Denim & Diamonds
The Highway Queen likes the road she’s on. Therefore, Nikki is keeping the hammer down, staying in Lane’s lane as a badass, independent, troublemaking cowgirl, half denim and half diamonds. Call it Outlawpulence. Lane can hit you with a wilting mirror-ball weeper like “Faded” and then turn up the new-wave guitars (courtesy of Queens of the Stone Age’s Josh Homme) on the self-empowerment anthem “Born Tough”. Lane’s fourth album is no bright, sheeny affair. The production is understated, any gleam stripped away, sounding as though the band is pushing the music through a wall of bong smoke. Nothing, however, is going to muffle Nikki’s gift for big melodies and witty-cool lyrics. As much as Darling Nikki loves the tough-edged rocky-tonk, she continually tips her white cowboy hat to days gone by and to the influences that helped get her here. Or as she sings on “First High”: “Take me back to the first dream / 501 blue jeans / Tighter than goddamn Springsteen.”
For her fifth album, Ashley McBryde decided to have some fun. Assembling a bunch of songwriting buddies (Brandy Clark, Aaron Raitiere, Connie Harrington) to write a concept album about the fictional small town of Lindeville, populated with recurring characters from McBryde songs. Like any American town, Lindeville is full of contradictions—one song is called “Gospel Night at the Strip Club”—and is packed with comedic white-trash details, some of it too ribald for radio. In the spirit of shifting narrators, McBryde shares vocal duties with Clark, Raitiere, and John Osborne (of the Osborne Brothers, whose guitarist TJ produced the album) who take turns narrating Lindeville’s colorful characters. Mixing red-county coarseness, universal yearning, backwater humor, and genuine tenderness, Lindeville is a captivating, fun, and, at times, gorgeous album of top-shelf melodies and performances. Lindeville might not be a place you would want to live, but it’s sure a pleasure to listen to.
The Man From Waco
As an artist of Black, Creole, and Jewish heritage, Charley Crockett may not be what traditional Grand Ole Opry audiences expect to see. However, in terms of musical lineage, he sounds like he records for Nashville’s Little Darlin’ label in 1968. The Man From Waco, Crockett’s 11th, and best, album in seven years, is a quasi-concept album that feels like a direct homage to Red Headed Stranger complete with the opening “Man From Waco Theme” and its reprieve. Song after song, Crockett sings rambling cowboy vignettes filled with evocative wild-west lyrics. Example triplet: “Hold on to your woman if you got one / Remember in a past life when you shot one / Way up in Santa Fe, yeah, you bought one.” It’s all set to dusty, firmly-built arrangements that at turns offer callbacks to Liberty-era Willie Nelson and Bob Wills-style western swing, but also offers rangier surprises, as when the second-line New Orleans horns show up on the redemption jaunt “Trinity River”.
Dispatch to 16th Ave.
Muscadine Bloodline, the duo of Alabama natives Gary Stanton and Charlie Muncaster, kick off Dispatch to 16th Ave. with the title track, a eulogy of sorts for the dead-on-arrival fates of numberless Nashville also-rans: “Another murder on Murder Row / Another never would’ve made it on the radio.” The song is likely autobiographical when it comes to radio attention for these hard-working Mobilians—they are too Southern rock, too red dirt, too outlaw for the commercial airwaves. Which just means that these are lean melody-rich tunes filled with fine vocal harmonies and tasteful arrangements, resulting in one of the strongest, purest collections of country songs of the year. Muscadine (named for a Southern-grown grape variety) peddle their Southern pride with amiable specificity (“We love Burt Reynolds in Cannonball Run”, for instance) but with a progressive sensibility, insisting that there “ain’t no room for hate / That ain’t my Southern.”
Melissa Carper is countrier than you. Now that Loretta Lynn has left coal country for good, Carper might be the best-equipped gal to carry the torch. Then again, her pinched vocal delivery and jazzy arrangements have earned her the nickname “HillBillie Holiday”. Old-tyme as it all sounds, the Arkansas-based singer and upright-bassist avoids time-worn topics within her classic structures. “Boxers on Backwards” is a sexual-dry-spell lament told from a man’s perspective; “Zen Buddha” is about meditating your way out of an obsessive love; “1980 Dodge Van” reminisces about her first car, the one in which her daddy drove her to Worlds of Fun. Recorded in analog, Ramblin’ Soul displays a mastery of vintage American idioms and delightfully deft songwriting on songs that move gracefully among country, jazz, boogie-woogie, and Sun Sessions-style rock and roll, all filled with Carper’s unique personality and soul. Ramble on.
Listen to the Blood
If you listen to Listen to the Blood, you hear singer-songwriter Joe Garner’s inherited love of the Grand Ole Opry, where his father Charlie played bass for decades. Garner wears his father’s old red polyester suits as the Kernal, a kitschy alter ego, but there’s no joke in Garner’s loving tribute to classic country music. Some of these nine songs sound snatched from Roger Miller and Ernest Tubb playbooks, and the lilt in Garner’s voice sounds much like the Texas Troubadour himself. Yet this is no set of moth-eaten memorabilia. It’s a timelessly cool set of tunes that simultaneously honors Ryman-era country and elbows it in the ribs, as the Kernal plants his boots in both the past and the present. Filled to the brim with nimble singing, nifty little tunes, and well-picked arrangements, Listen to the Blood is a keen capper to the Kernal’s recent trio of albums. Word has it that Garner plans to retire the red suit soon, but here’s hoping he hangs onto this sound a little while longer.
Adeem the Artist
White Trash Revelry
The artist born Adeem Bingham is a nonbinary/pansexual songwriter who sings about the historical and cultural inequities of the American South, so you can bet your ass that the country mainstream wants nothing to do with them. But despite song titles like “Heritage of Arrogance” and “Redneck, Unread Hicks”, Adeem does not paint in broad strokes or empty platitudes or performative wokeisms. Instead, they attempt to not only understand both sides of the Southern attitudes but also to give voice to a diversity and complexity often overlooked in the rural South. And those who prefer their country music free of “politics” will nonetheless have a hard time dismissing the aural satisfaction of Adeem’s indisputably outstanding songs, accessibly rendered by swell singing, a cavalcade of crowd-pleasing country shapes, and classic honky-tonk embroidery.
Did Hank do it this way? Some sunburned Navy unknown with a forgettably-common country-bro name uploads cellphone video of himself playing scrappy original songs on an acoustic guitar and ends up headlining major festivals and topping the US country albums chart despite having zero radio airplay. Country stations finally caved and started playing “Something in the Orange” (fun fact: not about Trump), but the CMAs snubbed him anyway. This all makes Bryan a game-changing country sensation, but none of it would work if his songs were not stellar, and for his major label debut, he decided that more was more and released a whopping 34 of them as a triple-album.
He also decided that less is more, as American Heartbreak plays like a treasure chest of demo recordings. Bryan is decidedly unrefined as a singer, guitarist, and harmonicist, and the Nebraska-like spareness of these warts-and-all one-take tracks puts the focus on his uniformly strong melodies and sturdy narrative lyricism. The full two hours is a lot to take on, so everyone made their own 11-song playlists called American Partbreak, and debating which songs should make the cut became a favorite pastime among Bryan’s rabid fanbase. But here’s the story: Amid all the manufactured glitz and glamor of modern country showbiz, millennials revealed a fierce hunger for realness in their next hero, and they found it in Zach Bryan’s no-bullshit style, sound, and stories. Your move, Nashville.