Man, it is hard to believe we’re already this far into the 21st century! As a Gen X’er, I have to ruefully admit the truth of the meme that we’ll always think 1980 was twenty years ago. With the exception of Loretta Lynn, the artists on my list started their careers in the last quarter of the twentieth century or since 2000. AUK readers were right to insist that we look more closely at newer artists and take into consideration the way that americana has evolved during the past twenty-two years. It has been an exciting time for both legacy singer-songwriters and a diverse crop of new artists with spectacular debuts.
Number 10: Jason Isbell ‘Something More Than Free’ (2015)
Jason Isbell’s ‘Goddamn Lonely Love’ with Drive-By Truckers was the first hook for me and I’m still not sure if he’s capable of writing anything mediocre. He grew up not far from Muscle Shoals in Alabama, where he took music classes and was mentored by older established musicians who flocked to the area. ‘Something More Than Free’ contains nothing but fantastic songs, many written from spiky outrage and disillusionment. Isbell knows what it’s like to feel like life went awry somewhere along the way and the fear that we don’t have much time left. No one else could describe God as “something like a pipe bomb ready to blow.”
Number 9: Otis Gibbs ‘49th and Melancholy’ (2002)
Otis Gibbs has two decades of impressive work from which to choose his quintessential album for this list. Not an easy task, especially with ‘Harder Than Hammered Hell’ and ‘Joe Hill’s Ashes’ competing for the honour. I’m going with his minimalist alt-country/folk debut because it was such a joy to hear for the first time, even after seeing Gibbs live. Like Jason Isbell, Gibbs speaks to/for/up for the same people who have worked their asses off yet felt overlooked in American culture and politics for the better part of a century. He writes about real, decidedly unglamorous people, experiences, and places. AUK already honoured his ‘Big Whiskers,’ about an elusive monster catfish, as the greatest song about fishing of all time. His podcast ‘Thanks for Giving a Damn’ is worth a listen too.
Number 8: Hiss Golden Messenger ‘Hallelujah Anyhow’ (2017)
California native M.C. Taylor’s persona as Hiss Golden Messenger seems inspired by his adopted North Carolina’s folk music, Dylan, and Van Morrison on this carefully optimistic album. Although he had released the ambitious ‘Heart Like a Levee’ shortly before ‘Hallelujah,’ he recorded this one within a few days. It sounds like he was on a winning tear. The gospel-influenced ‘Harder Rain,’ rootsy ‘Jenny of the Roses,’ ‘Lost Out in the Darkness,’ and soulful ‘Domino (Time Will Tell)’ are uplifting highlights.
Number 7: Neko Case ‘Blacklisted’ (2002)
The album’s title track refers to Case’s ban from the Grand Ole Opry for life for taking her shirt off during a set at the outdoor Opry Plaza Party to fend off a heatstroke in the oppressive Nashville summer weather. There is a quiet, dark, southern gothic twist to Case’s songs, unexpected changes threaded by lyrical wit. She emits a witchy, eerie soulfulness here that Lana Del Rey probably wishes she had. ‘Blacklisted’ also includes a blistering cover of Aretha Franklin’s ‘Running Out of Fools’ (sorry, Mr. MacManus!).
Number 6: Lucinda Willams ‘Essence’ (2001)
Lucinda Williams’ follow-up to her masterpiece ‘Car Wheels on a Gravel Road’ proved to be just as strong and gave Williams a chance to explore a softer, more contemplative side to her songwriting. Her description of depression on ‘Blue’ is profound: “Go find a jukebox / And see what a quarter will do / I don’t want to talk / I just want to go back to blue / Feeds me when I’m hungry / And quenches my thirst / Loves me when I’m lonely And thinks of me first.” She’s difficult to categorize, other than a superb storyteller, distiller of emotions, and dark-humored analyst of human behaviour.
Number 5: Pistol Annies ‘Interstate Gospel’ (2013)
Female supergroups like The Trio and The Highwomen have received much attention and respect, but I was besotted with this collaboration of Miranda Lambert, Ashley Monroe, and Angaleena Presley. ‘Interstate Gospel,’ their third album, deals with heartbreak, keeping up appearances, break-ups, the opioid crisis, and incarcerated relatives. Deftly handling dark but mundane subjects, Lambert, Monroe, and Presley still amusingly decry the little bureaucratic annoyances that go along with divorce, like the drawn-out process women face of updating driver’s licenses and other official documents changed if they go back to their maiden name (‘Got My Name Changed Back’).
Number 4: Songs: Ohia ‘The Magnolia Electric Co.’ (2003)
If you believe in reincarnation, Molina often sounded like a very weary “old soul” who wasn’t at all happy about finding himself here on this planet…again. Like Johnny Cash, he always seemed far older than his years even as a young man, as though he were an elemental spirit with a voice carved out of an ancient swath of bedrock. He struggled with alcoholism and other personal problems, which make his last few ponderous, desperately melancholy albums difficult to listen to. On ‘Magnolia Electric Co.,’ Molina’s lyrical talents continue to shine while he is buoyed by the presence of a band.
Number 3: Kacey Musgraves ‘Same Trailer Different Park’ (2013)
Musgraves might have enjoyed success in the country mainstream, but there are still country radio markets across the US that don’t play her songs. Maybe it’s the limited number of female artists played on the radio within a given playlist that Musgraves has protested. Maybe it’s her progressive politics and the fact that her pro-LGBT, feminist ‘Follow Your Arrow’ was a groundbreaking statement for country music, along the same lines as Billy Bragg’s controversial ‘Sexuality’ from 1991. She retains all the best aspects of country music while updating them for her own generation.
Number 2: Loretta Lynn ‘Van Lear Rose’ (2004)
Jack White managed to convince Loretta Lynn, at 70, to write an album herself for the first time ever in her lengthy career and let him produce it. Their collaboration sounds bizarre on paper, but it works surprisingly well. Lynn seems to be enjoying every moment of the album’s creation, looking back on her own life (the title comes from the coal mine where her father worked in eastern Kentucky) and spinning yarns about seedy fictional characters. Their duet ‘Portland, Oregon’ melds White’s usual noisy guitar with pedal steel and then he steps back to let her dominate the song.
Number 1: Margo Price ‘Midwest Farmer’s Daughter’ (2016)
Price’s defiant debut album was released on Jack White’s label after she had faced nothing but rejection from the Nashville establishment. Her own life story is full of struggle, hardships, tragedies, and pain. Her material is not “new country” by any stretch of the imagination. Rather her songs embrace traditionalism through the prism of Price’s jaw-droppingly original talent. Not only was the album recorded at Sun Studios, but she also pawned her wedding ring to pay for the sessions.