Propaganda has been honed to a fine art in the last half century. Americans have been convinced to fight wars, hand over civil and employee rights and consume ever crappier beer, food and, alas, music.
Mainstream Country Music is one of the few genres in the 21st century that tolerates no real deviation from certified Music Row and mainstream radio product. Sure there are exceptions, the Outlaw Movement cooped a largely ignored youth movement, Garth tweaked the business model and stage production and Big and Rich and their “MuzikMafia” was a painfully lame attempt to emulate Hip Hop’s concept of crews. But when it comes to altering the DNA of the music the image driven slickness and paint-by-numers narritives seem as tightly mandated as the McDonald’s Big Mac cooking process. If you don’t fit the hat act mold you are cast into the slums of Americana, folk, roots, alt.country or, if the sins were severe enough, rock!
Into this unyielding environment stepped artists that discovered that Cash, Willie and Hank were speaking to them in ways larger then the flavor of the week bands being crammed down their throats. That’s where the wild hillbilly muse dances. That way real beauty and art lay waiting.
Americana/roots/alt.country is attracting new talent that bravely straddles the cultural divide between trad sepia-toned country circa Jimmie Rogers and Carter Family and the current attitudes, sounds and stories of our times. New artists like O’Death, The Felice Bothers, Justin Townes Earle and Star Anna and road-tested warriors like Dale Watson, Eleven Hundred Springs and Tom Russell have Inject new blood, whiskey and adrenaline into a largely lifeless form of music that refuses to be embalmed.
And then there are the genre-crossing big-wigs like Elvis Costello, Ray Davies, Chrissie Hynde and Robert Plant (who is currently nominated for 6 grammys and forgoing a Led Zeppelin reunion to continue Raising Sand with Bluegrass chanteuse Alison Krauss) that are moving toward a the wildser lands attracted by its proclivity for authenticity and celebration of experimentation. The only sin is mediocrity, the only transgression is bovine conformity.
There’s no reward for compiling a “best of” list. People will quibble with the selections, the order of said selections will displease many and whether the writer is at all qualified to compile such as list will be questioned. Ridicule and contempt is sure to follow.
I do this to celebrate those that are willing to look past the wanna-be-celebrity choked road paved with pyrite. The Great Ones bent Nashville to their ways or took refuge in other regions far from the industry, Bakersfield California, Austin Texas, to ply their wares. The Music Row road is not an easy one, it’s just crowded with sheep and the destination is less interesting.
Here’s to the on’ry, ragged, dusty dreamers.
10) Hank Williams III – “Damn Right, Rebel Proud” (Sidewalk Records) -The man with a country music royalty pedigree, and an arguable entitlement to the moniker “Man In Blacker,” burns the middle-of-the-road with another custom hot-rod release. Amazon | MySpace | Official Site
9) Jamey Johnson – “That Lonesome Song” (Mercury Nashville) – Jamey Johnson does more than redeem himself for helping to pen Trace Adkins maga-seller Honky Tonk Badonkadonk with this brilliant release born of hard living and a love of Waylon Jennings and George Jones. Amazon | MySpace | Official Site
8) Sara Cahoone – “Only As The Day Is Long” (Sub-Pop) – Former rock drummer Cahoone has created a melancholy-shoegaze-Americana masterpiece with her rainy-day ready debut release. Amazon | MySpace | Sub-Pop
7) Star Anna – “Crooked Path” (Malamute Records) – On this smoldering debut of Americana-noir Ellensburg, Washington’s Star Anna Krogstie proves she can hold her own with Lucinda Williams and Neko Case. Her voice seems to be the shear definition of longing and heartache. Amazon | MySpace | Official Site
6) Hang Jones – “The Ballad of Carlsbad County” (Self Released) – Hang Jones is the alias for Stephen Grillos and his concept album, set in 1887 New Mexico, takes the typical elements – lust, jealousy, whiskey, gunpowder and blood – and works his gritty magic to deliver a great album. Amazon | MySpace | Official Site
5) Luke Powers – “Texasee” (Phoebe Claire) – Powers stated in an interview that Texasee is a study of a mythical place that lies between Nashville and Austin and is done in a style reminiscent of Sam Peckinpah. Sign me up! Writers in the Western genre celebrate a few that are seen as more “literary.” Powers like Tom Russell, James McMurty, John Prine and Joe Ely, occupies the mirror space in music. CD Baby | MySpace | Pheobe Claire Site
4) Felice Brothers (Team Love) -From from the Catskill Mountains to the subways of New York city these actual brothers (and a bass player named Christmas) channel the Basement Tapes and spin magnificently dark tales of desperation and violence. Amazon | MySpace | Official Site
3) O’Death – “Broken Hymns, Limbs and Skin” (Kemado) – New York’s O’Death is a concoction of parts that if mixed any other way would result into a noxious mess. Appalachian Mountain music, Gypsy music, Gothic punk, funk and metal, it all just shouldn’t play nice together. On Broken Hymns, Limbs and Skin the sounds meld magnificently in a dark and volatile masterpiece. Amazon | MySpace | Official Site
2) Justin Townes Earle – “The Good Life” (Bloodshot) -Before technology allowed us to cheat, musicians were the source of musical synthesis, or what is referred to by the hipsters today as mash-ups. Justin Townes Earle harkens back to these aural alchemists and has created a potent blend of 19th century folk, country swing and hillbilly boogie. Overcoming his Daddy’s long musical shadow (and his inclination towards illicit substances) Justin Townes Earle’s first full length release rejoices in heritage while transcending its creators youth. Amazon | MySpace | Bloodshot Records
1) Eleven Hundred Springs – “Country Jam” (Palo Duro Records) – If you want a crash course in the best Texas country music over the last half-century the 2008 release from Dallas’ ESL would be a great place to start. From the hillbilly poetry of Mickey Newbury and Joe Ely to the Western Swing of Bob Wills to the pop and rock of Doug Sahm and Buddy Holly all the influences are there. And though the sounds are reflective of the Texas greats ESL makes it distinctly their own on this superior homage to the Lone Star State. Amazon | MySpace | Official Site
Drive-By Truckers – Brighter Than Creations Dark
The Whipsaws – 60 Watt Avenue
Slim Cessna’s Auto Club – Cipher
Caitlin Rose – Dead Flowers
The Power of County – See You In Rock and Roll Heaven
Lucinda Williams – Little Honey
Kathy Mattea – Coal
The Wildes – Ballad of a Young Married Man
Hayes Carll – Trouble In Mind
Joey + Rory – The Life Of A Song
Kasey Chambers and Shane – Rattlin’ Bones
Ashton Shepherd – Sounds So Good
The Steeldrivers – Self-Titled
Whitey Morgan and the 78’s – Honky Tonks and Cheap Motels