Music

The Best Americana of 2014

Eric Risch, Taylor Coe, and Steve Leftridge

If forced to define Americana, it's the one genre where honest craftsmanship is required, respected, and rewarded, something the best of 2014 lived up to.

In a year that lacked, for better or worse, the crossover appeal of acts like Mumford & Sons or the Lumineers, widely acclaimed artists such as Jason Isbell, or a breakout star like country's Sturgill Simpson, a number of events shaped the Americana musical landscape in 2014. Major labels tested the waters, hoping to polish rough edges and extend the genre's reach into the mainstream. In August, Grammy winners the Civil Wars officially ended speculation of their parting, effectively opening the door for new duos -- married or otherwise -- to contend with the likes of Shovels and Rope. Traditionalist poster boys Old Crow Medicine Show, coming off their 2013 induction into the Grand Ole Opry, released Remedy, further demonstrating how indebted artists of their ilk are to the matriarchs and patriarchs of traditional American music.

Often considered a genre for acts that don't fit within a specific marketing niche, roots artists and aging musicians no longer commercially viable in their respective genres, we still struggle to define "Americana". While we were able to segment Americana from bluegrass and country, the blurred lines that exist muddle more into a deeper shade of gray with acts like OCMS possibly bridging all three classifications. The artists contained on this year's list are predominantly singer/songwriters, upstarts and veterans alike, ranging in age from 20 to early 60s. While we included returning alumni, there are a number of first-timers as well, signifying the genre's continued growth and viability. If forced to define Americana, I would be inclined to say it's the one genre where honest craftsmanship is required, respected, and rewarded. Marketing hype, YouTube views, and commercial radio play all have their place in other genres; in Americana, the songs and music are what count. That being said, I feel our top 15 Americana albums of 2014 live up to such a billing. Eric Risch

 
Artist: Goodnight, Texas

Album: Uncle John Farquar

Label: Tallest Man

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/misc_art/g/goodnighttx.jpg

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List Number: 15

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Goodnight, Texas
Uncle John Farquar

Formed by songwriters Avi Vinocur, from San Francisco, and Patrick Dyer Wolf, from North Carolina, Goodnight, Texas is named for the geographic midpoint between their respective homes. Despite the attempt (at least in designation) to point toward a middle ground, Wolf's home seems to have an upper hand. The Appalachian ghosts of the group's first album (most memorably, that of Jesse, a coal miner trapped underground) haunt this album as well. Characters on Uncle John Farquar include Civil War specters, such as a woman who can sense the death of her husband from afar ("Many Miles from Blacksburg") and a soldier penning a letter to his wife ("Dearest Sarah"). Vinocur and Wolf have touched brilliantly here on a rich, weird vein of American folk nostalgia, and one can only hope that that they find more ghosts out there to channel. Taylor Coe

 
Artist: HT Heartache

Album: Sundowner

Label: self-released

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/misc_art/h/htheartache.jpg

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List Number: 14

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HT Heartache
Sundowner

Not a widely known musical entity yet a household face recognizable from her television commercial work, actress Mary Roth as HT Heartache quietly delivered this year's under-the-radar release with her sophomore album, Sundowner. Four years since her debut, HT Heartache's tales of cross-country escapism ("Trenton", "Roam Cold Highway"), confessional omissions ("Darkside"), and noirish undertones ("Cowboy Poetry", "Ruby") are both beguiling and affecting. Backed by Christina Gaillard on guitar, the duo pairs celluloid imagery with weathered instrumentation, speaking to the wanderlust of post-war 1950s America, a promise that is itself these days a roadside relic most can only visit through the fiction of Jack Kerouac and photography of Robert Frank. Uncertain we will hear more from HT Heartache in the future, she has added her own marginalia to America's musical history with the singular Sundowner. Even if time proves it to be only a footnote, it's one worth referencing. Eric Risch

 
Artist: John Cowan

Album: Sixty

Label: Compass

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/misc_art/j/jcowan.jpg

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List Number: 13

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John Cowan
Sixty

In the '70s and '80s, John Cowan helped redefine progressive bluegrass as the vocalist and bassist in the seminal band New Grass Revival. Since then, he has led his own band, a finishing school for the best young pickers in bluegrass, and most recently signed on a full-time touring member of the Doobie Brothers. At age 60 (hence the album's title), Cowan went into the studio with fellow Doobie John McFee as producer and a long list of guests (Sam Bush, Leon Russell, Alison Krauss, etc.). The results play like a Best of Cowan, as the singer, whose titanic tenor remains as strong as ever, runs through strapping arrangements of country rock, midnight blues, jumping swing, and his signature electrified newgrass. As with everything Cowan touches, he makes these songs -- classics from the likes of Marty Robbins, Jimmie Rodgers, and Charlie Rich -- thoroughly his own, marking both a high point in a remarkable career and verifying a relentless creative spirit. Steve Leftridge

 
Artist: Caleb Caudle

Album: Paint Another Layer on My Heart

Label: This Is American Music

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/music_cover_art/c/caudle.jpg

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List Number: 12

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Caleb Caudle
Paint Another Layer on My Heart

Road-weary songs of love, loss, and longing dot the distances spanned on Caleb Caudle's Paint Another Layer on My Heart. Sullen and sentimental, Caudle's lyrical imagery is accented by pedal steel provided by Whit Wright (American Aquarium), with harmony vocals on opener "How'd You Learn" and aching album standout "Trade All the Lights" provided by Lydia Loveless. Classic in sound and simplistic in delivery, Caudle's contrition is refreshing on songs like "Bottles & Cans" and the swooning "Another Night"; the promises of "Missing Holidays" and "Come on October" knowingly prove false, yet Caudle sells his exhausted apologies with a voice worn ragged by blind miles of county lines crossed year after year. With its earnest and lived-in songs, Paint Another Layer on My Heart firmly places Caudle amongst the ranks of hungry musicians everywhere with stories and lies to tell. In Caudle's hands, both are worth hearing. Eric Risch

 
Artist: Justin Townes Earle

Album: Single Mothers

Label: Vagrant

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/music_cover_art/u/unknown5.jpg

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List Number: 11

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Justin Townes Earle
Single Mothers

Justin Townes Earle's fifth full-length finds a sober and newly married Earle, who, rather than living in the grips of his former emotional turbulence, is now reflecting back on the trouble with which his fans are fully familiar. So ruinous relationships, personal demons, and deadbeat dads get plenty of play, but Earle's lifestyle transitions have produced a paring down of his sound. The Memphis horns of his last release have been replaced by a sparer four-piece band, somewhere between his country-folk beginnings and Stax-influenced soul writing, replete with minor-key progressions and lonely pedal-steel embroidery. Things get occasionally peppy, as on the jukebox-boogie of "My Baby Drives", but most songs come to terms with regret ("Picture in a Drawer") and disconnection ("Wanna Be a Stranger"). Consequently, the album sees Earle deepening as a songwriter, and if Single Mothers isn't the sound of an outright renewal, it's JTE's warmest and most focused album to date. Steve Leftridge

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