Over the holidays, I was asked to participate in the Nashville Scene’s Country Music Critics Poll, trying to pick out the best country music made in the strangest year, 2020. Listening to a ton of new music, I came to the realization that there’s a lot more country in other genres than we seem to let on. There’s country in punk, there’s country in Texas-Mexican accordion music, there’s country in hip-hop (I firmly contend that Nappy Roots’ “Back Roads” was easily the best country single of 2020), there’s country in bluegrass, there’s country in folk and rock, there’s country everywhere! So what is country music? I don’t want to embark on a ramble about definitions, so I’ll just speak from the heart: country is rural roots, it’s a love of home and family, it’s a throwback to old traditions and folk instruments, it’s a nod to the working class and a middle finger to the rich keeping us down, it’s drinking and dancing the two-step, it’s neon lights for people who miss the clear skies of the countryside. Maybe I’m a romantic, but that’s what country means to me. So I went looking for those values across genres and came up with some great new country music for you to enjoy (AND SUPPORT!) this Bandcamp Friday!
I’ve been a fan of Austin underground honky-tonkers Croy and the Boys for a little while now. They blend all the best parts of Texas country, from deadpan songwriting to Tex Mex accordion, but with their new EP, they’ve outdone themselves. Moving beyond even the normal pale of socially progressive country (read “Americana”), they’re pulling together surprisingly solid country covers of radical songs from punk and hardcore, turning rage-filled anthems into barroom ramblers without losing the sense of fury that originally fueled these songs. Detroit hardcore band Negative Approach’s “Ready to Fight” kicks off the EP with the burble of Tejano accordion. Austin’s own hardcore punkband The Dicks’s classic “The Dicks Hate the Police” is adapted to become “Croy Hates the Police.” What’s great about this album though is not just that Croy’s adapted raging hardcore punk songs into slow-rolling country dancehall numbers, but that they’re tying a line between the radical politics of punk and folk/country. Other covers include the great Texas country scribe Blaze Foley’s blistering ballad “Officer Manley,” an ACAB anthem from the country world (Foley’s song was “Officer Norris” but Croy changed it to “Officer Manley” after Austin police chief Brian Manley who retired this year following police violence at Austin protests), and UK folkie Billy Bragg’s “Beyond the Wars.” The stand-out track on the EP, however, is absolutely the band’s furious cover of “Do They Owe Us A Living” from anarchist punk legends Crass. “Do they owe us a living? Of course they do!” It’s a labor ballad that lives large in any genre.
BONUS: Fellow Austinite Melissa Carper had easily one of the best country albums of 2021. As a member of the awesome alt-country band The Carper Family, anything new from her would be much anticipated, but Daddy’s Country Gold is virtuosic in how it plays with genre. There’s country here, but jazz too, and more. It easily calls to mind a 21st century Bob Wills fusing genres at will to create something new and exciting that can keep the boots scooting on the dance floor.
I’m not sure if this is Paisley Fields’ breakout country album, but it dang well should be. He’s gotten some great praise already for his glimmering vision of queer country and with Electric Park Ballroom he doubles down. The seriously spicy video for Fields “Stay Away from My Man” features adult film star Boomer Banks and is relatively NSFW (depending on your work). But it also features queer country pioneer Lavender Country, and in a sense Lavender Country’s legacy is maybe a bit closer to Fields’ real intentions. Cutting the first queer country album back in 1973, Lavender Country subverted the humorous turns of phrases of country to a more sadly sardonic perspective, and in doing so infused the genre with a new (or at least newly recognized) worldview. Times have changed since then, and hopefully that change has provided Fields an opportunity to write country songs from a queer perspective without needing to subvert the genre entirely. With his new album he’s reveling in the camp of country pop, loving back-country rural tropes, and channeling Loretta Lynn’s Fist City whenever possible. It’s a wonderful album from an artist who understands what makes country so much fun. Shout out too for including folk singer Sam Gleaves whose Appalachian roots are on fine display.
At first glance, it seems like a somewhat obvious idea, an album of covers of the great outlaw country singer Waylon Jennings. But Grammy nominated folk/country artist Shannon McNally has a specific point to make. She wants to rework Jennings’ hyper masculine songs through her own perspective as a woman in the music industry. “The world has changed a lot since these songs were first recorded,” McNally says in the press release. “I have never heard a woman sing any of them, but these tunes are poignant and relevant to me and to women in general right now.” I was very surprised to hear that women haven’t been covering Jennings or perhaps other outlaw country artists; certainly these songs should be part of our national canon. So huge kudos to McNally for not only taking the chance of doing a whole album of Jennings songs, but also taking a step back as a songwriter herself to highlight another songwriter. That’s another rare thing that I wish we’d see a lot more. The album’s a whole lot of fun too. There is a wry twist to reimagining some of Jennings’ songs from a female perspective, certainly “I’m A Rambling Man” and “Only Daddy That Will Walk the Line” benefit from the gender swap. Some songs make more sense perhaps from her voice, like the classic “Mammas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys.” Importantly, some of the songs when sung by McNally seem a bit less rough-around-the-edges from the Jennings version, “You show me yours hun and I’ll show you mine” is kind of a tough lyric from Jennings. Overall, I think we didn’t realize how much we needed this album. It’s an essential revisit to a key canon songwriter, and a chance to look on his music a bit differently and also to affirm that Jennings’ music can speak to everyone.
BONUS: In a kind of similar vein, Nashville bluegrass banjo player and songwriter Justin Hiltner just put out two awesome versions of Dolly Parton’s “Silver Dagger” and “Wildflowers”. Hiltner’s reworking these from a queer perspective, as he related to the website Country Queer – “The entire narrative, which parallels Dolly’s own story, oozes of queerness and queer ideals — of leaving something behind to strive for something more.”
There seem to be two clear markers for what defines country music: authenticity and songcraft. Nashville’s own Pat Reedy has both in spades. Whereas Nashville’s glitzy stars like to showcase performative working class values, shooting a music video on a farm when they really live in a nice mansion, Reedy takes his working class roots seriously. He works construction and operates heavy equipment, and recently put out a stunningly powerful statement about Nashville’s policy of using and abusing immigrant labor on non-union job sites. He’s also a killer songwriter. He’s mastered the sad turns of phrases that make country music great, the hard lyrics that tear at your heart. “The moon is bright enough through the trees, shining down like a wedding ring” he sings, and his voice hurts so bad you just know this is a song about love gone wrong without him even having to say it. Reedy’s songs are well worn, world weary, out for blood, he’s exactly the kind of country superhero we need right now.
BONUS: Speaking of authenticity, there’s sure a lot of cowboy songs in country these days but not that many actual cowboys. An American Forrest is out to change that! A real deal cowboy in rural Oregon (near the remarkably artistic scene of tiny Enterprise, OR), Forrest writes the kind of country songs you could actually sing while riding on horseback, infused with his love of the trail.
Is there some kind of rule somewhere that country music has to be in English? Even with so many great Tejano artists cracking into the country or rock world, everyone from Freddy Fender and the Texas Tornadoes to Flaco Jimenez jumping in with the Rolling Stones, you’d still be hard pressed to find any Spanish language Tejano music in the country world. But this IS country music and it’s American music too. I used to work a festival in San Antonio and I fell in love with Tejano culture. Certainly any community that loves the accordion THIS much can’t be bad! So if you’ve never heard Tejano conjunto music (the accordion and bajo sexto roots music of Spanish language Texas), check out this debut album from San Antonio accordionist Brenda Martinez. It’s tunes only, no songs (check out Tejano band Intocable for killer songs), but she’s having so much fun on the accordion that it’s hard not to love listening as well. The album’s titled Favoritas de mis padres and the tunes here are all taken from old-school Tejano instrumental accordion dance music, with lots of polkas, like her dad would have liked. It’s a blast, especially with the heavy-strung bajo sexto booming out the chords. If this album doesn’t get your foot tapping, check your pulse.
BONUS: This isn’t a new album by any means, but if we’re talking about Tejano music, we’ve got to mention the legendary Lydia Mendoza. She cut the indelible classic “Mal Hombre” back in the 1930s, but lived long enough to be recorded again later by Les Blank and Arhoolie Records. Her albums are up on Bandcamp and they’re transcendent.
BONUS BONUS: I can’t seem to find out ANYTHING about this band but ooooh-wee is this a fun album. Waila music or “chicken scratch” is the rollicking dance instrumental music of the Tohono O’odham who live along the Arizona and Mexico border. Supposedly Desert Horizon is one of the younger bands in the tradition, and it’s too bad that this music is often hard to find because it sure is fun!
OK, look, I know this album is bluegrass and not country. But I don’t know of any bluegrass artist more able to tap into that ghostly line that divides the two genres than Danny Paisley. This is the kind of bluegrass that the Louvin Brothers played, the bluegrass that first inspired Elvis when he heard Monroe’s “Blue Moon of Kentucky,” the bluegrass that fueled the mainstream country rise of everyone from Keith Whitley to Chris Stapleton. That route isn’t Paisley’s route, he’s content to be one of the best living bluegrass singers and he comes by his music earnestly. The intertwined legacies of the Paisley and Lundy families around Galax, Virginia is a legendary Appalachian heritage dating back to old-time fiddler Emmet Lundy, who was recorded by Alan Lomax in the 1940s. Starting with this Appalachian old-time stringband legacy, the Paisleys and the Lundys bore witness to that mythic moment when old-time dance fiddling flipped over to hard-driving bluegrass in the hollers. Danny’s dad Bob Paisley cemented this legacy with his long run of legendary bluegrass albums with Ted Lundy based around the Galax sound, and Danny continues it today with his son Ryan on mandolin and Ted Lundy’s sons T.J. on fiddle and Bobby on bass. This is deep Appalachian bluegrass, so far back in the tradition that it reflects the actual roots of most of today’s country music.
BONUS: Even more niche than bluegrass, trucker songs are a key part of country in my mind. Big thanks to my Canadian buddy Mike Kerr for hipping me to the down-and-dirty trucking songs of Canadian songwriter Sean Burns. His album is a delight.
Maybe there’s nothing more country than Nashville. And yet so much great country music comes from much further afield than music city. At some point you’ve just got to acknowledge that country is a state of mind, maybe a product of raising, but certainly not anything unique to the South. Case in point, country songwriter Charlie Marie’s been putting out great country music hailing from her home state of Rhode Island. Like many great country writers before her, she’s looking to the wounded heartbreak of love for songwriting inspiration, and like the other great writers, she’s able to use that heartbreak to bring up much larger ideas about our common humanity. One of the standout tracks on the album is “Heard It Through the Red Wine” where she takes a lover to task while they’re under the influence of “vino veritas”. “All I needed to know was in a bottle of Merlot,” she sings, realizing “that bottle made an honest man of you.” Marie’s music is country done the old-school way, peppered with swooning pedal steels, tears leaking at the edge of the eyes, and a battered determination to keep pushing forward against all odds. “I wanted the record to sound like if Patsy Cline and Dwight Yoakam had a child,” Marie says in the press release. “It doesn’t just symbolize everything I’m working toward; it symbolizes where I come from, too.” You can parse out “He left me in the desert sand, he left me at the Rio Grande, he left me for a man” from her song “El Paso” and try to make a point about her New England background, but jeez the whole song just rings so right and true and she’s clearly country to the core. Let it go! Embrace country from every corner of America, and check out Charlie Marie!
BONUS: Leo Rondeau’s another great country songwriter and though his most recent album, Right on Time, is from 2019, he puts out music rather infrequently, so it deserves some notice. He’s Nashville-based but from the Turtle Mountain band of the Chippewa Indian tribe in North Dakota, part of a wave of great Native American country artists (William Prince, Richard Inman, Vincent Neil Emerson) taking over the scene today.
OK technically this one isn’t on Bandcamp, but it’s just such a good country album I couldn’t help but include it. Gabe Lee’s 2020 album, Honky Tonk Hell, wowed Nashville’s Americana crowd when it came out last year with his near effortless songwriting and super tight rhythms. It’s the perfect honky tonk album, great for late night dancing, with hard hitting lyrics. Lee’s album is so well crafted that it hits like a wrecking ball, those honky tonk dancehall rhythms are relentless. They hit hard enough that some parts of the album even seem like rockabilly at times, harkening back to those glory years of early country and rock n roll where hillbilly music (and blues of course) got electrified and in turn electrified the nation. Lee’s from Nashville born and raised, but he’s one of the few Asian-American artists in country out there. With family roots in Taiwan, Lee’s parents instilled a musical education in him from a young age, first at classical piano. That comes in handy in the tour-de-force “Emmylou” an old-school country heartbreak song with deep piano chords from Lee himself. The key to great country songwriting is being able to transmute the small moments of our lives into a bigger sense of meaning. That’s the kind of songwriting that sounds effortless and moves us so much. Lee’s an impossibly old hand at this, and his album should be a masterclass in great songcraft.
BONUS: McKain Lakey’s new album is a delight that hews a bit more to the folk side of things than country, but her voice is just so much fun to listen to and has such a nice twang that I think it fits here well. She reminds me a bit of Mary Gauthier maybe, her voice perhaps a bit lighter, but there’s a ton of inventive ideas on her upcoming album.