The scope of what falls under the umbrella of Americana and Hardcore Country music has changed considerably since Lonesome Highway first published. The original motivation was to cover a variety of artists who played music that was directly influenced and describable as “country music” and who received little mention in the more mainstream media. It’s pretty much still that way and many of the artists we have featured online and on the Lonesome Highway Radio Show (Monday 11.30 -12.30 Dublin City FM103.2) are largely unknown quantities for most they are all making music that is worth discovering.
This year is no exception. Names like Colter Wall, Wes Youssi, Zephaniah Ohora, Jamie Wyatt and Jade Jackson are all ones that will doubtless continue to make great albums while some other relative newcomers like Nikki Lane, Sam Outlaw, Turnpike Troubadours and Laura Benitez continue to do so alongside such veterans as Marty Stuart, Moot Davis and Slaid Cleeves continue their individual musical paths with career highs. All the time expanding and refining their craft.
The kind of music that we all like to listen to here at Lonesome Towers has been rewarding and refreshing. There are always artists on the fringes who are making great music. In that light we thanks all the artists, PR companies, labels and others who pass on their music for us to consider for reviewing. It is a privilege. Not everything, for one reason or another makes the cut, and some of the artists who we would like to review or interview are not always readily available.
There has always been an ongoing debate about what is country and what its not. Something that has been going on for over 50 years and will continue. The central pretext is the might dollar. It is what motivates the industry and has always done so - to think differently would be a falsehood. Of course there have been anomalies that allow for hope that the industry might move away from the bro-county, male-dominated, shallow advertising friendly output that dominates the charts and mainstream radio. Chris Stapelton, Sturgill Simpson, Aaron Watson and Jason Isbell have all made big inroads in the charts and in the hearts of many who are looking for something more substantial. While there are really only two kinds of music: good and bad - the subjective and individual preferences we all have cause us to make our own choices as to what fits any particular genre category ourselves.
All we can do at Lonesome Highway is point you in a direction, with our choices, that we hope you will enjoy.
On a personal note as I sat down to consider the notion of a Top Twenty I made a list of some of the albums which impressed me, for a variety of reasons, over the last year. To illuminate the many options I had I have decided to include that list and in the full knowledge that I may have forgotten a good album along the way. Bringing these down to a list of twenty was an equally difficult task. But under orders from Mr. Culliton I have made that choice and although numbered from one to twenty the order could easily change from day to day!
But needs must, so:
1 Turnpike Troubadours A Long Way From Your Heart
Some Alt.Country styled songwriting that is never retro while sounding like honest to god country music. The imagery matches the performance and is outstanding on both fronts. Reminds me of the late great Backsliders.
2 Marty Stuart & The Fabulous Superlatives Way Out West
Fabulous and Superlative indeed with the band every much a part of it;s creation as it’s leader. Stuart is now a genuine candidate to step into the boots of those that in spired him.
3 Wes Youssi & The Country Champs Down Low
Portland, Oregan based graphic designer has also designed his music to please any lover of unpretentious hard-core country, Solid, dependable and a labour of love from all involved.
4 Said Cleeves Ghost On The Car Radio
There is an added toughness to this Scrappy Jud Newcomb produced album. It again showcases Cleaves crafted and rewarding songwriting that has empathy and ebullience that goes from the concern of Drunken Barber’s Hand to the old-school country of The Old Guard.
5 Jamie Wyatt Felony Blues
The debut release from a singer/songwriter who had previously recorded some unreleased tracks. This mini-album features songs that relates to her time spent in prison from drug related issues. It will appeal to those who like some toughness in their music.
6 Moot Davis Hierarchy of Crows
A change of direction from Davis. This one rocks hard as well as hitting the honky-tonk dance floor.Some may not have likes this approach but to these ears it was diverse and diverting from the titles tracks Zeppelinesque feel to the country twang of What’s The Matter With Me.
7 Jeremy Pinnell Ties Of Blood and Affection
The somewhat scary looking Pinnell made an album that built on his debut release and moved from the dark side to something more positive, but not without moments of darkness and doubt. A tight and solid piece of work that reminded you that he loves this music as much as we do and that everything doesn’t have to up lightweight fluff.
8 Nikki Lane Highway Queen
Her latest album is her best yet and this stylish singer has co-produced an album with a contemporary sound that never looses sight of its intentions. Recorded in Texas and Tennessee it has a foot in both camps and a head and heart that acknowledges the lineage of the many strong woman in country music.
9 Casey James Prestwood Born Too Late
Was going to dismiss this cracker of an album because of a 2016 release date credit but saw it featured in a lot of list for this year. It deserves to be there because of top notch honky-tonk songs and a good band in The Burning Angels and occasional guests including Lloyd Green, Bill Kirchin and Kenny Vaughan.
10 Zephaniah Ohora This Highway
Another new name who is firmly playing music that is not going to fit any other category other than Honky-tonk, Bakersfieldstyle country. This New York native has guitarist/producer Jim Campilongo and steel player Join Graboff as featured album players for his original songs. Doer Freeman joins him for the sole cover Somethin’ Stupid.
11 Ags Connolly Nothin’ Unexpected
The UK also turned out some fine recordings this year including My Darling Clementine’s Still Testifying. Ags latest release is right up there in terms of quality, production, writing and singing. Dean Owens produced and kept it local.
12 Sunny Sweeny Trophy
With the likes of Brandy Clark and Miranda Lambert for writing songs relevant to a female point of view this little gem should not be overlooked. Contemporary enough to be on a major label (as she once was) but better under her own guidance on her own independent label. For a prime example try Better Bad Idea.
13 Tyler Childers Purgatory
This album, produced by Sturgill Simpson, announced a new talent with a old heart. This is traditional with a touch ofthe outlaw attitude that is prevalent at the moment but Childers proves himself on of the best, Simpson’s production is just right and reminds you that Simpson still has an affinity for the right stuff.
14 Laura Benitez and The Heartache With All Its Thorns
As the title suggest that life is to be lived despite it’s pricks and pains. Benitez and her band The Heartache play with an upbeat intention that even when the lyrics may suggest something different is positive and pleasurable. It has a distinct border feel on some tracks that is a delight.
15 Jade Jackson Gilded
Another woman with her own mind and metal. Her songs got the approval of Social Distortion’s Mike Ness a man who is not unfamiliar with the joys of playing country music himself. It is fat free and as far from Nashville mainstream as one could wish for.
16 Sam Outlaw Tender Heart
After the acclaim of his Ry Cooder produced album Outlaw helms this album himself and shows that he has learnt from the experience and continues to define is own sound rooted in LA country music. He continues to impress and has a growing audience in Europe.
17 Amber Cross Savage On The Downhill
Another powerful combination of words, vocal and playing. On her third album Cross shows just how good she is. Producer Ray Bonneville gathers a crew of players like Rick Richards and Gurf Morlix to bring her songs to a place that best shows off just what a fine artist she is.
18 Amanda Anne Platt & The Honeycutters Self Titled
Platt takes the spotlight on this album and produces. She has proven herself a songwriter and singer of note andmoves on to the next stage. She is the equal of some of her better know contemporaries and with music this good may soon join their ranks. Country music played with heart.
19 JD McPherson Undivided Heart & Soul
The third album from the rock ’n’ roll and should influenced singer/songwriter is his best yet with a strong support from his long time band that includes bassist Jimmy Sutton. This one rocks and proves that his music will survive and thrive after moving on from a major label deal.
20 Jeffrey Martin One Go Around
From the opening track Poor Man this reveals itself largely as a melancholic collection of songs that look at the sad and often unexposed underbelly of the lower strata of society. Martin does it in a way that evokes empathy while also not be afraid to delve into personal failings. This is all done in a musical style that is arresting Americana.
Any of these could easily have made it into the Top Twenty on a given day. All are worthy of investigation.
Moot Davis - Hierarchy of Crows
Ags Connolly - Nothin’ Unexpected
The Country Side of Harmonica Slim - A Drink After Midnight
Lillie Mae - Forever and Then Some
Margo Price - All American Made
Sunny Sweeney - Trophy
Colter Wall - Self Titled
Zephaniah Ohora - This Highway
Rick Shea - The Town Where I Live
Amber Cross - Savage On The Downhill
Turnpike Troubadours - A Long Way From Your Heart
Petunia and The Vipers - Lonesome Heavy and Lonesome
Steve Earle and The Dukes - So You Wannabe An Outlaw
Jeremy Pinnell - Ties of Blood and Affection
Tom Russell - Folk Hotel
Chris Hillman - Bidin’ My Time
Jace Everett - Dust & Dirt
Jeffrey Martin - One Go Round
Porter &The Bluebonnet Rattlesnakes - Don’t Go Baby, It’s Gonna Get Weird Without You
Wes Youssi & The Country Champs - Down Low
Laura Benitez and The Heartache - With All Its Thorns
Ray Scott - Guitar For Sale
Said Cleaves - Ghost On The Car Radio
Jim White - Waffles, Triangles & Jesus
John Moreland - Big Bad Love
Christopher Rees - The Nashville Songs
Lilly Hiatt - Trinity Lane
JD McPherson Undivided Heart & Soul
Kacy & Clayton - The Siren’s Song
Nikki Lane - Highway Queen
Justin Townes Earle _ Kids In The Street
Matt Patershuk - Same As I Ever Have Been
Ciara Sidine - Unbroken Line
My Darling Clementine - Still Testifying
Amanda Anne Platt & The Honeycutters - Self Titled
Jamie Wyatt - Felony Blues
Jade Jackson - Gilded
Jason Eady - Self Titled
Angaleena Presley - Wrangled
Sam Outlaw - Tender Heart
The Mavericks - Brand New Day
Marty Stuart & The Fabulous Superlatives - Way Out West
Miss Tess - Baby, We All Know
Rodney Crowell - Close Ties
Charlie and The Regrets - Rivers in the Streets
The Deslondes - Hurry Home
Chris Stapleton - From A Room - Vol. 1
Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit - The Nashville Sound
Tyler Childers - Purgatory
Slaid Cleeves - Ghost On The Car Radio
Casey James Prestwood - Born Too Late
Gigs of the Year
The standout, on many levels, was the criminally under attended Slim Cessna’s Auto Club in Whelans. The other notable live events were Margo Price in The Button Factory, James McMurtry in Whelan’s Michael McDermott at the DC Club, Eilen Jewell in The Sound House and Western Centuries at The Kilkenny Rhythm and Roots Festival.
If Country music is defined as a true reflection of the environment and society within which it exists, rooted in story songs that mirror the push & pull of daily living; then the Industry barometer of the CMA Awards is in need of a sharp reality-check.
The latest ceremony showed itself to be without real direction and posed the confusing question as to who is behind the decisions that promote certain artists and records on the night.
Can we really consider as truly representative of the industry, the pairing of Jason Derulo and Luke Bryan, or allowing the strange collaboration of Kenny Chesney with P!nk; before Alicia Keys and Maren Morris were granted licence to deliver a glossy version of country-soul, smothered in strings. Keith Urban carried away four separate awards as his latest release, Ripcord, continued the increasing trend in taking a turn into hip-hop and electronic influences, country-pop that allows for loops and beat heavy drum machines. There’s a lot to criticize about the hip-hop beats of contemporary acts, but there is ample evidence that the roots of country music have always flirted with mainstream recognition and pop culture.
Country music radio, with restricted play lists, continues to ignore the increasing number of Female Artists who are forging careers and the likes of Angaleena Presley; Nikki Lane; Brandy Clark; RaeLynn; Kelsea Ballerini; Whitney Rose; Lilly Hiatt and Lily Mae fight for recognition, along with countless others, in a seemingly overcrowded marketplace. There are an equivalent number of male artists also elbowing forward for room at the front of the queue for recognition and success, but the road for their female counterparts seems to be stonier and harder to climb.
The awful reality of the Route 91 Country Music Festival in Las Vegas and the mass shooting that left 58 people dead and 546 injured, was the defining moment of 2017. It placed the issue of gun control front and centre in an industry that has always reflected a conservative, religious and rural attitude; one which allowed Trump to garner blind support and which has always supported the Second Amendment.
Tim McGraw spoke out about gun control where others were reluctant to alienate their core audience and if artists take his lead then we might see a positive backlash and some insight in the recorded output of Country music during 2018.
Sam Hunt achieved a run of 34 weeks at the top of the Billboard Hot Country Songs and the highest-charting country song on the Hot 100 singles in four years with his song “Body Like A Back Road” - record-breaking and just when I thought that Bro-Country was a dying beast…
This year we saw the passing of some great artists in Glen Campbell, Don Williams, Greg Allman, Chuck Berry, D.L. Menard, Fats Domino and Tom Petty. They all brought so much inspiration and rich variety to what we define as Country/Folk/Roots music and in their own passing, give the torch to others to carry into a future that is always shaped by what has gone before.
Top 12 Albums of the year:
1 Aaron Watson Vaquero
This collection of great songs highlighted an artist who is still calling all the shots in his career and not accepting compromise on any front. A great listen on every level.
2 Willie Nelson God’s Problem Child
The voice is as distinctive as ever and the song-writing has never been quite as astute. This music legend tackles and reflects upon some of the big questions as he turned 84.
3 Glen Campbell Adíos
A sad loss to the music world and this release was both poignant and sensitive to the failing health of a talent that has influenced so many and brought joy across the decades of a distinguished career.
4 Rhiannon Giddens Freedom Highway
A release of great power and righteous anger in reflecting on the African American experience over time passed. Intense and impressive in both construct and delivery.
5 Chris Stapleton From A Room: Volumes 1 & 2
Outlaw Country artist that ticks all the boxes. Great songs and terrific playing that prove the quality of this musician and built upon the initial success of his Traveler debut in 2015.
6 Jason Isbell & The 400 Unit Nashville Sound
A song collection that shows the continuing maturity of this song-writer and his ability to deliver on all fronts. A superb live act and a recording artist of growing influence.
7 Lee Ann Womack The Lonely, The Lonesome and The Gone
Three years since her last release, Lee Ann returned with a work of enduring, timeless quality. Her vocal delivery continues to be her real strength and the songs are equally compelling.
8 Sara Evans Words
Another superb record from an artist who returned after a three-year hiatus. Excellent songs delivered with confidence and passion from a talent who remains one of the best singers in Country music.
9 The Sadies Northern Passages
Always a class act and very much revered within the industry for their ability to create powerful records and live performances. One of Canada’s finest.
10 Steve Earle So You Wanna Be An Outlaw
A return to his Country roots with a very strong collection of songs and a great band to deliver them. This is a very welcome return to form.
11 Courtney Marie Andrews Honest Life
A release that took the critics by surprise with her mature reflections on life and love plus a voice that really commands attention.
12 Margo Price All American Made
Impressive follow-up to the success of her debut release last year. She proves her ability to write songs with a broad influence and her confidence has grown in the studio as a result of increasing success.
Top Emerging Artists of the year:
Lonesome Highway originally came into being as an ally for artists who are not internationally recognised and to provide a filter and platform upon which their music could gain a wider audience.
This continues to be our central ethos and the following artists have been reviewed by me over the past year and their recent releases are deserving of a place in any music collection:
The Novel Ideas Self Titled
Sands & Hearne Time Is A Line
Ryne Doughty Date Night
Worry Dolls Go Get Gone
Susan Catteneo The Hammer & The Heart
I Draw Slow Your Face To The Sun
The Remedy Club Lovers, Legends & Lost Causes
Beki Hemingway Whins & Weather
Jesse Waldman Mansion Full Of Ghosts
Laura Cortese & the Dance Cards California Calling
The Wailin’ Jennies Fifteen
Various Artists The Life & Songs of Kris Kristofferson
Gillian Welch Boots No. 1
Dr. John The Atco Albums Collection
Tom Petty The Complete Studio Albums. Volumes: 1 & 2
Natalie Merchant The Natalie Merchant Collection
Johnny Cash The Original Sun Albums (1957-1964)
Gene Clark The Lost Studio Sessions (1964 – 1982)
Fairport Convention Come All Ye: The First Ten Years
George Jones Birth Of A Legend. The Truly Complete Starday & Mercury Recordings 1954 – 1961
Clifton Chernier Louisiana Stomp. Recordings 1954 – 1960
Elvis Presley A Boy From Tupelo: The Complete 1953 – 1955 Recordings
Best Live Gigs:
Margo Price The Button Factory
Maria McKee St Patrick’s Cathedral
James McMurtry Whelan’s
Hamell On Trial/Clive Barnes Whelan’s
Country 2 Country 3 Arena
Over The Rhine Unitarian Church
Jackson Browne Vicar Street
Courtney Marie Andrews Whelan’s
Slim Cessna Auto Club Whelan’s
Jess Klein DC Club
Michael McDermott/Beki Hemingway DC Club
Eilen Jewell The Sound House
The year past was all the better for the introduction of many acts unknown to me twelve months ago. That six of these acts (Courtney Marie Andrews, Susto, Jade Jackson, Colter Wall, Zephaniah OHora and Rachael Baiman) made my favourite twenty albums of the year is testament to the strength of the industry in terms of emerging talent, notwithstanding the reality that the financial rewards are meagre for many artists, to say the least.
Fortunately, the live music scene in Dublin and further afield remains as vibrant as ever thanks to the work of the promoters, large and small, that continue to bring so many acts to Ireland despite the financial risks involved. The line up of visiting acts for the first half of 2018 is already incredible with Deep Dark Woods, Shelby Lynne and Allison Moorer, This Is The Kit, Courtney Marie Andrews, Robyn Hitchcock, Marlon Williams, Lucas Nelson, Willy Vlautin, Mary Gauthier, Damian Jurado, Hays Caryll, The Weather Station, Beth Orton, The Mavericks, Nikki Lane, The Blasters, Jeff Tweedy, Joe Henry, Iron & Wire, Randy Newman and The Secret Sisters all on their way to our shores.
I was once again fortunate to attend some excellent festivals this year in Kilkenny, Nashville, Oberhausen and Groningen, each special it its own way and each reviewed on our website.
Thanks to our readers for all the support for our Website, Facebook Page and more recently our weekly Radio Show on 103.2 Dublin City FM. Our Facebook ‘friends’ have increased from 260 to well over 1000 over the past two years giving us both the audience and the encouragement to plough ahead.
Finally, and most importantly, a mention for Willie Meighan of Rollercoaster Records and much more who passed away last November. Willie was hugely proactive in bringing so much live music to Kilkenny and farther afield and one of the organisers of Kilkenny Roots Festival for many years. He will be sadly missed but never forgotten by all that had the pleasure of knowing him.
Here’s to a great and music filled 2018!
1 Margo Price American Made
Equally impressive successor to her superb debut solo album Midwest Farmer’s Daughter. Broad lens material this time around as Price goes more political and less personal.
2 Courtney Marie Andrews Honest Life
Nine years since the release of her debut album and still only 26 years old, Honest Life is a deserved industry breakthrough which finally brought her music to a large audience.
3 Andrew Combs Canyons Of My Mind
Spirituality and environmental issues dominate recently married Combs most impressive work to date. A much fuller sound to his previous work.
4 Zephaniah OHora This Highway
No frills traditional honky tonk at its finest from the New York resident with nods in the direction of Merle Haggard and Dale Watson.
5 Susto @I’m Fine Today
Dreamy psychedelic Americana from South Carolina’s Susto with a sound that pushes out the musical boundaries in many different directions.
6 Jim White Waffles, Triangles & Jesus
WT&J’s finds Jim White at his personal soul-searching best with humour and passion always close to the surface. Repeated listening advised.
7 Jade Jackson Gilded
Stunning debut from yet another young artist whose career kicked off with punk and morphed into raw country. For Lucinda Williams lovers.
8 Lillie Mae Forever and Then Some
Jack White’s sidekick and fiddle player lets loose with a dazzling mixture of pure country and roots aided by brother Frank and sisters Amber-Dawn and Scarlett
9 Hurrah For The Riff Raff The Navigator
A change in direction for the most talented Alynda Segarra with this fine concept album revisiting in style her Puerto Rican roots and early childhood in Brooklyn.
10 Colter Wall Self Titled
Maturity decades beyond his years for the 22-year-old Wall, riveting tales of anguish and survival Townes Van Zandt style. Exceptional song writing described by Steve Earle as the finest he’s come across in the past 25 years.
11 The Weather Station Self Titled
Following on from the quality of Loyalty (2015), Tamara Lindeman seventh album finds her coming out of her shell somewhat with a more aggressive and rocky feel and sounding all the better for it.
12 Lilly Hiatt Trinity Lane
A career best three albums in for Nashville’s Hiatt. It’s a gutsy, personal album that tackles family issues and insecurities, all wonderfully it has to be said. Chip off the old block.
13 Jason Isbell The Nashville Sound
Probably the best pound for pound songwriter of his generation, Isbell completes a hat trick of classic albums following in the footsteps of Southeastern (2013) and Something More Than Free (2015)
14 John Blek Catharsis Vol.1
Conceived in a hospital bed while being treated for an unwelcomed virus the album copper fastens Blek as one of the country’s most creative and talented song writers.
15 Rhiannon Giddens Freedom Highway
The strongest protest album of the year from an artist who is not only a classic musician and vocalist but can now also add songwriter to those credentials.
16 Malojian Let Your Weirdness Carry You Home
No easy pigeon hole to categorise Stevie Scullion so let’s call this splendid album Americana for the purpose of including it here. A joy from start to finish.
17 Dori Freeman Letters Never Read
Business as usual for Freeman following her debut album released in 2016. Her stunning crystal-clear vocal is the show stopper once more. Produced by Teddy Thompson it also includes contributions from Aoife O’Donovan, Neal Casal and Kacy & Clayton.
18 My Darling Clementine Still Testifying
Another gem from surely the most under rated UK act. Gorgeous vocal harmonies from Michael Weston King and Lou Dalglish who add a bit of blues this time around to their classic country sound.
19 Rachel Baiman Shame
Proving that she’s more than a fiddle and banjo virtuoso, Baiman’s debut album Shame combines stunning playing with hardnosed lyrics that immediately brings to mind the work of Gillian Welch.
20 The Deep Dark Woods Yarrow
After a four-year break Ryan Boldt and crew return with dark southern gothic tales beautifully delivered by his band and enhanced once more by some gorgeous backing vocals by Kacy Anderson (of Kacy and Clayton fame)
1 John Blek Catharsis Vol.1
2 Malojian Let Your Weirdness Carry You Home
3 Holly Macve Golden Eagle
4 Seamus Fogarty The Curious Hand
5 Jack Lukeman Magic Days
6 The Remedy Club Lovers, Legends & Lost Causes
7 Richie Healy The Perilous Tree
8 Dovecote Self-Titled
9 Marlene Enright Placemats & Second Cuts
10 Lankum Beneath The Earth & Sky
1 Hurrah For The Riff Raff Take Root, Groningen
2 Drive By Truckers Cannery Row, Nashville
3 Margo Price Button Factory, Dublin
4 Courtney Marie Andrews Whelan’s, Dublin
5 Peter Bruntnell & Band Cleeres, Kilkenny
6 J.P.Harris Mercy Lounge, Nashville
7 Lillie Mae Third Man Records, Nashville
8 Aaron Lee Tasjan Yee Haw Tent, Nashville
9 Lilly Hiatt Third Man Records, Nashville
10 Danny & The Champions of the World Static Roots Festival
11 Rhiannon Giddens Whelan’s Dublin
12 Jim White with Clive Barnes Whelan’s, Dublin
13 Aimee Mann National Stadium, Dublin
14 John Prine with Amanda Shires Bord Gais Energy Theatre, Dublin
15 Erin Rae & The Meanwhiles Static Roots Festival
16 Andrew Combs Cleeres Kilkenny
17 Western Centuries Billy, Byrnes, Kilkenny
18 Brandy Clark/Jim Lauderdale Sugar Club, Dublin
19 Chuck Prophet Errigle Inn, Belfast
20 Zephaniah OHora Mercy Lounge, Nashville
Gigs Of The Year (This list is in no particular order):
1 Merlefest 2017 North Carolina
2 Jimmy Webb St James Church, London
3 Courtney Marie Andrews Bangor
4 John Prine & Sturgill Simpson Letterkenny
5 Karine Polwart A Pocket Of Wind Resistance Belfast Festival
6 James McMurtry Real Music Club, Belfast
7 Dale Ann Bradley UAFP Bluegrass & Old Time Festival, Omagh
8 Jackson Browne Vicar Street
9 Tristan & Jeff Scroggins Ardara Bluegrass Festival
10 Margo Price & Aaron Lee Tasjan Celtic Connections, Glasgow