What’s the state of country music in 2008? Well, the top two albums were released by dead guys. Luckily the living musicians out there exerted a pretty good effort this year too, even if several of them will never receive airplay on radio or music television. This Top Ten was a tough list to compile, and several albums just barely missed the cut, but are still worth a listen any way. It seems that despite the vapidity of releases from commercial stars such as Chuck Wicks and Kellie Pickler, country music as a whole is still in pretty good shape.
The Unreleased Recordings
(Time Life; US: 28 Oct 2008; UK: 27 Oct 2008)
In 1951, Hank Williams recorded a series of radio shows sponsored by Mother’s Best Flour for early morning play on WSM 650. Although the acetate discs which held these shows were notoriously fragile, they somehow managed to survive being thrown in the trash, and were later rescued by a WSM employee. After years of lawsuits regarding ownership of these recordings, the Mother’s Best shows are finally available to the public. This three-disc set picks the best cuts from those early morning radio shows, including dozens of songs which Williams never officially recorded for release such as “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain” and “The Pale Horse and His Rider.” These songs along with the occasional snippet of Williams’ commentary on them reveal a heretofore unseen side of the Hillbilly Shakespeare.
Must Listen: All of it. It’s Hank Williams as you’ve never heard him before.
At Folsom Prison: Legacy Edition
(Legacy; US: 14 Oct 2008; UK: Available as import)
Forty years after their recording, the landmark Folsom Prison concerts of January 13, 1968 are finally released in their entirety with this 2CD/1DVD collection. In addition to Cash’s spellbinding performance, At Folsom Prison includes songs from Carl Perkins, the Statler Brothers, a hillbilly poetry reading from June Carter, and announcements from country radio disc jockey Hugh Cherry. The more cynical listener may wonder why Sony/Legacy waited to release these recordings until the Man in Black became a cash cow years after his death. But country music fans can finally rejoice at being able to hear the legendary Folsom Prison concerts the way they were originally performed, mistakes, profanity, and all.
Must listen: Watch the DVD and see the Man in Black in action.
The Good Life
(Bloodshot; US: 25 Mar 2008; UK: Available as import)
Despite the pressure that the Earle name could put on a young country musician, Justin Townes Earle has managed to create an album blending prewar folk, classic country, and a certain je ne sais quoi reminiscent of a young Guthrie or Van Zandt. The resulting product is downright amazing, more so if you consider that The Good Life is Earle’s first full-length release. Furthermore, the fact that Earle has developed such a mature and confident sound at the age of 25 means that this young man has a long and successful career ahead of him. Perhaps decades from now, Steve won’t be the only legendary Earle music historians write about.
Must Listen: “Ain’t Glad I’m Leaving.” Hands down the best song of any country album released in 2008 thanks to Earle’s sly, wink-wink delivery and the mandolin picking of Cory Younts.
The Sacred Shakers
(Signature Sounds; US: 19 Aug 2008; UK: 18 Aug 2008)
When it’s done poorly, there’s nothing more awful to listen to than gospel; lackluster Contemporary Christian Music is one of those things that seems to disprove the existence of a higher power. Luckily, for those who want some rhythm with their gospel music, there are the Sacred Shakers, a Boston-based band that incorporates bluegrass, rockabilly, and old-timey into their infectious sound. While most of the songs on this debut album are of the public domain, the Shakers’ high-energy arrangements make even the most mournful hymn sound like a jukebox staple.
Must listen: “Jordan Is a Hard Road to Travel”, an irresistibly catchy, banjo-heavy, classic country gospel number. Just try not to sing along.
(Red Beet; US: 10 Mar 2008; UK: Available as import)
Premiere country music journalist Peter Cooper takes a shot at the other side with his debut album Mission Door. Cooper’s perceptive journalist’s eye suits him well as a songwriter, creating slice of life moments like “715 (For Hank Aaron)” and “Andalusia”. In addition to these originals, Cooper also records two covers—“All the Way to Heaven” and “Mission Door”—the latter of which includes guest vocals from folk luminary Nanci Griffith. Add in some pedal steel from living legend Lloyd Green, and you have one of the best debut records to hit Nashville in years.
Must Listen: “Thin Wild Mercury”, a song about troubled troubadour Phil Ochs that Cooper wrote with friend—and interview subject—Todd Snider.
Call Me Crazy
(MCA Nashville; US: 21 Oct 2008; UK: 27 Oct 2008)
Womack is one of the few modern singers who can walk the line between tradition and commercialism: glamorous enough to fit in with the Faiths and Martinas, but old school enough to incorporate into her music the classic country sound of the 1960s and early ‘70s. Those who loved the syrupy pop ballad “I Hope You Dance” won’t find much to enjoy on Call Me Crazy, a pure country album from start to finish, chock full of ennui and alcohol. George Strait joins Womack for the Conway-and-Loretta-esque “Everything but Quits” (one of four songs on the album that were co-written by Womack) while “Solitary Thinkin’” seems made for jukeboxes in seedy honkytonks across the country.
Must Listen: “Either Way”, a simply amazing ballad in which Womack’s arresting vocals are reminiscent of Tammy Wynette in her prime: “You can go or you can stay / I won’t love you either way.” Oof.
(Sugar Hill; US: 16 Sep 2008; UK: Available as import)
Alt-country darling Kasey Chambers joins forces with her husband to create a starkly beautiful roots music tour de force. Despite their Australian heritage, the two fit seamlessly into the American country music tradition, channeling classic duos like Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris with soft, intimate harmonies as well as borrowing from the more recent collaborative styles of Gillian Welch and David Rawlings or Caitlin Cary and Thad Cockrell. And although all of the songs on Rattlin’ Bones are written by Chambers and Nicholson, several sound like classics pulled out of some Appalachian holler at the turn of the century.
Must listen: “One More Year”, a heartrending story of a slowly disintegrating relationship.
(Rural Rhythm; US: 23 Sep 2008; UK: Available as import)
Sadly, the classic brother duos of 50 years ago seem to have fallen by the wayside in country music. Luckily the Crowes are around to pay tribute to the Louvins, Stanleys, and Monroes. On Brothers-N-Harmony, the two men blend bluegrass and 1940s country on a nostalgia-heavy mix of covers and originals. Josh and Wayne are equally at home covering the Louvins’ classic “Are You Teasin’ Me” as they do on the C&W number “God Must Be a Cowboy”, making this an album for anyone who is sick of the overproduced, poppish country music of the past 20 years and longs for the 78rpm era. This record is hardly innovative or groundbreaking, but it adeptly addresses a facet of country music that seemed to be slowly fading away.
Must listen: “Holdin’ on When You’ve Let Go.” If it had been recorded 50 years earlier, it would be a standard by now.
Honest for Once
(self-released; US: 3 Jan 2008; UK: Available as import)
If the Flying Burrito Brothers were from Louisiana, they might have sounded something like the Brooklyn-based Doc Marshalls, who blend Parsons’ style of alt-country with the Cajun sound. Frontman Nicholas Beaudoing ardently tackles the depressing subject matter of the lyrics: heartbreak, murder, and desperation. The Doc Marshalls also go the dancehall route with a couple of toetappers sung in French; the peppy bayou musical arrangements make those songs a little less gloomy than their lyrics would suggest, but all in all, misery is what these boys do best.
Must Listen: “Dakota”, an updated “We Gotta Get Out of This Place”, this time featuring a stripper with a heart of gold.
Around the Bend
(Warner Brothers; US: 15 Jul 2008; UK: 21 Jul 2008)
In his 20-year recording career, Randy Travis has chalked up a dozen albums, 16 number ones, and multiple Grammys. Around the Bend, his first country record in nearly a decade—Travis has been recording gospel albums in this hiatus—might just be his strongest all-around album yet, mixing country, gospel, and even folk. Travis’ instantly identifiable baritone transforms Bob Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right” into a straight up, two-stepping country song complete with fiddle solo, while the record’s first single “Dig Two Graves” is a tender love song whose title belies its sentiment: “So I’ve made up my mind, girl if it’s your time / They can dig two graves, just carve one stone / ‘Cause without you here, I won’t last long.” Although Around the Bend lacks the chart-topping singles of his earlier releases, it cements Travis’ place as the most talented of the early ‘90s traditionalists, one who is able to flow with the changing state of the industry without ever betraying his classic influences.
Must listen: “Everything I Own (Has Got a Dent)” has got everything: a catchy hook, clever lyrics, and a tongue in cheek delivery from Travis.