As I have seen some other folks writing about what the first six months of 2017 has brought to the world of roots music, I thought I'd chime in with some personal favorites. Before I get comments about why not this one or what about that one, let me say these have been the ones I have returned to time and time again, the tried, the trusted, the true. There have also been some notable others that I simply have not listened to enough.
Rhiannon Giddens – Freedom Highway
Following up any artistically and commercially successful album is a hard thing to do. It can be intimidating and a daunting task. What does Giddens do after her triumphant Tomorrow is My Turn? Does she turn inward? Or outward? Well, she has done both on Freedom Highway, and the result is remarkable. She turned inward inasmuch as there are nine originals and three beautifully done covers. She also turned outward as she uncovered many hidden, painful stories of black Americans and turned them into eloquently written and performed songs. Her vocals have also deepened and grown more expressive. It is a remarkable album from a remarkable artist.
Angaleena Presley – Wrangled
If there is any album that gives Freedom Highway a run for the money, it is Wrangled. Even though I was a fan, I was unprepared for these 12 strong songs that you view as a concept album. This is not only what country music should sound like today, but it is the best that country has to offer this side of Hank Williams. It is that good. The album also debunks every myth that Nashville has proffered to aspirational artists over the years: dreaming is a curse, "beating your heart heart black and blue ... making a mess out of you." For every one who "makes it," lower Broadway is littered with shattered glass slippers. Nobody has done it better than Ms. Presley.
Kelley Ryan – Telescope
Ryan is as playful as she is serious, able to turn phrases like "Jesus in a pickup truck" and "golden boy of ecstasy burn me down" and wrap them inside melodies so lush that you feel you are in a dream world without end. Like sipping a large cup of hot chocolate in a Sam Spade alley in the dead of winter, Telescope takes you away on a wistful summer breeze to a faraway unfettered shore – with a martini in hand and a twinkle in your eye.
Various Artists – Red Hot: A Memphis Celebration of Sun Records
With Tamara Saviano and Luther Dickinson at the helm and a crack house band featuring Dickinson, brother Cody, Rick Steff, and two simpatico Memphis natives, Amy LaVere and John Paul Keith, and guests such as Valerie June, Bobby Rush, Alvin Youngblood Hart, Jimbo Mathus, Will Sexton, Shawn Camp, and Chuck Mead, there was no way this album was going to be anything less than stellar. With a couple of holy grail exceptions, the songs are ones that you feel were so much the standard set by Sam Phillips that they seem ingrained in the walls of those studios. Those exceptions are Hart doing a darker, harder edged "Folsom Prison Blues" than you've ever heard before. And "Moanin' at Midnight," which only the ultra secure, or the ultra foolish, would attempt. But two Mississippians, Dickinson and guest Lightnin' Malcolm, dig into fellow Mississippian Wolf's tune so deep and adventurous that they had to cut it into two parts, over 13 minutes of pure ecstasy. As is the entire album.
Amanda Anne Platt & The Honeycutters – (Self-titled)
This is the band's third album in three years that blends their old-school country roots attitude with their shared influences of rock and folk. The prolific Platt is continuing to push her bandmates and expanding their live shows. There is, as with the two before, an easygoing warmth to the album, and a certain kind of knowing, the kind from that comes from being a keen and empathetic observer. From the upbeat “Diamond in the Rough” to the poetic “Eden" to the solemn “Long Ride,” Platt and the band flesh out all that's real and been missing in country music for lo these many years.
Anna Coogan –The Lonely Cry of Space & Time
Coogan's singular guitar (which can also be heard on Johnny Dowd's recordings) is often reflective yet wandering, restrained yet expansive, holding on yet letting go ... or, how far the journey from here to a star? The songs, some written with her drummer and bandmate Willie B., sometimes ride the waves of an extreme force, sometimes juxtaposing words and music, sometimes a parallel course, and never less than intriguing, with Coogan's operatically trained voice used to great effect. At its core the album concerns the passage of time and the spaces and people in between.
Jim Lauderdale – London Southern
Lauderdale has again stepped outside his comfort zone, recording his new album in London using Nick Lowe's backup band and producer, Neil Brockbank. He said in a note,“I wanted a different sound, kind of a throwback to the early '60s. All the players had the same sort of experience I did, only from where they were. So it was that thing of how much British musicians loved American music, and how they interpreted our roots, then we interpreted them." But the songs are, after all, what have set him apart for the past three decades. The monster song on the album, "I Love You More," was a staple of his live shows before he recorded it. I dare anyone not to be more than moved by it.
Whitney Rose – South Texas Suite
It is apparent that Rose thoroughly immersed herself into the Texas psyche and its music with a recent move to Austin, including a two-month residency at the Continental Club. On this EP she is accompanied by a quartet of veterans from the bands of Merle Haggard, Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, and the Mavericks. She said, “I wanted this EP to be a little love letter or thank-you note to Texas, so I chose the songs that I perceived to be the most ‘Texas.’” So, it should come as no surprise that the non-originals are by songwriters from Austin. It shows that her debut album was no fluke, and how deeply embedded she is in the Austin mystic.
Zoe & Cloyd – Eyes Brand New
Zoe & Cloyd's second duo album focuses on their burgeoning songwriting talents while remaining firmly set in duo territory, along with a few special guests, such as Jens Kruger. Notable tracks include the instrumental "Underground Railroad" written by John Cloyd Miller, but featuring only fiddler Natalya Zoe Weinstein and Miller playing a clawhammer banjo, the mournful yet persistent, slightly strident fiddle against an incessant banjo, the duo always keeping their eyes on the prize. The song sounds timeless. As does the album. Together, like spring water, they found their own level as both play inspired, traditionally based music by choice.
Brigitte DeMeyer and Will Kimbrough – Mockingbird Soul
DeMeyer characterizes their blended sound as “wonderfully warm acoustic soul.” Kimbrough and his guitar add a little bit of everything else, from gospel and early jazz to country and a tinge of bluegrass. It should thus come as no surprise that this is very much an album of the South – you can feel the New Orleans humidity as they play the back-porch blues and look forward to a gumbo dinner.
Now, scroll though the best that the ND photographers have to offer on the above artists.