The Best Americana of 2014

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. rating_circle_full-17 Eric Risch


Artist: Goodnight, Texas

Album: Uncle John Farquar

Label: Tallest Man

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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. rating_circle_full-17 Taylor Coe


Artist: HT Heartache

Album: Sundowner

Label: self-released

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HT Heartache

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. rating_circle_full-17 Eric Risch


Artist: John Cowan

Album: Sixty

Label: Compass

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John Cowan

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. rating_circle_full-17 Steve Leftridge


Artist: Caleb Caudle

Album: Paint Another Layer on My Heart

Label: This Is American Music

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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. rating_circle_full-17 Eric Risch


Artist: Justin Townes Earle

Album: Single Mothers

Label: Vagrant

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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. rating_circle_full-17 Steve Leftridge

10 – 6

Artist: Hiss Golden Messenger

Album: Lateness of Dancers

Label: Merge

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Hiss Golden Messenger
Lateness of Dancers

“I might get a little crazy”, M.C. Taylor sings on “Saturday’s Song”, a fair warning that the California-bred singer-songwriter is interested in letting off some steam. Taylor’s Hiss Golden Messenger has dedicated four records to dusky folk songs about the weary-hearted, but on Lateness of Dancers, his first album on the Merge label, Taylor crafts the sound of fighting through the muck and shambling into some soul fortification through sensual embraces: dancing, a beautiful woman, a glass of whiskey. Taylor has relocated to North Carolina, and his immersion into the South has helped to produce a vibrant new sound that incorporates ’75 Dylan, twisted Appalachian balladry, Waylon-country thump, the Band circa Stage Fright, and some jam-leaning soul-blues. The spiritual sway in Taylor’s smart, groove-infused songwriting and crackling arrangements invokes new-day possibilities among a hybrid of American musical traditions. rating_circle_full-18 Steve Leftridge


Artist: Bruce Robison and Kelly Willis

Album: Our Year

Label: Premium

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Bruce Robison and Kelly Willis
Our Year

Husband and wife duo Bruce Robison and Kelly Willis throw back to pure country gold on Our Year, their second album recording together. Composed of covers and originals written separately by Robison and Willis, the duo draw from the wellspring of ’60s and ’70s music, with Willis tackling Jeannie C. Riley’s cheeky “Harper Valley PTA” and the pair transforming the Zombies’ piano-driven “This Will Be Our Year” into a banjo and pedal steel duet of heartfelt devotion. More than another recorded coupling of spouses, rather, the songs on Our Year recall Janie Fricke’s pairings with the likes of Vern Gosdin and Moe Bandy on Robison originals “Carousel” and “Anywhere But Here”, with Willis providing harmony vocals, and the two trading verses on T Bone Burnett’s “Shake Yourself Loose”, reviving the flat, one-sided original into a touching yet contentious conversation between two lovers. Like the Ira Allen/Buddy Mize-penned “A Hangin’ On”, Our Year is as much a love letter shared between Robison and Willis as it is to the songs and artists covered on the album. Having no place in today’s commercial landscape, Robison and Willis delight, demonstrating the timeless quality of traditional country music with ease and grace. rating_circle_full-18 Eric Risch


Artist: Roseanne Cash

Album: The River and the Thread

Label: Blue Note

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Roseanne Cash
The River and the Thread

Much like William Faulkner’s examination of the American South through his character Quentin Compson in Absalom, Absalom!, Rosanne Cash revisits the region’s polarizing history on The River and the Thread, her first collection of original songs in eight years. Based in New York for more than two decades, Cash takes in familiar sights in locales like Alabama, Mississippi and Tennessee with fresh eyes, assessing race relations on “Money Road”, the Civil War on “When the Master Calls the Roll”, and religion on “World of Strange Design”. Cash delivers a veiled meditation on our shared American experience, where, despite our collective progress — sides once divided along black and white lines are now split into red and blue — divisions remain, sadly serving as the thread that connects us all. As with music, rivers like the Tallahatchie provide a certain rhythm to life; singing on “Money Road”, Cash notes, “You can cross the bridge and carve your name / But the river stays the same,” subtly reminding us how little things have actually changed. rating_circle_full-18 Eric Risch


Artist: Rodney Crowell

Album: Tarpaper Sky

Label: New West

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Rodney Crowell
Tarpaper Sky

Now 64, Rodney Crowell has been giving the world indelible melodies and graceful lyricism for 40 years. Lately, though, the Nashville Songwriting Hall of Famer has been content with collaborations, with Mary Karr in 2012 and with Emmylou Harris last year, without an album of his own originals in six years. Tarpaper Sky ends the drought with a set of terrific tunes that are both meticulously crafted and wholly relaxed. Crowell’s lived-in vocals front a crack band of veteran Crowell cohorts on a wide range of styles: the rockabilly of “Frankie Please”, the golden-age rock of “Somebody’s Shadow”, the sax-abetted two-step gospel of “Jesus Talk to Mama”, the country-folk waltz of “I Wouldn’t Be Me Without You”. It’s an album of familiar wit and tenderness to longtime Crowell fans, but Tarpaper Sky also proves that the legendary troubadour still packs plenty of surprises. rating_circle_full-18 Steve Leftridge


Artist: Hurray for the Riff Raff

Album: Small Town Heroes

Label: ATO

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Hurray for the Riff Raff
Small Town Heroes

Spanning multiple American time zones and musical epochs, Hurray for the Riff Raff‘s Small Town Heroes is a collection of smart and spirited tales of lives spent wandering while always yearning for a sense of home. Incorporating a variety of styles and forms, Alynda Lee Segarra and band work with flavors local to their now-home base of New Orleans, Louisiana, drawing inspiration from and giving voice to those unable to speak for themselves on the feral folk of charged protest songs “The Body Electric” and “St. Roch Blues”. A former musical vagabond, Segarra and Hurray for the Riff Raff’s previous recorded output hopped various genres and incorporated the influences of their musical forebearers; on Small Town Heroes Segarra’s true voice rings profound, having found its ultimate sense of purpose and home in a world of still-disparate peoples. rating_circle_full-18 Eric Risch

5 – 1

Artist: Shovels and Rope

Album: Swimmin’ Time

Label: Dualtone

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Shovels and Rope
Swimmin’ Time

Armed with a whole lot more than their metaphorical shovels and rope (that’s “two old guitars” for those who have not yet been blessed by “Birmingham”), the husband-and-wife duo of Cary Ann Hearst and Michael Trent burns bright on this third album. Their passion for the music and each other is evident on every track, displaying boundless energy and enthusiasm. Even though Hearst and Trent make great use of those old guitars and such, their voices are their greatest asset by far, yowling and harmonizing with reckless abandon. The territory covered is also impressive, as husband and wife veer from Black Keys-inspired blues-rock on “Evil” to doo wop rock on “Coping Mechanism” all the way into Tom Waits territory on “Ohio”, with its bizarre, mournful New Orleans horn arrangement and droning synth line. rating_circle_full-19 Taylor Coe


Artist: Lucinda Williams

Album: Down Where the Spirit Meets the Bone

Label: Highway 20

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Lucinda Williams
Down Where the Spirit Meets the Bone

Although it may not ultimately rank as Williams’ magnum opus, the 144-minute Down Where the Spirit Meets the Bone is her grittiest and most heartfelt album in years. Working on her own label and co-producing the album, Williams clearly felt free to be expansive and explore her sound. From “Compassion”, which sets one of her father’s poems to music, to the muted bitterness of “West Memphis”, Williams goes where her artistic muse takes her. Boasting a stellar supporting cast, including Tony Joe White and Bill Frisell, the album hits an earthy, bluesy vibe, sometimes downright swampy, as on the foreboding “Something Wicked This Way Comes”. In some ways, this is well-trodden ground for Williams — but she’s more than artist enough to always be finding something new under the sun. rating_circle_full-19 Taylor Coe


Artist: John Fullbright

Album: Songs

Label: Blue Dirt

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John Fullbright

It might seem pretentious to name an album Songs, especially on just your second studio effort, but when the songwriter is John Fullbright and the compositions are this stellar, the title makes perfect sense. On Fullbright’s 2012 debut, this Oklahoma boy established himself as a sly composer of greasy folk-blues and lilting piano ballads, both of which revealed Fullbright as a writer beyond his years with a musical alacrity that separated him from the rest of the coffeehouse set. On the bulk of Songs, Fullbright strips away nearly all musical accompaniment but his acoustic guitar or piano. What’s left are songs. Gorgeous, instantly captivating, emotionally resonant, compositionally adroit songs. While comparisons fly linking Fullbright to the pantheon of great writers — and you’ll hear echoes of Waits, Simon, Van Zandt, Newman, McCartney and others on Songs — Fullbright takes great strides on his sophomore album in confirming his own distinctive voice and, at just 26, has earned a seat at the table with our top tunesmiths. rating_circle_full-19 Steve Leftridge


Artist: Parker Millsap

Album: Parker Millsap

Label: Okrahoma

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Parker Millsap
Parker Millsap

It’s shocking to me how sure of himself this kid sounds. Even looking beyond that confident and weathered voice, how is it that this 20-year-old from Purcell, Oklahoma has the guts to jump right into the guise of the classic country troubadour? Some of the tunes on this album — all originals, mind you — sound so patently authoritative that it’s hard to believe they weren’t copped from some old folk record. And a song like “Disappear” must have been borrowed from one of the early Avett albums, right? Or one of those early Justin Townes Earle tracks? Then there’s “Quite Contrary,” which features a mishmash of different children’s rhymes and fairy tales set to a rollicking blues guitar, which sounds like weirdness that could only have been dreamed up by a Delta blues singer in a drug reverie. Where this stuff comes from, an intoxicating mix of country, folk, blues, honky-tonk, and Western swing, it’s hard to know, though it’s safe to say that everyone is left wanting more. rating_circle_full-19 Taylor Coe


Artist: Old Crow Medicine Show

Album: Remedy

Label: ATO

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Old Crow Medicine Show

If I can say one thing about Remedy, it is that Secor, Fuqua, and company have given me a new barometer with which to measure my life: the ownership of eight dogs and eight banjos. After all, who wouldn’t want to live out the pure joy of “8 Dogs 8 Banjos”, an Appalachian stomp celebrating hot coffee, hard times, and corn whiskey, among other things. With Remedy, Old Crow has delivered an album embracing all kinds of human experience, from one soldier mourning the death of another to a cruel prison warden to a Tennessean making his way home to his daughter. And I haven’t even mentioned the lovelorn cowboy of “Sweet Amarillo”, the sweet country shuffle co-written with Bob Dylan, which one can only hope signals further future collaboration. One can only hope that Bob keeps sending boxes of fragments their way. rating_circle_full-19Taylor Coe