One the things I have tried to do with the new and upcoming releases theme of this column to give some exposure to artists and their outstanding albums that might otherwise might either fall through the cracks or not get the attention they deserve. The ones this time around may also defy expectations and cause you to reconsider the genres they occupy. And there's one that’s gonna be a breakout, no ifs, ands or buts about her.
Ruby Boots - Don’t Talk About It (Feb. 9)
Ruby Boots, who knocked me out at the last two AmericanaFests, has made the album she so richly deserves. An Australian who calls Nashville home, and backed by The Texas Gentleman, she stakes out her territory on the opening tack, “It’s So Cruel.” She takes the laurels of being called a country-twanged Lucinda Williams and dives head-first into a beat-heavy metallicism that’s the underpinning of her live shows. But there’s also a lyricism that’s evident as she stutter-steps her way into a confident swagger that you can tell is not a mere pose.
Blue Yonder - Rough and Ready Heart (Feb. 9)
I do not know how John Lilly, the trio’s songwriter and vocalist, just keeps getting getting better at his craft. A longtime fan of Hank Williams and country honky-tonk, Lilly uses these as a base to explore familiar themes, but with hooks and tunes so catchy you find yourself humming them days afterwards. Usually a trio, on the new record percussion and Russ Hicks' pedal steel accentuate a more resonant sound. The title track, with Robert Shafer’s distinctive guitar and Lilly’s more recent, stronger vocal style, is a prime example of the depth of feeling they bring to this new batch of originals. Like Lilly's heart, this album is ready for prime time on the Americana charts.
Janiva Magness - Love is an Army (Feb. 23)
Despite her 27 Blues Music Awards nominations and seven wins, Magness remains underappreciated. Perhaps it’s because she does not look at the blues as an inscrutable monolith, but rather as a force to be reckoned with. As we saw with her previous album, Love Wins Again, that force is love. Not necessarily the romantic vision, but one that encompasses humankind. On the romantic side, she and guest Delbert McClinton do a heartbreaking cover of Paul Thorn’s “What I Could Do.” Then Magness takes on senseless violence with “Love to a Gunfight." More than ever, as Hal David wrote over 50 years ago in a sublime pop song, what the world needs now is love, sweet love. In this album, Magness gives it the urgency our time needs.
John McCutcheon - Ghost Light (Feb. 9)
One the performances that continues to linger in my musical memory is some 35 years old, when McCutcheon performed with Trapezoid, a band that was way ahead of its time. One of the album’s songs is dedicated to band member Fredya Epstein, who died 15 years ago. I do not mean to linger on the past, but with McCutcheon and nearly all of his 39(!) albums, tradition is an integral part of his music. While the album’s title refers to a lone stage light, it can be taken as a metaphor for the ghosts around us still. Most notably, Woody Guthrie, whose guitar was inscribed “This machine kills fascists.” McCutcheon adds that we must be the machine in the song “The Machine,” which was inspired by the 2017 white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, where he once lived and raised his family. Ably supported by Stuart Duncan, Tim O’Brien, and Kathy Mattea, McCutcheon mixes celebrations of small-town delights with larger issues. Like any folksinger worth his salt.
Shannon & the Clams - Onion (Febr. 16)
I had the good fortune to see this hard-to-classify band last summer at a festival that had other newbies like me pretty well transfixed. Mixing classic '60s hard pop such as Del Shannon with the urban edge of Springsteen on such songs as “Backstreets,” they peel away those proverbial layers of life’s many experiences, some existential, some paradoxically playful, and with some glammy hooks. Much of the bass-driven album seems to have been born in a garage, but then they slide into the beautiful soul ballad “If You Could Know,” intercut with space-age keyboards and guitar, and you find yourself in torch city. Hard to define, yes, but in a good way as you never know what to expect next.
Various Artists - Strange Angels: In Flight With Elmore James (Jan. 26)
On the 100th anniversary of James’ birth, this reverential tribute, with some Americana thrown in, demonstrates that James should be known for more than “Dust My Broom.” As great as it is, his catalog is a deep one. While Rodney Crowell’s lively rockabilly take on “Shake Your Moneymaker” may be getting more press, I’m more taken with Bettye LaVette’s “Person to Person” and Keb’ Mo’s “Look on Yonder Wall.” However, the unexpected thrill is Shelby Lynne and Allison Moorer’s irreverent title track that’s done like Lambert, Hendricks & Ross’ “Centerpiece” but in a dirge-like manner. Tom Jones, Warren Haynes, Jamey Johnson, and more round out the cast in this stellar tribute.
Various Artists/Soundtrack - American Folk (Jan. 26)
The album is a soundtrack to a road trip movie centered on two singer-songwriters played by real ones, Amber Rubarth and Joe Purdy, who also did most of the songs, who are thrown together after 9/11. When Purdy says, “Of all the stories I’ve heard about folk music, I haven’t experienced it, Rubarth responds, “Well, maybe we need to bring it back.” On their road — both musical and personal — to find out, they, of course, explore and come to more complete understandings of life, love, and all that’s in between, they evoke the folk traditions that have been glanced over in the mad rush to all things Americana. While it has been compared to Once, I liken it more to One From the Heart. If you think you know Purdy and Rubarth, think again.
Now, scroll though this new batch of photos.