Monday, February 11, 2013

Just Six Weeks In, 2013 Country Music Highlights Are Many

The great Greek philosopher Diogenes said, "We have two ears and one tongue so that we would listen more and talk less."  For the music critic, that's a paradox. Two ears are a blessing as they enable the power to listen to and be moved by music. But by nature, we strive to share what we've personally discovered and deconstruct that which moves us so that we can go find more. So in lieu of using my tongue and telling you verbally, be grateful for ten fingers that can share with you a truly remarkable list of country- some country(ish)- releases that have kicked off 2013. In my experience, I have not encountered such a plethora of quality releases so early in the season. It's truly remarkable. Just six weeks in and the country music highlights are many. Several albums are certain to appear on year-end lists and there have been some moving and powerful singles. They're not in order of priority or counted down in any order. They'll be identified simply in the same order that I heard them first.

Rich Mahan has soulful swagger to spare on the morning-after a one-night-stand song, "Favorite Shirt." The protagonist has (conveniently) left his favorite shirt at the house and is invited back over for breakfast. The object of his desire shows up wearing nothing but his favorite shirt. Great shows of affection ensue. The track comes off of the St. Louis native and Nashville transplant's Blame Bobby Bare album and is a terrific sexy track. Listen HERE.

Speaking of soulfulness, no other band in bluegrass shows as much delta blues passion as The Steeldrivers. This last week, they've just released their third album Hammer Down and it's wildly terrific. I had the opportunity to interview singer/fiddler Tammy Rogers for Engine 145 this past August and she said it best when she said, "We’re still murdering people regularly. We’ve still got a high body count. That’s all good." The lyrics are dark and foreboding and lead singer Gary Nichols has taken over for Chris Stapleton and amazingly hasn't missed a beat. The album highlights are "Lonesome Goodbye" and the spurned-lover-who-meets-her-cheater-with-a-.45 "When You Don't Come Home." Listen HERE.

Born in Portland, Oregon and raised in the music hotbed of Austin, Texas, Reed Turner finished off his music training four years at Berklee College of Music in Boston, where he majored in songwriting. On his latest Ghost In The Attic album, I was blown away by the haunting fiddle and electric-guitar laden track "The Fire." I asked Turner to explain the deep and symbolic track and he said, "That song was inspired by the housing crisis/economic collapse. I was stunned and angered by the amount of greed and stupidity displayed by a group of people who were seemingly willing to help bring down their own country." Powerful stuff. Listen HERE.

Will Hoge and Wade Bowen are songwriting legends, especially around the Lone Star State of Texas. They've just recently collaborated on a new track called "Another Song Nobody Will Hear" that is Hoge's most recent release on the Texas radio scene. For anyone that's found themselves at the mercy of having to create a piece of art that's not a vehicle for wealth development, but a personal validation, it's the perfect message. Listen HERE.

Country music radio's seemingly closed door to female artists not named Carrie, Taylor or Miranda belies the fact that there is a whole slew of quality music being put out by the fairer sex right now. There's not a better example than one Katie Armiger. She's released four quality albums since 2007 and doesn't have a top forty hit to show for it. Her January release, Fall Into Me, has some bright spots on it, but none better than the slow burning "Okay Alone" that shows off her big voice and wide range. Listen HERE.

On  Holly Williams' phenomenal 2009 release, Here With Me, I wrote, "It’s almost impossible to disconnect the Williams legacy from this new young artist. What she brings to the table is much of her grandfather’s touch with a song. Her voice, while beautiful, has a unique ability to convey the nuances of feeling including sadness, genuine hurt, joy and disappointment. It’s a very emotional sound- most notable through her slower and quieter songs. This emotive songstress channels the very best of her musical legacy on nearly every song- drawing the listener in with some of the best melancholy textured ballads released this year." Fast-forward four years and Williams' new album The Highway is equally personal with all the same emotional nuances. It couldn't be less commercial or country music radio friendly if it tried. But it has more heart and soul than an hour of any country radio broadcast in one song. Listen HERE.

Ray Scott's humorous "Those Jeans" wasn't officially released in 2013, but it just has gotten a bit of traction on XM/Sirius Radio this last month and just might see the light of day on terrestrial radio if country music radio has any sense. Scott proves out that honky-tonk humor is alive and well with this song about a cowboy getting the snot beat out of him by hitting on the wrong bar babe. Listen HERE.

Age hasn't slowed down Gary Allan one bit. His Set You Free album released this past month sets his unique voice to a tapestry of an album that's reminiscent of passing days and reflective of bright spots in years to come. It's the fact that it's not as polished vocally as much of what is being released now that makes it so real, so believable. He brings his normal passionate delivery and while it doesn't chart any new territory for a song standpoint, it's a great reminder of how Allan is one of this generation's finest and most underrated artists. Listen HERE.

John Corbett surprises. His self-titled debut album, released in 2006, climbed to No. 42 on Billboard’s Country Albums chart, surprising even the guy who rose to fame as Cicely, Alaska’s resident radio deejay on the Northern Exposure TV series (and made women swoon in Sex and the City and My Big Fat Greek Wedding). His new independent album, Leaving Nothing Behind, has several good moments on it, but the Western-themed "El Paso" steals the album. With only a nod to the famous Marty Robbins track, this new story of love gone wrong in the Wild West, is terrific storytelling. Listen HERE.

Dale Watson is a Texas honky-tonk hero. If you don't believe me, check out the best honky-tonk album released in recent memory called El Rancho Azul. Drinking. Loving. Drinking. Dancing. Drinking. Bars. And Drinking. The one exception is the song that I imagine as a first-dance song with my daughter on her wedding day, appropriately called "Daughter's Wedding Song." Listen HERE.

Matthew Mayfield's "Track You Down" opens with this funky little guitar riff that's more bluesy than country and his vocal delivery reminds quickly of Dave Matthews. The fascinating production and urgency of the vocal delivery, matching lyrics and frantic fiddle make this track truly memorable. Listen HERE.

Randy Houser's new How Country Feels album can be uneven in places, particularly when he ramps the rocking tempo up on a handful of tracks. But when he slows things down, few artists in country music currently do it better. Three tracks on the album stand out in "The Power of a Song," the Katie Lee Cook duet "Wherever Love Goes" and the album stand-out, "The Singer." The last track is a highly personal and melancholy look at the high costs of following your musical dreams. Listen HERE.

Sure, he's done the beach themed thing before. Sure, he's not carving out new territory with the island-bound music video. But damn. I have to admit that Kenny Chesney's new David Lee Murphy-penned "Pirate Flag" is really cool ear candy. I dare any guy not to think of a "long legged model" and "island girl" on a beach while it's playing. Listen HERE.

Kris Kristofferson is Feeling Mortal these days and as the legends of his era are passing away around him, his songwriting has turned to themes like mortality and nostalgia. His voice is ravaged from time and use, but no one pens a song quite like the Country Music Hall of Famer. On "Castaway," the album's stand-out track, he uses the open water as an analogy to his personal journey: "Cause like a ship without a rudder/ I’m just drifting with the tide/And each day I’m drawing closer to the brink/ Just a speck upon the waters/ Of an ocean deep and wide/ I won’t even make a ripple when I sink." Listen HERE.

A year in Aspen back in 2005 is the only connection that Louise Day has to the American music scene. Born and raised in Cape Town, South Africa, this piano songstress drew on her U.S. musical influences and South African inspirations on her terrific international release of "Nothingville." Listen below:

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