Before I get commentary about how we consciously exclude any modern trends or mainstream artists, let it be known that they represent on the list as well. But clearly the finest music being released thus far is far from the party-first summer dirt road anthems that are claiming to be more country than you. No, these artists are releasing deep lyric-first songs with drama. They make you feel. Pleasure. Pain. Happy. Sad. They tell stories that, like a great movie, run the gamut of emotions and make you stop and take notice. And there have been some fantastic releases so far.
Rather than count them down numerically (which we’ll do plenty of at the end of this year), we’ve broken down our favorites into two different categories: Best of the Best and Best of the Rest. There will certainly be some names on here that you don’t immediately recognize. I encourage you to track them down and sample some of their music. I promise you will not be disappointed in the least. Without further ado…
Best of the Best:
As I had written in an interview with Stapleton at Saving Country Music: It isn’t often that a musician achieves an illustrious 15-year career that includes five number one hits, Grammy Award nominations, feature film contributions, producer credits and the respect of his peers before he ever releases his first solo album. But Chris Stapleton isn’t your average musician. The near-universal critical acclaim that has been heaped upon his debut album Traveller has been nothing short of amazing.
With a ZZ Top look-alike beard, Stapleton doesn’t look like your average country artist. With a booming voice that Rolling Stone’s Jon Caramanica called “liquor-thick and three-drinks limber,” he doesn’t sound like your average country artist. And with an incredible songwriting sensibility that draws as much inspiration from blues and soul as it does from country in his birthplace of Kentucky, his music doesn’t even sound like the average country artist—which is one of the reasons, for nearly everyone who listens, it stands out as a superior piece of art.
His songwriting credits span all genres and include artists like Adele, George Strait, Luke Bryan, Kenny Chesney, Darius Rucker, Josh Turner, and Jason Aldean. His work with the The SteelDrivers gave the band nearly unprecedented success in bluegrass circles. He even dabbled with some southern rock with a project under The Jompson Brothers. But it is Traveller that has brought the proper spotlight on Chris Stapleton as a solo artist.
As I had written in an interview with Patton for Saving Country Music: Come hell or high water, Courtney Patton was determined to make a true country record. Her Kickstarter headline read, “A Traditional Country Record.” Her notes on that same crowdsourcing campaign describe the end-product perfectly: “It’s country. And it’s full of waltzes. And I’m not apologizing for either of those things.”
The hell might be the life material that she’s been handed to draw upon for autobiographical lyrical fodder. It includes a divorce of her parents after 30+ years of marriage, a death of a college-aged sibling, a divorce of her own and the trials and tribulations of being a female singer-songwriter in the hugely male-dominated radio airspace that’s called Texas. (A location that just might be even more difficult to cut through the glass ceiling than even Nashville.)
The high water? It could be the title from her 2013 critically-acclaimed second album, Triggering a Flood. It could also be the devastating Texas floods that impacted Patton’s friends and family within the last month.
But like a diamond, true talent has a tendency to shine through the darkness and Patton’s skill as a singer-songwriter has done just that. She is quickly becoming a driving force within the Red Dirt and Texas music scenes. Patton married fellow musician Jason Eady in March of last year and released So This Is Life.
The album is phenomenal. In an era in which clichés and bravado is mistaken for bold noteworthiness, there’s something far more brave in peeling back highly personal and emotional open-book songs and delivering them with sensitivity and sentiment. Patton has done just that. She is the consummate storyteller on this project and her producer Drew Kennedy lets the soft arrangements breathe and let the truly intelligent lyrics be the focal point. Heartache isn’t just described, it’s tangibly felt. Nowhere is this more evident than on the title track. She channels the heartbreaking story of a stay-at-home mom whose supposed fairytale life crashes around her with such realistic honesty, it can only mirror life experience. It’s clearly one of the best songs of 2015.
Randy Rogers and Wade Bowen - Hold My Beer Vol. 1
The album, produced by Lloyd Maines (Dixie Chicks, Robert Earl Keen), is a studio extension of their Hold My Beer and Watch This Tour, a fun-loving, friends-first trek across Texas and nearby states off-and-on tour that the two have been on for the better part of the past decade.
The album is representative of everything that’s good about friends collaborating. They cover their personal favorites, including a cover of Willie and Merle’s “Reasons to Quit." But it's the originals that stand out on the album including the phenomenal story-song of "El Dorado" and the introspective "In The Next Life." As you would expect, it's full of the Texas-standards of fiddle and steel and is equal parts smiles and deep-thinking. It's terrific enough for us to hope for Volume 2 and beyond.
The history of country music has no shortage of characters hit by hard luck: the hard-working man who can't seem to make ends meet, the heart-of-gold drunk who just can't seem to put down the bottle, the woman who wants to do right but ends up, time and again, doing wrong. No matter the tragedies at the center of the songs, in most cases those characters come off like just that – characters; inventions of either a particularly gifted songwriter looking to spin a tall tale or a lazy one looking to pad out an album. But in the case of Whitey Morgan, those characters – the drinker, the troublemaker, the struggling, hard-working man – all seem arrestingly real.
That's largely because the stories on Sonic Ranch -- a big, nasty, whiskey-slugging, bare-knuckle bruiser of a country record – are pulled from Morgan's own back pages.
Credit most of the album's fighting spirit to Morgan's childhood in the economically challenged town of Flint, Michigan. A teenager who, in his own words, "got my ass kicked on a daily basis," Morgan witnessed the toll the city's troubled economy took on the people closest to him. "I experienced Flint through my parents and relatives," he explains. "A lot of them lost jobs at General Motors, and I saw a lot of factories close and get torn down." Despite the turmoil, Morgan's family was close. "We never dwelled on the negative. My mom always had dinner on the table and my dad worked everyday for GM to make sure there was always food. They never let on that things were getting bad, ever. Growing up in Flint ignited the 'never give up' attitude I apply to every part of my life. That's what you learn when you grow up in that town. You also learn that you don't take shit from anyone, ever."
Morgan dishes it back out on 'Sonic Ranch.' On the grizzled, smoky cover of Waylon Jennings’ "Goin' Down Rocking," he digs his heels in against anyone who would dare try to steamroll him. On "Low Down on the Backstreets," over staggering piano and glistening apostrophes of pedal steel, he's pushing back against a broken heart with country songs and dancing girls. And on the harrowing cover of Townes Van Zandt's "Waitin' ‘Round to Die," he's staring down mortality with his jaw set and his eyes narrowed. "I have loved that song since the first time I heard it," Morgan says. "It's a dark masterpiece that looks in on a not-so-perfect, but not uncommon, life story. I did my best to put my own heart, soul and experiences into my version. I had a vision of making it sound as if it could be the score for the next Sergio Leone classic." Morgan achieved his vision; with its ominous, shadowy guitars and spectral lap steel, the song serves as the album's grim, potent centerpiece.
Even in its lighter moments – the holler-along revelry of "Ain't Gonna Take It Anymore"; the tender ‘Good Timin’ Man,” which tackles the pressures of love and persona – Sonic Ranch embraces the grit while maintaining a determinedly unvarnished sound. Much of that has to do with the relaxed atmosphere in the studio that gives the record its name. "My manager told me about this place he had been to outside of El Paso called Sonic Ranch," Morgan says. "That was a real departure from the usual studio vibe. My manager knows how much I do not like the 'studio' thing -- I never feel comfortable. This was exactly what I needed: a laid-back place with great gear where we could make a great record."
"The goal for me on this album was to keep moving forward musically, and try to give the fans my best album yet," Morgan says. "I don't really look at the big picture, I just always try and outdo myself." On Sonic Ranch, he's done exactly that.
As I had written in an interview with Hoge for Saving Country Music: With all the hullabaloo surrounding recent radio executive comments about the importance of radio in validating a country artist’s career, Will Hoge stands as a shining star example about how you can carve out a career in music doing it independently. Despite a year-and-a-half stint with Atlantic Records, Hoge has developed a significant following of fans and produced ten albums over the course of the last two decades. An extremely prolific songwriter, Hoge has written a small catalog of songs for others and even received a Grammy nomination for Eli Young Band’s number one hit, “Even If It Breaks Your Heart.”
What comes next is (the) release of Small Town Dreams, a new album produced by Marshall Altman and assisted by the likes of Chris Stapleton, Gary Allan and Vince Gill. Now with two boys at home, Hoge seems to have entered a new phase in his songwriting with plenty of nostalgia. It’s pure Americana. It’s Americana in its sound at times, but much more so in its topic of storytelling. He’s telling the small town American story of growing up, moving away to chase dreams, looking back and making a new home.
The album also includes “They Don’t Make ‘Em Like They Used To,” which should be one of the early favorites for Song of the Year. A dedication to his father, the song has a level of intimate poignancy that rivals anything else released to the marketplace in recent memory.
Best of the Rest (in alphabetical order):
Aaron Watson - The Underdog
Cody Jinks - Adobe Sessions
Darrell Scott - 10 - Songs of Ben Bullington
Elenowen - Pulling Back the Veil
Emily Hearn - Hourglass
Jamie Lin Wilson - Holidays & Wedding Rings
John Anderson - Gold Mine
Kacey Musgraves - Pagaent Material
Levi Lowrey - My Crazy Head
Logan Brill - Shuteye
Mavericks - Mono
Ray Wylie Hubbard - The Ruffians Misfortune
Reba McEntire - Love Somebody
Statesboro Revue - Jukehouse Revival
SteelDrivers - The Muscle Shoals Recordings
T. Graham Brown - Forever Changed
Wade Hayes - Go Live Your Life
Zac Brown Band - Jekyll and Hyde