Wednesday, December 2, 2015

That Nashville Sound’s Top 40 Albums of 2015

For those that follow this site on a semi-regular basis, you recognize that we cast a very wide net with our definition of country music. The genres of traditional classic, bluegrass, Americana, red-dirt, pop-country and even a little Delta blues make it across these pages. Hell, we even give some print to the bro-country movement sweeping the FM dial. But for the most part, it isn’t that proverbial radio dial that is producing what That Nashville Sound considers to be the finest music released thus far this year.

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.

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… That Nashville Sound’s Best Albums of 2015

    1.    Chris Stapleton - Traveller

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.


    2.    Will Hoge - Small Town Dreams

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.


    3.    Courtney Patton - So This Is Life

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.

      4.    Pat Green- Home
After a brief affair with a major label, Pat Green returns to his independent (and largely Texas) roots with a fantastic introspective album that showcases his songwriting chops. It features one of TNS’s favorite songs of 2015, “While I Was Away,” a track that shares the heartache of living life on the road as a musician away from family. Some accused Green of “selling out” with his big-label releases. (He didn’t.) Some felt like he lost his Texas roots. (He didn’t.) If anything, this release on the Thirty Tigers label simply gave him the freedom and freedom of mind to pursue his muse however it hit him. 
"I think it's funny that people thought I sold out," he told Rolling Stone Country. "I'm like, 'Nothing changed; I just got paid more.' Certainly, there are times when you're on a BNA or RCA [label] when they're like, 'We've gotta polish this up for radio.' That's the way it goes. But I think everything else sounded like what I would do, anyway.”
"With [Home singles] 'While I Was Away' and 'Girls From Texas,' we weren't going out there gearing for mainstream country radio at all," he continues. "We were going straight at Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Louisiana — taking that core audience that is mine and really giving them something for them."
"I really just wanted to make a statement to our hometown fans — the ones that were with me forever — and say, 'I recognize that what I did, I did on purpose,'" Green explains. "And it might have distanced me a bit, going out on tour with Keith Urban and Kenny Chesney and Dave Matthews. I don't regret that, but at the same time, I can understand why there are people out there that aren't the keenest on it. 

5.    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.

      6    Whitey Morgan and the 78's - Sonic Ranch

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 every day 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.

7.    Ashley Monroe- The Blade
I’m going to borrow a line from wonderful writer Jewly Hight who described this album perfectly in three separate words for Billboard: “exquisite bruised sensitivity.” Ashley Monroe and her producer Vince Gill have earned the right and have been given carte blanche by her label to tackle adult topics in an adult manner. Heartache, loss and emotions are transcribed and delivered with subtle kid gloves, careful not to miss an ounce of care. 
Monroe balances the pain with a couple of playful romps as well, though. "Winning Streak" serendipitously suggests that when it comes to losing, the song's subject is on a roll. Similarly, "I Buried Your Love Alive" rocks to a wicked, bluesy groove. Her tone and vocals remind consistently of fellow East Tennessee native, Dolly Parton, who always knew how to use that voice to fit the music, knowing just when to turn up the heat or bring it down to almost a whisper to convey heartbreak. All the while, a fantastic group of musicians are highlighted by exquisite steel guitar and hot electric-guitar work. 
    8.    Logan BrillShuteye
That Nashville Sound first fell in love with Logan Brill with her release of 2013’s Walking Wires. The minute that album started out with the Chris Stapleton penned track, "There's No Such Things as Ghosts," the listener recognized the power in the album. The sound was fresh and the lyrics were poignant. At only 22, her storytelling belied her age. Now two years later, with her sophomore album, Logan ups the tempo ever so slowly with still delivering hauntingly beautiful vocals, particularly when singing of loss and heartache. 
“Recording my first record, Walking Wires, was enormously rewarding, but it presented me with a pretty steep learning curve,” says Logan. “When I began to work on Shut Eye, I had a much stronger sense of myself as an artist, and I built a collection of songs—a little blues and Americana and a lot of country and rock—that would reflect my tastes, demonstrate my growth and evolution as an artist, and get people out of their seats and onto the dance floor.”

9.    Statesboro Revue - Jukehouse Revival
Led by the strong and unique lead timbered vocals of Stewart Mann, The Statesboro Revue have delivered a terrific surprise collection of tracks that rank amongst this year's very best. While leaning a little more on the Americana side of things, the band reminds of some of Zac Brown Band's best work. At times, the guys deliver an intimate acoustic feel, but turn right around and crank it up Southern Rock style with electric licks, organ, harmonica and steel guitar. Delivering a “groove” is something that these guys know how to do very well. The songwriting is impeccable, diving into great depths of blue collar workers, every man day to day duties, relationships and love lost. 
Said Mann about the inspiration process for Revival, “For me, sometimes inspiration isn’t even sparked by a current band, but rediscovering older music. Like, if I’m in the house having a drink and decide to put on J.J. Cale or Jim Croce, who are two artists I was definitely listening to over the course of the last two years, I found myself rediscovering their music and hearing different things. Then, all of a sudden, I’m like, I want to dig further in, and I buy another record of theirs that I don’t have and maybe become inspired by that. I was also listening to some boogie-woogie stuff like Chuck Berry, and there’s really no reason for it….sometimes you just find yourself at a record store, or you are cleaning out a drawer, and you come across some record you haven’t heard in a while and wonder who those artists are influenced by. Then I look into that and find someone I’ve missed, someone I might not know, but someone I probably should....which is usually the case. My brother [Garrett] and I always talk about who we listen to, but he’s worse than I am, to a degree, because he obsesses over bands when he discovers a new one. He listens to everything they ever put out, for months at a time. He takes a different approach, but I think it’s awesome because you start to develop an ear for the little intricacies they use in songs.”
  10.Eric Church – Mr. Misunderstood
While The Outsiders was all tough guy standing that played to the arenas, it had no cohesiveness and made this listener long for the true genius of Carolina and Chief.  It was a mixtape, not an album. This album picks up where "Chief" left off, with truthful and honest lyrics and perfect instrumental arrangements. The cohesion is present from song to song, and while these songs are distinctively different - sonically and lyrically - they feel like they belong together. It’s a Heartland album with some country, blues, and singer/songwriter influence- with the one exception being "Chattanooga Lucy," which is a bit funky and interesting. More importantly, it’s introspective and revealing, something that was drowned out by electric guitars the last go-around.
Lyrically, Eric Church has never been better than on "Mr. Misunderstood." Many of the songs have lyrical highlights including “Three-Year Old” and "Kill a Word." The latter is the anti-bullying song that songwriters have been yearning to write for a long time and has now come to fruition courtesy of Eric Church, Luke Dick and Jeff Hyde.
11. Cody Jinks - Adobe Sessions
For those traditionalists that are complaining that there’s not real country music being played any longer… please meet Cody Jinks. The album includes one of our favorite tracks of the year, a dark memory retold about a car-wreck that took the life of his friend, “David.” While the listener doesn’t know the victim personally, it’s so well-told through the protagonist, you can’ t help but be emotionally tied to the track. The idea behind the album name actually comes from the place it was recorded. Jinks laid down the album at Sonic Ranch, which is a large residential recording studio complex set on 2,300 acres in Tornillo. Jinks said the old building used to be a border checkpoint, and the owner of Sonic Ranch repurposed it into a recording studio. 
“We recorded in this tiny adobe room,” said Jinks. “We got in there and started recording and we just thought the name would be great.”
    12. Chris Roberts- Way Out West
If songwriting is storytelling set to song, then one must look to a musician’s wishing well of history to see the experience from which they draw from. For Chris Roberts, that well is deep and pure with an undeniable passion for music. Few artists can lay claim to have been born in the Deep South delta blues, grown up in the Wild West of Montana, stood in front of Broadway’s bright lights in New York (in the production of The Civil War), sung blissful harmony across the country radio airwaves (as part of Decca-signed trio One Flew South), shared the stage with Willie Nelson and Neil Young at Farm Aid, published an incredible catalog of songs written alongside some of Nashville’s brightest stars and writers, produce albums for multiple other artists, laid claim to being his church’s music director in a congregation that reads like a who’s who of the music business (St. Augustine’s) and lastly, been as active in using that music gift for charitable and patriotic endeavors.
I have been blessed to have listened to much of his rich catalog of material across this new project and beyond, and it provides a reminder that there’s still meaning in the music being made each day in Nashville. While radio can come off as one-dimensional, Roberts’ catalog persuades you that there still can be a diversity in sound and content produced out of Music City. It has meaning in the lyrics, nuances in the musicianship, emotion in the narrative and differentiation in the production. In this cookie-cutter age, it stands out for its content and for a skill for imparting that sensation to the listener.
Chris Roberts once told me in an interview I did with the band One Flew South back in 2009 that a song “is an entire novel written in three minutes. It’s a Broadway show in three minutes. It’s an entire lifetime in three minutes. A great country song can be a guiding post for someone’s life.” That musical guiding post, his moral compass, has pointed him to a new home. Catch This Music is a small collective of songwriters/producers/musicians that are skilled in providing a new song one day, record a demo the next, produce an independent album the following day as a recording studio, and release a solo album for one of its artists on day four. It is completely vertical as a music company, the staff is nimble and multi-talented in their abilities.
Roberts’ new album The Way West features many of Chris’ favorite co-writers, including Jason Gantt, Sam Ashworth (Switchfoot, Joy Williams, Kris Allen), Johnny Bulford (Lee Brice, Chris Young), Chris Gelbuda (Meghan Trainor, Billy Currington), and Scott Stepakoff (Tim McGraw, Kip Moore). The Way West is an album full of the kind of musical diversity and emotional longing you might expect from a wanderer such as Chris Roberts.
13. Daryle SingletaryThere’s Still A Little Country Left
As he enters the middle of the independent portion of his career, Singletary has taken up as a flag-bearer for those fans that describe themselves as “hardcore country traditionalists.” “My fans are not fans of the bro-country movement, which doesn’t bother me a bit,” he says. “They’re people who like it real, and that’s what I give them.”
Singletary delivers an album that is more than just steel guitar and fiddle. It includes some very meaningful stories that carry the storytelling flag as much as they do any traditionalist flag. Combine the two? You get one of our favorite albums of the year. 
14. Jason Isbell – Something More Than Free
Isbell told the Wall Street Journal: “I’m not very interested in people whose lives resemble `Entourage,’ I don’t want to write songs about my agent. He’s probably got a hell of a story, but I’d rather write about people who hate their jobs but still get up and go to work every day.” And in some ways, Isbell's America is bleak. It matches life. It has ups and downs, joys and sorrows. Somehow, Isbell has documented the American life story in song, recorded the process of living. The lyrics are thoughtful and deliver a full range of emotions over the course of the album. It could be the smartest album put out all year long. 
15. Lindi Ortega- Faded Gloryville
Armed with one of the most distinctive voices in country music, this Canadian and Nashville transplant utilizes a bevy of unique characters to help build her latest release- following Tin Star (one of That Nashville Sound’s favorite’s in 2013). It’s at times dark and brooding but with a contrast of that vocal element of hers that sometimes belies the message it’s delivering. It’s an incredible mixture of elements.  "Faded Gloryville isn't just about music," Lindi Ortega says about her new album. “It's about anything that brings you down, whether it's dreams not coming true or relationships not working out, and its message is this: you can go to place where you're feeling really down about things, but it's what you do afterwards — do you decide to reside there forever, or do you leave and make the situation better — that matters. You have to travel through Faded Gloryville to get to Paradise."
    16. Haley Whitters- Black Sheep
“Who really wants to be white as snow, the thing about black is that the dirt don’t show,” Hailey Whitters confesses in the title track of her newest LP Black Sheep. It’s a line that carries forth throughout the entire album, at times candid, vulnerable, sassy, introspective and deep- but always with a trace of imperfect characters that one consistently finds interesting. Flaws and scars make for good stories and the protagonists in Whitters’ songs are the perfect silhouettes for exploring those dark corners and shadows through song. It’s truly a phenomenal album and one that we hope this listener hopes to hear more from. And soon. 

17. George Strait – Cold Beer Conversations
18. Don Henley – Cass County
19. MavericksMono
20. SteelDrivers - The Muscle Shoals Recordings
21. Ray Wylie Hubbard - The Ruffians Misfortune
22. John Anderson - Gold Mine
23. Kacey Musgraves - Pageant Material
24. Elenowen - Pulling Back the Veil
25. Emily HearnHourglass
26. Jamie Lin Wilson - Holidays & Wedding Rings
27. Aaron Watson - The Underdog
28. Alan Jackson – Angels and Alcohol
29. Darrell Scott10 - Songs of Ben Bullington
30. Levi Lowrey - My Crazy Head
31. T. Graham Brown - Forever Changed
32. Wade Hayes - Go Live Your Life
33. Maddie and Tae- Start Here
34. Carrie Underwood - Storyteller
35. Corb Lund – Things That Can’t Be Undone
36. Reba McEntire - Love Somebody
37. Stoney LaRue – Us Time
38. Zac Brown Band - Jekyll and Hyde
39. Dwight Yoakam - Second Hand Heart
     40. Special mention- Emily West- All For You
We include this album as a special nod to an incredible vocalist that has delivered on a promise to herself to finally do an album her own way. West has shifted gears from the pop country music that Capitol Nashville implored her to deliver while on their label to the big voiced standards that got her into music in the first place. It’s less Patsy Cline and more Dionne Warwick. But a second-place finish in America’s Got Talent got her a record deal with Sony Masterworks she made the most of it. A handful of covers are hit out of the park and she finally has an opportunity to showcase that amazing vocal talent of hers that no country song could ever do. It’s her voice first, instruments second. As it should be with a gift like that.


  1. Cass County is far and away my favorite album this year. Others that I would have included include "Now Playing" by the Western Swing Authority and "Nothing But the Silence" from Striking Matches.

  2. I'm pleased to see Pat Green on your list. You even mention While I Was Away twice.
    I think it is important that you know where that song came from. It was written and recorded by Zane Williams, it was a late addition to his 2013 release, Overnight Success. So late in fact, that it was not on the promotional CD. Pat heard it at a charity event in Ft. Woth, Texas. The rest as they say is history.

  3. Any list of this ilk that doesn't have "The Light" by Uncle Lucius near the top, let alone even on it, has minimal credibility. I know that the writer can't listen to everything on the planet, but I'm concerned about comment, "artists and PR agencies interested in providing music to be reviewed can send it to..." You see, discovering music isn't supposed to be easy like that. You have to work for it. Not just journalists, but also the fans. Great music doesn't just show up at your doorstep, in fact most music that we're "fed" isn't great or even good for that matter. Go ahead, put Singleton and Isbell on this list, but for the very same reasons, you should know about Uncle Lucius.

  4. Your commentary above illustrates that you don't read this blog very often and for you to dismiss the balance of this list because it doesn't have a single artist that you're a fan of minimalizes the musical efforts of a lot of incredible artists. We're all about discovering new music through a variety of different means and championing the independent artist. I'm familiar with Uncle Lucius and own that album- in fact, I purchased that one. It's a fine album, barely missing this list. More than half of this list is small indie artists that weren't "delivered to our doorstep."

  5. Love this list, and thanks for putting it together! I turned it into a Spotify playlist for anybody that might be interested: Every album was available, except the John Anderson one. Enjoy!

  6. Kudos to the choice of Lindi's FADED GLORYVILLE; it is really one of the great albums by anybody in any genre for 2015, especially with rootsy barrelhouse rockers as "Run Amuck" and "Run Down Neighborhood."

    And a word about Emily West's album: it includes a sterling cover of the Moody Blues' 1968 progressive rock classic "Nights In White Satin"


  7. The Devil Makes Three (the name will fool you) should be on that list, along with William Elliot Whitmore, and Whiskey Myers.

  8. The Devil Makes Three (the name will fool you) should be on that list, along with William Elliot Whitmore, and Whiskey Myers.

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