These albums – some from known stars, others from still on-the-fringe artists – may not have been on everyone’s radar in 2017, but we think each is well worth seeking out.
It’s easy to label the Steel Woods a Southern rock band. But the group, founded by singer Wes Bayliss and former Jamey Johnson guitar hero Jason “Rowdy” Cope, go much deeper than Dixie riffs on their debut Straw in the Wind. “Uncle Lloyd,” about taking in an abandoned family friend as kin, features a crisp, redemptive guitar lick, while opening track “Axe” is a brooding backwoods stomper. It’s in the latter area where the Steel Woods excel, delivering moody grunge like some Birmingham-based Alice in Chains and even making Black Sabbath’s “Hole in the Sky” their own via a ferocious cover. Still, these boys know their twang – an album highlight is a faithful reading of John Anderson’s “Wild & Blue.” J.H.
“Jesus is cool, but your loving saves me,” sings Jaime Wyatt on “Your Loving Saves Me,” a pedal steel-laced track that features fellow Angeleno Sam Outlaw. With a title like Felony Blues and a backstory that’s seen Wyatt serve actual jail time rather than glamorize it from a Brooklyn studio, it’s moments like that – witty, traditional and more like Dolly Parton smoking a bit of Willie Nelson’s weed than pure Merle Haggard/Waylon Jennings – which make the record stand out from the outlaw-aping pack. And that’s not who Wyatt is, anyway: though her life story involves a little prison and a lot of drugs, Felony Blues boasts tenderness in tracks like the beautifully delivered “Giving Back the Best of Me” and the woozily waltzing “Misery and Gin,” while “Wasco” is tried and true honky-tonk that pokes a little fun at her own mythology. On Felony Blues, Wyatt shows how the best country music comes from running towards your truth and not just running from the law. M.M.
For this loving tribute to roots pioneer John Hartford, singer-songwriter Robert Ellis and Della Mae multi-instrumentalist Courtney Hartman teamed up for a gentle collection of 10 acoustic performances that highlight Hartford’s often overlooked songwriting. This reverent collection lays bare the Nashville legend’s original compositions, which are at once humorous, deft and tender, while highlighting the gorgeous harmonies of Hartman and Ellis on songs like “Right in the Middle of Falling for You” and “Them Way Long Time Ago Times.” Unlike most staid tribute records, Dear John presents a convincing contemporary case for Hartford’s enduring legacy in modern roots music. J.B.
Known to many in East Nashville as the master of ceremonies for one of the local music scene’s most important nights – Two Dollar Tuesdays at the 5 Spot – Derek Hoke is also a songwriter and musician with a singular Americana voice that is only getting more captivating with each record. On his newest LP, Bring the Flood, Hoke is exploring more topical, tense territory; a consummate entertainer and MC, he’s also quite adept at conjuring a moody, introspective palette. On Bring the Flood, Hoke reflects on the political climate through menacing tones and metaphors of impending disaster – floods, darkness, destruction – that could just as easily apply to a broken heart as it could 2017. Slick, bluesy and mature, Bring the Flood is as much Chris Isaak and Dire Straits as it is Dwight Yoakam, showing an inventive take on modern roots straight from a tastemaker himself. M.M.
Over the past several years, few roots-leaning songwriters have more deftly chronicled the euphoric highs and devastating lows of romance than Nora Jane Struthers. After documenting the dizzying bliss of falling headfirst in love on 2015’s Awake, Struthers takes on the trials and triumphs of steady partnership on the equally arresting Champion. Recorded with her longtime backing band the Party Line, who provide a gentle mix of alt-country, soulful folk, alt-rock, and banjo-pop, originals like “Each Season,” “Champion,” “Words” and “Just a House” display Struthers’ greatest strength as a songwriter: her ability to take stock of deep-seated contentment while insisting on interrogating the dark doubts that so often follow. J.B.
It takes one to know one, and Miranda Lambert knows ’em for sure, particularly in the case of Gwen Sebastian, a member of her current touring band, backing vocalist on Platinum and The Weight of These Wings, and occasional songwriting partner (the duo co-wrote three songs on TWOTW.). But Sebastian, who was once a contestant on The Voice, has a dynamic artistic perspective all her own, and Once Upon a Time in the West, Act 1 is an intimate and expertly sung exploration that starts in the saloon, walks through (and stomps over) the heart and ends at a solemn, dusty piano. With plenty of spitfire attitude (“Love Birds”), romantic laments (“Oh Cowboy,” featuring Lambert) and dangerous, barn-burning twangers (“Blue Flame”), it’s a fully realized snapshot of an artist who should no longer be in the background. M.M.
Sons of the Palomino is the sound of Los Angeles country in the Eighties, in practice and in spirit. The debut LP from the band of the same name, the record was the brainchild of veteran songwriter Jeffrey Steele, who’d cut his teeth as a country musician 30 years ago at Hollywood’s famed Palomino club. Looking to rekindle the barroom basics of those two-stepping toe-tappers, Steele enlisted the help of a murderer’s row of studio players who’d cut the classic West Coast records of the day. The results were so good that names like Vince Gill, Emmylou Harris and Jamey Johnson insisted on getting involved, but star power isn’t the selling point of songs like “Runnin’ Around” or “Countryholic” – it’s an inside-out understanding of what makes a clever hook and rock-solid shuffle feel so timeless. J.G.
For her second album in as many years, the Virginia singer-songwriter Dori Freeman returned to work with producer Teddy Thompson for this set of gorgeous country-folk numbers. Freeman expands her musical range on loping, pop-influenced numbers like “If I Could Make You My Own” while sharpening her gothic songwriting sensibilities on stark narratives like “That’s All Right.” But the greatest feat of Freeman’s latest LP is the way she balances her future-facing pop interests while remaining so deeply rooted in her Appalachian upbringing, most evident on “Ern and Zorry’s Sneakin’ Bitin’ Dog,” written by the singer’s grandfather Willard Gayheart. J.B.
With her sophomore album Spades & Roses, Caroline Spence has proven she’s more than capable of hanging with the best of Nashville’s sizable singer-songwriter community. The follow-up to Spence’s 2015 debut Somehow, Spades & Roses doubles down on what earned that initial collection comparisons to Americana heavyweights like Emmylou Harris: refined lyricism, careful attention to melody and unvarnished, vulnerable storytelling. Standout track “Softball” is especially timely, tackling music industry sexism with clever wordplay and nimble, crystalline vocals that back up Spence’s claims of being able to “hit one out of the yard.” B.M.
“I won’t keep you here, keep holding on to what we were, say the words,” sings Sara Evans on the title track of her 2017 album Words. It’s an acoustic lament about the dissolution of a relationship, but could double as a farewell to a country radio environment that actively avoids playing women. Instead of trying to ape current radio trends, Evans smartly repurposes the rootsy country-pop of her early-2000s heyday, singing about falling out of love in “Long Way Down” or recklessly flinging oneself back into it in “Diving in Deep.” She balances these songs against heavy power balladry that touches on romantic fulfillment (“Like the Way You Love Me”) and toxic, codependent arrangements (“I Don’t Trust Myself”). Evans sounds marvelous, her signature vibrato hitting all the right emotional notes on a set of 15 songs that were all written or co-written by women. If you close your eyes, you can almost recall a time when it wasn’t unusual to hear a voice like hers on the radio. J.F.
As one half of the minimalist duo Sundy Best – two guys with a guitar and a cajón – Nicholas Jamerson did a helluva lot with very little, thanks to a molasses-thick voice and a knack for writing brutally honest songs like the can’t-outrun-your-roots ballad “Smoking Gun.” On his first-ever solo album, the indie released NJ, he spreads his wings, diving deep into jammy folk-country territory. Recorded live in Jamerson’s native Prestonsburg, Kentucky, with a rotating roster of musician buddies, the album is a postcard from his corner of the Bluegrass State: the harmonica-heavy “Riverbank” is all lazy-day nostalgia, while the self-aware “Let It Go for a While” realizes there’s no place like home. The standout, though, is “Veteran’s Day,” the true tale of his carpenter granddaddy who taught local prisoners the trade. It’s the satisfying kind of greasy country funk that wouldn’t sound out of place on Shotgun Willie. J.H.
The vocal turn of Dan Tyminski on Avicii’s 2013 EDM smash “Hey Brother” seems to have been more than a one-off. The bluegrass guitarist and vocalist’s 2017 solo album Southern Gothic plays around with a similar palette of sounds, mixing traditional acoustic instrumentation with buzzing electronics and programmed drums. The title track slithers along to swampy dobro riffs and beatboxed percussion, while Tyminski ruminates on crooked preachers and politicians, infidelity and the shadowy corners of prim Southern towns. These skittering beats and top-shelf picking accompany Tyminski’s brooding looks at his world, from toxic relationships (“Perfect Poison”) to confronting pain (“Hollow Hallelujah”), culminating in the stunning, all-build-no release album closer “Numb.” It’s a wild clash of sounds that proves traditional sensibilities don’t have to be covered in dust. J.F.