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Fall 2016 Country Music Preview: 25 Must-Hear Albums

Monumental albums are on the way by Miranda Lambert, Drive-By Truckers, Kenny Chesney, Willie Nelson and more

The best is yet to come? For fans of art over commerce, that's a fair statement when it comes to Fall 2016's new releases in the country and Americana worlds. Household names Miranda Lambert and Garth Brooks are poised to deliver their most personal projects to date, while buzz bands Dawes and Drive-By Truckers stick to their left-of-center guns on powerful, game-changing new LPs. Below is our eclectic list of the 25 albums to put on your Fall must-hear list.

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Amanda Shires, ‘My Piece of Land’

Out September 16th

The First Lady of Americana gives husband Jason Isbell a run for his money with her first solo album in three years. On standout tracks like "When You're Gone," she occupies the middle ground between heartland rock and otherworldly folk, wielding a voice that coos, croons and packs a quiet punch. The rest of My Piece of Land finds her taking stock of a life that's changed measurably since 2013's Down Fell the Doves. She's a mother now, and she tackles the subject of her growing family — its joys, challenges, demands and rewards — throughout. Longtime friend Dave Cobb produces the album, while Isbell makes a few understated appearances on electric guitar, turning My Piece of Land into a family affair with a matriarch at the helm.— A.L.

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Shovels and Rope, ‘Little Seeds’

Out October 7th

The latest from the Charleston, S.C., duo of Michael Trent and Cary Ann Hearst emerged from a best-of-times-worst-of-times stretch, and the emotional undercurrents of that real-life drama courses throughout Little Seeds. Trent and Hearst cut these 13 tracks in a sleep-deprived fog while tending to a brand new baby (their first), coping with the Alzheimer’s diagnosis of Trent’s father and dealing with the emotional fallout of a close friend’s murder. Then there was the June 2015 Charleston church shooting, a racial hate crime in which a white supremacist gunned down nine African-American church-goers. That inspired “BWYR” (which stands for “Black White Yellow Red”), a stark and spooky meditation on helpless dread, delivered in a murmuring chant – one of many striking moments here. — D.M.

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Willie Nelson, ‘For the Good Times: A Tribute to Ray Price’

Out September 16th

For this tribute to the late great “Cherokee Cowboy” (who died in 2013), Willie Nelson enlisted producer Fred Foster and conductor Bergen White, who both worked on Ray Price's final album, 2014’s posthumously released Beauty Is. They cover the bases exquisitely on For the Good Times, which divides its 13 tracks between lush orchestrations from the Nashville String Machine and country-swing workouts backed up by the Time Jumpers – showing off the trademark "Ray Price Shuffle" that used to fill honky-tonk dancefloors. Best of all is that Willie, of course, is still his incomparable self. — D.M.

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Dawes, ‘We’re All Gonna Die’

Out September 16th

Los Angeles is assuredly America’s most polymorphous city, and Dawes is its most polymorphous band — nostalgic without feeling derivative, evocative of past greats while emerging as an entirely unique cart of dim sum. Over the past decade, they’ve been claimed by Americana, rock, folk, and country camps while keeping everyone guessing as to which direction they’ll veer in next. We're All Gonna Die — produced by frontman Taylor Goldsmith's childhood friend and onetime collaborator, Blake Mills — tests the band's elasticity once again, scrapping jammier flourishes for a punchy, electro vibe that puts bass guitar at the fore like no record in recent memory. It's reminiscent of when U2 released Achtung Baby or Radiohead dropped OK Computer: "They can do this now, and do it well?" With Dawes, as with their forerunners, the answer is an emphatic yes. — M.S.

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Garth Brooks, Title TBA

Release date forthcoming

Brooks returns with a set that he promises will be chock-full of tunes he wrote, unlike 2014's comeback album, Man Against Machine, which only listed three of his own compositions. "Usually it's half and half. This one, I just find my pen in everything we're doing," Brooks told Rolling Stone Country this summer. "It will be the most Garth thing we've done since [1997's] Sevens." Pedal-to-the-metal track "Pure Adrenaline" provided a first glimpse into the set as the theme for SEC Game of Week. Other titles include the romp "Lay Down and Dance" and ballad "Live Again." Brooks is also expected to release a Christmas album with wife, Trisha Yearwood, this fall.— M.N.

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Jonny Fritz, ‘Sweet Creep’

Out October 14th

Country music loves its kooks, from Shel Silverstein to Kinky Friedman, and Fritz is rooted in that same tradition of barbed lyrical wit. Originally known as Jonny Corndawg, Fritz continues to explore the fringes of country on his forthcoming album produced by My Morning Jacket’s Jim James. Sweet Creep brims with Fritz’s tongue-in-cheek ruminations ("Chilidog Morning," anyone?), but it also reveals a more tender side of his songwriting. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry. – J.R.

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Alison Krauss, Title TBA

Release date forthcoming

For her first solo album since 1999, Alison Krauss compiled an assortment of roots standards she'd grown up listening to. "I said, 'I'd love to sing songs that are older than I am,'" says Krauss, who recorded stately renditions of songs by artists like Willie Nelson, Brenda Lee and the Osborne Brothers with a group of Nashville session pros that included members of her band Union Station. "There's a real romance in other people's stories."— J.B.

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Dwight Yoakam, ‘Swimmin’ Pools, Movie Stars…’

Out September 23rd

Yoakam pays tribute to his Kentucky roots on his 16th studio album, recasting his greatest hits and deeper cuts (plus a poignant cover of Prince’s “Purple Rain”) in a bluegrass context. Enlisting producers Gary Paczosa and Jon Randall, the country icon is backed by some of bluegrass’ leading lights, including Bryan Sutton on guitar, Stuart Duncan on fiddle and banjo, and Adam Steffey on mandolin. Yoakam sounds right at home on these new versions, adding some pluck to his West Coast swagger. – J.R.

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Mo Pitney, ‘Behind This Guitar’

Out October 7th

In the current mainstream, radio-driven landscape, an artist adhering to country-music tradition could be seen as something of a gimmick, or at the very least a quaint novelty. Pitney's Behind This Guitar avoids such pitfalls with heavy doses of lyrical sincerity and a genuine reverence for the genre's elder statesmen. Where Pitney really prevails, however – given the opportunity – is in his ability to be both traditional torch-bearer and relevant radio presence at the same time, without pandering or diminishing any of the cut-to-the-heart effectiveness in his Keith Whitley-ish vocals. Give this man a hit single, already. — S.B.

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Brent Cobb, ‘Shine On Rainy Day’

Out October 7th

Imagery abounds on Brent Cobb's solo album Shine on Rainy Day, a songwriter's record that revels in the details. Produced by Cobb's in-demand cousin Dave Cobb, who helped make Chris Stapleton a household name, the LP introduces Brent as a modern-day Kristofferson, expert at succinctly capturing a mood. He does that on "Black Crow," a guilt-ridden tale of a petty robbery, and on the witty "Diggin' Holes," in which he maligns how often he ends up in a bad way: "Well, I oughta be working in a coal mine / Lord knows I'm good at diggin' holes." he sings. With Shine on Rainy Day, however, Cobb has struck gold. — J.H.

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Drive-By Truckers, ‘American Band’

Out September 30th

"If you say it wasn't racial when they shot him in his tracks/Well, I guess that means that you ain't black." That’s Patterson Hood ripping a new one for critics who claim police violence against African Americans isn't about race. Taken from Drive-By Truckers' incendiary new album, American Band, "What It Means" finds the Southern rockers in a politically charged state of mind, even more so than usual. Matched by the ferocious musicianship, these pointed missives are a reminder that protest music isn't dead. – J.R.

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Julia Jacklin, ‘Don’t Let the Kids Win’

Out October 7th

Jacklin’s debut is pitched somewhere between stark Americana and jagged alt-country — imagine Cat Power at last call in a honky tonk. Jacklin, a rising singer-songwriter from Australia, imbues her songs with a dusky beauty that will remind some listeners of the I Am Shelby Lynne album. Lead single "Pool Party" sways to a prom-night beat but aches like a classic country tearjerker: "You are the land and I am the dove/ My heart is heavy when you're high/ So for me why won't you try?" – J.R.

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Dan Layus, ‘Dangerous Things’

Out October 21st

Still a teenager when his first band, Augustana, landed a major-label contract with Epic Records, Dan Layus has grown into one of Americana's most articulate newcomers. He shrugs off Augustana's bombast and embraces a folksy, finessed style with Dangerous Things, a solo album inspired by Dwight Yoakam, Hank Williams and the playlists of Sirius XM's Willie's Roadhouse. The Secret Sisters sing harmonies on five tracks, too, shoring up the country cred of a songwriter who'll spend part of the fall opening up for the Dixie Chicks. — A.L.

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The Mavericks, ‘All Night Live Volume 1’

Out October 14th

American roots music's premier party band follows up last year's acclaimed Mono with a live document of the crackling energy they famously unleash at their shows. These 16 songs were culled from the Mono Mundo Tour, which found the Mavericks in peak form since reuniting in 2012. All Night Live Volume 1, their first album on their own new label (Mono Mundo Recordings), barrels out of the speakers as if you’re in the front row. – J.R.

Aaron Lee Tasjan

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Aaron Lee Tasjan, ‘Silver Tears’

Out October 28th

After finishing his spring training as a guitar-playing sideman for bands like the New York Dolls and Drivin' N' Cryin', Aaron Lee Tasjan goes pro with his New West debut, Silver Tears. He's a sharp-tongued songwriter, R-rated storyteller, major shredder and unapologetic stoner, rolling his influences into a 12-song tracklist that recalls everything from the wry folk of fellow East Nashville misfit Todd Snider to the baked-to-bejeezus pop opuses of Brian Wilson. Produced by Father John Misty's bass player, Eli Thomson, Silver Tears is everything its title promises: surreal, poignant and damn pretty.— A.L.

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Miranda Lambert, ‘The Weight of These Wings’

Out November 18th

It looks like Miranda Lambert will have the last word on the divorce that split up country music's contemporary king and queen. The singer has kept a tight lid on her Platinum follow-up, although this summer's "Vice" — a dark, stunning single that shot to Number Two during its first week of release — promises an honest account of heartbreak. Bonus: Lambert reportedly wrote the majority of the album's songs and says she isn't holding anything back. And with the record slated to be a double – one disc is titled "The Nerve," the second "The Heart" – she'll have room to breathe. — A.L.

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Timothy B. Schmit, ‘Leap of Faith’

Out September 23rd

Like Don Henley's Cass County, Leap of Faith finds another Eagle touching down in the rootsy terrain of modern-day Americana. Schmit's voice sounds the same as you remember it — high-flying and smooth-sailing, usually flanked by gobs of harmonies — and he follows it to some unexpected places, from the Cajun-accented bluegrass of "Red Dirt Road" to the California pop of "The Island." Guests like Van Dyke Parks, pedal steel heavyweight Paul Franklin and jazz vibraphonist Gary Burton make appearances, but this is still the Schmit show, focused on the songwriting of a country-rock pioneer who's often overshadowed by his more outspoken bandmates.— A.L.

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Muddy Magnolias, ‘Broken People’

Out October 14th

Jessy Wilson and Kallie North come from opposite sides of the Mason-Dixon Line – North is from the Mississippi Delta, Wilson from Brooklyn – and it’s fitting that the duo occupies a musical delta where country blues, churchy R&B and bluesy big-city soul all run together. Sporting a feel akin to the Staples Singers’ 1971 classic “Respect Yourself,” Broken People’s album-opening title track laments the people who have to “go to bed hungry.” Yet for all the heavy sentiments, the album is anything but a downer, revealing Wilson and North as powerhouse vocalists. As a measure of their range, they’ll be opening dates for both Grace Potter and Kid Rock this fall. — D.M.

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Blackberry Smoke, ‘Like an Arrow’

Armed with flared pants, untamed hair and guitar-slinger heroics, the hillbilly hippies in Blackberry Smoke have more in common with the Allman Brothers Band than the darlings of Music Row. It's fitting, then, that Gregg Allman makes an appearance on the band's new album. Self-produced and weighted toward the heavier side of the country-rock divide, Like An Arrow is as vicious as its name indicates, with songs like "Waiting for the Thunder" — a riff-fueled, bottom-heavy rocker about the end of the world — leading the attack. – A.L.

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Kenny Chesney, ‘Cosmic Hallelujah’

Out October 28th

Chesney switched the name— from Some Town Somewhere— and pushed back the release date to accommodate his duet with Pink, "Setting the World on Fire," and to slightly switch tones. "There is a lot of Some Town Somewhere for sure," he said in a statement, "but really when I pulled back and listened, these songs are all about taking [2014's] The Big Revival to the next level; that level is Cosmic Hallelujah." First single, "Noise"—about how media and technology are sadly trumping face-to-face human connections — was an out-of-the-box hit. — M.N.

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Hiss Golden Messenger, ‘Heart Like a Levee’

Out October 7th

M.C. Taylor, the leader of this gospel-inflected Americana collective, has always been one to cast his faith in terms of doubt – not of the Holy Spirit, but the hearts of his fellow strugglers (and himself). And there’s even more gravitas than usual with the new Hiss Golden Messenger album, Heart Like a Levee, which began as a piece commissioned by Duke University in Taylor’s home state of North Carolina. Taylor was tasked with writing songs to accompany a showing of black-and-white 1972 pictures from an Eastern Kentucky coal-mining camp, taken by the noted documentary photographer William Gedney. The photos are oddly timeless, looking like they could have been taken at any point between the Dust Bowl days of the Great Depression, and Taylor’s songs are the perfect Greek chorus, raw and emotional. — D.M.

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William Michael Morgan, ‘Vinyl’

Out September 30th

Already riding a wave of hype for his Top 10 single “I Met a Girl,” Morgan is primed for a big year when his full-length debut for Warner Music Nashville is released. The Mississippi-bred artist works in the vein of traditional country, keeping the focus on everyday folks and singing in a warm, resonant baritone that brings to mind George Strait and Merle Haggard. If there’s any doubt just how smooth he is, consider this come-on from the title track: “Ain’t nothing gonna stop this groove/ No, they don’t them no more like you/ Like vinyl.” — J.R.

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Various Artists, ‘Dear Jerry: Celebrating the Music of Jerry Garcia’

Out October 14th

Eric Church, Buddy Miller, Los Lobos, Trampled by Turtles, David Grisman and Yonder Mountain String Band are part of this star-studded salute to the late Grateful Dead mastermind. Marking the 20th anniversary of Garcia’s death, multiple artists honored his legacy with a 2015 concert at Merriweather Post Pavilion in Maryland. Dear Jerry captures that one-off event in various formats, including Blu-ray, DVD, CD, and digital download, along with combo editions that feature both the audio recordings and concert film. – J.R.

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Bob Weir, ‘Blue Mountain’

Out September 30th

Weir hasn't released a true solo album since 1978, but jamming with the National (who recently released an extensive Grateful Dead tribute album) at Weir's TRI Studios made him want to give his solo career another shot. Members of the National back him on Blue Mountain, which revisits his obsession with cowboys (evident in classics like "Mexicali Blues"). Highlights on the album, co-written with Josh Ritter, include "Ki-Yi Bossie," a campfire singalong with Ramblin' Jack Elliott. Weir, 68, impressed the younger musicians with his energy, especially when he brought a sledgehammer to the studio to lift between takes. Says the National's Scott Devendorf, "He was showing us how to work out!"

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Ronnie Dunn, ‘Tattooed Heart’

Out November 11th

Ronnie Dunn titled his third post-Brooks & Dunn solo album after an Ariana Grande cover on the project — but this isn't some sort of mid-life musical crisis. Instead, Tattooed Heart finds Dunn doing what he does best: delivering clever, relatable lyrics in the twangy, heavens-reaching voice that has put him on list after list of the greatest vocalists of all time. Sure, the melodies and production are updated — which keep contemporary country radio's ears perked — but the sentiment is vintage; he even includes collaborations with old pals Kix Brooks and Reba McEntire.