I recently sat with my friends Annie and Matt and described my year of listening to country music. As I told them, it has been one of my most fulfilling times as a music fan in a decade. Like I did when I discovered classic rock in the 80s and Underground in the early 90s, I felt like I’d entered a new world when I began exploring country music in all its forms dating back to the birth of American music. I may not have been as diligent about keeping this column current as I would’ve liked, but that didn’t stop me from becoming a qualified amateur when it comes to critiquing this style of music. I hope to keep contributing Goin’ Country throughout 2014, and I hope you’ll continue with me on this journey. Until then, here are my favorite country albums of the past year.
Happy New Year, and as always, thanks for reading Popdose!
10. Tim McGraw, Two Lanes of Freedom Tim McGraw returns to the studio for the first time since leaving Curb Records, his home for 20 years. His first album for new label, Big Machine, is a strong, contemporary sounding country record that never feels like McGraw is trying too hard to sound hip. What I enjoyed most about this album is that McGraw is a true storyteller. Whether it’s the rowdiness of “Truck Yeah,” the earnestness of “Book of John,” or the heartbreak of “Highway Don’t Care,” each track has a distinct point of view, matched perfectly by McGraw’s sincere voice.
9. Willie Nelson, To All the Girls… Willie Nelson doesn’t have to put out new albums. The music legend can ride off into the sunset singing the old songs until he decides to call it a day; he’s earned that. However, each year he puts out new material, some good, some bad, and some, like To All the Girls…, that are pure gold. This is an exemplary collection of duets that finds Willie singing alongside legends like Dolly, Loretta and Mavis Staples; trading verses with the women who kept country alive during its dip in popularity like Emmylou and Wynonna, and sounding right at home with the new guard of country superstars like Carrie and Miranda. The song choices also work the range of Willie’s eclectic career, making this a great, great album for lazy Sunday afternoons with the beverage (or smoke) of your choice.
8. The Mavericks, In Time The Mavericks version of Tex-Mex, alt country is always a welcome sound in any year. They may not get radio airplay anymore, but the latest from Raul Malo and company is one of the finest in their catalog. The Mavericks uphold the tradition of old- time country music, and infuse it with a sound that comes from south of the border, sounding like something you think you’ve heard before, yet something altogether fresh. Glad to see the Mavericks regrouped and re-energized.
7. Kasey Musgraves, Same Trailer, Different Park Kacey Musgraves drew a lot of well-deserved attention for her major label debut. Like Ashley Monroe and Miranda Lambert (for whom, Musgraves co-wrote “Mama’s Broken Heart”), Musgraves isn’t afraid to speak her mind and sing from her heart. With a sound that falls somewhere between Lambert and Taylor Swift, Musgraves songs deal with the mundane world of the suburbs and the loss of sense of self. Perhaps her bravest song is “’Follow Your Arrow,” which suggests “kissing girls, if that’s what you’re into,” a salute to the LGBT community. In the conservative world of country music, that an artist would include this on her first mainstream album and release it as a single is kind of groundbreaking, Here’s hoping the Nashville machine doesn’t gobble up Ms. Musgraves and water down her superb songwriting.
6. George Strait, Love Is Everything While all of the youngsters sang about trucks and getting wasted, and Gen X stars like Keith Urban and Blake Shelton did their best to sound current and hip using drum machines and samples, King George put out a straightforward country record that stood above the whippersnappers. This country legend had his 60th #1 hit with the song “Give It All We Got Tonight,” proving that age shouldn’t have anything to do with the record charts. His voice may sound more weathered, but that suits George Strait well. Still one of the classiest artists in music, this year’s album also proved that he’s still one of the best.
5. The Civil Wars, The Civil Wars The musical duo of Joy Williams and John Paul White put out this devastating album – devastating because it’s so sad and gorgeous – before going on an indefinite hiatus. Let’s hope they can work out their differences and continue working together. Until then, we have The Civil Wars to enrich our lives. With sublime harmonies, outstanding musicianship and lyrics that strike a universal chord, plus one of the most glorious gospel songs, “From this Valley,” that you’ll hear in years. Find this record and be amazed.
4. Emmylou Harris & Rodney Crowell, Old Yellow Moon After years of flirting with the idea of an album together, these stalwarts of 70s and 80s country music join forces for a splendid album that acts as a sort of the history of country music. Boy, what a treat it turned out to be. From honky tonk to slow ballads to the kind of spiritual atmospheric country alt-Americana music that Harris did in the 90s, these two great American artists never miss a beat. The friendship and love between the two of them comes through in every track, making this one of the most beautiful and moving albums of the year.
3. Ashley Monroe, Like A Rose While so many up and coming female country singers seem to be mimicking the success of Carrie and Taylor, that is trying to make bombastic pop music with a hint of country in it (“hey, it’s got slide guitar and fiddle, so that makes it country!”), Ashley Monroe doesn’t shy away from the genre. Nor does she shy away from singing about the kind of social issues that made women like Loretta and Tammy trailblazers. Monroe writes perfect little songs that tackle subjects like broken families, unexpected pregnancy, and kinky sex. In a year of listening to mainstream country radio, I generally heard Monroe when she was singing harmony as a part of Pistol Annies, the side group she’s a part of with fellow genre bender, Miranda Lambert, and Angaleena Presley. Country radio needs to wake up and start playing more of this traditional, wonderful artist.
2. Lady Antebellum, Golden If I needed one album to lift my spirits this year, I turned to Golden, Lady Antebellum’s fourth album. I love how this band blends infectious melodies and heartfelt lyrics with perfect harmonies and a strong spirit. I’ve read some people dismiss Lady Antebellum as Fleetwood Mac wannabees, but I find their music and general presentation much more enjoyable than most contemporary country artists. When they sing about the good times, it isn’t just about pounding shots at the bar; and when they sing about heartbreak and love, it’s done from the unique perspective of a man and woman looking at both sides of the story. The harmonies of Hillary Scott and Charles Kelley do remind me of Stevie and Lindsey in that they bring out the best in each other. Just listen to the title track and you’ll hear what I’m talking about. If not for Patty Griffin, this would be my favorite album of the year.
1. Patty Griffin, American Kid The unparalleled Ms. Griffin had a banner year, with this album and her 2001 long shelved Silver Bell finally getting a proper release. American Kid, a song cycle written as an ode to her late father, digs into the roots of country music with Griffin’s usual delicateness and adventurous spirit. “Ohio,” a duet with one Robert Plant, melds Appalachian music with Middle Eastern touches for something aching and bewitching. “Wild Old Dog” is perhaps the most moving song I heard all year, the tale of a lost dog left on the side of the highway, and “Get Ready Marie” is a saucy waltz about the wedding night of two young kids and the husband’s reason for marrying his bride. I’m sure some people wouldn’t consider Griffin a country artist, but she taps into the roots of the genre and continues to make some of the greatest music in contemporary music.