From the Familiar to the Discovery: 2021 in Music

From the Familiar to the Discovery: 2021 in Music

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From the Familiar to the Discovery: 2021 in Music

Almost four years ago, I started shooting photos and writing about music for the website Americana Highways. It has been a fun adventure, except for that 18-month period in which my camera sat largely in its bag and the music I heard was mostly on wireless headphones while on daily walks wondering what would happen next.

When Melissa Clarke, AH’s managing editor, asked me to come up with a “best of” list for 2021, I went through the music I’ve downloaded and looked back at the shows I’ve seen since returning to concerts around Labor Day. To be fair, there was a lot of carryover on the music front from 2020 as the growth of streaming and the lack of physical product made me unsure of when things were released.

My favorite music, as usual, is all over the place — a mix of new artists and discoveries, albums by those I consider “old friends” (even though most of us have never met), and anniversary releases (aka “box sets”). The shows — 10 concerts and the two-day adventure that was ShoalsFest — served to renew my faith in the connections and power of live music.

So here is my list, a nontraditional grouping featuring artists you know and others I hope you’ll take the time to revisit or discover:

Artist of the Year
Jason Isbell is not afraid to take a stand. He led the push to provide proof of vaccination so he and other artists could safely tour, cancelling or moving concerts when venues refused. He renewed ShoalsFest and reunited with the Drive-by Truckers at three shows. He fulfilled his promise to record an album of Georgia artists if the state turned blue, and brought in his talented friends to help. (The album, Georgia Blue, is a thing of beauty.) He spoke out about mental health and addiction, and following his musings is the only reason I have a Twitter account. Not a bad year at all.

Album of the Year
James McMurtry’s The Horse and the Hounds, his 10th studio album and first in six years, is chockfull of the observations you’ve come to expect from one of Texas’ best songwriters. Recorded in 2019 but not released until this year, what distinguishes this album from McMurtry’s others is the quality of the sound. Producer Ross Hogarth reunited with McMurtry and got some of the artist’s finest vocals to date, as well as a rock and roll quality to the guitars that enhance — not detract — from the lyrics. This one is essential.

Archival Finds
The lack of touring meant artists had to dig deep into their archives for product, often using Bandcamp and its commission-free Fridays once a month to bring in some much-needed funds. As a result, we were able to cherry pick live shows, demos, and previously unheard music that otherwise would not have seen the light of day.

Two stood out for different reasons. The Marfa Tapes, released in May, is a low-key collaboration between Miranda Lambert, Jack Ingram, and Jon Randall. The trio went to West Texas and recorded these songs with acoustic guitars and a notebook, figuring out arrangements on the fly. It’s my favorite album of Lambert’s career and a highlight for both Ingram and Randall, who co-wrote the hit “Tin Man.”

The second, Reckless Kelly’s 9/11 Demos,  has not gotten the attention it deserves. The 16-track session was recorded on the fateful day of the 2001 terrorist attacks, as the band decided to press on in the studio while keeping an eye on the events of that devastating day. A majority of the songs ended up on the group’s “Under the Table & Above the Song Album,” but you get the title track of “Wicked Twisted Road” (still a concert staple) as well as four unreleased tracks. The sound is full. You feel like you’re in the room. The joy of making music comes through even as you know what was happening far away.

Collaboration of the Year
John Hiatt and Jerry Douglas had not worked together before collaborating on Leftover Feelings, an 11-song treat recorded in Nashville’s historic RCA Studio B. The album combined the talents of one of America’s finest songwriters and a dobro genius, working on 10 original tracks and a re-recording of Hiatt’s All the Lilacs in Ohio. I saw them live at the Ryman Auditorium in October and hope they’ll work together again.  Show Review: John Hiatt and Jerry Douglas at the Ryman

Documentary of the Year

The last couple of years have been great for documentaries, with fascinating looks at The Beatles, the Go-Gos and the Velvet Underground all premiering to great acclaim because they broke the traditional “Beyond the Music” mold. The one that stood out for me, however, was a documentary streamed on Hulu late one night in the spring.

Red Dog is the story of Luke Dick, the Nashville songwriter who grew up around the Oklahoma City topless bar where his mom worked, and the characters that helped inspire him. This origin story, which took him 10 years to make and was released in 2020, is humorous, tragic and full of music, including collaborations with Lambert, Natalie Hemby and Dierks Bentley.


Ten songs released in 2020 and 2021 that found their way into heavy rotation this year: “If It Don’t Bleed” by McMurtry; “77” by Nuevo; “Polyester” by Dick and Lambert; “Sober & Skinny” by Brittany Spencer; “It Don’t Bother Me” by Robert Plant and Alison Krauss; “Love Don’t,” by Nathaniel Rateliff & The Night Sweats; “Can’t Do Much” by Waxahatchee; “Wilder Days” by Morgan Wade; “In His Arms” by Lambert, Ingram, and Randall; “Honeysuckle Blue” by Isbell and Sadler Vaden.

ShoalsFest, the two-day event hosted by Isbell in Muscle Shoals, Ala., in October, had three of the most anticipated reunions/reboots of the year. First, he reunited with the Drive-by Truckers on the first night for the first time in years, then brought Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley on stage with his band on the second. He also convinced Americana/alt-country stalwarts Centromatic and Slobberbone, two of the best and underappreciated bands of the last two decades, to reunite.

“Who would have thought it?” said Brent Best, Slobberbone’s lead singer. “I always said there’s nothing you’re going to do to get me to go back out on the road again. Then they said, ‘Well, it’s going to be you, Centro-matic, the Truckers and Isbell.’ And I said, ‘Ah … shit.’”

Top Discoveries
The best thing about returning to concerts are the discoveries you find in opening or supporting acts. In what was admittedly a limited four-month sample, three performers stood out. Nuevo, Gaby Moreno, Waylon Payne.

Nuevo, a “Tejano Soul” band from San Antonio, opened for Los Lobos in October at Antone’s and rocked the house with “77” and “Have Our Fun.” Moreno stole the show during “The Lantern Tour” from Emmylou Harris and Steve Earle, performing the stunning “Ave Que Emigra” from her album “Postales” and a beautiful cover of “Across the Borderline” from her 2019 album “Spangled!”

Payne, who I saw when he opened for Robert Earl Keen’s “The Road to Christmas” revue, brings new twists to traditional country songwriting on songs like “Sins of the Father” and “Back from the Grave.” Payne also has a fascinating backstory. His mother is Sammi Smith, who made “Help Me Make It Through the Night” into a classic. He’s an actor (Jerry Lee Lewis in 2005’s “Walk the Line”), a recovering addict, and a gay man who channeled all of those experiences into the excellent “Blue Eyes, The Harlot, The Queer, The Pusher & Me.” He’s the real deal.

On the studio front, the biggest discoveries for me were Brittany Spencer and Morgan Wade. Chances are pretty good you’ve heard of them. If not, you’re missing out.

Tributes of the Year
Steve Earle and the Dukes’ J.T. and the compilation Broken Hearts & Dirty Windows: Songs of John Prine, Vol. 2 pay tribute to two of Americana’s greatest songwriters, both of whom we lost in 2020. Tribute albums don’t always work, but these two do, especially as Earle honors his son Justin with haunting renditions of “Harlem River Blues” and “The Saint of Lost Causes.”















From the Familiar to the Discovery: 2021 in Music

From the Familiar to the Discovery: 2021 in Music

From the Familiar to the Discovery: 2021 in Music

From the Familiar to the Discovery: 2021 in Music

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