Americana music is made around the world, from Austin’s Reckless Kelly to Australia’s Paul Kelly. But its soul rests deep in the heart of Texas. This is punctuated by two of the genre’s best releases of 2016, one a tribute to the humbly brilliant San Marcos singer-songwriter Adam Carroll, the other a double album from a major Nashville star.
A sort of Robert Earl Keen without the secret-gripping meatheads spilling beer in the front row, Carroll’s only 42 and in good health. I make a point of this because tribute albums of this caliber are usually meant to raise funds for artists who are dying or already dead. But Carroll’s buoyant, vivid lyrics have been so influential in the Lone Star State that he’s inspired a stunning collection of Cheatham Street all-stars—James McMurtry, Slaid Cleaves and Hayes Carll among them—to cover his songs for the hell of it on Highway Prayer: A Tribute to Adam Carroll (out October 28 on Eight 30 Records). That trio of hombres kicks off the album with aplomb, but it’s Band of Heathens’ Big Star-esque rendition of “Oklahoma Gypsy Shuffler” and the great Jamie Lin Wilson’s take on the whimsically poetic “Hi-Fi Love” that make you feel as though you’ve stumbled into the coolest honky tonk ever.
For Carroll, this must be like attending his funeral long before he’s passed—which is something people fantasize about, whether they’ll admit it or not. To know you’ve meant this much to so many ridiculously talented peers is enough to make you want to call it good, but Carroll—a devoted road dog—is likely to soldier on with newfound vigor.
Miranda Lambert doesn’t appear on the Carroll tribute, but the Texas native’s extraordinarily generous new 24-track album, The Weight of These Wings (out November 18 on Sony Nashville), sounds nothing like what's on mainstream country radio right now. A lot of eyes and ears will be on this record, and Lambert knows it—her high-profile divorce from game-show host Blake Shelton will have observers reading way too much into Weight’s lyrics.
If the album’s interpreted as autobiographical—and I doubt it truly is, a la Beyonce’s Lemonade—then Lambert’s a hot, humbled mess, spiraling from barrooms to bedrooms to bawl sessions. The LP’s more upbeat tracks are intermittently swampy, scratchy and slippery, with slide guitar and a very live sound propelling a slew of gorgeously subdued, shimmering ballads; here, “Tin Man,” “Getaway Driver,” “Runnin’ Just in Case,” “Dear Old Sun,” “To Learn Her,” and “I’ve Got Wheels” shine the brightest. (Some of these righteous tunes were co-written by Lambert’s new beau, Anderson East.)
Lambert—who rarely over-sings in a sea of Music City melisma, despite being equipped with a 16-cylinder set of pipes—made a very clumsy, commercially driven misstep by teaming up with pop-country robot Carrie Underwood on 2014’s “Somethin’ Bad,” which rivals Trace Adkins’ “Honky Tonk Badonkadonk” (Jamey Johnson co-wrote that one, remember; even saints have their sins) as one of the worst songs of the 21st century. But The Weight of These Wings more than makes up for that smoldering turd. It’s not only the best thing Lambert’s ever done, it’s one of the best things anyone’s done in recent memory, reaffirming Lambert’s singular ability to build a bridge between Nashville and Austin. If Cheatham Street’s got an open Tuesday night slot and Lambert’s in town, look out.