Over that last 11 years of running this blog, roots and Americana has embedded itself as a fully realized and respected genre of cultural influence around the world. Bands and festivals from the UK, Australia, Japan and the Middle East are strapping on guitars, name dropping Townes Van Zandt and finding their inner hillbilly.
Though like most Best Of album lists around I’ve focused primarily on the cradle of Americana, the U.S., although the global influence cannot be underestimated. Traveling American artists find themselves with a ready and widening foreign market (oftentimes bigger than that at home) and visiting artists to The States face an open, if passionate and discerning, fanbase.
This global influence cannot be overemphasized, and I will address global Americana and roots bands in an upcoming post. Suffice to say, as might Ron Burgundy, globaly Americana is kind of a big deal.
The stylistic range and creative hunger embodies in these 10 following selections prove why the global appeal is occuring. Focus on songcraft and musicianship over studio trickery and hype alone is the lifeblood. Authenticity is a slippery concept bandied around to describe forms of music from hip-hop to punk where fakery and exploitation os trends is called out loud and mercilessly. And rightly so.
As our world slips further into digital version of the Greek myth of Narcissus, with the smartphone display as a glassy reflecting pool we longingly gaze into, we suffer a kind of cultural sickness. A sickness that ironically great song, itself a kind of Narcissism, can remind us of a shared yet isolated identity that happens when we hear it.
This crafting of shared narratives can slip from description of our journey tp prescriptive of our route. The current division within the U.S. (also largely fueled by technology) builds walls from our precious ideas separating us from understanding and, quite possibly, a change in perspective.
Whether you’re Billy Bragg or Ted Nugent, there’s a professional risk in wearing your ideology on your guitar strap. I applaud the professional stakes in the effort , but “This Land is Your Land” and “Blowin’ in the Wind’ are treasures precisely because they are the rare example of allegory over sermon that can move people.
The current charged political climate might compel artists to stretch their populist wings and create more topical songs. But many, even those that tenuously reflect my contradictory views, are little more than soapbox serenade slumming under the window of simple-minded politics, that constricts the mind instead of opening it.
2017 was another year of lost legends – Gregg Allman, Chuck Berry, Butch Trucks, Greg Trooper, guitarist Bob Wooton, Jimmy LaFave, Glen Campbell, Don Williams, Mel Tillis, Richard Dobson and others remind us how daunting their talent was and how
fleeting life is. Let’s hope for a calmer 2018.
Criteria – Calendar year 2017. No EPs, live, covers or re-release albums no matter how awesome.
Don’t see your favorite represented? Leave it in the comments, and here’s to a new year of Twang.
Zephaniah OHora – ‘This Highway’ – buy
If Zephaniah OHora didn’t exist he would have to be created. The mustache, slicked do, Man-in-Black wardrobe and a name right out of the Old Testament makes OHora gives the impression of a man right out of Country music central casting. But his full-length debut leaves no doubt that he’s a disciple of the classic era of Nashville Sound and Bakersfield honky-tonk and he’s here to testify to its righteousness. Songs like “I Do Believe I’ve Had Enough,” “I Can’t Let Go (Even Though I Set You Free)” and “She’s Leaving In The Morning,” evoke dark and smokey bars where tears poor like the tap beer. Is he putting us on? Perhaps, but I’m a believer.
Colter Wall – self-titled – buy
This sparse full-length debut from the man from Swift Current, Saskatchewan belies his 22 years on this planet. Produced by the hillbilly whisperer Dave Cobb songs like “Thirteen Silver Dollars” and ‘Motorcycle’ offer up a busted lip smile to world-weary vocals. Transistor radio static and train whistles intersperse with deft finger-picking across 11 dusty gems that pushes and pulls at the boundaries of Country and folk casting the mind back to a mythological romance of cowboy laments and hobo serenades.
Angaleena Presley – ‘Wrangled’ – buy
For her second solo venture the extraordinary Ms. Presley invited Pistol Annies co-conspirators Miranda Lambert, Ashley Monroe as well as Chris Stapleton, Queen of Rockabilly Wanda Jackson, Vanessa Olivarez as well as legendary Texas singer/songwriter Guy Clark on what would prove to be his final completed song ( “Cheer Up Little Darling.”) The result is a deft collection of sonic vignettes tracking the unique female narrative of broken dreams, busted hearts, babies having babies and kicking against the small-town hairsprayed Harpies bent on tearing her down. Presley has provided a perfect example of female fortitude, not by penning platitudes of empowerment, but by creating a compelling album that pushes Country music forward while paying respects to the past and celebrates the mess that is life.
Sunny Sweeney – ‘Trophy’ – buy
Texas singer/songwriter Sunny Sweeney has sometimes danced closely to becoming another country music blonde hell-bent to get a foothold in the mainstream country radio badlands. Good thing she didn’t break big or her fourth studio album ‘Trophy’ might not have been made. (Though I’m sure at this point she’d prefer being on the road in a tour bus headed to one of her many shows she plays each year) Barroom laments that save a stool for misery like ‘Pass the Pain’ or as songs starkly confessional Lori McKenna co-write “Bottle By My Bed” have no place on the good-timing party seeping from contemporary Country speakers. Not to suggest all is dour here, the barn-burner ‘Better Bad Idea’ and the slinkily, smoldering title cut has the same depth but with wry smile and plenty of fuel to get those boots tapping. The chops Sweeney picked up in Nashville is in display but done in compelling and a way that feels as real as it does entertaining.
Nicole Atkins – ‘Goodnight Rhonda Lee’ – buy
New Jersey’s Nicole Atkins’ fourth album, Goodnight Rhonda Lee is a fantastic study in facing adversity and embedding it in adult roots pop in the vein of Patsy Cline era Nashville Sound and Dusty Springfield’s ‘….in Memphis’ era. The songs are deeper, more sophisticated yet more playful than her earlier work. The brilliant opening track, “A Little Crazy,” is a torchy little gem co-written with fellow neo-trad afficiend Chris Isaak pulls your heart out through the speakers as Atkins’ voice soars along with a string section and pedal steel. The title track is a reverb drenched down old Mexico way that evokes Marty Robbins best-known El Paso. ‘Goodnight Rhonda Lee’ at its heart might be retro but to stop there would be unfair to this daunting effort.
Whiskey Shivers – ‘Some Part of Something’ – buy
Texas junkyard bluegrass outfit Whiskey Shivers kicked my ass when I saw them live. ‘Some Part of Something’ comes damn near to that ass-kicking moment. The opener ‘Cluck Ol’ Hen’ is a slinking slice of Southern gothic greatness that could easily come from the book of Brooklyn’s O Death. The bluegrass heat gets turnt up high on ‘Like A Stone’ and ‘Long Gone’ careening down a one-lane road with a rock slide of melody on one side and an open ledge of potential peril on the other. Fans of Split Lip Rayfield and The Meat Purveyors rejoice
Tyler Childers – ‘Purgatory’ – buy
Yes, yes you’ve heard that Tyler Childers’ ‘Purgatory’ was co-produced by Sturgill Simpson, but that’s the least interesting this about this starting debut. Like the best of the mongrel form known as Americana it’s hard to draw a hard line where 70’s Country music Gold , folk and Bluegrass reside. And that’s just in the album opener ‘I Swear (To God)’ that contains enough drug references that would make Hank III look for the local 12-step program.’Whitehouse Road’ is another tale of hard times and hard living with a Waylon-esque confidence and what I noticed was a distinct sound of a Jew’s harp. Childers’ ‘Purgatory’ take on the darkness of drug addiction, poverty, and murder is are lived-in tales of biting sincerity and musical aplomb that casts an eye to the legacy of roots music as it blazes its own trail.
Ray Wylie Hubbard – “Tell the Devil I’m Getting There as Fast as I Can.” – buy
On his 16th studio album Hubbard stays firmly in the groove he’s made since 2006’s ‘Snake Farm.’ Like fellow traveler Lucinda Williams (who makes an appearance on the title song) Hubbard has found a late-career sonic refuge in the blues. “Tell the Devil…’ is more tales of women, reptiles, voodoo, grease and tube amps – the stuff of life on the road he knows well. The Big Guy is is busy in the opener ‘God Looked Around’ that’s a tremolo tale that owes as much to the book of Lightnin’ Hopkins as it does the Book of Genesis. In my opinion Hubbard is Texas own Poet Laureate and the words that build “Tell the Devil…’ prove it’s so.
Lillie Mae – ‘Forever and Then Some’ – buy
Lillie Mae might have been Jack White’s go-to fiddle and mandolin player but on her debut she’s firmly placed herself as a formidable talent. The glorious roots-rock opener ‘Over the Hill and Through the Woods’ is like a lost cu from mid-70’s Neil Young and ‘Honky Tonks and Taverns’ is a stright-up two-stepper with Mae vocal pitching change remiecent of a yodel. LAike White, who produced ‘Forever and Then Some’ Lillie Mae carries an appreciation for past forms while not being slavishly dogmatic in her work.
Malcolm Holcombe – ‘Pretty Little Troubles’ – buy
Malcolm Holcombe 12th release of new music has him working with long-time co-conspirator in roots music Darrell Scott as producer and the results is nothing short of breathtaking. Holcombe’s backroad gravel vocals is the perfect vehicle for these sparse reflections on the world. On the album opener ‘Crippled Point O’ View’ b’s lyrics are indirect sketches of a troubled world and the imperfections of a human vehicle observing it
‘my tongue is quick to tangle speed, and douse the lights within, and burn my self respect to death, and warm my hands again. ‘Pretty Little Troubles’ is an organic gritty glory of listening pleasure of roots music and great songwriting from a master.