Music sales are down in most genres but the Americana and roots sales look strong for 2007. The labels still sue fans, bitch and whine about online piracy which is only half of the story. The other half is the cultivation of mediocre talent that produces “music” with the shelf life of nachos. If you look at the mainstream Country music field it’s as if we are in the 70’s and all we have is the Monkees or the Bay City Rollers and there were no Hendrix or Dylan to balance it all out.
Luckily there’s the borderland of Americana and roots music that brings creativity, diversity as well as a respect for history and a calculated abandonment for rules in equal amounts. Americana is the genetic mutation that makes the musical breed heartier, healthier and more of a mutt.
2007 brought in some great new talent and allowed a legend to bid a proper goodbye. All picks are my own and reflect my taste and bias in all it’s wondrous white-bred glory. Now on with the list…
10. Southern Culture On The Skids – “Countrypolitan Favorites” – Featuring 15 tunes typically associated with other artists SCOTS burns a hole through their hillbilly shtick to show the exceptional band they really are. SCOTS deliver the Kinks “Muswell Hillbilly,” T. Rex’s “Life’s a Gas,” and the Byrds‘ “Have You Seen Her Face” with respect and passion and the cover of George Jones’ ode to the joys of wife swapping, “Let’s Invite Them Over” is a classic reinterpretation on an old infamous chestnut. This release is a country-fried delight!
9. Ridley Bent – “Buckles and Boots” – Canadian hick-hop gone country traditionalist Ridley Bent came out of left field for me. I was aware of his fellow countryman and partner in rhyme (rap humor, heh!) Buck 65 but had not heard of the Halifax born, Alberta bred singer/songwriter blends the right amount of Bakersfield and Texas outlaw to tell clever stories for the head and the heart.
8. Jason Isbell – “Sirens of the Ditch” – Riding with the Drive By Truckers during their move from the country-rock fringes into what amounts to as close to mainstream success, Jason Isbell decided to take his own path. Many of the catchiest and heartfelt songs on recent DBT releases have been Isbell penned, Outfit, Dank/Manuel and the classic Decoration Day. It then comes as no surprise that Isbell carried through that keen-eyed and passion onto his solo debut and features DBT bassist Shonna Tucker, drummer Brad Morgan, and DBT founder/front man Patterson Hood, who also co-produced this release on almost every track.
7. Robert Plant / Alison Krause – “Raising Sand” – When I got word that Robert Plant was kicking around Nashville and working with bluegrass chanteuse and John Wait duet partner Alison Krauss I met the news with trepidation and dread. Would Plant approach American roots music with the historical revisionism Led Zeppelin brought to Delta blues or would it be a gilded palace of cheese? Happily Plant channels the spirit of the hills and prairies and let’s the crystal voiced Krauss set the tone for the surprisingly wonderful release.
6. Th Legendary Shack Shakers – “Swampblood” – Still one of the best live bands crisscrossing America today, Th Legendary Shack Shakers last installment of their “Tentshow Trilogy” has the band going all out with Pentecostal ferver and Dixie-core abandon. Most American genres from the past century are poured into a grinder and rendered into a frantically dark-Gothic elixir for the restless soul.
5. John Fogerty – “Revival” – A boy born in the Bay Area (not on the bayou) certainly earned his roots cred wailing his backwoods caterwaul fronting Credence Clearwater Revival. As the title makes apparent, “Revival” harkens back to the CCR days more then any other Fogerty solo work (due mostly to litigious reasons) and the man sounds more newly fired-up and impassioned, comfortable as a well-worn flannel shirt, and shows Fogerty as the roots-rock master he is.
4. Kelly Willis – “Translated From Love” – Somewhere between Americana and British pop Kelly Willis’ “Translated From Love” is a country pop masterpiece. Tight, smart hooks coupled with traditional instruments compliment Willis clear stream vocals to make this the best release for her so far.
3b. Patty Griffin – “Children Running Through” – Patty Griffin has never sounded more confident and transcends songwriting to arrive somewhere near artistic perfection.
3a. Dale Watson – “From the Cradle to the Grave” – I published this list and then it occurred to me that I had overlooked one of the best releases of the year. Maybe it was the early 2007 drop date, maybe it was the beer…whatever…so now I’m going to punt with a 3a, 3b (my blog, my rules!) Dale goes old school, old testament school, on this excellent harkening back to country troubadours of the past.
2. Ryan Bingham – “Mescalito” – Ryan Bingham sounds more ragged and rugged than his 25 years on this earth might lead you to believe. “Mescalito” is sun-soaked and West Texas dust choked and nails the right balance between outlaw country and rock and roll swagger.
This is the sound of the lonesome road, the rowdy roadhouse and the front porch in one package.
1. Porter Wagoner – “Wagonmaster” – Marty Stuart has earned a special bar stool in honky-tonk heaven for all he’s created, championed and, not least of all, helping Porter Wagoner create his finale (there’s a stool right near by for Anti records for releasing it when Nashville turned up their noses). I was lucky enough to see Marty and Porter perform in New York City just before “Wagonmaster” was released. Porter was visibly moved and humbled that the sold out show proved that even after 55 years of recording people still held the “Thin Man from the West Plains” in the highest regard. “Wagonmaster” is a crystallization of a what made Wagoner a country music legend, Puritan aesthetic, engaging storytelling of the lost and the hardscrabble. At the age of 80 Wagoner went out with honor and dignity. Unfortunately he had to look outside Nashville, in all their market-tested, plastic wisdom, to do so.
Dwight Yoakam – Dwight Sings Buck
Levon Helm – Dirt farmer
Miranda Lambert – Crazy Ex-Girlfriend
Joe Whyte – Devil in the Details
Pam Tillis – Rhinestoned
Shooter Jennings – The Wolf
Avett Brothers – Emotionalism
Ryan Adams – Easy Tiger
Joe Ely Happy – Songs From Rattlesnake Gulch
Steve Earle – Washington Square Serenade
Old Crow Medicine Show – Big Iron World
Iron & Wine – The Shepherd’s Dog
Kendel Carson – Rearview Mirror Tears
Cadillac Sky – Blind Man Walking
Willie Nelson -Songbird
Betty LaVette – Scene of the Crime
Chris Knight – The Trailer Tapes
Hackensaw Boys – Look Out
Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard, Ray Price – Last Of The Breed
Grayson Capps – Wail & Ride
Jim Lauderdale – Bluegrass
Robbie Fulks – Revenge!
Merle Haggard – The Bluegrass Sessions