best country albums of 2023
Image by schubinger from Pixabay

The 15 Best Country Albums of 2023

This year’s best country albums spring from hard-country bands to traditional true believers and from alternative country renegades to pop-country superstars.

15. Brent Cobb – Southern Star (Ol’ Buddy / Thirty Tigers)

According to Georgia native Brent Cobb, the American South is a unique and magical place. While conventional wisdom tells one to look to the North Star (Polaris) as a way to orient oneself, Cobb wryly suggests that he’s guided by a “Southern Star” (as the title song puts it). This wisdom serves as the album’s theme. Cobb looks to his Southern heritage, the land, and the spirit of the place to set his fables. The Southern locations can be as much a character as those who populate his songs. Cobb’s pride serves him well. He knows what he is talking about, even when tossing the bull. That mythmaking, tall tale-telling spirit can be frequently found in Southern literature and music. So Cobb offers songs about living the dream, childhood fun, and just hanging out entrenched in the South and letting his creativity loose. The imagination drives the tracks, even when they are rooted in reality. – Steve Horowitz


14. William Prince – Stand in the Joy (Six Shooter)

William Prince makes sincere, heartfelt music that touches one’s soul. His rich baritone voice captures the spiritual feelings embedded in our connections to each other and our yearnings for a higher power. Prince writes in plain language about the quotidian experiences that reveal the transcendent spirits in the everyday miracles of existence, such as falling in love, being young and innocent, the bonds that tie us together, and more. He convincingly notes that even doing what may seem to be mundane activities, like listening to a cover band play Metallica, watching a Goldie Hawn movie on TV, or sipping gin with another, can be golden. Prince has a wry sense of humor that implies he knows how absurd life can be. That adds to his appreciation of the world. Prince can be cosmic, comic, or both at the same time. – Steve Horowitz


13. Various Artists – One Night in Texas: The Next Waltz’s Tribute to The Red Headed Stranger (The Next Waltz)

Bruce Robison gathered several Americana-style country’s best-regarded performers to pay homage to Willie Nelson. The roster included such notables as Margo PriceSteve EarleRobert Earl Keen, and Ray Wylie Hubbard. Eleven different musicians contributed one song written by or associated with Nelson to show their love and respect for Nelson. Bruce Robison, Shinyribs, and Nathaniel Ratliff each performed two songs. One Night in Texas: The Next Waltz’s Tribute to the Red Headed Stranger reveals how many others revere the man and the extent of his influence, but it is just the tip of the iceberg. Innumerable musicians worship at the shrine of Willie. – Steve Horowitz


12. Vincent Neil Emerson – The Golden Crystal Kingdoms (La Honda / RCA)

Vincent Neil Emerson writes and performs songs about hard times without being bitter. Life experiences have shown his protagonists that things can be tough. They may nostalgically yearn for home, but they were born to ramble. (“I’ve been looking for a home that I just could not find,” he sings in the title song.) His narrators are always on the road. Emerson sings in a plain voice with a slight twang. There is a slight dustiness to his vocals that suggests his mind is not always clear. His characters have to squint backward to see what they have learned. What has not killed them may have made them stronger—at first, but as they get older, they realize that what has not killed them has just caused them pain. Like Emerson’s New England transcendentalist namesake, this Westerner has become self-reliant. – Steve Horowitz


11. Amanda Shires and Bobbie Nelson – Loving You (Silver Knife / ATO)

Texan Bobbie Nelson has always been a masterful piano stylist. Her work with her brother Willie‘s band, the Family, showcased her considerable talents. Willie himself was always effusive in his praise of her skills. This wasn’t a case of nepotism. The impact her genius had on one of contemporary country rock’s best bands stood out positively. She could take you from a dusty dance hall floor to the front row at church to Broadway and back with nimble fingers and a deep sense of melody. Nelson died back in March 2022.

Before she died, Bobbie worked with the multi-instrumentalist singer-songwriter Amanda Shires. Americana’s Shires has repeatedly acknowledged Nelson as a musical hero. The COVID pandemic and lockdowns made their recording difficult, but Shires and the record company have recently released the results posthumously. The result, Loving You, is wonderful! – Steve Horowitz


10. Whitehorse – I’m Not Crying, You’re Crying (Six Shooter)

Whitehorse are a quirky Canadian duo who perform old-fashioned style country music with a droll edge. On their latest record, I’m Not Crying, You’re Crying, partners Melissa McClelland and Luke Doucet wear their hearts on their sleeves, tears in their beers, and their tongues in each other’s cheeks. The two aren’t combative as much as they present different perspectives on life’s travails. As the album’s name suggests, it’s suffused with emotional songs delivered with a wry grin. Life can be cruel, eh? Nothing can be sadder than a country song, and Whitehorse create their share. The best one can do is wallow in the hurt via old-time music, like by listening to the songs on this album. – Steve Horowitz


9. Jim Lauderdale – The Long and Lonesome Letting Go (Sky Crunch)

Like most of Jim Lauderdale‘s projects, The Long and Lonesome Letting Go truly embodies the definition of collaboration, with Lauderdale writing six songs with Po’ Ramblin’ Boys’ guitarist Josh Rinkel. The album as a whole feels like a sequel of sorts to Lauderdale’s 1999 record, I Feel Like Singing Today, an absolutely stellar collection of bluegrass and gospel tunes recorded with Dr. Ralph Stanley and the Clinch Mountain Boys. Every Jim Lauderdale record wouldn’t be worth writing about if they all weren’t so damn good. This is another to stack on the pile of Lauderdale’s long list of achievements. It is an album almost great in its musical consistency, the remarkable ease at which the assembled play and sing faultlessly together, and its lyrical virtuosity within the genre and beyond. – Avery Gregurich


FROM THE POPMATTERS ARCHIVES

Publish with PopMatters

PopMatters Seeks Book Critics and Essayists

Call for Papers: All Things Reconsidered – FILM Winter 2023-24

Call for Papers: All Things Reconsidered – MUSIC Winter 2023-24

Submit an Essay, Review, Interview, or List to PopMatters

PopMatters Seeks Music Writers