With Midland being the exception most of the artists below only received minor and most of them, no airplay on commercial country radio. That doesn't mean that you have to be an indie artist to qualify for my Best of 2017 list, but as long as artists like Kane Brown, Chris Lane, Sam Hunt, Thomas Rhett, Walker Hayes or even pop starlet Bebe Rexha are dominating the country charts with unlistenable crap, I will venture out to find what quality-wise matters and will still be relevant in the years to come. Songs that have structure, depth in storytelling and not just regurgitating nursery rhymes, musical arrangements that rely heavily on instruments akin to country (or roots) music, like dobro, mandolin, fiddle and steel-guitar and singers who can actually sing.
So with no further ado - here's my Top-Ten, alphabetically:
Bobby Bare - THINGS CHANGE
Five years after "DARKER THAN LIGHT" and being elected into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2013, 82-year old Bobby Bare returned back into the limelight with a new album consisting mostly of self-written compositions. The title track, "Things Change," a Bare co-write with Jeff Hyde and Roger Springer, already garnered some attention in 2012, when Bare together with Petter Øien competed to represent Norway in the Eurovision Song Contest with that song, they came in third in the local Norwegian final.
Reflecting on life, often with a smirk and a twinkle in the eye, he let us know that Angels fly away, that the "Trophy Girl" - according to Bare the last co-write Guy Clark did - will be leaving too and that the only sure thing is that there "Ain't No Sure Thing." The strongest and most serious among these songs is probably "Where Did It Go" with the sentiment that time is just slipping through our fingers:
But now time is disappearing like jet streams in the sky
It all went by so fast I didn't see it pass me by
Brandy Clark - LIVE FROM LOS ANGELES
To include this live album is a bit a stretch, I would rather have included a new album from Brandy, as this compilation only offers one new song - "When I Get To Drinkin'," a Clark co-write with Josh Osborne (Midland, Kacey Musgraves, Sam Hunt) and Scott Stepakoff (Kelsea Ballerini, Tim McGraw). Four of the other ten songs are from her independent 2013 debut "12 STORIES," the rest from her 2016 follow-up "BIG DAY IN A SMALL TOWN." Originally released in April as a Record Store Day exclusive, these eleven tracks recorded at Hotel Cafe in Los Angeles shine with their stripped down, acoustic versions and made me include it in this year's list. Only accompanied by Miles Aubrey on acoustic guitar and background vocals her songwriting with its exquisite twists and turns even shines brighter:
Boy, I tend to get sad when Jones gets to singin'
I tend to get lonely, lonely, lonely when the phone isn't ringin'
So I tend to get drunk when I get to drinkin'
Tyler Childers - Purgatory
Kentucky native Tyler Childers is exactly what I would have loved to expect to come out of Nashville in 2017. A snapshot in time with its main character - even though only 26 but already a decade into the music business - trying to find a small ridge between his rowdier past and performing, "Honky Tonk Flame", and the new comforts of home, love, and marriage to "Lady May."
Even though anchored deeply in the traditions of the Appalachian mountains, geographically as well as musically, "PURGATORY" isn't limited to a place, a time or a musical custom. Due to its honesty, it reaches out with a "Universal Sound" and the listener will identify with what's being offered, may it be to find the balance between sin and salvation, or the dark story of a murder ballad, "Banded Clovis."
It also helped that darling-du-jour, Sturgill Simpson (with David Ferguson) helped produce "PURGATORY," he led an awesome cast of musicians. Normally I wouldn't mention the rhythm section, but what Miles Miller (Sturgill's drummer and responsible to introduce Tyler to Sturgill) and Michael Bub (bass) deliver is a solid foundation caring the ten compositions, often hinting at the backbone of Waylon Jennings' sound. The rest of the crew are all multi-instrumentalists, Charlie Cushman (Jim Lauderdale, Hank III) here delivering the banjo staccatos, Stuart Duncan (also on Charley Pride and Rhonda Vincent/Daryle Singletary's Best of 2017 records) on banjo as well as fiddle, acoustic guitar, and mandolin, Michael J. Henderson (Emmylou Harris, Miles Davis) on electric guitar and mandolin and Russ Pahl (Great Plains, Nikki Lane, Angeleena Presley) on acoustic, baritone and electric guitar as well as on harp and pedal steel.
Childers due to the strength of people adding his "radio station" on Pandora and his growing Social Media impact, just started charting on the Pandora Trendsetter Chart.
European readers, take note - Childers will be in Scandinavia, Germany, the Netherlands and the UK starting January 18th - go and see him chase that "Honky Tonk Flame":
Still on the road, cause I ain't good for nothin'
Except writing the songs that I sing
Beating them strings like they're owing me money
And chasing that Honky Tonk flame
Chris Hillman - BIDIN' MY TIME
It's over a decade that Chris Hillman released a solo outing, "pressured" by often collaborator and occasional duet partner Herb Pederson who got Tom Petty as a producer on board, Chris decided to show us one more time, why he is one of the most influential folk- or country-rock Illuminati. Originally hailing from the Bluegrass scene, he sang with Vern and Rex Gosdin in the Golden State Boys, was a co-founder of the Byrds, later the Flying Burrito Brothers, a member of Manassas, other incarnation including even other progenitors and the leader of the Desert Rose Band, besides having a solo career as well.
“BIDIN' MY TIME” is a cornucopia of all of Hillman's musical stages in life, there is bluegrass, three revisions on Byrds songs, country-rock and it closes with Hillman’s version of producer Tom Petty’s song “Wildflowers.” Petty brought keyboardist Benmont Tench, drummer Steve Ferrone and guitarist Mike Campbell (on "Restless") from the Heartbreakers. Roger McGuinn and David Crosby join Hillman for a mini Byrds reunion; Pederson, John Jorgenson, and Jay Dee Maness are old friends from the Desert Rose Band.
The album opens jingly-jangly with a re-edition of the Pete Seeger and Welsh poet Idris Davies classic "Bells Of Rhymney" which appeared on the Byrds' first album "MR. TAMBOURINE MAN" with Crosby joining in on harmony vocals. The second Byrds retake, "She Don't Care About Time" (Gene Clark) hails from the "TURN! TURN! TURN!" sessions, even though never included on the original album, it was the B-side of the of the title track's single version; Jorgenson's 12-string electric guitar adds a lovely touch to it. "Old John Robertson" from "THE NOTORIOUS BYRD BROTHERS" (Hillman/McGuinn) got a lyrical re-write into "New Old John Robertson" and became a bluegrass-country story song with Pederson on banjo and Punch Brothers' Gabe Witcher adding fiddle. "Here She Comes Again," another McGuinn/Hillman composition from their McGuinn-Hillman-Clark days, and up to now only available on the Australian Live album "Backstage Pass," got a reworking and now sounds like it was featured 15 years earlier as an original Byrds song, with McGuinn delivering his signature 12-string electric guitar picking and Hillman playing bass, as he did in the Byrds.
Playing around in the studio on Sonny Curtis' "Walk Right Back" (a Top-Ten-Hit for the Everly Brothers), Petty told them to record it, according to Jeff Slate's excellent "Rockcellar Magazine's article. With a great acoustic guitar lead by Jorgenson, they stuck to the Everly Brothers' one-verse-only version of the song, instead of the two verse version, Sonny, Perry Como, Andy Williams and others recorded.
Besides all these crate-digger songs above, the new material Hillman co-wrote with longtime collaborator Steve Hill and family friend Nathan C. Barrow's composition "When I Get A Little Money" need to be mentioned as well. Writing and singing from the perspective of a now 73-year-old, he reflects on all of the ills in this world and the finality, the limited time we spend here, but all these songs have that shimmer of hope that keeps us going. "Restless," the title track "Bidin' My Time," and "Such Is The World That We Live In" with its lines
No darkness will hold us down
No empty words will make a sound
We will be together again
Such is the world that we live in
are great examples and make this album a gem of 2017.
Ashley McBryde - A Little Dive Bar In Dahlonega
After two indie releases, 2011's "ELSEBOUND" and 2016's EP "JALOPIES AND EXPENSIVE GUITARS" this Arkansas native got signed by Warner Music Nashville on the strength of her songwriting. Opening for artists like Hank Williams Jr., Chris Stapleton, Willie Nelson and recently Eric Church, with whom she often duets on the autobiographical "Bible and a .44" from her EP which she dedicates to her father, sure helped, as well as an endorsement by Garth Brooks, upcoming tours with Luke Combs and Miranda Lambert.
Her major debut "GIRL GOIN' NOWHERE" is supposed to be released early 2018 - and with two songs from that album, she already generated quite a buzz, not only in the press from Rolling Stone to the New York Times, but also on streaming services, like Spotify and Pandora.
Trying to make it in Nashville for the last ten years, the title track is more than bittersweet. "Girl Goin' Nowhere" (co-written with Jeremy Bussey) tells the story of a singer chasing her dreams and being told that she will crash and burn, simply goin' nowhere. But redemption finally came and in June an emotional Ashley McBryde was able to sing that song during her debut at the Grand Ole Opry and finally cherish the chorus of that song:
But when the lights come up
And I hear the band
And where they said I'd never be, is exactly where I am
I hear the crowd
I look around
And I can't find an empty chair
Not bad for a girl goin' nowhere
But better yet, she doubled down with her first official single, "A Little Dive Bar In Dahlonega" with by now, almost 1.5 million streams on Spotify and was even able to crack the Billboard Country Airplay charts with limited radio airplay in December. And again it's great storytelling (together with Jesse Rice and Nicolette Hayford) that sets her apart - the famous light at the end of the tunnel in the form of a dive bar with a band, playing a song that will improve your day:
Here's to the breakups that didn't break us
The breakdown, wrong turn that takes ya
To a little dive bar in Dahlonega
Hear a song from a band that saves ya, man
It's hittin' rock bottom smoke 'em if you got 'em
Nothing's going right
Makin' the best of the worst day kinda night
If the rest of the album can keep up with the strength of these two teasers, you will probably be reading about Ashley McBryde in next year's Best of 2018 as well. So with "just one official" single out, Ashley made my Top-Ten list just because of what 2018 may bring.
Midland - ON THE ROCKS
Several outlets, including the much respected "Saving Country Music," question the authenticity of the new trio Midland, named after the saying "Fair to Midland" (stemming from fair to middling) Dwight Yoakam made into a song. Selling themselves as having worked the bar scene in Austin endlessly, which they haven't - that criticism has some roots. On the other hand, it's not unusual for a record company to come up with their own creation, what is often manufactured in the pop realm, has quite a tradition in Nashville too.
Not really advancing Midland's cause is resident Dr. Jekyll and Hyde producer in Nashville, Shane McAnally, who besides song-crafting and/or producing some excellent stuff (Kacey Musgraves, Miranda Lambert) also is responsible for some of the worst (Sam Hunt's "Body Like A Backroad" or the atrocious "BOOM." album by Walker Hayes.)
With all that said, Midland is still a very listenable "retro"-act, from their Nudie suits to their mix of laidback 80s sound (George Strait, Dwight Yoakam) with a 70s nod to country-rock harmonies. They smelled like a fresh whiff of Fabreeze on the else pestilential airwaves. Also helping is the fact that the beloved sound of a steel guitar is front and center, thanks to my contemporary heroes Dan Dugmore and Paul Franklin. With a top-five, "Drinkin' Problem" under their belt, and now storming the charts with the follow-up "Make A Little" the trio consisting of Mark Wystrach, Jess Carson, and Cameron Duddy sure will make some more headlines this coming year.
My favorite tracks are "At Least You Cried," "This Old Heart," and "Electric Rodeo" with their tips to the past, as in Yoakam, John Denver or the late Glen Campbell. A song that is, unfortunately, missing "ON THE ROCKS" but is still available on YouTube is the great trucker composition, "Fourteen Gears" a song Wystrach and Carson wrote with Austin legend David Garza.
Willie Nelson - GOD'S PROBLEM CHILD
Another octogenarian that is "Still Not Dead" but heartily is joking about the fact, is Austinite Willie Nelson who with "GOD'S PROBLEM CHILD" released his best album in almost two decades, not counting his collaboration albums with Ray Price, Kimmie Rhodes, and Wynton Marsalis.
It's not just the title track, "God's Problem Child," a song written by Jamey Johnson and Tony Joe White, who both join Willie together with the late Leon Russell, that will lure you in. There's a tribute by Gary Nicholson for the late Merle Haggard "He Won't Ever Be Gone," the metaphor of a "Butterfly" (Sonny Throckmorton and Mark Sherrill), the reflective, outstanding "Old Timer" by "Funky" Donnie Fritts and Lenny LeBlanc as well as seven songs Willie wrote with his producer Buddy Cannon, "Lady Luck" will you take waltzing, but it's two of the slower songs that will catch your attention, the superb, instant classic, hard-to-get-over-a-lost-love "Your Memory Has A Mind Of Its Own," a brilliant reworking of "Love Has A Mind Of Its Own" and the sorrowful adaptation of getting old, "It Gets Easier."
It gets easier to say "some other time"
It gets easier to tell the world to wait
And it gets easier to watch the world fly by
And tell it, "I will catch up, but not today"
Zephaniah OHora - THIS HIGHWAY
Yeppers, one of the best country albums this year comes out of New York City, actually Brooklyn. Based on the traditions of the legendary California sound of the 70s, "THIS HIGHWAY" nevertheless sounds fresh and new. What started out to be a cover band reliving trucker songs (Dave Dudley, Red Simpson) and paying homage to the captains of the road, ventured into a project, where lead singer Zephaniah OHora started writing his own compositions.
And I don't think it takes anything away from Zephaniah, but what Don Rich was to Buck Owens, Roy Nichols to Merle Haggard, Jim Campilongo is to OHora. Formerly a member of Norah Jones' side project Little Willies, he plays his own custom-made Fender Telecaster throughout "The Highway" and delivers the signature sound to this project not just as a guitarist but also as a co-producer with Luca Benedetti.
Songwriting-wise, Zephaniah OHora doesn't break any new ground either - and that's a good thing - relying often on traditional structures and choruses, using themes like love, breakups, the yearning of home and even has a hidden murder ballad. The only cover on "THIS HIGHWAY" is a countrified version of the Frank & Nancy Sinatra classic "Something Stupid" (penned by C. Carson Parks), with Dori Freeman taking the female part. My favorite tracks include "I Can't Let You Go (Even Though I Set You Free)" (which actually could have come right from Ray Price's "NIGHT LIFE"), "I Do Believe I've Had Enough," "High Cass City Girl From The Country," and the ultra-sad waltz "For A Moment Or Two."
To quote Aristotle: “THIS HIGHWAY is greater than the sum of its parts" and that album is an instant classic! Congrats to the whole team behind it! Thanks Trigger for showing me that gem.
Margo Price - ALL AMERICAN MADE
Watching "Coalminer's Daughter" about Loretta Lynn is the perfect lead-in to writing about Margo Price and her second offering "ALL AMERICAN MADE." While Price's debut "MIDWEST FARMER'S DAUGHTER" compares to Lynn's autobiographical song and movie title and told us who Price is, the feisty new songs on her sophomore album can be compared to Lynn's "Fist City," "You Ain't Woman Enough To Take My Man," or "The Pill." just in a new social context, 40 to 50 years later. With most gender issues gone, besides the still existing "Pay Gap," she also tackles the hot-iron topics of our modern society and paints a pretty grim picture, that resonates deeply with the current broken state of affairs.
Family farms are gone, owned by banks and big corporations, she laments in "Heart of America." In the Gospel-influenced "Do Right By Me" with help from the McCrary Sisters, she questions the rat-race, she praises people that are opposed to our social norms in "Loner"
And they put you through school
And tell you, you're grown
And put you to work to buy shit you don't need
and in the title track, she not only decries illegal government dealings (Iran-Contra) but also the questionable values we grew up with, asking the late Tom Petty and referencing "American Girl" for advice.
Raised on sports and Jesus and all the usual suspects
So tell me, Mr. Petty, what do you think will happen next
That's all American made
"Little Pain" and "Nowhere Fast" deal with her being a mother, a wife, and a singer all in one person and how to deal with all the obligations that come with it, including being away from her child again mirrors Loretta Lynn's life, who tried to do the same five decades ago. In "Cocaine Cowboys" which I see as a current state of affairs in the Nashville music business, she not only references Willie Nelson's "Shotgun Willie" about meaningless songs, but also the whole current scene that's just there to party and has no background what it means to be "Looking At Country" to make a last reference to Loretta Lynn.
Rhonda Vincent & Daryle Singletary - AMERICAN GRANDSTAND
“If you love traditional country music, and remember songs originally sung by well-known duet partners like George Jones and Tammy Wynette, Conway Twitty and Loretta Lynn, and Merle Haggard and Bonnie Owens, this is a must-have CD that we are extremely excited about,” Rhonda Vincent announced about her duet project with 90s traditional country singer Daryle Singletary. And that pretty much sums it up, not more and not less - simply an album celebrating the tradition of duets.
From Harlan Howard's "Above And Beyond" with it's fine interplay between fiddle, steel guitar and "Honky Tonk" piano to the fine dobro work by "The Rage" member Brent Burke on "Up This Hill And Down," "AMERICAN GRANDSTAND" shines as a beacon for a tradition long lost. That the album was the best-selling "Bluegrass Album" only shows how irrelevant the country charts have become, as the only reference to that style is that Rhonda Vincent is nick-named the "Queen of Bluegrass," the album itself is a strong traditional country, Honky Tonk effort.
For a full review and more details of Rhonda and Daryle's album, please visit my original blog.
The clip below features three songs from the album - "After The Fire Is Gone," their current single "One" and the title track "American Grandstand."
20 Other great albums that I tremendously enjoyed this year:
Mary Battiata - THE HEART, REGARDLESS
Rhiannon Giddens - FREEDOM HIGHWAY
Lilly Hiatt - TRINITY LANE
A.J. Hobbs - TOO MUCH IS NEVER ENOUGH
Ray Wylie Hubbard - TELL THE DEVIL I'M GETTING THERE AS FAST AS I CAN
Jason Isbell - NASHVILLE SOUND
Sharon Jones - SOUL OF A WOMANAlison Krauss - WINDY CITY
Nikki Lane - HIGHWAY QUEEN
Lillie Mae - FOREVER AND THEN SOME
John Moreland - BIG BAD LUV
Sam Outlaw - TENDERHEART
Angeleena Presley - WRANGLED
Charley Pride - MUSIC IN MY HEART
Sunny Sweeney - TROPHY
Chris Stapleton - FROM A ROOM, VOL 1 & VOL. 2
Marty Stuart - WAY OUT WEST
Colter Wall - COLTER WALL
Alex Williams - BETTER THAN MYSELF
Lee Ann Womack - THE LONESOME, THE LONELY, AND THE GONE