Top Americana Tunes for 2016 — From Radio and Print

Joe Haupt on Flickr, CC Attribution

Joe Haupt on Flickr, CC Attribution

The top music of the year lists are coming out in time for Xmas holiday gift-giving. I’m more of a traditionalist and save MY lists for 1 January, but you can’t fight the machine all of the time. So think of this as a preview of MY “real” list to come….and if you’re looking for Christmas gift ideas (hint, hint).

No Depression Readers’ Poll
The once and now again No Depression magazine (, whatever that is) has evolved a bit over the years. They nominate 300 new releases and let their readers (with website log-ons) vote by comment, for their nominees or other worthy opponents. It’s a bit of a mess, but pretty close to grassroots polling. I often agree with much of the No Depression Top 50 list. I often disagree with just as much. This year is a mix.

  1. Sturgill Simpson – A Sailor’s Guide to Earth
  2. Drive-By Truckers – American Band
  3. Lucinda Williams – The Ghosts of Highway 20
  4. Margo Price – Midwest Farmer’s Daughter
  5. John Prine – For Better, Or Worse
  6. Alejandro Escovedo – Burn Something Beautiful
  7. Hayes Carll – Lovers and Leavers
  8. Wilco – Schmilco
  9. Leonard Cohen – You Want It Darker
  10. Amanda Shires – My Piece of Land

I like Sturgill, and I’m glad he’s taking the country by storm, but I like him when he’s more country than pop.  I was underwhelmed by A Sailor’s Guide, which will probably end up in my Top 20 if I give it another try.  I think he can do better, but it may just be he’s moved farther from his roots than I like but the rest of radio land will reward him for his flexibility.  Drive-By Truckers and Lucinda Williams are established veterans with solid releases that didn’t really catch me like I thought they wood.  Margo Price is a rising star but she’s got a Steve Earle preacher-ness to her that turns me off.  I know it was a disappointing election year and all, but leave the preaching for the choir.  John Prine has another classic duets album that came out late in the year.  And I’m a Son Volt-guy—I don’t pay much attention to Wilco even without all the other good music out this year.

Americana Radio Chart
I was a member of the Americana Music Association soon after it started up, when I was active in the start-up at KRFC-FM.  I’ve followed the AMA since, both their annual Awards program and their weekly Americana Radio Chart.  Some respected Roots Radio commentators pooh-pooh AMA as a liberal Janus to the mainstream CMA & Nashville’s Music Row.  It’s definitely the Establishment of the Counter-Country Establishment.  That said, I try to at least sample each week’s Top 10 on my Spotify lists.  The Americana Radio 2016 Top 100 end of year’s radio spins, tho, tracks my tastes much less than No Depression.  But it’s still interesting:

  1. The Avett Brothers – True Sadness
  2. Tedeschi Trucks Band – Let Me Get By
  3. Bonnie Raitt – Dig In Deep
  4. The Lumineers – Cleopatra
  5. Hayes Carll – Lovers and Leavers
  6. Parker Millsap – The Very Last Day
  7. Mudcrutch – 2
  8. Sturgill Simpson – A Sailor’s Guide To Earth
  9. Colvin & Earle – Colvin & Earle
  10. The Jayhawks – Paging Mr. Proust

My Americana maven friend Sacha K. loved the Avett Brothers’ release.  I played it once.  Much too pop for my country roots.  The Twitterverse thinks its the AAA-crossover radio stations calling it Americana for lack of better terms and throwing the chart.  #meh.  Hayes Carol is another solid Texas folky Americana, Bonnie Raitt is a class act, and Steve Earle is an institution, but again, I was underwhelmed with what made the list.

Freeform American Roots (FAR)
The third list I usually track is 3rd Coast’s Freeform American Roots (FAR) Chart, that I also contributed to back in KRFC-FM days (reporter JCS). 2016 has been a tough year on musicians, and we said goodbye to music critic John Conquest, who published the FAR chart. I’ve heard there are efforts in Austin to keep his legacy alive. I hope we do because the FAR Chart was the best thing in American Roots Music since Townes Van Zandt, and I’d stand on Steve Earle’s coffeetable in my boots and say so. #RIP John C., and God Bless Real Country Music.

The numbers will come together over the next two weeks, but Xmas time is mostly Xmas music.  Left Arm Tan’s Lorene is my Album of the Year, and they would have even more Scrobbles on if they were on Spotify.  Dori Freeman’s “Where I Stood” off her self-titled debut is my Song of the Year.  It tells a story with catchy instrumentation.  And I played Merle Haggard more than any other artist in 2016.  Watch for the rest of the lists come New Years.  #RIP.



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The Election of 1916: “America First” to First World War

America First 1916

100 years ago, in November of 1916, America was also recovering from a controversial Presidential election.  Progressive Democrat Woodrow Wilson, PhD, had taken the U.S. presidency in 1912, when the Republican Party had split between incumbent President William Howard Taft and previous President Theodore Roosevelt, the later losing the nomination and taking his voters to a third-party (the Progressive “Bull Moose” party).  “Progressive” at the time was a much different term than today, but I digress.  Roosevelt outpolled Taft, but lost the popular vote and Electoral College to the professor from New Jersey.

Increasingly concerned about Wilson’s academic peace policy, Roosevelt put his hat back in the Presidential ring in 1916, but at the convention he mended fences with the GOP Establishment and supported compromise candidate Supreme Court Justice Charles Evans Hughes.  Among the typical domestic issues, the campaign took place against the backdrop of the Mexican Revolution that had spilled across our Southern border in March of the year, when Pancho Villa attacked the town of Columbus, New Mexico.  Villa’s guerrillas killed a dozen U.S. soldiers and lead John J. “Black Jack” Pershing and the U.S. Cavalry on a fool’s errand incursion into the deserts of old Mexico.  The Great War in Europe, which was rapidly expanding across Africa and the Middle East, loomed even larger.

The race was close.  As was traditional for a sitting President, Wilson relied on surrogates to campaign while Hughes criss-crossed the country hammering the incumbent.  Results the evening of November 7th, 1916, indicted a Republican victory.  It wasn’t out of the question, since no Democrat had won a second term since Andrew Jackson in 1832.  California tipped the vote for the incumbent.  The popular vote ended up 49% to 46%, with the Socialist candidate gaining 3%.  The Electoral College gave Wilson 277 votes to Hughes’ 254, which was sufficient for re-election.*

In line with public sentiment, Wilson had pursued a negotiated peace and Wilson’s supporters had campaigned on keeping America out of the European conflict.  Yet despite his campaign promises, within a month of his March 1917 second inauguration Wilson was asking Congress to declare war.

*Montana also elected Republican Jeannette Rankin as the first woman in the U.S. House of Representatives.  She would vote against that declaration of war the next year.


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The Holcroft Covenant

The Holcroft CovenantThe Holcroft Covenant by Robert Ludlum
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

History repeats itself…unless it doesn’t. Unless we learn the lessons of history, and many times lessons are better learned in stories, mythology and tall tales. Robert Ludlum was a master of post-war mythology, spy stories and larger than life characterizations. After the 2016 election, I pulled an old copy of the Holcroft Covenant off my shelf, not for the first time but as an antidote. No spoilers, but let’s just say recently truth has been stranger than fiction, and this fiction is even more believable today than it was a generation ago.

“They were everywhere. It had only begun.”

View all my reviews



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Getting Ahead of the Aging Curve

Preparing for Demographic Change in Rural America

Metro-NonMetro Popultion by Age

Reprinted from the Small Town & Rural Planning newsletter, Fall 2016.

The other night, Planning Commission was looking at demographics in our rural county of about 12,000, with a touch of skepticism.  Archuleta County grew rapidly during the last boom, and fell hard in the housing bust.  Nobody expects that level of growth to return to our corner of the Western US, but things are picking up again.  Oil & Gas are down, but the Four Corners region continues to attract tourism, and we are on track this year to issue the most new single family home permits since 2007.

So what’s changed?  The world has changed, that’s what.  Or more particularly, the demographics of our known world has changed.

As the STaR newsletter noted in Summer 2015, Millenials (ages 18-34 in 2015) now outnumber Baby Boomers (ages 51-69) nationwide.  Generation X (ages 35-50) continue to plug along, caught between the two.  And the Millenials continue to swell, according to the Pew Research Center, as young immigrants follow the American dream.

Small towns are used to hearing about “brain drain” of young adults leaving home for college and life in the big cities.  If you look at US Census figures for population by age, it’s clear that Metropolitan Areas across the US have a younger population profile, with a larger share of population in every age category under 45 years old.  Like much of life, the story—the rural narrative—is more complicated than the sound bite.

Ben Winchester, research fellow with University of Minnesota Extension, has highlighted a trend he dubs “Brain Gain”.  When you look more closely at the Census data, many rural communities are attracting 30-49 year-old adults and their young children, mitigating some of that out-migration.  Going out and talking to real people making this move, folks told Winchester they were looking for “a simpler life, safety and security, affordable housing, outdoor recreation, and.. a quality school.”

Generation X are not the only life-style migrants on the move.  Baby Boomers have been disrupting “normal” their entire lives, and many are entering an “Active Retirement.”  The Baby Boomers, confounding the experts as always, are moving less and when they move are avoiding the expected migration magnets, especially in larger metro areas notes Jeremy Goldstein of Renaissance Planning.

Some Boomers may be trapped underwater by the housing crisis, but others are choosing to age in place, creating “naturally occurring retirement communities”.  As the Urban Land Institute highlights, this creates both challenges and opportunities for local government.

Last year at the APA National Conference in Seattle, the AARP launched the Livability Index, a simple online tool reflecting research into amenities important to many senior citizens—housing, transportation, neighborhood character, environment, health, and civic engagement.

And here’s where it gets interesting.

Millenials are seeking many of the same lifestyle amenities as the Baby Boomers.  As the Urban Land Institute also points out,  Millenials are looking for sustainable, safe, walkable neighborhoods, but also are increasingly concerned with affordability.  As one young professional in Denver explained about their urban neighborhood “There’s sense of community here, with people of all ages doing things together. This is important; it roots me to where I am.”   Even if  you’re not growing, if you build no new homes people are going to look elsewhere.  Build a quality community attractive to Millenials and you’ll have a community attractive across generations.

Affordable housing is a big concern in my mountain community.  Where just a few years ago, foreclosures drove down single-family home prices, it is now  difficult to find long-term rentals, whether due to the popularity of Air-BnB or the general pain-in-the-neck factor of being a landlord in a small town.  To make the rental situation worse, local contractors have not built one new multi-family unit in the County jurisdiction since 2007.

Critics pin the blame for housing inflation on over-regulation, such as building code requirements for minimum square footage and flush toilets, minimum lot sizes and separation of uses.  Maybe there’s something to that.  In September, the White House issued a “Housing Development Toolkit” using the bully pulpit to attack local zoning restrictions and lengthy public review processes.  When both the Cato Institute and President Obama agree on an issue, we better pay attention.

John C. Shepard, AICP, is Planning Manager at Archuleta County, Pagosa Springs, Colorado, and outgoing STaR VC-Communications.


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Americana Music Awards Reward Americana Music Fans

Americana Fest 2016

If the world were just, the Americana Music Awards would be the Country Music Awards.  Somewhere along the way, pop music punked country music and Nashville wandered down the path of easy money and middling music.  Blah, blah, blah, you’ve heard it all before.

Americana Music Fans were rewarded again this year with a bold selection of Americana Music Association the end of September, 2016.  By this time, Jason Isbell is well on his way to legendary status, and Chris Stapleton, onetime frontman for The SteelDrivers, is continuing his foray amongst the CMA crowd, reminding them what could have been and could still be.  Twitter friends turned me on to newcomer Margo Price earlier this year, and she is proving a worthy addition to the Americana marquee.  Kudos to NPR for webcasting the awards show.

There’s an interesting fusion in the Americana Music brand of country music.  I like my rock’n music, but I’m more of the Traditional Hank Williams roots branch.  I appreciate the California Graham Parsons sound but never got into the Grateful Dead-Woodstock thing.  To each their own, if they’re honest about it.

Here’s the winners (nomination period, not calendar year) for 2016:

Jason Isbell is touring the East Coast and Gulf Coast in October, sold out shows in Chicago in November.  His wife, Amanda Shires, has a new album out that I’m warming up to, also. She’s playing Austin City Limit Festival today, then going up the opposite way up the Gulf Coast.  In Denver on 6 November and Aspen on the 7th if you need a pre-election pick-me-up.  Can’t imagine the life of a touring couple.

Emmylou was just in Boulder.  Margo Price plays the Bluebird in Denver on 10/24 after gigs in Boise and Salt Lake, on her way to Omaha and St. Paul.  Sara Watkins plays the Bluebird on 4 December after a UK tour.



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Evan McMullin for President of the United States

Evan McMullin

I am supporting Evan McMullin for President of the United States.


Evan McMullin is the #NeverTrump alternative for Conservatives of conscience.  Evan stepped up in August, to provide a positive choice in the 2016 Presidential election.  He was born in Utah, grew up in Washington state, and went to school at BYU and the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania.  He served his faith in Brazil, and worked for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees in Jordan.  And on September 11th, Evan McMullin was in training at CIA HQ in Langley, Virginia.  Her served the clandestine service in the War on Terror, then worked in Investment Banking at Goldman Sachs before returning to public service with the House Committee on Foreign Affairs.  McMullin has been there and done that.

Why McMullin?

On the issues, Evan McMullin offers a positive, principled platform, in contrast to the major party candidates.  McMullin is strong on National Security, with decades of experience out in the field and in the halls of Washington, DC.  And he has called out both Donald Trump’s sycophantic support of Putin’s oppressive rule and Hillary Clinton’s abysmal record as Secretary of State.

Where the major party candidates have enriched themselves by fair means or foul, McMullin understands what its like to earn a living, and has an economic platform supporting reform of the tax code, regulation and entitlement spending.

“America prospers when we compete globally,” he states on his website.  “Negotiate stronger grade deals and enforce the terms of existing agreements to ensure fair competition globally.”  America must not turn our back on the world.

Why Not Vote Libertarian or Green Party?

Gary Johnson, the former governor of New Mexico, is an impressive candidate.  Many of my friends are supporting the Governor, and good for them.  If either Gary Johnson or Jill Stein are your cup of tea, good for you.  Evan McMullin is a Conservative candidate offering a platform more Republican than the platform adopted by the Trump GOP.  He also offers more practical experience, and certainly more principled experience than Clinton.  We each must make our own choices, and live with the legacy of our choices.

But Not Voting for Trump/Hillary is Essentially a Vote for Hillary/Trump?

Pox on both their houses: the lesser of two evils is still evil.  It’s like choosing the form of your own death–do you want to die of Cancer or a Stroke?  Either way you are suffering in pain and then dead.  I would have voted for any of the Republican primary candidates, except Donald Trump, but 2016 is a year of evil on evil.  An unfortunate number of politicians have put their own careers over their principles, including Ted Cruz just yesterday.  Don’t choose the form of your Destructor.  Choose life, even if the chance of life is infinitely small.  McMullin acknowledges he doesn’t have much of a chance.  Very little chance.

Yet in 31 States we can vote for that chance.  Evan McMullin is on the ballot in Colorado.  Evan McMullin is on the ballot in Minnesota.  Evan McMullin is on the ballot in New Mexico.  Evan McMullin has qualified as a write-in candidate in Illinois, Michigan, Montana, Texas and several other states.

Conservative commentator Erick Erickson said it well in endorsing McMullin this week:  he might not win states, but he might ensure neither Trump nor Hillary get to 270, and let the Electoral College do the job the Founding Fathers gave it to do.  At the very least, he gives us a better reason to show up at the polling booth and consider principled down-ballot candidates.

We celebrate heroes who choose the slim chance, and perhaps give up their own lives to save others.  Be a hero this election.  Consider voting for Evan McMullin.


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The Lesser Evil

The “Bad Emperor” Problem

The lesser of two evils is still evil

“An authoritarian system can move much more quickly and decisively than a democratic one, but its success is ultimately dependent on having a continuing supply of good leaders—good not just in a technocratic sense but in their commitment to shared public goals rather than self-enrichment or personal power.”
—Francis Fukuyama, Political Order and Political Decay

The lesser of two evils is still evil.  #NeverTrump #NeverHillary


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Red Ryder Rodeo, Pagosa Springs, Colorado

Red Ryder Roundup 2016The Fourth of July is also known Out West as “Cowboy Christmas”, since there are so many rodeos held that the bucking horse set has a pretty good shot at filling their boot socks with a Summer Santa’s stash.  Western Heritage Events Center, Inc. puts on the annual Red Ryder Roundup Rodeo each year as our entry in Cowboy Christmas right here in the mountains of Pagosa Springs, Colorado.

Maybe you weren’t around for the original Red Ryder comic strip, drawn by Pagosa-native Fred Harmon from 1938-1964, but I’m sure you remember the Red Ryder BB Gun.  You know… “You’ll shoot your eye out!” from A Christmas Story.  To prove the critics wrong, the Rodeo folks grant each youngster who ride the Mutton Bustin’ a piece of Ralphie’s dream—the kids walk away with a brand new Red Ryder BB Gun.  God bless America.


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Pagosa Folk ‘n Bluegrass Festival

Pagosa Folk 'n Bluegrass Festival tentGreat time was had by all at the 11th Annual Pagosa Folk ‘n Bluegrass Festival this year up on Reservoir Hill.  I even had a blast volunteering.  Having some trouble getting my videos off the fancy new iPhone now.  Hope to post more later.

See you at Four Corners Folk Festival over Labor Day weekend.


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Dori Freeman, Cactus Blossoms and Loretta Lynn—Winter’s Promise for Spring to Come Albums played Jan-May 2016

As spring draws us outside, away from radio and streaming out into Festival season, I’m finding myself still struggling to catch up with some great new Americana/ have been Country before pop-Country killed Music Row releases.  Tops among these through about the first of April:  Dori Freeman, the Cactus Blossoms, and Loretta Lynn.  This Winter has given us a promise for many Springs to come.

Fast Tube

Dori Freeman

Hailing from the mountains of Southwest Virginia, 24-year old Dori Freeman‘s self-titled debut, released in February, earned early praise from the likes of Rolling Stone—but I gave her the benefit of the doubt any way, and am glad I did.  With a strong acoustic opening, the 2nd track “Where I Stood” is my favorite, with a haunting torch on “Lullaby”.  Dori builds on elements of Patsy  Cline and Peggy Lee with modern sensibilities of songwriters like Lori McKenna or Tift Merritt.  Dori Freeman gives me hope for the future of Country music built on a sold foundation of American Roots music.

Dori is playing HoustonFest bluegrass festival 10-11 June, which strangely enough is in southern Virginia, not Texas, but wherever it is the festival has a heck of a lineup.

Fast Tube

Cactus Blossoms

Jack and Page are brothers who like to play music that’s 30-years older than they are.  There’s a definite Everly Brothers vibe to The Cactus Blossoms that my parents first turned me onto, since the brothers hail from the Minneapolis-St. Paul area and play music my folks like.  Music I like, too, like Buddy Holly and Roy Orbison haunting Music Row.  In January, The Cactus Blossoms released their national debut, You’re Dreaming, produced by J.D. McPherson, following up on a 2012 self-titled self-release I played the heck out of in my truck’s CD player.  Two of those tracks made the new album, “Traveler’s Paradise” and my favorite, “Adios Maria”, both penned by Jack.

After Memorial Day, the Cactus Blossoms are playing a couple dates in Wisconsin before heading south thru Cedar Rapids, Kansas City, and OKC on their way to Austin City Limits Live 14 June.

Fast Tube

Loretta Lynn

The great Loretta Lynn comes Full Circle from her excellent 2004 album Van Lear Rose with her new March release.  John Carter Cash and Lynn’s daughter Patsy Lynn Russell produced this legacy album with a mix re-recording Lynn classics (i.e. “Fist City”), old-time mountain classics (A.P. Carter’s “Black Jack David”) with countrypolitan classics (“Always on My Mind”).  Hopefully, J.C. Cash does for the Loretta legacy what Rick Rubin did for Johnny’s legacy.

And believe it or not, at 80+ years old, Loretta Lynn is still holding events, with two Oklahoma casino shows 10-11 June, then 24 June up to Prairie’s Edge Casino at Granite Falls, a stone’s throw from my old Minnesota home.

And that’s not all folks…

Several other new album releases have caught my attention so far in 2016.  Caitlin Canty‘s Reckless Skyline was the year’s first good Americana release.  Margo Price‘s Midwest Farmer’s Daughter, and Jane Kramer‘s Carnival of Hopes caught my ear over the colder months.  I’ve also kept spinning Brennen Leigh Sings Lefty Frizzle and Sunny Sweeney‘s Provoked (along with their duet “But You Like Country Music”) from late in 2015.

I’m also really excited about my first Pagosa Folk ‘n Bluegrass Festival after Memorial Day.  Come on over Wolf Creek Pass 3-5 June and kick off festival season right.



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