that Jon Pardi is one of the few new mainstream stars who can rattle off a handful of country classics at a moments notice. He’s about as traditional as mainstream country gets. Hell most of today’s radio stars have little to no idea who Merle Haggard, Dwight Yoakam, or the late great Joe Diffie even are, let alone can light into songs from their repertoire at a moment’s notice. But leave it to Pardi to pay tribute to these legends, along with George Strait, Keith Whitley, and even Tom Petty and Prince on his surprise album.
Keep your expectations in line with the spirit of the project, and you’ll be pleasantly surprised by what this little eight-song release. Produced by Pardi himself, and recorded during a one-night live jam session with his touring band at his home in Nashville, it captures some rough and rowdy moments with of a bunch of guys just hanging out, cracking beers, and careening in and out of the cuts they love to play when they get to play what they want. (read review)
Lilly Hiatt – Walking Proof
Lilly Hiatt is the sage of the apartment dwellers, the bad planners, the people with big hearts, bigger dreams, but bad execution. She’s the siren for those who eat candy for lunch in their early 30’s, like she sings about on this album. But hey, don’t judge. She’s doing the best she can. And behind this sweet little mess is a strong perseverance and lessons learned, always striving to get better and find her proper place.
Putting smart words and fun music behind major moments in life is Hiatt’s stock-in-trade, custom fit for those stuck somewhere in between being adults, and actually succumbing to adulthood. She gives you a lot to enjoyably listen to, backstopped by meaningful songwriting that makes you believe you’re not alone in your struggle to find proper footing in the real world. (read review)
Reckless Kelly – American Jackpot / American Girls
Instead of being about America itself in the sense of songs about its grand landscapes or the unique ethos governing the land, American Jackpot/American Girls is more about the American experience told through stories of American people—a grandpa who can fix anything, the baseball player Jackie Robinson. And in the end, it doesn’t really feel like a conceptualized or thematic record at all. It just feels like a quintessential Reckless Kelly record more than anything, meaning you get some rocking songs, some country songs, songs in between, quite a few gems, and probably a couple of clunkers.
Another solid album from the Reckless Kelly crew that despite a few soft patches, encapsulates the varying sounds and experiences of American life in compelling and enjoyable moments set to music that’s ripe for listening to at almost any time, and crosses appeal from the country, rock, and Americana crowds. (read review)
Dalton Domino – Feaverdreamer
There’s no shortage of quarantine-spawned Coronavirus acoustic albums out there glutting the marketplace with hastily-written tracks captured on scratchy recordings. That’s not what what you get from Dalton Domino’s Feverdreamer, at all, even though that’s sort of what you’d expect Dalton to do at this point in his career. He just released a new record in late August. Has he really had the time to replenish the stockpile of quality songs since then? The answer is a resounding “yes.”
Listening to Feaverdreamer, you don’t even recognize it’s an acoustic album at all. Adding just a little bit of overdub here and there, transitioning to keys in a couple of moments, apparently asking a neighbor to add some harmonies to a chorus or two makes Feverdreamer feel very rich and alive. But again, it’s the songs that you come here for. Feverdreamer is one haymaker landed squarely after another, delivered in an environment that demands your undivided attention. (read review)
Andy Brasher – Myna Bird
Myna Bird is a mixture of Andy Brasher’s numerous influences from Southern rock to songwriter country, compiling them into an entertaining set that has a little something for everyone. No matter the mood or how the songs are rendered, these are stories that say something and go somewhere, and Andy Brasher shows an alacrity for numerous styles to fit the desired feeling.
From a club stage in Owensboro with his band, to a regular on the songwriting circuit, to opening for some of the biggest names in Southern music, Andy Brasher’s appreciation for song comes through in music that moves from raucous to deeply meaningful. (read review)
Jake Blocker – I Keep Forgetting
When we say “traditional” country, don’t think of the close approximations we’re so used to hearing in the modern era. Don’t even think George Strait. Think Joey Allcorn or Jake Penrod for modern comparisons, meaning music directly influenced from the catalogs of Hank Williams, Lefty Frizzell, and Ernest Tubb, but rendered in fresh recordings and new songs that pay these legacies forward.
The music of I Keep Forgetting is just as impressive, with fiddle and steel guitar perfectly cut and tailored to the style of songs Jake sings and writes, welling up all those nostalgic and wholesome feelings like only the best of country music can. (read review)
Tennessee Jet – The Country
Introduced to many from his appearances opening for folks like Cody Jinks as a one man band, the music of Tennessee Jet is more of a folk style of country—a bit more whimsical and carefree, kind of like Todd Snider with twang, until he follows his muse into the rock realm and throws a curve ball or two at you. “I’ve got a head full of metal, but a heart of country gold,” he sings at one point, and this confluence of inspirations are expressed in the ten tracks of The Country.
The offbeat nature and unpredictability is what he’s going for, and it’s what his fans buy into. He’s a wild card, and not knowing what’s coming next makes The Country a fun and interesting road trip adventure novel through American roots music. (read review)
Brett Eldredge – Sunday Drive
Brett Eldredge delivers a record in Sunday Drive worthy of all the promises in the run up. It’s is more adult. It does feel fairly Americana. He doesn’t fall back on drum loops or snap tracks, and many of the songs are really well-written. In short, Sunday Drive feels decidedly non mainstream. It may not be a smart financial move, but Brett Eldredge is back in the good graces of all of those mainstream fans looking for something more.
It’s a stretch to call Sunday Drive country. This is more of a piano-driven, adult contemporary effort. Brett’s voice naturally lends to these more soulful and ballad-like compositions, which allows him to lean into his innate gifts. Listening to Sunday Drive really does unguard your skeptical attitude about mainstream country, and has you pleasantly surprised by the bits of mandolin, and the mature and thoughtful subject matter. (read review)
Other Albums Reviewed Positively:
Sarah Shook and The Devil – Seven (Re-Issue) – (read review)
Marcus King – El Dorado – (read review)
Brothers Osborne – Skeletons – (read review)
Maddie & Tae – The Way It Feels – (read review)
Clint Black – Out Of Sane – (read review)
Kenny Chesney – Here and Now – (read review)