Do you have quarantine nostalgia yet? If so, it might help if we look back on what Americana artists produced during or in the aftermath of the pandemic. That is if we can future out what Americana music encompasses, which we debate yearly. You should have heard some of the fights over this topic around the annual PopMatters Thanksgiving dinner table. We reached across the aisle to agree that Americana should incorporate some traditional elements of any American musical forms: blues, country, jazz, folk, gospel, R&B, and rock ‘n’ roll.
Some of our records bake those traditions into a new roots-based hybrid each year, and 2022 was no exception. An argument could also be made that some of these albums are a better fit on a country music list; however, we settled on the tradition that Americana artists, while often country-leaning, are either too progressive, classicist, experimental, indie-oriented, etc., to be embraced by today’s country mainstream. As a result, our best Americana albums of 2022 are a multicultural, polysexual, mixed-gender, cross-genre lineup of music that fit somewhere under the big backyard of Americana, a land that was made for you and me.
Courtney Marie Andrews
“I’m not used to feeling good / Maybe you can change my mind,” Courtney Marie Andrews sings in “Change My Mind”, a track from the lovely Loose Future, her eighth solo album, which finds herself at a crossroads between the romantic anguish of her previous records and the fragile hopefulness of where she’s going. She toggles between resolve and resignation on a record of soft-textured midtempo songs filled with searching poetry and wreathed in shadowed, ambient atmospherics. Guitars, keys, and musical saws become ambient soundscapes but with production subdued enough to allow Andrews’ winsome vocals to remain forefront. With such hypnotically organic instrumental interplay and ethereal sonic undercurrents, these are plaintive songs that express the full range of Andrews’ emotions, from romantic disappointment (“On the Line”) to gratitude (“These Are the Good Old Days”) to the dizziness of occasionally getting love right (“Me & Jerry”).
Strictly a One-Eyed Jack
At 70, John Mellencamp puts the lyrical melancholy front and center and wraps it in a sad musical shroud to match. The result is the rock legend’s most homegrown album ever, a dozen new originals that make up a song cycle about taking stock of one’s life as the end draws near. The arrangements are lean, at times desolate. Mellencamp delivers the songs in a wasted, Waitsian croak, the sound of shadows overtaking the twilight and rendering one’s old dreams no longer visible. Overall, Strictly a One-Eyed Jack is an album of cohesively designed and beautifully articulated performances and arrangements from an artist whose tough swagger always belied a pained vulnerability. Despite being a songwriter who has decided his “crazy dreams just kinda came and went”, the album is a pleasure to listen to—even if for Mellencamp, what used to hurt so good now just hurts.
12th of June
Lyle Lovett‘s first album in ten years and his first on a new label sounds like a tour through the Best of Lyle, a mix of Large Band-style torch and blues, jump-jazz instrumentals, sagacious Texas tunesmithing, and duets with longtime collaborator Francene Reed. Some standards are here—Nat King Cole’s “Straighten up and Fly Right” is a highlight—while some songs reflect Lovett’s life as a new father. The album’s title is his young twins’ birthday. 12th of June is bursting at the seams with the kind of versatility that always had Lovett stocked varyingly next to Patty Loveless, Julie London, or Loverboy in record stores. The album is filled with live-in-the-studio musical conversations, Lovett’s trademark wit and elegance, and, in these divisive times, a universal sentiment that we can all agree on: “Pants Is Overrated”.
Radio John: Songs of John Hartford
Sam Bush is the most revered artist in newgrass music, a genre he is often credited with inventing back when he was the leader of pioneering jam-expanding pickers, New Grass Revival. However, if you ask Sam, the true Father of Newgrass is John Hartford, the legendary songwriter and multi-instrumentalist whose mix of old-time riverboat twang and rule-bending, pot-endorsing, folkgrass progressivism made him an icon of bluegrass artists of all stripes to this day. This year, Bush got around to making a whole album of Hartford tunes, ten masterpieces culled mostly from Hartford’s lesser-known catalog. As always, Slammin’ Sammy plays with pianistic dexterity and finger-fracturing force and control. As a chameleonic purveyor of styles, Bush reupholsters these tunes in his distinctive image while honoring the voice, the fiddle, and the vision of a true American original.
Lines on the Levee
The Asheville quintet Town Mountain have been proving themselves as jam-ready rockgrass shitkickers since 2008, splitting the difference between Old Crow Medicine Show and Turnpike Troubadours. Still, they’ve never sounded as surefooted as on the new Lines on the Levee. With a pile of red-dirt ringers, fiddle-happy western swingers, Levon-like country rockers, roadhouse boot-scooters, and Tejanoesque waltzers, Lines on the Levee sounds like a mixtape of Americana styles that frame stories of unsung heroes, hardscrabble American families, and rip-roaring working-man blues. In these songs, Town Mountain pay tribute to folks of tough-earned survival or who are simply trying to get their lives together again. By trading vocals and tunesmithing, the band creates a gritty album that finds solace in red-blooded melodies and communal picking that establishes Town Mountain as alt-country standard-bearers.
Breaking the Thermometer
Is this Americana? It’s not an acoustic-guitar-based twangfest, but we’ll go to the mat for Leyla McCalla‘s gorgeous exploration of her Haitian roots and how those musical forms helped shape McCalla’s art into an American-based expression of its own. As cellist for the Carolina Chocolate Drops, McCalla paid homage to American roots music, from old-time Appalachia to Louisiana skiffle. But like fellow Drop Rhiannon Giddens, McCalla’s solo efforts travel further to incorporate world elements into the music. Sung in primarily French, Breaking the Thermometer incorporates spoken-word interludes, clawhammer banjo, and world-wise instrumental amalgamations that echo the combination of creole and blues traditions that contributed to the birth of jazz. It’s an album of aural alchemies that reinterprets the Haitian diaspora in America in a gorgeous, deeply-felt fashion.
The Coffis Brothers
Turn My Radio Up
At first blush, the similarities—compositionally, timbrally, jangelistically—to Tom Petty are impossible to ignore. But Santa Cruz sibling act, the Coffis Brothers (Kellen and Jamie), break away from the Charlie Wilbury comparisons not only by writing songs that would be very good Petty tunes but also by braiding blues, folk, country, and soul together into a classic-rock-sounding collection that is infused with Brothers’ unique musical personality and sensitivity. Produced by roots ringer Tim Bluhm, Turn My Radio Up showcases family-tight vocal harmonies on sun-blissed California Amer-rock-cana, sounding like the Everlys paying tribute to the Eagles on both the piano-based beauties and the love-sick rockers. Take the Coffis Brothers’ advice: Turn it up.