The Best Country Music of 2009

Country music purists may be stockpiling vinyl and dry goods for the Swiftocalypse, but all things considered, 2009 was a pretty good year for country music. Eric Church, the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Ashley Monroe, Elvis Costello, and John Doe, to name just a few, all released solid albums and the ever-reliable George Strait was, well, reliable, but nudged at some boundaries by delivering a version of Mexican folksong “El Rey”. Here are PopMatters‘ picks for the year’s best country albums, both mainstream and independent.


Artist: Carolyn Mark and NQ Arbuckle

Album: Let’s Just Stay Here

Label: Mint


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US Release Date: 2009-10-13

UK Release Date: 2009-10-13

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List number: 10

Carolyn Mark is a headstrong singer with wanderlust and critical-thinking skills that she exercises in songs that never settle for easy answers. Witness her here: “Put your hand too close to my mouth when you feed me / I just have to bite it.” She’s in fine form here, and so are her collaborators, the group NQ Arbuckle. Together, they find a common place of melancholic contemplation, and then occasionally burn the barn down. Mark and the band are Canadian, but don’t consider them a token non-US country act on this list. They’re token nothings: unique talents always blazing their own trail. Dave Heaton


Artist: Wayne Hancock

Album: Viper of Melody

Label: Bloodshot


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US Release Date: 2009-04-21

UK Release Date: 2009-04-21

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List number: 9

Wayne Hancock is hands down the hardest working man in country music. Fifteen years after his debut album Thunderstorms and Neon Signs had fans proclaiming him the successor to Hank Williams’ legacy, Hancock is still playing 250-plus dates a year, bringing his brand of juke joint swing (a blend of classic country, rockabilly, big band, and swing) to gin joints across America, gleefully proclaiming his disdain for commercial country music before ripping into a song that could’ve been a jukebox staple had he only been born 50 years earlier. With Viper of Melody, his seventh studio album, Hancock is at the top of his game. A must-hear is the highly danceable murder song “Your Love and His Blood”, which finds Wayne the Train crooning to his lady love, “The next time we’re together, I’ll be on the witness stand / I’ve got your love and his blood on my hands”. Juli Thanki


Artist: Keith Urban

Album: Defying Gravity

Label: Capitol


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US Release Date: 2009-03-31

UK Release Date: 2009-03-31

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List number: 8

Mainstream country music spawns a never-ending debate about who is or isn’t ‘country enough’. Yet there are some musicians in the genre, like Keith Urban, whose music gets better the less they try to sound ‘country’. Where the emotional turmoil within his last album drew critics’ praise, this generally dismissed album is the better of the two, and his best so far. It’s fluff, but beautifully constructed, rather intriguing fluff. A collection of daydreams, the album offers romance-novel delusions — the feeling that everyone you meet is about to fall head over heels in love with you — packaged as intricately layered, sublimely melodic spring-time pop anthems and late-summer hazy ballads. The more Urban embraces romantic illusion, musically and lyrically, the better the album gets. Dave Heaton


Artist: James Hand

Album: Shadow on the Ground

Label: Rounder


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US Release Date: 2009-09-08

UK Release Date: 2009-09-08

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List number: 7

Though he’d been playing country music professionally since his teens, oddball Texan James Hand didn’t release his national debut until he was in his mid-50s. Now pushing 60, he’s released sophomore effort Shadow on the Ground, an album that’s pure country, with a dash of wry, self-aware humor as Hand sings about country music’s favorite topics: drinking, heartbreak, truckin’, and the love of a good pet… in this case, a parakeet. Co-producers Lloyd Maines and Ray Benson also contribute their none-too-shabby guitar skills to Shadow, Benson most notably on the album’s lone cover, a Texas-flavored version of pop standard “Mona Lisa.” Juli Thanki


Artist: Those Darlins

Album: Those Darlins

Label: Thirty Tigers


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US Release Date: 2009-07-07

UK Release Date: 2009-07-07

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List number: 6

Those Darlins don’t consider their music ‘just’ country, and I guess it’s not, but their spunky concoction of bubblegum-pop and down-home blues sure taps into country-music traditions galore. There’s country not just in their cover of the Carter Family, but in the way they sing together, as a trio, while shuffling their way through Southern-themed singalongs about defending your mama’s honor and getting so drunk you eat a whole chicken in one sitting. New Yorkers now, they’re still Southern and proud, which feeds into the vivid setting they provide for fun, fiery songs. Dave Heaton


5 – 1

Artist: Gene Watson

Album: A Taste of the Truth

Label: Shanachie


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US Release Date: 2009-08-25

UK Release Date: 2009-09-21

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List number: 5

Don’t throw that farewell party just yet: two years after In a Perfect World won critical acclaim, Gene Watson is back and better than ever. A Taste of the Truth is everything that’s good about traditional country. Rhonda Vincent is once again stunning as Watson’s duet partner on feel-bad song of the year “Staying Together”, which paints an all-too-vivid portrait of a loveless marriage, while Trace Adkins joins Watson for “I Think We’ve Got a Pulse”, an optimistic toe-tapper about the state of country music. Best of all is “Three Minutes at a Time”, a country song about country songs and their ability to see us through the worst of heartaches. Juli Thanki


Artist: Chuck Mead

Album: Journeyman’s Wager

Label: Thirty Tigers


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US Release Date: 2009-03-17

UK Release Date: 2009-05-12

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List number: 4

BR549’s style of country often strikes me as too reverential, more about emulation than inspiration. In comparison, former BR549 singer Chuck Mead‘s first solo LP is the sound of cutting loose. The songs still look back to country’s past, but more like 1970s truck-driving songs and beer-drinking honky-tonk songs. These songs are boisterous, more out of frustration with life than as a partying gesture. They have a traveler’s sense of restlessness, but also a bitterness that can only come from getting your heart broken. That provides grit and feeling to match the dark humor in songs like “She Got the Ring” (“and I got the finger”). There’s loneliness here too, though it sure sounds like he’s having a ball. Dave Heaton


Artist: Miranda Lambert

Album: Revolution

Label: Sony


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US Release Date: 2009-09-29

UK Release Date: 2009-09-29

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List number: 3

She’s teeny and blonde, but don’t get Miranda Lambert confused with fellow reality show alum Carrie Underwood. This Texan loves guns, red meat, and shilling for Cotton, Inc. Her third album is her best to date, displaying a marked growth in her songwriting, evident in first two singles “Dead Flowers” and “White Liar”. Throw in well-chosen covers from Buddy and Julie Miller (“Somewhere Trouble Don’t Go”), Fred Eaglesmith (“Time to Get a Gun”), and John Prine (“That’s the Way That the World Goes ‘Round”) and you’ve got an album that treads the line between radio-friendliness and alt-country sensibility. At only 26 years old, Lambert’s got a bright future ahead of her in country music; best not take your eyes off her. Juli Thanki


Artist: Brad Paisley

Album: American Saturday Night

Label: Arista Nashville


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US Release Date: 2009-06-30

UK Release Date: 2009-06-30

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List number: 2

Brad Paisley made his mark as a smart-ass with a mean guitar who could churn out hits. For this album, his best, he sharpened his chops while letting his guard down more. The overarching theme of the album is awe at where he has grown to in his personal life, with a wife and kids, and at where our country has grown to, with a diverse population electing an African-American president. The two are tied together intelligently, to make this a concept album of sorts, but just as smart is the looseness of that concept, the way the album allows still for drinking songs, break-up songs, and playful pokes at masculine sense of importance. The tough guy with a sensitive soul has become a new-country archetype; kudos to Paisley by breathing life into it by being willing to laugh at himself and to think. Dave Heaton


Artist: Willie Nelson & Asleep at the Wheel

Album: Willie and the Wheel

Label: Bismeaux


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US Release Date: 2009-02-03

UK Release Date: 2009-02-03

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List number: 1

This was a damn good year for Willie Nelson albums. Naked Willie stripped the lush Nashville Sound from a collection of Nelson’s 1970s recordings, leaving the minimalist sound Willie wanted all along. The best Nelson album of the year — perhaps one of the best Willie Nelson albums ever — finds him doing his best Bob Wills impersonation. Willie and the Wheel was an album a long time in the making. In the 1970s, Atlantic’s Jerry Wexler handpicked several songs for Willie Nelson to record with Western Swing outfit Asleep at the Wheel, but the project didn’t actually get underway until 30-some years later. If this album had come out back when Wexler first pitched the idea, chances are that by now it would be considered a classic. Brimming with incredible talent and infectious joy, Willie and the Wheel is a keeper. Just try listening to standards like “Hesitation Blues” and “Right or Wrong” without smiling. Juli Thanki



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