33 RPM (Reason to Purchase Music)
When looking back on all of the great Americana music we heard in 2019, it’s hard to come up with straight lists of Top 10s. Instead, let’s look at the best 33 reasons to support the artists we love so much. Links are included to purchase each item. Yes, even the last one. Scroll to the bottom for a playlist, too. But purchase first. Really.
Top 10(ish) Albums:
10) Bruce Springsteen, Western Stars and Neil Young with Crazy Horse, Colorado – Both men can rightfully be called Godfathers of Americana, and each continues to make music into their 70s, doing so with different approaches in 2019. Springsteen took on a new persona, singing songs of modern-day Western cowboys. Young went back to his grungiest, reuniting Crazy Horse (and bringing back into the fold E-Street guitarist Nils Lofgren for the first time in nearly half a century). Both have moments of off-kilter beauty (Springsteen singing about a washed-up B-actor in the title track, Young using an ancient glass harmonica as the foundation of “I Do”), and both demonstrate their influence on today’s best songwriters.
9) James Steinle, Live at Hole in the Wall and Libby Koch, Redemption 10: Live at Blue Rock – Unlike Springsteen and Young, most of today’s musicians aren’t selling many new albums, so they’re coming up with different ways of getting new music out to folks. Steinle and Koch both took some material they’d played before (for Koch, a reimagining of her debut and for Steinle, a couple of older tunes combined with several unreleased songs) and recorded it before live audiences. Koch punched up her tunes with a full band (“Down” turns from an acoustic-and-harmonica strummer into a kick-ass piano-driven stomp), while Steinle relied on his gift as a born storyteller (“Town’s Coming to Me” paints a dire picture of encroaching suburbia). Both recordings make you wish you’d been in the audience on those evenings.
8) J.S. Ondara, Tales of America – The legend is almost too good to believe: As a young singer-songwriter in Kenya, Ondara stumbled upon the music of one Bob Dylan. Entranced, he studied more classic songwriters and eventually immigrated to the US and moved to Dylan’s home state of Minnesota. In February. His simple, honest storytelling (in songs like “God Bless America”) gives relatability to the immigrant perspective, which is often an uneven mix of hope and fear. And his lyrics show us that emotions like heartache (“Television Girl”) are truly universal. Be sure to find a copy of the Deluxe version of the album, which includes a spare, yet sweet take on Neil Young’s “Heart of Gold.”
7) Mavis Staples, We Get By – The album was produced by Ben Harper, and it’s fantastic. But it’s more than that – it’s simply Mavis’ time right now. She’s fun, she’s sassy, and, on songs like “Change,” she’s PISSED (in her own sweet ol’ way). She’s been fully embraced by the Americana community, and it’s not nostalgia – she’s still got it.
6) Chad Richard, Worthy Cause – Some albums have an ideal listening space. This one belongs on your front porch. Richard’s influences straddle Louisiana (his home state) and Texas, and the love he has for those places is evident in “Slow Rollin’ State Line” and “Fredericksburg.” Long a songwriter, Richard committed himself to music later in life. We’re better for it.
5) Kelsey Waldon, White Noise/White Lines – This isn’t her debut, but it’s her first release since signing with with John Prine’s Oh Boy Records, and it serves as a perfect introduction to this singer-songwriter. “Kentucky, 1988” is a sort of origin story, and she tackles life in all its Southern-ness, from youth (“Sunday’s Children”) to death (“My Epitaph). She’ll be with us for a while.
4) Gary Clark Jr., This Land – Clark’s guitar-playing chops have never been in doubt, but this album brought both his songwriting and his studio wizardry to the forefront. Mixing his signature blues with rock, reggae, R&B and whatever other style he felt like conquering, then messing with sound and texture as the record’s co-producer allowed Clark to deliver his most diverse, complete album to date. “Pearl Cadillac,” an ode to the toughest woman in his life (Mom, of course), is pure mid-80s Prince homage. And that title track,,,well, we’ll get there.
3) Karen & the Sorrows, Guaranteed Broken Heart – Each year, there’s at least one album that stuns me into silence, then moves me to immediately text everyone I know to tell them about it. Karen Pittelman’s latest release did that for me in October. The lyrics (sad), the subject matter (sadness) and Pittelman’s subtle chirp of a voice are all key elements, but what brings it all together is the music. The string band that Pittelman brought together allows the songs to evolve and swirl in, well, sadness. But there’s sweetness at the end – “You’re My Country Music” pointedly calls out some of the genre’s cliches and finds the happy truth at their core.
2) Ian Noe, Between The Country – Simply the most stunning full-length debut of the year. Noe’s voice is something deep out of some Kentucky holler (Google the videos of his spare rendition of “Born In The U.S.A.” or his command performance for Jason Momoa), but it’s his lyrical ability to explain that holler to the rest of us that demonstrates his staying power. “Meth Head,” “Irene (Ravin’ Bomb)” and “Junk Town” are unapologetic riffs on Noe’s background. They’ll make you glad you didn’t have it that hard growing up and relieved that he was able to get out and tell his story.
1) Our Native Daughters, Songs of Our Native Daughters – Rhiannon Giddens can do anything, and she proved it (again) this year. When an album with Italian musician Francesco Turrisi (There Is No Other) is your second-most notable project in a single calendar year, you’re something absolutely special. Giddens conceived the Native Daughters with producer/multi-instrumentalist Dirk Powell and recruited fellow banjo players Amythyst Kiah, Allison Russell and Leyla McCalla. The songwriting was a shared endeavor, and the subject matter – primarily lives of black women through America history – is deep and sobering. “Barbados” is a marriage of two poems (one historic, one fresh from Powell’s pen) explaining our justification of slavery and servitude, both past and current. Liner notes explain the inspiration for each song, and they’re worth your time. But none of this works if it’s simply a dour scolding. It ain’t, because the music, mainly provided by the four women, is simply stunning. And there are moments of outright joy – “Moon Meets the Sun” dances through the worst of times. This album IS Americana, musically and historically. And it’s a great listen.
Top 10(ish) Songs:
10) Chad Richard, “German Angel” – A sweet, oddly affecting song about a ghost who continues to gently haunt his longtime home, because that’s the only place he wants to be – “Choosing these limestone walls over streets of gold was not an easy choice/But this is close enough to heaven for me.”
9) Lucette, “Deluxe Hotel Room” – The title track from the Canadian singer-songwriter’s second album (produced by Sturgill Simpson) has her seeing the downside of (very moderate) fame – “Traded in my body/Thinking I could make my bed.” When you’re a young musician starting out, nothing – your music, your time, or even your room for the night – is really yours.
8) Kelsey Waldon, “Anyhow” – It’s the lead track from her first album for John Prine’s Oh Boy Records, but she’s still cutting her own independent path – “I’d find out how to make my own sunshine/To be knowin’ what I know now.”
7) Yola, “Ride Out In The Country” – The English country-soul powerhouse gives us a song to remember during a drive to erase a memory – ”I take a ride out in the country/In the soft summer breeze/Forgetting about you/Forgetting about me.”
6) Molly Tuttle, “Light Came In (Power Went Out)” and Tyler Childers, “All Your’n” – By all rights, these two tunes should be receiving heavy country radio airplay. Catchy hooks, clever lyrical twists and honest sentimentality abide in both. But Childers is a bit too “onry” (and honest) to play the mass market game. And Tuttle – well, she’s a woman who can sing, play and write. Clearly, country radio ain’t got no place for her.
5) Ian Noe, “Letter to Madeline” – One of Noe’s greatest gifts (besides that VOICE) is his ability to shift eras in his writing without changing the feel of his songs. “Madeline” is a letter written during the course of a botched robbery, imagining what might’ve been minus said botchery – “And when I get home, we’ll have a grand old time/But don’t you shed no tears or be surprised/If you get the word that your wild man has up and died.” Be it a blaze of glory or something much less grandiose, Noe’s characters seem to always find their tragedy.
4) Karen & the Sorrows, “Why Won’t You Come Back to Me’ and “Your New Life Now” – This pair of tunes (back-to-back on the album) portray the before and after of a dead relationship. While the first song swirls and crescendos and crashes along with the lover’s pleas, the second is haunting and spare as she – maybe – beings to let go.
3) Allison Moorer, “The Rock and the Hill” – In an album (Blood) full of heartbreakers, Moorer sings this one from the perspective of her mother, who was later murdered by her father. And Mother seems to know what’s coming – “Standing with my babies in the chicken pen/Watching over like a nervous mother hen.” Every word, every note is desperation for her children to, one day, live free.
2) Our Native Daughters, “Black Myself” – Generations of being a black woman in America are captured in one song, from being shamed (but never ashamed) to finding defiance and strength. It’s forceful. It’s passionate. And it ROCKS.
1) Gary Clark Jr., “This Land” – Midway through listening to this one, I knew it would be the song of the year. Based on a true interaction in which Clark’s Texas neighbor questioned his presence on his own land because, well, we all know why. He starts off with, “Paranoid and pissed off/Now that I got the money,” and he doesn’t lighten up. Nor should be. F-bombs and n-words abound, and each one is earned, especially when he drives home his point: “F*** you, I’m America’s son/This is where I come from.”
Other class notables from 2019:
Best Cover – Corinne Bailey Rae, “Jersey Girl” – Every track on Come On Up To The House: Women Sing Waits is a winner, but Rae’s take on “Jersey Girl” may even be better than Springsteen’s.
Best Album Cover – Gary Clark Jr., This Land – Iconic.
Live Musical Moments – Tyler Childers (Red Rocks) and J.S. Ondara (Bluebird Theater) – I’ve lived in Colorado for over seven years, and I’ve been to roughly two dozen Red Rocks shows in that time. NO ONE has taken over the venue like Childers fans did. I’ve never been to Kentucky, but, for a few hours, I was there, and it was amazing – 9,500 of my new closest friends singing along to each tune. A few weeks later, I saw J.S. Ondara in Denver. Nearly 90 minutes of a man, his guitar, and his songs, and the audience was hanging on every word and SILENT – truly a rarity in 2019.
Cultural Milestone – The Highwomen – In 2017, Jason Isbell wrote of Amanda Shires, “Momma wants to change that Nashville sound/But they’re never gonna let her.” Turns out, Shires wasn’t going to ask for permission. She recruited Brandi Carlile, Maren Morris and Natalie Hemby, and together with some special guests (including Sheryl Crow and Yola), they took on Nashville and won. Maybe not in the airplay sense, but in every meaningful way. Bonus – discovering that Morris is actually one HELL of a songwriter.
Music hotbed – Kentucky – Stapleton. Sturgill. Tyler. Ian. Kelsey. All different, but with a unifying edge in their sound and a massive footprint across Americana.
Best interview – Jade Jackson – Honest, talented, introspective, and willing to share a rather graphic tale of unfortunate tour food adventures. Check out her response to the third question…if you haven’t eaten recently. https://americanahighways.org/2019/06/27/interview-jade-jackson/
Toughest Human Being – Allison Moorer – She shared the tragic story of her teenage years – her father killed her mother, then himself. Out of that, we get an amazing album and a bracingly honest memoir (both titled Blood), plus a combo singing/speaking tour where she, hopefully, was able to help some folks. Thank you, Allison.
Best overall sound of 2019 – Howie Kendrick – For the sound of his drive clanking off the right field fair pole in Houston, delivering the Washington Nationals their first-ever World Series Championship. Obviously.
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