Rootsy American music—for lack of a better name (although some people are calling it Americana or Ameripolitan)—is pretty much all I listen to these days. It calms me down, keeps me going when things get unsavory and streams out of my guitar (and/or iPhone) every time I pick it up.
In its seeming simplicity, I hear countless nuances, bottomless sadness and joy, winks to the past and nods to the future. I hear new and old pickup sounds and effects that often send me sprinting to eBay, not to mention guitar riffs and solos that sometimes send me back to the drawing board (especially when it comes to Cousin Harley’s new album).
Anyway, if you’ve spent your year listening to, well, something other than “rootsy American music,” and if you’d like to catch up on what you’ve been missing, you’ll find 10 solid recommendations below. Enjoy!
JD McPherson, Undivided Heart & Soul
The Oklahoma-bred retro rocker branches out a bit on his third album, Undivided Heart & Soul. “I love rock and roll all the way through Rockpile, through T. Rex and the Stooges,” McPherson told us. “All those things are fair game to soak up into what we do.” Highlights include the Radiohead-meets-Duane-Eddy shimmy of “On the Lips,” the angular “Lucky Penny” and the simply brilliant “Hunting for Sugar,” but the entire disc is full of surprises. Check out my 2017 interview with JD right here. (New West Records)
Marty Stuart, Way Out West
Way Out West, Stuart’s ode to the American West, is packed with engaging tunes and fine guitar playing, courtesy of Stuart and Kenny Vaughan. Best of all, Stuart gives his Clarence White Tele a workout throughout. Highlights include the title track, “Whole Lotta Highway (with a Million Miles to Go)” and “Wait for the Morning.” If you’re heading to Joshua Tree, Yucca Valley or Twentynine Palms, be sure to bring this one along. P.S.: Way Out West was produced by the Heartbreakers’ Mike Campbell. You can find our 2017 Marty Stuart interview in this general direction. (Superlatone)
Kim Wilson, Blues and Boogie, Vol. 1
Whether you realize it or not, Kim Wilson is one of the world’s—that’s right, the world’s—most talented, devoted and committed blues artists, and this brilliant throwback (and monophonic) album proves it. The Fabulous Thunderbirds frontman shines on everything, but if I had to pick some highlights, check out “Same Old Blues,” “Searched All Over” and “Worried Life Blues.” It’s his finest release since 1993’s Tigerman (which you need to own). (Severn Records)
Chris Hillman, Bidin’ My Time
This was a great year for Byrds fans. First we got to hear Clarence White’s Telecaster all over Marty Stuart’s Way Out West (see above), then we got this—a masterful album by Byrds cofounder Chris Hillman. The disc features three original Byrds—Hillman, Roger McGuinn and David Crosby—re-workings of three Byrds tunes and, best of all, the first-ever studio recording of “Here She Comes Again,” a song Hillman and McGuinn wrote nearly 40 years ago. It’s also worth noting that this was one of Tom Petty’s final projects; the album was produced by Petty and executive produced by Herb Pedersen. You can check out my 2017 interview with Hillman right here. (Rounder)
Nikki Lane, Highway Queen
Nikki Lane is a Nashville-based songstress who straddles that gritty, pedal-steelin’ line betwixt country, Americana and roots rock. She’s also heavily into the art of the music video, and we suggest you check out “Jackpot” (below), plus “Send the Sun” and “Highway Queen.” (New West Records)
Cousin Harley, Blue Smoke: The Music of Merle Travis
Rockabilly guitar master Paul Pigat was in the process of recording a solo album when he realized Merle Travis would’ve turned 100 this year. “When I discovered his birthday was November 29, 1917, I put my solo record on hold and did a Cousin Harley album instead,” Pigat said. “I’m a firm believer that most guitar players are somehow influenced by Merle—they just don’t realize it.” Check out Pigat’s “great Gretsch sound” on “Deep South” below. (Little Pig Records)
Son Volt, Notes of Blue
After two solid albums packed with alt-country (2009’s American Central Dust) and earthy country (2013’s Honky Tonk), the 10 songs on Notes of Blue are inspired by the blues, but not the standard blues as most of us know it. The unique and haunting tunings of Mississippi Fred McDowell, Skip James and Nick Drake were all points of exploration for frontman Jay Farrar. That said, “Back Against the Wall” (below) is a fine piece of alt-country with a wiry, growly (dare we say bluesy?) guitar solo. (Thirty Tigers)
Jimmie Vaughan Trio, Live at C-Boy’s
The musicianship on this moody live disc is top-notch all around, from Mike Flanigin’s magnetic Baby Face Willette-style Hammond organ magic to Frosty Smith’s thunderous drumming to Jimmie Vaughan’s steady-as-a-rock rhythm and lead playing. Jimmie is the Ringo Starr of blues guitar: not too flashy but super steady and blessed with a distinctive, often-imitated style. It doesn’t hurt that there are two (purely accidental) Ringo tie-ins on the album—covers of the Beatles’ “Can’t Buy Me Love” and Bruce Channel’s “Hey! Baby,” which Starr recorded in 1976. The album was recorded at C-Boy’s Heart & Soul, an atmospheric club on South Congress Street in Austin. Both the album and the venue are dripping with late-night-club mojo. (Proper Records)
Legendary Shack Shakers, After You’ve Gone
This latest album by JD Wilkes and his groundbreaking Southern Gothic band, the Legendary Shack Shakers, is truly rockin’, truly weird and truly enjoyable. These guys will throw together blues, carnival music, rockabilly and the swampiest swamp rock this side of Paducah, Kentucky, and it will—somehow—suck you in, time and time again. If you need a visual/audio aid, simply check out their just-released “Sing a Worried Song” music video. (Last Chance Records)
Hayes McMullan, Everyday Seem Like Murder Here
Although it hasn’t shaken the music world like Robert Johnson’s King of the Delta Blues Singers did in 1961, this sprawling, 31-track posthumous release by Hayes McMullen was certainly one of this year’s blues highlights. McMullen—who died in 1986 at age 84—was a bluesman, sharecropper, church deacon and civil rights activist who was “discovered” by American roots scholar, collector and documentarian Gayle Dean Wardlow in the late Sixties. That’s also when these engaging, stripped-down acoustic-blues pieces (music and spoken word) were recorded. I’d like to keep these individual profiles short, but if you’re intrigued by this album, be sure to read Pop Matters’ album review right here. For more information, step right this way. (Light in the Attic Records)