by Julian Spivey
The biggest question surrounding Kacey Musgraves’ third studio album Golden Hour has been: is it country music? It’s a valid question, but at most it should be secondary. The biggest question with her album is that of which should come first for any album: is it good or bad? Now, of course, “good” or “bad” music is subjective, which I hate that I’m typing because it’s obvious. But, for my personal tastes I find Golden Hour to be extremely disappointing.
When I heard Musgraves was going to be releasing a new album this year it instantly skyrocketed to the top of my “most anticipated albums of the year” list. That anticipation started to wane a bit when she released two songs “Space Cowboy” and “Butterflies” – which sounded vastly different from much of what appeared on Same Trailer, Different Park and Pageant Material. The anticipation essentially completely faded when I heard the disco-infused “High Horse” last week. This wasn’t the Musgraves I knew and loved. That’s my problem, not hers.
Artists must go wherever their hearts, souls and brains tell them to and if they want to mix up their sound or go in a different direction it’s up to them and only them. If we as listeners don’t like it we can complain about it, we can write negative reviews if we truly think the songs or album aren’t that great, but that’s about it. Golden Hour has disappointed me, but I wouldn’t go as far as saying Musgraves has. After all, she has co-written and released some of the best music in the country music genre of the last decade.
Golden Hour as an entirety to me is unfortunately dull, which is something I didn’t think Musgraves, who came off as a spitfire on her first two albums, could be. There isn’t a whole lot upbeat about the record, which typically isn’t something that bothers me. For example, I’m a huge fan of Jason Isbell and his records aren’t exactly upbeat much of the time, but they intrigue me on a story and songwriting level. Golden Hour doesn’t do that for me.
Much has been made about how Golden Hour is Musgraves’ most personal album thus far and that, along with the more pop-influenced sound of the record, might be the biggest issue with me. It’s great that she’s getting more personal for her, but maybe I prefer her witty takes on the world or the way she crafts a fictional story a little bit more.
“Space Cowboy” is potentially the best track on the album. It’s a lovely sounding breakup tune with nice wordplay in the title. It’s something I could have easily seen on either of her first two albums, but it maybe wouldn’t have been among the top half of songs on either of those albums.
“Butterflies” is the dullest track I’ve heard from Musgraves period. I’m sure this is an incredibly personal track for her written about her husband Ruston Kelly, a fine artist in his own right, but it’s just too cutesy for me. Props for likely becoming the only country (or country-ish) song to ever include the word “chrysalis” though.
“Slow Burn,” which kicks off Golden Hour, is one of the better tracks (note I’d normally use the word “highlights,” but I don’t feel it’s applicable here) off the album. The chorus is catchy. I really do like the first verse, which borrows a line from her unreleased tribute “John Prine,” which should’ve been on an album by now, but for some reason it loses me lyrically around the second verse. I’m not even sure I completely know why yet.
“Mother” is a track that truly disappoints me. It disappoints me because it’s actually damn good, but only feels like a sketch. It feels like right when it gets going it’s over. It could’ve been a great mother/daughter relationship song, but it just stops at a minute and 18 seconds when there should’ve been more verses. Musgraves says she was influenced by LSD when she wrote this song. Maybe had she been sober it would’ve turned into the great piece it could’ve been.
“Rainbow” is a lovely piano ballad, but I don’t have too much to say about it after my first few listens. I feel like I’ve heard better piano ballads within the genre this year – check out Caitlyn Smith’s Starfire, which includes “East Side Restaurant” and “Scenes from a Corner Booth at Closing Time on a Tuesday” (the title is almost greater than the song). Actually, one of the biggest problems with Golden Hour is Starfire did it better when it came to pop-influences.
Much of the album just runs together for me. Thus, there’s really no reason to go through it track-by-track. Many of the tracks sound alike and there aren’t that many lines that popped out to me instantly, like there have been on other Musgraves albums.
Musgraves does sound as good as she always has vocally. I think she has one of the most underrated voices around. I’ve seen people claim it’s average, but God does it sound lovely to me. It really does fit the pop genre, as well as it does country.
Many traditionalist fans of country music (and I honestly don’t know if I’m in that category – though I suspect many who claim to be truly shouldn’t) don’t like anything that isn’t strictly fiddle and steel guitar sounding. These fans can get a little xenophobic about what they want from their country music. We don’t want outsiders coming in with their different sounds like hip-hop or pop or even ‘80s style rock and ruining “our” genre. I’m like this when it comes to the type of stuff you hear on modern country radio from the likes of Luke Bryan and Florida Georgia Line, etc. What Musgraves have done with this album isn’t exactly that. Sure, if by some miracle a disco-flavored song like “High Horse” is played on mainstream radio I would turn the station because it’s just not my thing, but it’s not as bad as most of what FGL or Bryan and others are churning out.
This album is being praised by many who don’t typically praise or even follow “country music” and I’m not sure that’s a good thing. If it somehow can bring people into loving Merle Haggard or Loretta Lynn than great, but I don’t see it. There are many great albums being made annually that would fit that headline much better. Hell, Ashley McBryde released one the same day as Musgraves that fits that headline better. What’s good about country music is something that holds true to the genre. That’s not to say there isn’t room for growth within the genre. It doesn’t have to all be steel and fiddle.
Much of what we see from Musgraves on this album is frankly good pop music, that’s just not what I’m wanting. There’s a reason I don’t listen to artists who influenced this record like the Bee Gees, Sade or Daft Punk. It’s because I don’t care for their type of music. Does that make it good or bad? Not necessarily. It’s just not for me. The disappointment factor comes in because I thought Musgraves was for me. Honestly, she probably still will be. I don’t really think we’re done hearing the Same Trailer, Different Park Musgraves. I don’t believe this is a Taylor Swift situation where she probably should’ve been pop all along, but it took much of a decade to figure it out. I also don’t think she’s trying something new to finally get airplay on country radio or maybe even cross-over to pop radio. I believe she really feels what’s on this album. I believe as a country girl from Golden, Texas we’re going to see Musgraves performing stuff like “Merry Go ‘Round” and “Biscuits” again. I’d almost bank on that.
by Julian Spivey
12. “City of Stars” by Ryan Gosling (La La Land)
Ryan Gosling is a white man who saves the genre of jazz in this Hollywood fairytale. It’s really good, despite this. The song that helps him save the genre is “City of Stars,” composed by Justin Hurwitz with lyrics by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, the extremely catchy number from 2016’s “La La Land” that won Best Original Song at last year’s Oscars and will no doubt be in your head the remainder of the day.
11. “I’m Easy” by Keith Carradine (Nashville)
Director Robert Altman wanted his actors in 1975’s “Nashville” to write and perform their own songs for his film. Keith Carradine wrote and performed two for the film, including the Oscar-winning “I’m Easy,” which became a top 20 Billboard hit and remains a lovely ballad to this day.
10. “Theme from ‘Shaft’” by Isaac Hayes (Shaft)
Isaac Hayes’ “Theme from ‘Shaft’” is without a doubt one of the coolest Oscar-winning original songs with its soulfully funky sound. Hayes became the first African-American to win Best Original Song in 1971 and perhaps even more surprising is the fact he was the very first artist to win the honor for a song he both wrote and performed for the film – something that’s become much more common in the years since.
9. “Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head” by B.J. Thomas (Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid)
“Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head” was written by Hal David and Burt Bacharach for 1969’s Western “Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid” and performed by B.J. Thomas, the third choice after Ray Stevens and Bob Dylan both turned it down. It’s honestly a weird selection for the movie as it plays over a fun scene where Paul Newman and Katharine Ross pal around on a bicycle, arguably a scene that could’ve been cut and not affected the movie in the least.
8. “Lose Yourself” by Eminem (8 Mile)
Eminem made Academy Awards history when his “Lose Yourself” from “8 Mile,” in which he portrays a rapper based on his actual upbringing, became the first hip-hop song to win Best Original Song. To this day “Lose Yourself” is one of the greatest and most acclaimed hip-hop tracks of all-time.
7. “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” by Esther Williams & Ricardo Montalban (Neptune’s Daughter)
“Baby, It’s Cold Outside” is one of two Christmas-related (though it wasn’t really intended as a holiday song) songs to win Best Original Song at the Oscars. Irving Berlin’s “White Christmas,” performed by Bing Crosby, in the film “Holiday Inn” won the Oscar in 1942. “Baby, It’s Cold Outside,” written by Frank Loesser, appeared in 1949’s “Neptune’s Daughter” performed by Esther Williams and Ricardo Montalban. It’s basically been recorded by everybody else in music since.
6. “The Ballad of High Noon (Do Not Forsake Me)” by Tex Ritter (High Noon)
You don’t see too many movies open with a song that’s essentially a rundown of what you’re about to see, but “The Ballad of High Noon” does this brilliantly. Tex Ritter’s terrific performance of the Oscar-winner composed by Dimitri Tiomkin with lyrics by Ned Washington foreshadows the film’s ending that won Gary Cooper his second Best Actor award.
5. “Moon River” by Audrey Hepburn (Breakfast at Tiffany’s)
“Moon River” is simply one of the most beautiful songs ever written. It was created by multiple time Oscar-winning duo of composer Henry Mancini and lyricist Johnny Mercer for the 1961 film “Breakfast at Tiffany’s.” The song is originally performed by Audrey Hepburn as main character Holly Golightly in one of the film’s most beautiful scenes. Believe it or not, Paramount Pictures executives wanted this scene cut because they didn’t like Hepburn’s performance. Hepburn essentially said, “Over my dead body” and it remained.
4. “Falling Slowly” by Glen Hansard & Marketa Irglova (Once)
The great thing about the Academy Awards Best Original Song category is it allows for original songs from the smallest of movies to win an Oscar. This was the case for “Falling Slowly” from 2007’s Irish romance “Once,” a small budget release from director John Carney that featured real-life musicians Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova who bond over their similar desire of music. It’s one of the most beautiful songs I’ve ever heard, period.
3. “Over the Rainbow” by Judy Garland (The Wizard of Oz)
If you polled a large group of people on what the greatest movie song of all-time is the winner would likely be “Over the Rainbow” as performed by Judy Garland’s Dorothy in the 1939 classic “The Wizard of Oz.” The song, composed by Harold Arlen with lyrics by E.Y. Harburg, has become a music standard since its appearance in this film that is very likely the most watched film of all-time. The song appears just five minutes into the movie and honestly becomes its show-stopping scene.
2. “Streets of Philadelphia” by Bruce Springsteen (Philadelphia)
Bruce Springsteen is likely the biggest rock star to ever win an Oscar for Best Original Song doing so for his excellent “Streets of Philadelphia” for director Jonathan Demme’s 1993 film “Philadelphia,” featuring Tom Hanks’ first Best Actor-winning performance as a man dying of AIDS. The song would not only win an Oscar, but also Song of the Year at the Grammy Awards, a rare feat for a song written for a movie.
1. “The Weary Kind” by Ryan Bingham (Crazy Heart)
The Academy Awards have a great history of honoring country music portrayals. Sissy Spacek, Robert Duvall, Reese Witherspoon and Jeff Bridges have all won Oscar acting awards for great portrayals of both real and fictional country music singers. Ryan Bingham’s “The Weary Kind,” which he co-wrote with the film’s soundtrack producer T-Bone Burnett, essentially serves as the theme song for Bad Blake, Bridges’ character. “The Weary Kind” is a damn near perfect country song.
by Julian Spivey
Chris Stapleton and Turnpike Troubadours, two of the best acts currently in country music, graced the “Austin City Limits” stage for the longtime PBS musical series’ season finale on Saturday, Feb. 17.
It was a fantastic combination for the finale showcasing two acts that might be the very best of the genre now – Stapleton, who’s dominated the country music album charts over the last three years, and the Turnpike Troubadours, the finest band in red dirt country music being broadcast on network television for the first time to a wider audience.
Ultimately, Stapleton was his tried and true self performing a fantastic selection from his first three albums and unfortunately the Turnpike Troubadours kind of punted on their biggest chance to gain an audience yet.
Stapleton’s six-song televised set kicked off with the charging “Hard Livin’,” from his From A Room: Vol. 2 album that was released in December. Surprisingly it was the only performance from that album. Even more surprising is the fact that he only performed one song off From A Room: Vol. 1, released early in 2017, as well with the rocking “Second One to Know.” The other four performances from his set came off 2015’s excellent Traveller album, including the title track. I had assumed Stapleton had performed on an episode of ‘ACL’ a couple of years ago when he burst out with Traveller, but apparently, he hadn’t. Had I known this prior to viewing the episode it wouldn’t have surprised me that his televised (the artists play longer sets and the show edits them down to fit an hour-long format typically featuring multiple acts) set was heavy on stuff from his debut.
The highlight of Stapleton’s set for me was “Fire Away,” which I believe to be his greatest song thus far. It’s a helluva heartbreaker, but so beautiful at the same time. It’s everything a classic country song should be.
Among the other highlights of his set were “Whiskey & You,” which he performed solo without his band, and “Tennessee Whiskey,” which ended his set.
We’ve seen Stapleton on TV quite a bit, especially lately. There was a week at the beginning of this month in which he performed on “Saturday Night Live,” the Grammys, “Late Show with Stephen Colbert” and “The Tonight Show starring Jimmy Fallon” in an eight-day span. He’s used to the spotlight.
Evan Felker, the front man of the excellent Turnpike Troubadours, isn’t exactly as experienced. And, I couldn’t help but believe that it showed and was an unfortunate detriment to the Troubadours – making what I’m certain was their network television debit.
Before I go any further I feel it necessary to add this disclaimer: the Turnpike Troubadours are the best band in modern country music. They may also be the best live act in modern country music (though Stapleton and Eric Church give them a run for their money on a bigger stage).
I didn’t feel that their six-song ‘ACL’ set showcased the brilliance, especially live brilliance, of the Turnpike Troubadours. I placed this fault squarely on Felker – who may well be the best songwriter in modern country music, as well.
Felker just seemed downright nervous the entire set. The televised set began with “The Housefire,” from the group’s excellent A Long Way from Your Heart album released last fall. It’s a terrific story song and Felker’s reading of it on the show just seemed lackluster. I was hoping this fact wouldn’t continue throughout the band’s set, but unfortunately it mostly did.
The rest of the Troubadours performed as great as ever on the showcase, but Felker just didn’t seem like he was all the way there. The group’s set featured three songs off their latest album including “A Tornado Warning” (my favorite track off the album) and “Something to Hold on To,” which ended the most recent season of “Austin City Limits.”
The other three songs in their set were fan-favorites “Every Girl,” “Diamonds & Gasoline” and “Before the Devil Knows Your Dead.”
It was nice to see Grammy-nominated Oklahoman singer-songwriter John Fullbright sit in with the band for their ‘ACL’ set. Fullbright was an original member of the Troubadours and co-wrote some of their best early songs with Felker like “Every Girl.” I look forward to Fullbright releasing a new album on his own sometime soon.
It is my hope that anybody tuning in to this episode focuses more so on the fantastic lyricism of Felker and the fantastic musicianship of the band and not so much on the lacking performance of its front man.
I’ve seen the Troubadours live four times and they really are the best and way better than they appeared on the broadcast. Please don’t let that affect how you feel about them if this was your introduction.
by Julian Spivey
It was a night of family and fun for Memphis-based singer-songwriter Cory Branan at the White Water Tavern in Little Rock, Ark. on Saturday, February 17. The Americana/rock singer had family and friends in tow with him for a frequent visit to White Water Tavern, only about two-and-half hours from his Memphis base.
Branan’s young son would join him up on stage a few times during the night, with pop trying to get him to sing along to his tunes, with the kid only wanting to solo on his harmonica. It was easily one of the cutest concert moments I’ve ever seen and the small, but packed room got a huge kick out of it for much of the evening. It’s nice to see an artist also in the role of loving father, something you rarely see from performers, especially on stage.
I had heard the name Cory Branan before last year, but had never really taken the time to listen to his music until somehow I came across his song “Another Nightmare in America” on YouTube early in 2017 and was immediately captured by its protest of the brutality of mostly African-American men by police officers in this country, a topic that I’ve kept close attention to in the last few years. The video, which was actually filmed at White Water Tavern, was striking in its importance and in the fact that Branan put himself in the shoes of a racist officer horrifying point of view for the song. The song appeared on Branan’s terrific 2017 album Adios and ranked No. 3 on my website’s 100 Best Americana/Country Songs of 2017 list. The song would lead me to the rest of Adios like the equally impressive “Imogene,” which also cracked my website’s top 20 of the year.
Branan didn’t perform “Another Nightmare in America” on Saturday night, which was easily the biggest disappointment of an otherwise terrific show, but it was the highlight of my night when he performed “Imogene,” which includes one of my favorite verses of recent music with the adjective-laden: “You could say that I was never there enough/You could say that I’m a no-account, ne’er-do-well, roustabout, detestable, itinerant, execrable, degenerate/Fair enough/You could say that I was a waste of your time/But to say I tried to make you cry is just asinine.” You must be some damn good songwriter to fit all of that into a verse and make it sound incredible while singing it. It truly dumbfounds me every time I hear this song.
Branan’s audience at White Water Tavern, which he called his favorite place to play in the country and has seemingly played many times, was essentially a home crowd for him. I’ve basically come to Branan’s music through the fantastic Adios and need to listen to more of his back catalogue – something I should’ve done more of before Saturday’s show. The remainder of the crowd was old school Branan fans who knew songs of his he doesn’t even know how to play anymore.
Branan would play five songs from Adios throughout the night: “Imogene,” the opening “I Only Know,” “Walls, MS,” “You Got Through” and the beautifully touching and personal “The Vow,” written for and about his late father. Other than these performances the night was mostly a learning experience for me and it turned out to be terrific. Songs the rest of the audience seemed to know by heart like “Sour Mash,” “Wayward and Down” and “Tall Green Grass” would instantly become ones I knew I’d enjoy. Next time Branan comes to town I’ll probably know them by heart too.
Other nice performances throughout the night included “Spoke Too Soon,” “Crush,” “Skateland South” and the rocking “Walk Around.” There’s a nice blues-rock sound in some of Branan’s music that I enjoyed. Americana is a fantastic description of his music, which has been classified as rock and alternative country before. It’s a little bit of all that’s great mashed into one sound. It even gets punkish in places and he performed a Ramones cover during the show of “Sheena is a Punk Rocker,” changing the lyrics to “Pizza is a Punk Rocker” to the amusement of his son at one point. His song re-joined him on stage with his harmonica, but as it was approaching midnight he wasn’t in as good of a mood and spiked the harmonica on the stage when he didn’t get the solo he wanted. It was a move that was decidedly punk.
Branan’s label Bloodshot Records says of him: “Throughout his career, Cory Branan has been too punk for country, too country for punk, too Memphis for Nashville, and probably a little too Cory Branan for anyone’s damn good.” He’s a witty, intellectually conversational songwriter with a bit of an edge to his music that really captures my interest. Hopefully he’ll do the same for you.
by Julian Spivey
Brandy Clark is one of the best singer-songwriters in modern country music releasing two of the best albums the genre has seen in the last few years with 12 Stories (2013) and Big Day in a Small Town (2016). She brought her terrific stories to The Revolution Room in Little Rock on Saturday, Feb. 10 for An Evening with Brandy Clark – a stripped down performance featuring her on vocals and guitar with another guitarist and bassist accompanying.
Clark performed many of the best tracks from her two critically-acclaimed albums, while providing a few nicely sounding new songs during the show, as well.
She opened the show with her hilariously badass “Stripes,” about considering killing her cheating husband, but sparing his life because she hates stripes and doesn’t look good in orange.
She went from “Stripes” into the terrific title track of her 2016 album that showcases what life is like in a small town where every little thing gets around to all the citizens.
One of Clark’s best performances – and one of her greatest songs in general – came next with the devastating “Drinkin’, Smokin’, Cheatin’.” It occurred to me during this performance that this would be a great song for Dwight Yoakam, whom Clark has collaborated with and opened concerts for before, to record.
There was a portion of the show which Clark described as the substance abuse portion including fantastic performances of “Get High,” “When I Get to Drinkin’” (which appears on her live album), “Take a Little Pill” (one of my personal favorites of hers) and “Hungover.” The theme portion of the show seemed to go over well with the Rev Room audience.
Clark would perform a couple of new songs during the night that might pop up on a future album: “Favorite Lie” and “Apologies,” both of which sounded great, but then again there wasn’t anything during her set that didn’t.
Clark gets to the meat of real life in many of her songs with realistic lyrics that should make any other songwriter jealous of her abilities like “Three Kids No Husband,” a true modern-day masterpiece off Big Day in a Small Town.
My favorite performance of the evening was “Hold My Hand,” which is my favorite song of hers. It’s an interesting song of a woman running into her lover’s ex with her by his side and feeling like things might not quite be over between them. Its beauty is astounding. She followed this up with her only cover of the night, the aptly chosen “Good Hearted Woman” – a Waylon Jennings/Willie Nelson classic that any country music lover should know by heart.
A performance that really got the crowed energized was “Mama’s Broken Heart,” which Clark co-wrote with Shane McAnally and Kacey Musgraves and Miranda Lambert had a hit with in 2013.
Clark would end her excellent show with “Pray to Jesus,” a song about the two ways many people hope to succeed in life, by praying to Jesus and playing the lotto. Clark seemed truly honored when the crowd sang along on the final chorus.
While the crowd at the Rev Room on Saturday night was certainly eating out of Clark’s hand all night and truly fans of her music I was disappointed to see a small crowd for the venue. There has been much talk about sexism in country music over the last few years and I hate to say I’ve seen it in person at shows over the last couple of years. And, it’s not just a mainstream country music issue. I’ve seen artists like Turnpike Troubadours, Jason Boland, Hayes Carll and even newcomers like Colter Wall pack club style venues in Little Rock like the Rev Room and Stickyz, but when great female performers like Clark and Sunny Sweeney have come to town the rooms simply aren’t that crowded. Clark and Sweeney are no doubt on the level of these male artists, so it makes one question exactly what is going on.
Georgian singer-songwriter Rick Brantley opened the show for Clark and he’s a terrific reason as to why concertgoers should always pay attention to opening acts. I had never heard of Brantley’s name prior to the show and within a maybe eight-song performance he won me over as a fan. Well, in fact, it didn’t even take his entire performance. I was hooked on his music – great voice and lyrics – from pretty much the start. He performed great originals like “40 Days, 40 Nights,” “I Still Dream of Tumbleweeds,” “Claudette” and the randy “Red Boots” and slayed the audience with a fan-freakin’-tastic cover of Otis Redding’s “Try a Little Tenderness” and to do Redding justice you really have to bring it. My only issue with Brantley’s set was the crowd talking over some of his performances – it was just him and his guitar – which was incredibly rude to the guy pouring his heart out and doing so well on stage.
by Julian Spivey
Let’s get one thing out of the way: the Grammys are the Grammys. Meaning the award telecast is typically got be popular culture oriented for better or worse and those who don’t like that won’t ever be pleased. Also, any time something that isn’t seemingly pop is showcased on the telecast – which only occurs a handful of times a year – the fans of pop music are going to be irritated and “Who is Paul McCartney?” will trend on Twitter for a bit.
It doesn’t seem like anybody enjoys watching the Grammys. Hell, after you read the remainder of this you may get the feeling that I didn’t enjoy the Grammys. But, I understand the telecast’s need for ratings and it’s need to put pop stars on the air, even if the awards themselves are meant to showcase the entirety of music. I also don’t follow much in the forms of pop or hip-hop music, so it’s nice to see the best of those genres once every year. I even thought the best performance on this year’s telecast was a pop song.
Grammys Hip Hop Bias
There’s been a lot of talk over the years, especially of late that the Grammys have a major bias against hip hop when it comes to the coveted Album of the Year. It was a head scratcher to many when Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly lost to Taylor Swift’s 1989 two years ago and when Kanye West’s 2010 hit My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy couldn’t even muster a nomination in the category. I fully believed this was the year that a hip hop album would win, and I believed it would be Kendrick Lamar’s DAMN., which was pretty much the consensus pick among critics for best album of 2017. There was also Jay-Z’s 4:44, which received the most nominations this year with eight. By the way, Jay-Z went 0-for-8 this year, making him the second most nominated artist in a year to go winless. I don’t blame that so much on the Recording Academy voters as much as I do with him being in the same rap categories as Kendrick Lamar, who swept the genre winning all four of those awards. Bruno Mars would take both Jay-Z and Lamar out in the big-time categories of Album of the Year, Record of the Year and Song of the year. Sure, there’s a possibility this year that Lamar and Jay-Z split the vote leading to a Bruno Mars win, but it seems more likely that the voting block just can’t wrap their head around hip hop still.
One of the biggest controversies leading up to the Grammys telecast was the fact that Lorde, an Album of the Year nominee, wouldn’t be performing on the broadcast. A publication that I can’t remember did some research and found that all five Album of the Year nominees were offered a performance slot – Jay-Z declined, and Bruno Mars, Kendrick Lamar and Childish Gambino performed full performances. Lorde, the only female in the category, was only offered a partial performance slot, which she declined. In the middle of all the female empowerment movements going on right now this is despicable. It’s also interesting to me that Lorde got a nomination in the Album of the Year category, but not in the Pop Album category when six other artists did. How does that even happen?
Ed Sheeran Winning Best Pop Vocal Performance
Few people are talking about this, which surprises me, but one of the worst moments of the Grammys was Ed Sheeran winning Best Pop Vocal Performance for “The Shape of You” in a category that included Lady Gaga’s “Million Reasons,” Kesha’s “Praying,” Pink’s “What About Us” and Kelly Clarkson’s “Love So Soft.” We’re amid the incredibly important #MeToo and Time’s Up movement for gender equality and support for sexual abuse victims and Sheeran’s incredibly sexist (and dumb) “The Shape of You,” which basically relegates women to their looks and bodies, wins one of the night’s biggest honors in a category featuring four great and powerful women. It wasn’t a good look for the Grammys and I’m kind of glad Sheeran wasn’t in attendance to claim his honor.
Kesha and Lady Gaga
As I said previously, I’m not a pop music guy, but some artists, songs and performances within the genre are just too good for even me to ignore. Kesha and Lady Gaga provided two of the most beautiful performances of the night. Kesha performed her highly emotional “Praying” with help from Cyndi Lauper, Camila Cabello, Bebe Rexha, Andra Day and Julia Michaels and I thought it was the best performance of the entire telecast. She wrote “Praying” after a multiple year, high profiled court battle with her former producer Dr. Luke who she sued for sexual assault among other things. For her to come out of such a devastating time in her life better than ever and standing up for women who’ve dealt with similar experiences was amazing. If you didn’t have tears in your eyes watching her performance I’m not sure you’re human. Lady Gaga’s piano ballad performances of “Joanne” and “Million Reasons” showcased the best of everything she can be as a pop performer. It was just an all-around beautiful performance. It’s interesting how she’s toned down her performance style and seemingly gotten more personal and some folk – including the Grammys, which didn’t hand her any hardware this year – don’t seem to be as interested. She’s better than ever.
Chris Stapleton swept every Grammy category he was in this year taking home three awards. He won Best Country Album for From A Room: Volume 1 (with the honor thankfully being broadcast this year after Sturgill Simpson’s win last year was relegated to the pre-show live stream), Best Country Song for “Broken Halos” and Best Country Solo Performance for “Either Way.” I’m thrilled for Stapleton’s wins, but still can’t help but feel he was disrespected by the Grammys for not performing one of his own songs on the telecast. He did perform a tribute to the late, great Tom Petty doing “Wildflowers” with new Lifetime Achievement recipient Emmylou Harris before the in-memoriam segment. The performance was terrific, but Stapleton deserved his own slot. The only original country performance of the telecast went to Little Big Town for their performance of the Taylor Swift penned “Better Man,” which lost Best Country Song to Stapleton’s “Broken Halos.” But, to prove how badly Stapleton was snubbed here’s a list of artists who performed on Sunday’s telecast who weren’t even nominated for a Grammy this year: U2, Sting and Sam Smith. There was a total of 19 performances on the telecast. The only performers who won as many or more Grammys as Stapleton this year were Kendrick Lamar and Bruno Mars. Thirteen of the 19 performers on the telecast didn’t win a single Grammy this year.
Chuck Berry and Fats Domino
I was thankful to see that the Grammy Awards didn’t forget about the legendary Chuck Berry and Fats Domino, both of whom died in 2017. The telecast featured a performance of Jon Batiste doing Domino’s classic “Ain’t That a Shame” and Gary Clark Jr. doing Berry’s great “Maybellene.” The only issue is both songs were abridged. I understand it’s a three-and-a-half hour telecast, and things must keep moving along, but the Grammys gave Sting an at least five-minute slot for “Englishman in New York,” which came out 30 years ago, but couldn’t properly pay tribute to Berry and Domino, whom the genre of rock ‘n’ roll never would have even existed without. That’s right Elvis Presley fans, Berry and Domino preceded “The King.”
Jason Isbell and American Roots Music
Jason Isbell is pretty much my favorite artist of the modern era. There are others I love a lot – including recent Grammy winners Sturgill Simpson and Chris Stapleton – but, I believe Isbell is the best singer-songwriter of his generation. I was thrilled that he won his third and fourth career Grammys this year for Best Americana Album for The Nashville Sound and Best American Roots Song for “If We Were Vampires.” They were my two favorite Grammy wins this year. I was actually surprised he won these awards as I thought the voting body would pay tribute to the late Gregg Allman with wins in both categories. I understand that few outside of the Americana community even know the name Jason Isbell, but I’d sure like to see him or someone like him have the opportunity to showcase their music on the live telecast. Simpson got the opportunity last year and it was terrific. I just want to see more roots music, in general, featured – folk, blues, jazz, gospel, etc. Best Contemporary Blues Album winners Taj Mahal and Keb Mo performed a song off their winning album in the pre-telecast ceremony where most Grammys are handed out and it was fantastic. It would be nice to feature this great American music in between the dozen or so pop songs on the night.
People have been asking this question for years: Is rock music dead? The answer is obviously no. There may never be as much great rock music as there once was – I do believe that – but, there’s enough to be focused on at the Grammys. The only “rock” performances on the telecast were U2’s “Get Out of Your Own Way,” Sting’s 30-year old “Englishman in New York” and Elton John and Miley Cyrus’ collaboration on the classic “Tiny Dancer,” which – though great – basically amounted to a commercial for an upcoming Grammys special paying tribute to John. The Foo Fighters won Best Rock Song for “Run,” which would’ve made a rocking performance on the telecast. Or maybe The War on Drugs, winner of Best Rock Album, could’ve performed. Hell, there wasn’t even a single rock category announced on the telecast, which is just wrong.
It’s interesting that the President of the United States can say, “shithole countries,” but when Logic says it in an eloquent speech following his performance of the suicide hotline awareness song “1-800-273-8255” he’s censored by CBS.
Jay-Z’s eight nominations without a win is second to only Paul McCartney’s nine in 1966 when he was with The Beatles.
Childish Gambino, the stage name of Donald Glover, won a Grammy for Best Traditional R&B Performance for “Redbone.” In the last year Glover has won a Grammy and an Emmy for his critically-acclaimed FX series “Atlanta.” This means he’s halfway to an EGOT (winning an Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony.” By the way, so is previous Tony-winner Ben Platt, who was a part of the Best Musical Theater Album winning “Dear Evan Hansen.”
The Grammys love themselves some Bruno Mars. His seven wins were the most of any performer and he won every category in which he was nominated. “24K Magic” is his second Record of the Year winner in three years. He won with Mark Ronson for “Uptown Funk” in 2016. Mars has been nominated for Record of the Year more than anyone this decade with five nominations. The next closest artist is Taylor Swift with four.
The old guard of the music industry sure doesn’t seem to realize how much the public is tired of U2. All they would have to do is peruse social media to find that out.
1. "Praying" by Kesha feat. Cyndi Lauper, Andra Day, Bebe Rexha, Camila Cabello & Julia Michaels
2. "Wildflowers" by Chris Stapleton & Emmylou Harris (Tom Petty Tribute/In Memoriam)
3. "Tiny Dancer" by Elton John & Miley Cyrus
4. "Joanne" & "Million Reasons" by Lady Gaga
5. "Tears in Heaven" by Eric Church, Maren Morris & Brothers Osborne (Tribute to Las Vegas Country Music Festival Victims)
6. "Ain't That a Shame" & "Maybellene" by Jon Batiste & Gary Clark Jr. (Fats Domino & Chuck Berry Tribute Medley)
7. "XXX," "DNA" & "King's Dead" by Kendrick Lamar
8. "Somewhere" by Ben Platt & "Don't Cry for Me Argentina" by Patti LuPone (Broadway Tribute)
9. "Wild Hearts Can't Be Broken" by Pink
10. "Better Man" by Little Big Town
11. "Terrified" by Childish Gambino
12. "Get Out of Your Own Way" by U2
13. "Englishman in New York" by Sting
14. "1-800-273-8255" by Logic, Alessia Cara & Khaled
15. "Broken Clocks" by SZA
16. "Finesse" by Bruno Mars feat. Cardi B.
17. "Despacito" by Luis Fonsi & Daddy Yankee
18. "Pray" by Sam Smith
19. "Wild Thoughts" by Rihanna, DJ Khaled & Bryson Tiller
by Julian Spivey
Country Album of the Year
Nominees: Cosmic Hallelujah by Kenny Chesney, Heart Break by Lady Antebellum, The Breaker by Little Big Town, Life Changes by Thomas Rhett and From A Room: Volume 1 by Chris Stapleton
Who Should Win: From A Room: Volume 1 by Chris Stapleton
The Grammy Awards typically do a good job when it comes to nominating country music albums. You have to look no further than last year when Sturgill Simpson’s terrific A Sailor’s Guide to Earth won Country Album of the Year, despite getting no love whatsoever from other country awards. This year, however, the Grammys have seemingly lost their mind. The fact that Miranda Lambert’s excellent double album The Weight of These Wings wasn’t nominated is proof of that. Chris Stapleton’s From A Room: Vol. 1 is clearly the best work of these nominees. His debut Traveller won this award two years ago.
Who Will Win: From A Room: Volume 1 by Chris Stapleton
I would be shocked to see anybody else take home this honor, but if someone were to do so my money would be on Little Big Town’s The Breaker.
Country Song of the Year
Nominees: “Better Man” by Little Big Town (Songwriter: Taylor Swift), “Body Like a Back Road” by Sam Hunt (Songwriters: Zach Crowell, Sam Hunt, Shane McAnally and Josh Osborne), “Broken Halos” by Chris Stapleton (Songwriters: Mike Henderson and Chris Stapleton), “Drinkin’ Problem” by Midland (Songwriters: Jess Carson, Cameron Duddy, Shane McAnally, Josh Osborne and Mark Wystrach), “Tin Man” by Miranda Lambert (Songwriters: Jack Ingram, Miranda Lambert and Jon Randall)
Who Should Win: “Broken Halos” by Chris Stapleton
This is a hard category. Miranda Lambert’s “Tin Man” and Midland’s “Drinkin’ Problem” are both fantastic songs. “Tin Man” might be the most emotional song Lambert has ever recorded and I love the throwback sound of “Drinkin’ Problem,” but I believe Chris Stapleton’s “Broken Halos” is the best song in this category and thus should be the winner.
How in the hell was Sam Hunt’s “Body Like a Back Road” nominated for Best Country Song of the Year?
Who Will Win: “Better Man” by Little Big Town
I don’t think the voting body of the Grammy Awards can resist giving an award to Taylor Swift and based on her popularity if she’s in attendance at the ceremony on Sunday they’ll probably televise this award instead of the more deserving Country Album of the Year (which wasn’t televised last year either).
Best Country Solo Performance
Nominees: “Body Like a Back Road” by Sam Hunt, “Losing You” by Alison Krauss, “Tin Man” by Miranda Lambert, “I Could Use a Love Song” by Maren Morris and “Either Way” by Chris Stapleton
Who Should Win: “Either Way” by Chris Stapleton
This is a no-brainer for me, even though the vocal performances by Alison Krauss and Miranda Lambert are terrific. But, Chris Stapleton the best voice currently in country music and “Either Way” was the best vocal performance I heard in any genre of music last year.
Who Will Win: “Losing You” by Alison Krauss
Some may not realize this, but Alison Krauss has won more Grammy Awards than any other artist in Grammy history with 27. So, don’t be shocked when she wins her 28th award for “Losing You” on Sunday. If she does fall to anyone, though, I suspect it’ll be Chris Stapleton.
Best Country Duo/Group Performance
Nominees: “It Ain’t My Fault” by Brothers Osborne, “My Old Man” by Zac Brown Band, “You Look Good” by Lady Antebellum, “Better Man” by Little Big Town and “Drinkin’ Problem” by Midland
Who Should Win: “My Old Man” by Zac Brown Band
I’m a huge fan of Zac Brown Band’s “My Old Man,” Midland’s “Drinkin’ Problem” and Brothers Osborne’s “It Ain’t My Fault” and would be happy with any of these performances winning the Grammy, but I feel “My Old Man” is both the best song and vocal performance of the group. It won’t matter.
Who Will Win: “Better Man” by Little Big Town
Little Big Town feels like a lock to win their third Grammy in this category for the Taylor Swift penned “Better Man.” The group previously won this award in 2013 for “Pontoon” and in 2016 for “Girl Crush.”
Best Americana Album
Nominees: Southern Blood by Gregg Allman, Shine on Rainy Day by Brent Cobb, Beast Epic by Iron & Wine, The Nashville Sound by Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit and Brand New Day by The Mavericks
Who Should Win: The Nashville Sound by Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit
I believe Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit released the best album during the Grammy released period of any artist. But, I also believe that Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit are royally screwed. You’ll see why below.
Also, I’m greatly pleased that Brent Cobb’s debut album Shine on Rainy Day received a nomination in this category.
Who Will Win: Southern Blood by Gregg Allman
Gregg Allman, who died last May, is going to get the sympathy/in memory vote from the Grammy committee. It’s not right. But, it’s probably going to happen.
Best American Roots Song
Nominees: “Cumberland Gap” by David Rawlings (Songwriters: David Rawlings and Gillian Welch), “I Wish You Well” by The Mavericks (Songwriters: Raul Malo and Alan Miller), “If We Were Vampires” by Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit (Songwriter: Jason Isbell), “It Ain’t Over Yet” by Rodney Crowell feat. Rosanne Cash and John Paul White (Songwriter: Rodney Crowell) and “My Only True Friend” by Gregg Allman (Songwriters: Gregg Allman and Scott Sharrard)
Who Should Win: “If We Were Vampires” by Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit
This might be the best category of the entire Grammy Awards this year, in my opinion. These are all fantastic songs. I believe the best of the bunch is Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit’s “If We Were Vampires,” but I’m not expecting it to win.
Who Will Win: “My Only True Friend” by Gregg Allman
See previous category for reason.
Best American Roots Performance
Nominees: “Killer Diller Blues” by Alabama Shakes, “Let My Mother Live” by Blind Boys of Alabama, “Arkansas Farmboy” by Glen Campbell, “Steer Your Way” by Leonard Cohen and “I Never Cared for You” by Alison Krauss
Who Should Win: “Arkansas Farmboy” by Glen Campbell
My favorite performance of these great nominees is Glen Campbell’s “Arkansas Farmboy,” which made for a perfect farewell for the music legend who died last August telling of a young Arkansas farmboy who grew up to be a star.
Who Will Win: “Arkansas Farmboy” by Glen Campbell
This is an extremely hard category to predict. The Grammys love Alison Krauss, who could extend her record Grammy wins by an artist to 29 on Sunday. But, the Grammys might also want to honor the late Glen Campbell and Leonard Cohen in the category too. A split of people voting for Campbell and Cohen could ultimately hand this to Krauss or critical darlings Alabama Shakes.
by Julian Spivey
Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit put on a fantastic show at Robinson Music Center in Little Rock, Ark. on Sunday (Jan. 21). It was the group’s first visit to Little Rock in more than four years when they opened for Dawes at the smaller Rev Room in October of 2013.
Little Rock was ready for Isbell and the 400 Unit’s return selling out Robinson Music Center, which was renovated in 2016 and looks fantastic. The venue could be Arkansas’ answer to The Orpheum in Memphis. Hopefully it’ll continue to book awesome acts like Isbell. Currently the venue seems to book more plays and musicals than anything.
Isbell, who is nominated for two Grammy Awards next weekend for his fantastic 2017 release The Nashville Sound, opened the show with a couple of standouts from his previous release Something More Than Free from 2015 with “24 Frames” and the title track from that album.
Fans of his latest work needn’t worry as he would perform eight of the new album’s 10 tracks by the end of the night, including terrific rocking performances of “Hope the High Road” and “Cumberland Gap,” which were my two favorite tracks on The Nashville Sound.
“Tupelo” and “Molotov” were other great performances from the new record, with “White Man’s World” and “Last of My Kind” really standing out, as well. “White Man’s World” is especially fun to hear in such a conservative state as Arkansas, but I don’t know how many in attendance really needed to hear its message of how we’re all in this world together and should get along. Though, there have been stories of some Isbell fans being off-put by the song’s message before. “Last of My Kind,” which was likely Isbell’s quietest performance of the night really led me to thinking he honestly might be the last of his kind – you don’t find too many singer-songwriters with his introspection, thoughtfulness and songwriting aptitude anymore. This is why he’s pretty much the reigning king of Americana.
Isbell and the 400 Unit spread the love around from the group’s career performing multiple tracks off Isbell’s last four studio albums, as well as multiple tracks from his days with Drive-By Truckers, the best active Southern Rock group around.
One of my favorite performances from the concert was the epic “Decoration Day,” which was the title track to the Drive-By Truckers 2003 album. The song tells the tale of a Hatfields & McCoys like feud in the South and might be Isbell’s finest rocker. He ended his set with “Never Gonna Change,” which included a fantastic guitar duel between Isbell and Sadler Vaden. The two-guitar sound to the 400 Unit is exceptional, with Isbell and Vaden taking turns on solos on many of the night’s tunes.
It’s always great hearing “Stockholm” and “Cover Me Up” in concert, two of Isbell’s finest vocal performances to date. It’s probably the fourth or fifth time I’ve heard these two in concert and they always stand among the finest in his set.
The 400 Unit is one of the finest backing bands in any musical genre with the incredibly talented drummer Chad Gamble leading the way with bassist Jimbo Hart, keyboardist (and fantastic accordion player on “Codeine”) Derry DeBorja and Vaden on guitar following behind. One unfortunate aspect of the 400 Unit’s performance on Sunday night is it didn’t include violinist and Isbell’s wife Amanda Shires, as she’s back home in Nashville putting the final touches on an upcoming album that Isbell thought would be released toward the end of summer. She’s always a great addition to the group’s sound, but they trucked right along without her.
Isbell finished up his fantastic set with a two-song encore that included a rip-roaring cover of the Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers classic “Refugee,” much to the enjoyment of the packed house – which finally decided to get up on their damn feet for the encore (more on that in a bit). Isbell has been playing a Petty song in tribute to the late rocker who died last October at many of his shows, typically alternating “Refugee” and “American Girl.”
Isbell would then finish his show with the beautiful “If We Were Vampires,” which is an unusual love song in that it talks about one’s mortality and how even the greatest of loves will end, and it’s something that makes love stronger.
Fantastic singer-songwriter James McMurtry opened the night for Isbell and the 400 Unit with an eight-song set that included incredible story songs “Copper Canteen” and “You Got to Me” from his 2015 release Complicated Game. I was thrilled McMurtry performed these two selections, which show the great literary apple doesn’t fall too far from the tree as he’s the son of Lonesome Dove author Larry McMurtry.
I hate to end my review on a negative note as the performances were great, and the venue was fantastic both in sound, look and feel, but the audience – which I thought would be a little cooler than it was – got on my nerves multiple times throughout the night. First off, this is a damn rock show with one of the finest singer-songwriters and performers touring today and people acted treated it more like an orchestral performance. It’s OK to get up and move and scream along with the performer at the top of your lungs. The only time the crowd seemed to think it was OK to get up and move was the many trips to the concessions for overpriced beer and then the trips to the restroom that resulted from the previous trips. I’m not sure if others in attendance had as much of an issue with this, but Row M on the Orchestra Level of the venue had me contemplating tripping folks as they constantly walked by. It was obnoxious, but not quite enough to ruin a terrific night of music.
by Julian Spivey
I’ll be seeing Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit at Robinson Music Center in Little Rock on Sunday (Jan. 21) and it’s a show I’ve been looking forward to seeing ever since it was announced months ago. Isbell is my favorite singer-songwriter of his generation and with each album he releases his legacy within the Americana genre grows and grows. That makes creating a list of his 10 greatest songs an almost impossible task (this is the second one I’ve done over the years – he’s released two albums since the last). His music means so much to me that I honestly have a hard time ranking his best work. I’m 100 percent certain of the top two on this list, but No. 3-10 may as well have been put in a hat and chosen at random. That’s how good he is.
10. Hope the High Road
“Hope the High Road” was the first song I heard off Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit’s fantastic The Nashville Sound album and coming off the incredibly tough 2016 it was the most hopeful thing I could’ve heard. I’m not sure any other chorus spoke to me as much in 2017 as: “I know you’re tired/And you ain’t sleeping well/Uninspired/And likely mad as hell/But wherever you are/I hope the high road leads you home again/To a world you want to live in.”
Jason Isbell doesn’t do too many love songs, but “Stockholm” from his 2013 album Southeastern is a darn good one. “Stockholm” is probably based on the love of his now wife (and fellow musician) Amanda Shires getting him through the alcoholism he faced. She helped him replace his old love of booze (which he was shackled too) and made him see what true love really could be.
8. Dress Blues
“Dress Blues,” from Jason Isbell’s debut solo album Sirens of the Ditch in 2007, is the heartbreaking story of an American hero who doesn’t return home from a war that he likely should’ve never been sent to fight in the first place. The song was based on the real-life death of Corporal Matthew Conley, from Isbell’s hometown, who died in the Iraq War.
7. Something More Than Free
Jason Isbell’s follow up to his 2013 stunner Southeastern turned out to be noticeably more upbeat and optimistic than the somber release that appeared on many “best of” list two years ago, but everybody seemed to love it just as much. The title track “Something More Than Free” showed the world that this Americana darling could write something more country and true-to-life than any of those hacks currently releasing records in Nashville. “Something More Than Free” is a true working man’s anthem and something we should all try to strive for.
6. Cover Me Up
“Cover Me Up,” the 2014 Americana Honors & Awards winner for Song of the Year off Southeastern, is like “Stockholm” in that it was likely born out of Amanda Shires’ love and guidance through a rough time during which Jason Isbell was sobering up from alcohol addiction. The beautiful song, both lyrically and through Isbell’s devastating vocals, details a relationship in which the protagonist needs nothing more than his love.
5. Decoration Day
“Decoration Day,” which appeared on Jason Isbell’s very first album with the Southern Rock group the Drive-By Truckers, is one of those perfect short stories set to music. The Drive-By Truckers must have liked it quite a lot as they named their 2003 album after it. The song tells of a sort of modern day Hatfields & McCoys feud between two families by the name of the Hills and Lawsons and the history of that feud. It’s brilliant work by Isbell as a songwriter and performer.
4. Songs That She Sang in the Shower
“Songs That She Sang in the Shower,” from 2013’s Southeastern, is an absolutely devastating song about a failed relationship. Southeastern is filled with devastating tunes for various reasons and this one ranks very high on that album. The narrator of the song recalls losing a love to his own stupidity and excesses and how the one thing he absolutely can’t stand since she’s gone is to hear or remember all the songs she used to sing in the shower.
“Yvette,” one of the real highlights from 2013’s Southeastern, is another dreadfully depressing song from that record, but one that’s beautifully written and performed. The song takes on the important topic of sexual abuse of a minor with the narrator’s classmate Yvette being abused by her father and him setting out to see that he’s done his horrible deed for the very last time.
“Outfit,” a favorite of Jason Isbell’s fans, is one of his tracks that came out of his days with the popular Southern Rock act the Drive-By Truckers. The song about a father’s advice to his son leaving home appeared on the Truckers’ 2003 album Decoration Day, his first of three albums with that group before setting out on his own (or rather being fired when his alcoholism at the time caused problems). “Outfit” is proof that Isbell’s been one of this country’s very best singer-songwriters going back as far as a dozen years.
1. Alabama Pines
Jason Isbell’s “Alabama Pines” from his 2011 album Here We Rest is quite possibly the best song written of any genre in the last half decade – even though many have likely never heard it due to Isbell’s Americana genre not getting any airplay whatsoever on mainstream radio. “Alabama Pines” is loneliness and desolation defined in its exquisitely crafted verses that truly speak to the hearts and minds of those who’ve experienced similar things to what the song’s narrator is going through. The perfect vocals from Isbell, whose voice is truly a revelation, will knock you off your feet.
by Julian Spivey
1. “The Nashville Sound” by Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit
Jason Isbell and the Turnpike Troubadours have been on the same album output schedule lately, which has seen them trading the top spot on my annual ‘Best Albums of the Year’ list in the last few years. I believe 2017 is Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit’s time to top the list with the simply perfect The Nashville Sound. I say it’s perfect because there’s not a single song on the album that I don’t like, which is the same way I felt about his last two albums Something More Than Free and Southeastern, as well. Isbell is the best songwriter of his generation and just seems to consistently write songs that I feel within myself and identify with. Stuff like “Hope the High Road,” “Cumberland Gap” and “Molotov” just remind me of all the goods and bads of life. It’s a realism few writers seem to get as accurately as Isbell.
2. “A Long Way from Your Heart” by Turnpike Troubadours
The Turnpike Troubadours have been the best band in country music since they debuted, and yet too many people outside of Red Dirt Country nation even know about them. That’s a crime. Their fifth studio release A Long Way from Your Heart is right up there with the best of the band’s discography, with some critics saying it’s their best work yet (I’m not willing to). Frontman/songwriter Evan Felker has proven to be one of the best and most vivid writers the red dirt genre has ever seen with stunning stories that come to life as if you were watching them on the big screen. The entire unit musically sounds as tight as any band could leading to a sound that’s almost perfect that comes out both on their albums and in their live shows.
3. “From A Room: Vol. 1 & Vol. 2” by Chris Stapleton
I’m going to include Chris Stapleton’s dual releases of From A Room: Vol. 1 and Vol. 2 as one release, which they honestly should’ve been. Many of the tracks on From A Room have been released by other artists or by Stapleton’s previous bluegrass outfit The SteelDrivers before, but are seeing their solo release by Stapleton this year. From A Room proves that Stapleton’s Traveller was no fluke and he’s here to stay with fantastic tunes like “Either Way,” “Scarecrow in the Garden” and “Broken Halos” highlighting his releases.
4. “Way Out West” by Marty Stuart & His Fabulous Superlatives
One of the most impressive feats this year was Marty Stuart & His Fabulous Superlatives’ concept album of the American West, Way Out West. You don’t see many concept albums, especially in the country/Americana genres, because it so hard to come up with a complete album on the same theme, but Stuart and his incredibly talented band excel at these Western stories like the title track and “Whole Lotta Highway (With a Million Miles to Go)” with excellent instrumentals like “Mojave” and “Torpedo” strewn throughout.
5. “Big Bad Luv” by John Moreland
John Moreland has proven to be one of the best songwriters in Americana music of late, but he seems to continue to be a secret to many. Big Bad Luv, his fourth solo release, is arguably his best yet with emotional and biting reality songs like “Lies I Chose to Believe” and “No Glory in Regret.” Then there’s just good country rockers like “Sallisaw Blue” and “Amen, So Be It.” Moreland shouldn’t be a secret to anybody anymore.
6. “So You Wannabe An Outlaw” by Steve Earle
This is the Steve Earle album I’ve been waiting years for, but was never sure was going to come. I like Steve Earle the folk-singing troubadour, but I love Steve Earle the outlaw country singer. “Guitar Town,” Earle’s debut from 1986 is one of the all-time greatest and most underrated country albums and I’ve been hoping he’d so something to get back to that sound. So You Wannabe An Outlaw is certainly the closest he’s come in a long while with country-rockers like the title track, a duet with Willie Nelson, and “Lookin’ for a Woman.” The album also features a touching ode to his mentor and dear friend Guy Clark in “Goodbye Michelangelo.”
7. “Trophy” by Sunny Sweeney
Sunny Sweeney should be a helluva lot bigger than she is with her brand of country music not sounding all that different from Miranda Lambert, who’s won the CMA for Female Vocalist of the Year an incredible seven of the last eight years. But, who knows why these things happen in the seemingly sexist world of country music. Sweeney’s four studio album Trophy is likely the highlight of her career thus far with traditional sounding country tunes like “Pass the Pain” and “I Feel Like Hank Williams Tonight” mixed in with highly emotional stuff like “Bottle By My Bed.”
8. “Dark Matter” by Randy Newman
Many would probably disagree with the inclusion of singer-songwriter Randy Newman as an Americana artist, but in my opinion if he isn’t considered Americana than who the hell can be? Newman’s music has truly revolved around the American experience. Dark Matter, his first album in almost a decade, is like many of his greatest mixing witty satirical pieces like “Putin” and “The Great Debate” with touching, emotional pieces like “Lost Without You” and “Wandering Boy.” The master still has it.
9. “Colter Wall” by Colter Wall
Colter Wall burst upon the scene in 2017 with a self-titled debut album that showed the Canadian singer-songwriter, though just 22, is the real deal. Wall writes incredibly country-folk songs that seem like they could’ve been throwbacks to the time of Woody Guthrie. Story songs abound on his debut with highlights including the murder ballad “Kate McCannon,” as well as “Motorcycle” and “Thirteen Silver Dollars.”
10. “Purgatory” by Tyler Childers
Tyler Childers, a 26-year old Kentuckian, burst onto the scene this year as a rising outlaw country/Americana star with Purgatory, produced by Sturgill Simpson, who knows a thing or two about the genre. Childers writes and records music well above his age with terrific tunes about the hardness of Appalachian life and close-up details of love. Highlights include the title track, “Whitehouse Road” and “Feathered Indians.”