By Michael McCall
Photo by Michael Alan Goldberg
Two young blondes with toothy smiles and hard-core work ethics, Taylor Swift and Carrie Underwood, helped country expand its fan base in these years of shrinking music sales. Meanwhile, Kenny Chesney, Rascal Flatts, Alan Jackson, Toby Keith, Tim McGraw, Brad Paisley and George Strait kept filling arenas and at least maintaining their popularity on the road, if not with record sales. But as has often been the case, the best country music has little to do with what's successful in the genre. It's made by those who care more about songs and arrangements than about what the radio is playing or what sparks an arena concert. Country music's strengths come from timeless elements; the same can be said of this list of albums.
Trouble in Mind
The title of the opening song, "Drunken Poet's Dream," tips off the perspective of this 32-year-old singer-songwriter from South Texas. With the wry, wise voice of an educated rounder, he tackles liquor, wild women, lost weekends and the perils of strutting and stumbling through life. Carll sings colorfully and believably about experiences most modern country singers ignore -- or hide.
LEE ANN WOMACK
Call Me Crazy
Womack and her veteran producer, Tony Brown, combine traditional and contemporary ideas in spare arrangements that add nuance to the real-life dramas she sings about. The results reveal how Nashville can update country traditions without losing emotional heft, and Womack's voice conveys heartbreak with the resignation of an adult who isn't encountering pain for the first time.
That Lonesome Song
A salt-of-the-earth antidote for those who consider contemporary country music too slick and sentimental, Johnson serves up barroom poetry from the point of view of hard-bitten losers and boozers. But it's not just the outlaw stance that lifts his work; it's the blue-collar authenticity of a man writing his truths with a balance of nerve and sensitivity. He also offers the best backroom honky-tonk arrangements heard this year.
Banjoist Richard Bailey, bassist Richard Fleming, guitarist Mike Henderson and fiddler Tammy Rogers give the Steeldrivers a formidable instrumental lineup. But the ace in the hole is lead singer Chris Stapleton, who shakes the earth with a rumbling baritone growl that has more in common with soulful modern rockers than with high-lonesome tenors. Add Henderson and Stapleton's dangerous, distinctive songs about murderers and haunted souls, and the result is a rare bluegrass outfit you can't invite to church on Sunday.
JUSTIN TOWNES EARLE
The Good Life
An R. Crumb cartoon come to life, Earle offers a jaunty mix of vaudevillian swing and Texas shuffles, with a couple of sidesteps into bluesy, singer-songwriter narratives. His rakish style and fitful energy, coupled with randy, self-deprecating lyrics, create the portrait of a charming young hustler -- one likely to have a paperback tucked into his pocket.
As the most convincingly old-school female country singer of her era, Loveless seems a natural for an album of classic covers. Drawing largely on golden-age songs from the 1950s and '60s, Loveless and producer-husband Emory Gordy take pains to find fresh ways to interpret familiar lyrics. The result underscores why these songs endure -- and why Loveless is held in such high esteem by artists of earlier generations.
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The New World/His Greatest
Modern-day Texas bard Robison manages to compose hits for Nashville stars -- no easy task for an outsider who writes alone -- while creating laid-back yet provocative collections of his own. He released two albums this year, one refashioning hits made famous by others, and another of new material. Both portray a singer-songwriter who moves at a pace distinctly different from the in-your-face razzmatazz of Music Row: Robison's songs lope with funky rhythms or breathe with an acoustic melodicism perfect for narratives that get inside human emotions.
The Wrights/In the Summertime
This hardworking husband-and-wife duo also put out two collections this year: an EP of originals that slip from breezy to brave, and a stylish album of covers notable for how strongly the couple's own vision shines through on a list of unpredictable choices. Shannon Wright brings a great song interpreter's sense of nuance to her sweet, sensual voice and, together with husband Adam, arranges tunes with a grace that makes listeners lean in and pay attention.
(Captain Potato/Thirty Tigers)
As a leading Nashville star in the 1980s and '90s, Mattea always brought a folkie's sensibility and earthiness to country radio. As an independent artist, she's increasingly shed Nashville's easy sentiments for the deeper truths of singer-songwriters. Coal is the most overt folk album of her career -- and one of her best. A collection of songs with mining as a theme, it draws on Mattea's West Virginia roots and her early musical influences -- and whether she's flashing anger, compassion or love, her enormous humanity shines through.
Around the Bend
This is what aging country singers should sound like in the 21st century. Weathered and wise, Travis presents tough songs about personal reckonings brought on by bad choices, and balances them with gracious songs about the comfort brought on by good love. One of his generation's most identifiable vocalists, Travis takes more risks with his baritone these days, with solid results. Meanwhile, he and his longtime producer, Kyle Lehning, blend good taste with bold ideas in both material and arrangements.