Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit’s rousing live performance of “Hope the High Road,” Old Dominion’s confectionary “Make It Sweet” and Mary Bragg’s brokenhearted “I Thought You Were Somebody Else” are among the 10 country and Americana tracks you must hear right now.
Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit, “Hope the High Road (Live)”
This Heartland rocker first appeared on last year’s The Nashville Sound, but it hits its stride here, in a live version performed during Isbell’s annual residency at the Ryman Auditorium and recorded for the new Live From the Ryman album. The strumming patterns are tighter, the harmonies clearer and the political sentiments more compelling than ever, with Isbell urging his audience ignore the low jabs from across the aisle.
Balsam Range, “Get Me Gone”
One month after winning the IBMA Award for Entertainer of the Year, Balsam Range shifts focus to a new album, Aeonic, with this kickoff single. “Get Me Gone” is as kinetic as its title suggests, filled with string-band fire and bluegrass harmonies. A two-minute tribute to getting the hell outta Dodge, this song takes its leaves almost as quickly as it makes an entrance.
Okey Dokey featuring Rayland Baxter, “When They Get Older”
Members of Nashville’s rock & roll elite get weird on this collaborative track, which features vocals from Rayland Baxter and electric guitar from Cage the Elephant’s Nick Bockrath. Released on the tail end of an American tour with Blitzen Trapper, “When They Get Older” unfolds like the soundtrack for a stoned summer afternoon, filled with harmonies, woozy electric guitars and a gauzy haze of keyboards.
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Mary Bragg, “I Thought You Were Somebody Else”
Like the long-lost ballad Patsy Cline never got to croon, “I Thought You Were Somebody Else” mixes classic country twang with broken-hearted sentiment and light touches of pedal steel. Mary Bragg produced and engineered the song herself, kicking off the cycle for her next record release — the 2019 follow-up to last year’s Lucky Strike, whose title track took home the trophy at MerleFest’s Chris Austin Songwriting Contest — along the way.
Old Dominion, “Make It Sweet”
“Life is short, make it sweet,” goes the hook of this summery single, whose slogan-worthy lyrics might as well double as the new tagline for Minute Maid Lemonade. The track itself is similarly sugary, stacked high with all the familiar ingredients — tongue-twisting wordplay, pop melodies and modern production — that have become Old Dominion’s countrified calling cards.
Sean McConnell, “Secondhand Smoke”
Sean McConnell is a nostalgic mood, remembering his childhood car rides in the shotgun seat of his dad’s smoke-filled sedan. There’s barely any percussion here, with “Secondhand Smoke” rooting itself instead in puddles of arpeggiated guitar and the stirring swirl of McConnell’s voice. Like Brett Young’s “Mercy” — a chart-topping power ballad co-written by McConnell — “Secondhand Smoke” is both understated and stately, ignoring the usual country-pop fireworks while still delivering a palpable bang.
Great Peacock, “Rattlesnake”
Biblical metaphors, slinkily syncopated guitars and open-armed choruses share equal space on this track, which finds Great Peacock’s Andrew Nelson looking to rid his home of vicious invaders. The song reaches a peak during the guitar solo, where overdriven riffs eventually give way to a spacey, reverb-drenched outro. Kudos to producer Dexter Green, who brought a similarly dreamy sound to the guitar tones on Elizabeth Cook’s Exodus of Venus.
Nick Wayne, “How Do I Get Close”
“I never wanted to be a gas station clerk ’til now. . .but I’d have a better chance of seeing you if I were in his shoes,” Nick Wayne sings, pining for his real-life girlfriend, songwriter Hannah Ellis, as she travels the country playing her own shows. A tale of two touring artists bound by love but separated by the demands of the road, “How Do I Get Close” features a high-flying falsetto chorus and purposeful, punchy groove. Ellis co-wrote the track, too, bringing “How Do I Get Close” full circle.
John Paul White, “My Dreams Have All Come True”
Don’t let the title fool you. Far from a happy song, this lushly arranged waltz from the former Civil Wars member spins a sad narrative of nightmarish proportions. Here, White plays a lonely man who’s just watched his partner walk away. The tremolo guitar and sweeping strings pack plenty of punch, but it’s White’s top-shelf voice — particularly his high notes during the chorus — that delivers the knockout blow.
Belle Plaine featuring Colter Wall, “Is It Cheating”
Cheeky, cheesy and wildly charismatic, “Is It Cheating” finds Belle Plaine dueting with fellow Saskatchewan troubadour Colter Wall. “Is it cheating if you don’t get laid?” they sing in the chorus, before a barrelhouse piano steals the spotlight for an unchained, half-lit solo. A crowd favorite whose tone differs sharply from the rest of the alt-country tracks filling her latest album, Malice, Mercy, Grief & Wrath, “Is It Cheating” is a reminder that even the most serious songwriters deserve a chance to unwind.