Reflecting on 2019, there has been a lot of quality music released – including fantastic records from Sturgill Simpson, The Highwomen and Tyler Childers to name a few – so much excellent music in fact that I must admit found the idea of writing this piece a little overwhelming. So I’ve decided to pare it back and focus on some smaller records that haven’t always had the press that they might have deserved, but ones whose songs have rattled around in my head for days at a time after many a repeat listen.
I’ll begin with what feels the most criminally underrated piece of work I’ve heard this year, ‘When I Was Yours and You Were Mine’ by Texan Charlie Shafter. Shafter’s second solo release is filled with heartache and what might’ve been. “I wanted more than a song out of you / But a song I guess for now will have to do,” he opens with on ‘Leave Her Wild’, setting the tone perfectly for the ride to come. “I thought the road would go on / Through all we came upon / But we broke down in spite / I had to walk on through the night / I thought you loved me / But I thought too soon,” he admits in the devastating ‘Thought Too Soon’.
My love for Tony Lucca has already been documented here, so it isn’t much of a surprise that I’d pick his latest ‘Ain’t No Storm’. The lead single ‘Everything Changes’ has the eternal message that the only permanence is change all wrapped up with a ridiculously hooky chorus. Elsewhere, ‘Empty Handed Blues’ translates the kind of pain every Nashville songwriter longs to communicate (“I gave up on giving in / Then again I’d give anything to have it to give / To hold you one last time / Better yet to make you mine / Can’t say I didn’t try / I guess I fell shy.”)
While Sean McConnell’s ‘Secondhand Smoke’ wasn’t exactly overlooked given it got some great reviews (especially here where it received a rare 10 out of 10 score), it’s just so good that it demands mentioning again. The depth in the simplicity of the lyrics from the title track gets me everytime I listen, and there’s no other song I’ve heard this year which makes you feel the pain touring life causes from leaving behind your loved ones (“Austin was a sold out show / Now I’m buzzing like a sixth street glows / Stumbling down the avenue, a million miles from you”).
Best opening track on an album has to go to Paul Cauthen’s ‘Room 41’ and ‘Cocaine Country Dancing’; the song is so bombastic that you’re really knocked off guard when it comes to the other tracks which speak more quietly of a life in ruins, a man living in a hotel (which Cauthen did for two years when making the record) and trying to find out how to live again post-breakup. “You know I can work real hard / Keep a roof right over our heads / And make sure the lights stay on / And keep the baby fed / But that’s only in my dreams / You’ve been gone for quite some time,” he bellows on ‘I Can’t Be Alone’, his amazing voice coming full force on the chorus.
When Robert Ellis became the ‘Texas Piano Man’ there was the fear the whole thing would lean too hard towards kitsch, but the persona worked fantastically with excellently crafted, catchy piano-driven songs. “Well, I have got so many questions / Did you think that I’d be better off not having you around?” he sings in the reflective ‘Father’ (inspired by a friend reconnecting with the one they never knew); it’s one of the more sombre songs on the album and deserves the chance of a listen – even if you’re put off by the white tuxedo and the yellow roses.
Jack Marion and the Pearl Snap Prophets just released their first full-length offering ‘When the Well Runs Dry’ last month, but it’s slid in last minute as one of my favourites of the year. I’m an absolute sucker for a concept album, so each song on this one reflecting the realities of small-time American life really hits the spot. ‘Family Funeral’ gives the picture of funerals we all know so well, whichever side of the pond you’re on (save maybe for the devilled eggs): “Momma made some sweet iced tea / And so did aunt Josephine / Along with a tray of devilled eggs / J.R. went outside to smoke / If he ain’t quit now than I guess he won’t / He’s too old now to really even care.”
It’s been a real privilege to join the AUK family in the latter half of this year, and I’m excited for whatever 2020 has in store. The never-ending journey of musical discovery is much like a stone gathering moss – with new artists adding themselves to the personal library of those we’re passionate about all the time – and I can’t wait to share any new discoveries that AUK may send my way.
Here’s a selection of some of the tunes mentioned above: