Americana is a broad and ill-defined genre, which really seemed to fit the world we live in in 2016. It’s more authentic, roots music than Country radio pushed out by Nashville’s Music Row. It’s a Big Tent—a bit more friendly to the folky political expression of the left-wing, but usually also more open to the funky and the thoughtful than mainstream media. Sort of “Country Music for People Who Read”. Whatever Americana is, its where I (mostly) feel culturally at home. Mostly.
It was a good year for Americana music. 2015 musically was a hard act to follow, yes, but we had some great releases in 2016. Here’s a sample of some of my favorites.
I’d never heard of Fort Worth-based band Left Arm Tan before this summer. That was my mistake. I played the heck out of this album in 2016. LAT’s homepage features a quote from Scott Foley, who became the Americana genre captain at KRFC-FM after I left and has become quite the guy to watch. Regarding their 2nd album and which rings trump for their 4th album:
Left Arm Tan calls its second full length album Alticana, which sounds like a shortcut for “alternative americana” which some might call alt.country. However the Texas quartet chooses to define their sound… Like Sons of Bill or Reckless Kelly, Left Arm Tan trades in working class country as played by an outfit with road experience and suburban smarts. You won’t find them struggling to sound hard or reaching too desperately for their “alt” cred. Alticana comes across as genuine blue collar music.
My only caveat is that the band doesn’t do Spotify. (Insert sad emoji.) If they streamed, this release would have dominated my last.fm Scrobble charts even more than it did (plus the fact there are 18 tracks on the CD means each time I play it thru it racks up the play count).
Elizabeth Cook is a lot to handle. Her new album came out in June, a well-awaited followup to 2010’s ambitious album Welder. Cook is a helluva singer, a solid songwriter, and self-described Country Outlaw. The title track opens the album with a bit of a weird vibe (sorta like Sturgill Simpson, maybe), then cranks up the volume. In the body of the album, two tracks “Broke Down in London on the M25” and “Methadone Blues” stand out, but it was the 3rd track “Evacuation” that caught my ear. This effort is more Alt.country/rocking than my usual Traditional Country fare, but I’ve been a fan of Roots Rock and the Blues over the years and Cook brings that Outlaw tradition back in style. She’s playing the Opry Show at the Ryman for New Years Eve if you’re lucky enough to be in Nashville tonight (John Prine, Jason Isbell & Kasey Musgraves are out at the New Opry). You can get the mp3 version from Amazon right now for $5 from anywhere, whata bargain.
Brandy Clark put together the best mainstream Country album I’ve heard in years. Big Day in a Small Town is a big deal and should be a bigger deal for people who like good old-fashioned Country music. The title track “Soap Opera” starts out a little weird (are her producers comping notes with Elizabeth Cook’s?) but “Girl Next Door” is a high-octane part two to “Stripes” off her break-thru, Grammy-nominated release 12 Stories. Clark pounds out examples of her solid songwriting about everyday life with “Homecoming Queen”, “Broke”, “Love Can Go to Hell”, “Three Kids No Husband”, etc. and so on, with first-rate production. While media outlets have tried to raise hay about her sexual orientation (she co-wrote Kasey Musgrave’s “Follow Your Arrow”), its just not an issue. This 40 year-old overnight sensation has earned a spot on Country radio.
My parents gave me The Cactus Blossoms self-titled self-release a couple years ago when the Twin Cities-based duo played a local show. Red House Records brought out You’re Dreaming early this year as a showcase of the young band’s retro-Buddy Holly/Everly Brothers 1950s country/rock & roll sound. I picked up on this album early this year and it stayed on my playlist. Good clean fun, and DJs don’t have to worry about FCC labels.
I also picked up on Dori Freeman’s self-titled debut early this year and it, too, stayed on my playlist. The 2nd track, “Where I Stood”, became my top tune of 2016 (watch for an upcoming post) with confident song-writing and straight-forward production. I don’t remember if Dori hit the AMA chart—I caught a positive review on Twitter, and she survived on several of my favorite critic lists I’ve seen on Twitter, which is ironic since Dori protects her tweets on Twitter. So charts be damned full speed ahead with good Country music.
I played the heck out of this when I first found it in March. The opening track “Get Up” is an upbeat tune that makes me want to get up and dance a bit, as much as I dance to anything. It set a good mood. But otherwise, I know very little about Ms. Canty or this release produced by folk artist Jeffrey Foucault. “Get Up” was nominated for Song of the Year from Folk Alliance. Tracks 6 and 7, “Enough About Hard Times” and “Wore Your Ring” are also standout songs.
Tom Brosseau has been one of my favorite folk artists since I first played him at KRFC-FM, on recommendation of the community radio station in Grand Forks, North Dakota. Tom grew up in the Red River Valley, and as long as he’s toured from a home base in Southern California, he is a Dakota boy at heart. His work is older than Country music, more folk than Bob Dylan and too honest for radio.
Reagan Boggs is another artist I know next to nothing about, having missed her earlier work. Hailing from Appalachia, there’s a bit of Gretchen Wilson in her cover shot. There’s a LOT of Dixie Chicks and Emmylou Harris’ Red Dirt Girl in the emotional 2nd cut “Emily”. The opening track “The Graves” is classic John Prine “Paradise” meets Darrell Scott’s “You’ll Never Leave Harlan Alive”. A quality bit of mountain music Kick-started here.
Hot jazz from the heart of Texas brings back an eclectic selection of western swing and cowboy ballads. The Austin trio put together a nice collection for the way-back machine that is better than darn near anything on the new release charts. They’re braving the snow & cold to visit our Midwest friends in Michigan and Minnesota in January, good for them. As long as Hot Club of Cowtown is around, Bob Wills will still be the King of Country AND Western Music.
Margo Price earned the #4 spot on the No Depression readers’ poll for her debut Midwest Farmer’s Daughter on Jack White’s Third Man Records. It’s a good album, and her opening track “Hands of Time” is among my favorite songs of the year. But where Brandy Clark seems to downplay her social status, Ms. Price is a vocal liberal voice in the mold of Steve Earle—more folky than country. The AMA loves it (she earned Emerging Artist of the Year) but it turns me off. I’m all for free speech and all, but I get enough preaching from the politicians. Good songwriters tell stories, and good stories are all about life, including the plight of the oppressed and down-trodden. Keep it in the songs, please, and better luck next year.
I enjoyed some very good albums aside from these as well. Carrie Rodriguez celebrated her heritage with the Spanish-themed Lola—the West Texas Llano Estacado rolls through so many great Country/Folk artists’ subconscious. Lucinda Williams released one of her better recent albums this year, in her distinct style, with The Ghosts of Highway 20. I continued to enjoy 2015 releases as well, including Corb Lund’s Things That Can’t Be Undone (and the tear-jerker “S Lazy H”), Brennen Leigh Sings Lefty Frizzell, and Asleep At The Wheel’s Still the King: Celebrating the Music of Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys.
Rumor has it Jason Isbell is planning to record a new album in early 2017. Looking forward to it and to much more good new Americana music.