2020 has been a hard year on a global, national, and personal scale. Of all the things that continued to propel me forward this year, music has been at the forefront serving as a healing aid in the most isolated of times. I realize that 2020 may carry a great deal of stigma, but from a music lover’s perspective, this past year has served up some of the greatest musical collections that I have heard in a long time. From creative explorations, artistic reinventions, surprising comebacks, and the preserving of traditions, 2020 is a year in music that will not soon be forgotten. Here I have compiled a list of just a few of my favorite releases from this past year (15) that I have clung to and appreciated on a stylistic, social, and personal level to share with you all.
1) Sturgill Simpson – Cuttin’ Grass, Vol. 1: The Butcher Shoppe Sessions Sturgill Simpson’s Cuttin’ Grass, Vol. 1: The Butcher Shoppe Sessions serves as a brilliant artistic reinvention with Simpson connecting to the landscape of his upbringing in Kentucky by re-cutting select songs from his recorded catalog in a bluegrass style. Simpson pulled together a dream-team of bluegrass pickers including guitarists Tim O’Brien and Mark Howard, banjoist Scott Vestal, mandolinist Sierra Hull, and fiddler Stuart Duncan to breathe new life into the familiar songs and to great success. The record peaked at number 2 on the Billboard Top Country Albums chart and 24 on the Billboard 200, proving the popularity of bluegrass is not waning but is in fact taking its much-deserved place at the table and cementing Simpson as an artist of exquisite versatility.
2) Tyler Childers – A Long Violent History Long Violent History might not seem like an obvious choice for this list. The album is comprised of eight old-time fiddle instrumentals played by Childers and a host of notable musicians grouped together with one original song with lyrics from which the album gets its name: “Long Violent History.” The album serves as a southern man’s public display of empathy as he sets the stage and then demonstrates how little we have progressed since the time that these fiddle tunes became stitched into the fabric of America’s patchwork. Released on the heels of the Black Lives Matter movement, Childers challenges his audience to consider the plight of others and to understand that they have more in common with those that don’t look like them in comparison to their differences. The album was released alongside a powerful five-minute video where Childers offers context to the record in order for its message to not be misconstrued. Considering Childers’ fanbase and the ever-growing hostility surrounding the climate of our landscape, I thought the album and accompanying video was a brave proclamation and showed that Tyler Childers is not afraid to stand up for what he believes in.
3) The Chicks – Gaslighter It has been fourteen years since Natalie Maines, Emily Stayer, and Marty Maguire released music together under the “Dixie Chicks” moniker with their Grammy award-winning album Taking the Long Way. Now they are back, they’ve dropped “Dixie” from their name, and they are sharing intimate narratives that resonate on a personal and national scale on their eighth studio album The record divulges profound heartbreak, crucial awareness, and a call for communal activism that is truly reflective of the turbulent landscape of this past year. All three women are at the top of their game and having spent some time with their record, I can honestly say that I am ecstatic they are back and doing what they do best, speaking up.
4) Mickey Guyton – Bridges The voice of Mickey Guyton is powerful and the songs that she writes are imperative. With songs like “What Are You Gonna Tell Her?” and “Black Like Me,” Guyton shares her own personal narrative of being a black woman in the United States. She challenges her listeners to consider those who may not look like them or love like them – to feel empathy and to stand up against systematic racism and misogyny. The overlying theme for the record lies in its name – maybe if we could start to consider others then maybe we can start building bridges to cross over the waters that divide us. “Black Like Me” is nominated for a Grammy for Best Solo County Performance, earning Guyton a spot in the history books as the very first black woman to be nominated in the category.
5) Chris Stapleton – Starting Over Chris Stapleton’s fourth solo endeavor Starting Over serves as a new beginning for the artist – the album cover even demonstrates the notion of a clean slate with its minimalistic approach. Stapleton was a seasoned artist who infiltrated the Nashville establishment with his debut studio album Traveler in 2015, and now with this new release, it appears that he’s saying goodbye to Music City. The catalog of songs within the record contains personal anecdotes relating to Stapleton’s interpersonal relationships including his partnership with his wife Morgane, who sings harmonies, his irreplaceable friendships of old, and a heartbreaking song about his late dog Maggie. Through this album, Stapleton has decided to focus on what truly matters to him and it sounds just as good as anything he has put out before.
6) Margo Price – That’s How Rumors Get Started Superbly produced by Sturgill Simpson, Margo Price’s That’s How Rumors Get Started showcases a transition from Price’s well-known traditional country feel into a more rock style that is reminiscent of Tom Petty and Fleetwood Mac, whom the name of the record homages. The songs are passionately honest and self-reflective. With folks attempting to navigate love’s hardships and maintain their connection against immeasurable odds, Price has successfully crafted songs that tap directly into those emotions in a poetically beautiful way. Price has secured her place as a dominating force in the ever-growing country outlaw scene that recalls the days of Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings, and by doing so has shown that her artistic freedom has allowed her to grow as a musician and a writer, and a very respected one at that.
7) Charley Crockett – Welcome to Hard Times 2020 has been a year of adversity on a global scale and Charley Crockett may have just summed it all up with the release of his eighth studio album Welcome to Hard Times. Crockett has proven his skill of capturing the timeless sound of the honkytonk era with songs that are reminiscent of the late great Ernest Tubb. Crockett employs a sound that is COUNTRY through and through featuring an eclectic array of instruments including steel guitars, plucking banjos, and a dancing piano that could easily be straight out of a western saloon. Crockett’s voice is the epitome of character for it bears the trials and tribulations that he has endured and the many places that he has seen. As a troubadour, musician, and storyteller, Welcome to Hard Times is the testimonial of an artist carving his own path and sharing his stories with the world.
8) Orville Peck – Show Pony Orville Peck has been an enigmatic character ever since he first appeared on the country music scene. A Canadian cowboy whose face is meticulously concealed through his decorative masks and a distinctive voice that is simply unforgettable. Peck’s latest release is a six-song EP that serves as a companion piece to his debut album that he released in 2019. Peck has described the release of Show Pony as a bridge between his debut and his upcoming second full-length studio album. Peck served as a writer on all the songs except a brilliant cover of the Bobbie Gentry penned “Fancy,” that most country fans will associate with Reba McEntire. Peck’s voice shines on the record and his storytelling is pushing the boundaries of the normative establishment in country music. Orville Peck’s significant presence in country music is groundbreaking and I am excited to see what he’s going to do in the years to come.
9) Mo Pitney – Ain’t Lookin’ Back In the modern playing field of country music, the neo-traditional sound of the late 1980s and early 1990s is strongly underrepresented, but a young artist from Cherry Valley, Illinois is bringing it back with a smooth sound that is reminiscent of the great George Strait. Pitney’s 2020 release Ain’t Lookin’ Back is his second studio album and there isn’t a throwaway track in the bunch. With a forward-looking approach, Pitney’s songwriting shines and his musicianship is as tight as ever on his latest release. Keep an ear out for Pitney and his all-star band on an updated version of the bluegrass favorite “Old Home Place,” for that song alone is worth earning Pitney a spot among the greats of 2020.
10) Colter Wall – Western Swing & Waltzes and Other Punchy Songs On Colter Wall’s Western Swing & Waltzes and Other Punchy Songs, the artist gracefully employs a new sound that embraces the landscape of his upbringing. The album features original songs, as well as interpretations of traditional tunes and a cover of Marty Robbins’ “Big Iron.” Wall’s distinctive voice sounds right at home in the western swing style utilized by his touring band. Growing up in the western plains of Saskatchewan, Western Swing & Waltzes and Other Punchy Songs feels like an ode to home for Wall, making it one of the best collections he has released thus far.
11) Jason Isbell & The 400 Unit – Reunions Jason Isbell & The 400 Unit’s Reunions is the fourth studio album Isbell has put out since getting sober. Under a great amount of pressure to put out a record consistent with his other latest releases, Isbell closed himself off from his wife and bandmate, Amanda Shires, in order to write, and the songs enclosed on Reunions is the outcome. Not only did Isbell & The 400 Unit release an album that’s on par with the others in their recorded catalog, but as an album itself, it stands tall on its own for it is a masterclass in songwriting and a stellar exhibition of the 400 Unit’s musical talents.
12) Mike and the Moonpies – Touch of You: The Lost Songs of Gary Stewart With his distinctive vibrato voice and his outlaw country style, Gary Stewart cemented himself as the definitive honkytonk country music performer. When Stewart passed away in 2003, he left behind a collection of unreleased material that was unearthed by the Austin-based band Mike and the Moonpies and that material served as the foundation for their latest release Touch of You: The Lost Songs of Gary Stewart. Working closely with Stewart’s daughter, the Moonpies chose ten songs that were either written or co-written by Stewart that he never officially released himself. The album features collaborations with Jamie Lin Wilson, Courtney Patton, and Midland’s Mark Wystrach. The Moonpies do an excellent job of bringing Stewart’s words to life and have since sparked renewed interest in the country crooner for having done so. As a major Gary Stewart fan, this release was highly anticipated and it lived up to my expectations. The song “Heart a Home” has been on repeat ever since I heard it and I am so thankful for Mike and the Moonpies for taking it upon themselves to ensure that audiences got to hear these lost songs.
13) Timbo – Brand New Feeling Timbo might not be a name that you recognize right off but if you are familiar with the talented roster of local musicians giving Music City its name, you just might have heard of him. As a rare country music performer who has always called Nashville his home, Timbo has been immersed in the culture and music of his hometown ever since he was a little boy. For many years he has been a local fixture of the city performing in many of the famous honkytonks and bars that have become synonyms with Nashville, and in doing so has perfected a sound that is simply unmistakable. This past June, Timbo released his very first collection of original material in the form of a six-song EP that stands tall as one of the best collections I have heard all year. Timbo’s sound harkens back to Nashville’s golden years and serves as a reminder of the qualities that make country music great. His voice is raw and melancholic, and his writing is top-notch. Make sure to add him to your list of artists to watch in the years to come because his sound is one that demands to be heard, even outside the city limits of Nashville, Tennessee.
14) The Valley Authority – Unpopular Opinions East Tennesse’s The Valley Authority is a band that I first discovered a few years back at the Bicentennial festival in Madison, North Carolina. From the moment I first heard them, I knew they were something special and I’ve been keeping up with them ever since. Unpopular Opinions is the follow-up to their self-titled debut studio album and with it, the band took full control of their sound by self-producing in their privately-owned studio. The outcome is nothing short of great as it demonstrates a step forward for the band and discloses their willingness to grow, not only musically, but artistically as well. The Valley Authority is a name that might not be as familiar as some of the others on this list but they have most certainly earned their spot and I recommend them to anyone bearing hungry ears for real country music.
15) Hillary Klug – Howdy Y’allViral internet star Hillary Klug has garnered immense acclaim for her rare combination of fiddling, dancing, and singing all at the same time. 2020 saw the release of her independent studio album Howdy Y’all which features originals as well as some of her favorite traditional tunes performed over a wide range of instruments including the mandolin, banjo, and bouzouki, an instrument that Klug has highlighted several times in her videos. The fanbase that Klug has acquired virtually continues to propel her forward, earning this recorded collection a spot on the Billboard Bluegrass chart at number three. The album showcases an artist coming into her own as Klug drifts outside of her comfort zone and challenges herself by picking up instruments she’s not commonly associated with while also masterfully exhibiting the extraordinary talent that propelled her to stardom in the first place. I think it’s really cool to see so many folks discovering the art form that laid the foundation for country music as we know it today. One of the overarching threads I have seen this year through the success of Childers’ old-time record and Simpson’s bluegrass record is that people are just as fascinated today with these older styles of roots music as they have ever been. Hillary Klug is an artist that divulges the timelessness of the music that she makes and it is for that reason that I felt compelled to include her album on this list.