Essential And Outstanding Americana Albums That Got Us Through A Tough 2020

Dec 15, 2020

In a year bereft of most live music, recordings took on added import and resonance. I upgraded my home stereo in February, unaware that I’d be spending more hours between the speakers than ever. Given the artistic abundance of our Americana music community, that was no problem at all.

The year’s albums engaged in a fruitful, righteous dialogue with the tumult of the world, including the ones made before the pandemic. Many projects seemed prophetic. Artists channeled their anguish over living under an abusive, dishonest leader by reaffirming their commitment to empathy, honesty and care. There were veterans trying something new, voices from marginalized communities, updates of venerable traditions and exciting debuts. So let’s get to it.

As in past years, this year-end list is my personal selection of “outstanding and essential” albums, meaning albums I thought will be regarded in years to come as core catalog of the artists involved or albums that told a story that transcended the standard 12-song-collection formula. Thanks to my valued WMOT colleagues for their consultation. In cases where I covered the artist during the year, I’ve linked to their name in the text.

Katie Pruitt - Expectations

It’s not because WMOT sponsored Katie Pruitt in her successful bid to become an NPR Slingshot artist or that she’s our on-air promo voice. My profound admiration for this debut album on Rounder Records is entirely about the ambition and execution that led to a great work of narrative and sonic art. Pruitt writes with candor and vulnerability about negotiating life as a gay young woman growing up in a conservative Southern town and about the rewards of her patience as she found a new community and love in Music City. As a skilled guitarist, she sets her moving material to elevated arrangements and then delivers on them with a voice that took even us fans by surprise with its power and soaring range. The gorgeous production by Nashville legend Gary Paczosa has been nominated for a Grammy Award.

The Jayhawks - XOXO

Now in their fourth decade, The Jayhawks’ esthetic is so refined it’s like a geological formation, a fingerprint sound that synthesizes Brit pop, indie rock and Americana folk. They seem incapable of average, and this year’s XOXO transcends even the superb albums they’ve released in recent years. In a bid to outrun stasis and the notion that singer and songwriter Gary Louris is the most important figure in the band, they determined to call on all four members in equal measure. Opener “This Forgotten Town” sets the tone as a co-write between Louris and bass player Marc Perlman, with lead vox shared by Louris and drummer Tim O’Reagan. Keyboard player Karen Grotberg offers the tender “Ruby” early on and then tops it with the sweeping “Across My Field” later on. The writers and collaborators wrestle with media filter bubbles and dark social developments, taking them on with the force that only beautiful music can muster.

Jason Isbell - Reunions

It could be daunting to be the most admired songwriter of your generation, but Jason Isbell doesn’t betray any trepidation about introducing a batch of new work to a tuned-in and high expectations world. He sings, perhaps for the first time, about memories of growing up in Alabama, testing for strength the links in the chain that connect our youth to our fully adult selves. He has said that the creation wasn’t easy and that it surfaced some tensions that he had to work through with his wife and bandmate Amanada Shires. But the skilled and versatile 400 Unit and Isbell’s unerring soul and voice come together yet again with mighty effect.

Sarah Jarosz - World On The Ground

In just over a decade, multi-Grammy-winner Sarah Jarosz has released five sublime acoustic roots songwriter albums that set the bar for vocal immediacy and composing, and this is her finest work yet. It’s a focused, two-person production, a collaboration in the New York home studio of producer John Leventhal, whose special genius is making female songwriters, from Shawn Colvin to his wife Rosanne Cash, sound as delicious as possible. The songs look back at the blessings and overhangs of her upbringing in tiny Wimberly, TX, with landscapes (“Orange And Blue”) and character studies (“Johnny”) that feel reflective but urgent, with sound you nestle into. “Little Satchel” adds an old-time finale, illustrating where Jarosz started and where she’s arrived.

Margo Price - That’s How Rumors Get Started

The many sides of Margo Price, the rock and soul edges she embraced before her breakout and the country emotion that took her to star-lit heights, come together on this surprising and adventuresome LP. The title track opens with a Stevie Nicks flower power flow. “Twinkle Twinkle” is a commentary on the media and an autobiographical graphic novel, set to snarling riffs laid down by her co-writer, guitarist and husband Jeremy Ivey. Very welcome too is the song “Hey Child,” lifted from their days as Buffalo Clover. Price has recently had a baby and prowled the stage on a sold-out stand at the Ryman (captured in her very recent Perfectly Imperfect release). So no surprise it sounds on Rumors like she’s having fun and finding new angles on herself.

Kathleen Edwards - Total Freedom

In the performance videos that had to stand in for the live tour that would have celebrated Kathleen Edwards’ return to music after an eight year sabbatical, the oft earnest Edwards frequently breaks out in a glamorous, beaming smile. She’s happy and we’re happy to hear new songs that are as fine and well-wrought as anything she’s done, even if the subject matter tends toward disappointment and unraveling. “Everything in this house is afraid/ What wouldn't be, under your weight?” is just one searing line delivered to her betrayer in the song “Hard On Everyone.” And love wilts in “Feelings Fade,” but with such clean musical lines, such cool, rhythmic reserve and beauty, what we hear is a great artist getting free.

The Mavericks - En Español

Long planned and much hoped-for by fans, The Mavericks finally made a Spanish language album. Hot wired twang guitar plays off of silky strings. Hearty horns surge in sympathy with Cuban claves and rippling accordion (including that of the legendary Flaco Jimenez). Raul Malo’s voice feels more in its magisterial element than ever. I have heard him sing the standard “Sabor a Mi” in person a few times, and the world badly needed a definitive recording. Here it is, along with so much more. The Latin roots of American country and folk music are rightly front of mind these days. En Español is an event, a document and a sumptuous, joyful listen.

The War And Treaty - Hearts Town

I don’t think the roots scene has ever enjoyed the company and friendship of vocalists as outstanding and dynamically matched as this historic duo. This is their third album and a prize release for Rounder Records and the Concord operation. The duo didn’t want to drop the album they’d worked on so hard in 2020, feeling it was out of tune with times. But after a bump from mid summer to late September, it arrived like sweet transcendent relief. It moves them forward into an often orchestral classic pop record with rock and roll force and and an R&B core, masterfully recorded by star producer Gary Paczosa. I feel lineage here that includes Nat King Cole, Gladys Knight, Sam Cooke, Ike and Tina, and Alicia Keys. This is American mastery, fortified with love.

Jake Blount - Spider Tales

From its opening measures, with its plangent, antique banjo flow and elegant foot percussion, we can tell this is something unusual and carefully wrought. Jake Blount of Washington, DC is emerging as a player, writer and leader in the space where old time music meets progressive thought. Spider Tales builds on the narrative and context cultivated by Rhiannon Giddens about the Black bedrock of Americana music by interpreting songs from the folk repertoire curated for their angles on centuries of Black truth-telling and code-talking from the bottom of the American caste system. Aside from its intellectual import, Blount’s banjo playing and his chemistry with his collaborators represent a landmark opus in modern old-time string band music.

Joachim Cooder - Over That Road I’m Bound

I first saw Joachim as the understudy drummer tagging along with father Ry Cooder in Cuba in the film Buena Vista Social Club. Now a forty-ish family man, Joachim Cooder seems dedicated to working as a percussionist and producer on projects with his dad and his artist wife. Here though, we feel just how much potential the LA musician has as an artist. Exploring the playful, archaic folk music of Uncle Dave Macon with his daughter led to a vision and a set of interpretations that update the bravura and rustic outlook of the Tennessee wagoner and original Grand Ole Opry star. The consistent esthetic comes from a unique percussive sound field made from skin hide banjo, various strings (from Nashville’s Rayna Gellert) and a chiming, modal electric mbira that’s like nothing I’ve heard. This is folk music of the utmost seriousness that partakes of childhood delight.

Sarah Siskind - Modern Appalachia

Since I heard and met a very young Sarah Siskind 20 years ago at a long-closed East Nashville venue, I’ve believed she’s among America’s greatest singer-songwriters and an artist deserving of far more acclaim than she’s received. Now her sound is even more refined and personal, and Modern Appalachia, inspired by her return some years ago to her home state of North Carolina, is her finest work yet. She hand picked a nuanced but rocking Asheville-based band including drummer Jeff Sipe and guitarist Mike Seal and set up for virtually live performances in the sanctuary of Echo Mountain Studio. The sensitive take on her region, the spirit of collaboration, the winding but purposeful melodies and the soaring musicianship all come together with sensitivity and force. Favorites are “Carolina,” “A Little Bit Troubled” and the title track.

Chatham County Line - Strange Fascination

It’s aptly titled, because this album will subtly grip you and not let go. It’s a simple yet curiously seductive world of song and sound that shows new layers with repeated listening. Chatham County Line of Raleigh, NC launched 20 years ago as part of the college bluegrass craze, and they’ve come to symbolize the state’s modern bluegrass heritage. As tends to happen though, their spectrum has widened, here adding drums, piano and washes of color behind the acoustic instruments. Dave Wilson’s voice reaches for new expressive candor on great cuts like the title cut and "Free Again." I don’t need to know why I love it. I just do.

Sturgill Simpson - Cuttin’ Grass Vol. 1

Sturgill Simpson reports that early in life, his grandfather who’d been trying to get him to fall for bluegrass (without success), told him, “One day it’s gonna get in ya, and it’ll never get out.” It happened as foretold, but it took some years (and a case of Covid-19) before the Kentucky native set his mind to making a bluegrass album. It was cut with famed engineer Dave Ferguson and a superstar roster of Nashville pickers such as Sierra Hull, Stuart Duncan and Mike Bub. Simpson re-casts songs from the prior albums that made him a renegade country rock star. The crisp, efficient arrangements help Simpson’s lyrics pop into focus with a bluer tone and pathos, especially effective on “Life Of Sin” and “Water In A Well.” Acoustic touring is in the cards when live music returns, and this new focus is likely to give bluegrass music a fresh shot in the arm. Vol. 2 arrived just as the year came to a close.

Various Artists - The John Hartford Fiddle Tune Project, Volume 1

John Hartford (1937-2001) is possibly the most influential figure on today’s acoustic roots and string band scene, having been equally and idiosyncratically dedicated to history and progress in fiddle music. This multi-artist album represents not just a tribute to an American master, it’s the first-ever release of Hartford’s original composing as interpreted by other musicians. A companion to last year’s book of Hartford’s hand-written fiddle tune manuscripts, the album brings together leading bluegrass and old time players like Sierra Hull and Noam Pikelney, who interpret the pieces with imagination that Hartford would appreciate. Producer Matt Combs, a bandmate and devotee of Hartford’s, worked with the legend’s daughter to curate and realize a powerful document and the first in a series. A bluegrass Grammy Award nomination came as no surprise. Also, don't miss the sharp On The Road: A Tribute To John Hartford, featuring his amazing vocal songs from LoHi Records. 

Brennen Leigh - Prairie Love Letter

The duo of Brennen Leigh and Noel McKay emerged several years ago out of the circle surrounding the late Guy Clark, and when they moved from Austin to Nashville, they brought a vibrance and wit that harkened back to the duets of George Jones and Melba Montgomery and the wordplay of Roger Miller. Their swinging self-titled McKay & Leigh arrived just as 2020 started, and this solo opus by Leigh came out in September. She tributes her rural Minnesota home with as a memoirist who lived it and as an adult visitor feeling slightly estranged but still in love. She writes relatable characters as in “Billy & Beau,” celebrates agriculture in “The John Deere H” and embraces the landscape in “Outside The Jurisdiction Of Man.” Her voice is one of the clearest bells in Americana, and her songwriting is well-honed and charming. Her albums make a perfect pairing for old-school country fans.

Emma Swift - Blonde On The Tracks

With source material so high caliber and ubiquitous, a Dylan covers album seems like a low stakes affair. But making one that deepens our love for the bard while sounding personal and universal is quite a job, and Nashville’s Emma Swift brings it all back home. Recording mostly in her living room, she embraced songs that would sparkle and challenge from a woman’s point of view, clustered around a 1970 vintage, such as a heart-softening “Simple Twist Of Fate.” Yet Swift was bold enough to cover the weeks-old “I Contain Multitudes” from Dylan’s extraordinary 2020 opus Rough And Rowdy Ways. She also took on the Everest climb that is the 12-minute “Sad Eyed Lady Of The Lowlands.” It’s her favorite Dylan song and her respect for the masterpiece shows in her pacing and empathy. Released on only paid or physical media initially, it had confidence in itself and became one of the most talked about Music City drops of the year. It’s now out on the streaming services.

William Prince - Gospel First Nation

Canada’s William Prince, a fast-rising songwriter, was already on track to have one of the year’s top folk albums with February’s meditative Reliever, and then he followed up with a project that’s even more resonant and profound. The singer, and what a voice he has, embraces his ancestors, literal and spiritual, in a collection rooted in his family’s history, preaching the Christian gospel to and for and of Canada’s indigenous natives. And Americana needs more native voices right now. Prince sings songs he learned growing up, songs he wrote growing up, and songs that have given him solace in this fraught year. It will do that same for you. The artist calls it “a geographical sound imprint” for its important and fully realized sense of place. You could also call it a masterpiece.

Cordovas - Destiny Hotel

With a sound that’s locked in yet loose, deliberate but easy, Cordovas are the band for anybody who thinks the Grateful Dead just couldn’t nail those vocal harmonies (they could BTW). While Joe Firstman sounds and looks like a front man, this is an exceptionally collaborative outfit, comprised of real composers who write hang-out country rock with a brain. They’re kind of a slimmed down Texas Gentlemen, who also released the stellar album Floor It!!! this year. The songs all land squarely, but I’m particular fond of the middle sequence of “Afraid No More” into “Man In My Head” into “Destiny.” The music, the vocals and the affirmations mesh so well. “I’ma Be Me” is joy juice. Cordovas’ economy of motion and concision is a gift. But I really want to hear an 11-minute, outdoor live take on “Destiny” one day.

Steve Earle - Ghosts of West Virginia

The original alt-country, hard-core troubadour stakes his first release of the 2020s on songs about a coal mining disaster and the plight of under-represented miners that feels set a century ago. But the events - the Upper Big Branch Coal Mine explosion of 2010 that killed 29 workers - are actually fresh in the memory of the people who lived them. Steve Earle wrote most of the songs for a stage play about the tragedy and its legal and emotional aftermath, aspiring to fuse his well-known leftist and pro-union worldview with empathy for the communities in this tucked away state who he’s well aware “didn’t vote like me.” The righteous anger of “It’s About Blood” is indelible and moving. He fleshes out the miner songs with portraits of the Mountain State, like his rock and roll take on Chuck Yeager, “The Fastest Man Alive.”

American Aquarium - Lamentations

The opening track, “Me + Mine (Lamentations),” builds relentlessly over 7 minutes from measured reflection to righteous fury, manifest in the cry of songwriter B.J. Barham and the afterburner instrumental roar imagined and steered by producer Shooter Jennings. Through the album, we feel a creeping sense of dread and loss - the death of the American dream by a thousand cuts. Written well before the 2020 pandemic, these songs testify to the vast divides in the country through Barham’s call for empathy and unity. “A Better South” may be the lodestar of the project, with its call-out of a neo-Confederate mindset that creeps and clings like kudzu. The album was prescient, landing amid the fires of 2020 with the right balance of purpose and grief.

Waylon Payne - Blue Eyes, The Harlot, The Queer, The Pusher & Me

This exotically titled release is the album friends and admirers have hoped to hear for years from the wildly talented Waylon Payne. Unfortunately for the Nashville-born son of Sammi Smith, his gifts were overmatched by trauma and addictions that consumed much of his 20s and 30s. In his first record since 2004, a song cycle divided into four acts, Payne bares himself, describing how he hurt others and himself, how he wrestled with being gay, how he battled back his torments and temptations. Yet for all its diary-like candor, selections like “Dangerous Criminal” and “Back From The Grave” stand on their own as concise and substantial country songs that others could cover. Lord knows the emotions are universal.

Gillian Welch - Boots No 2

In the early 2000s, we came to understand Gillian Welch and David Rawlings as a meticulous musical unit who rehearsed and refined relentlessly, polishing the stone of their sound and identity. Yet in private, they were stuck in a stale publishing deal while their horizons were expanding on the strength of the O Brother soundtrack. Dave had the wild idea of fulfilling the contract by finishing dozens of songs that were lying around in spiral notebooks and recording them in a matter of days. The 48 one-take demos captured on reel-to-reel tape and literally rescued from the March 2020 Nashville tornado, were released in three volumes through the year. They show Gil and Dave working fast, listening to their instincts and feeling more than thinking. They’re remarkably good with many gems like “Back Turn And Swing,” “City Girl,” and “Peace In The Valley” that really needed to be heard. This is the sound of freshly born folk music, played tender and true.

Mipso - self-titled

The school of string band pop pioneered by Nickel Creek added graduate programs over the past two decades, and North Carolina’s Mipso is tops in class. Heady but hearty, their music tells contemporary stories of adult life with progressive textures while never losing reverence for what traditional acoustic instruments can say. This self-titled album on Rounder Records consolidates the quartet’s many skills and gifts. It’s attentive and searching and swoony, as in “Big Star” and full-bodied and catchy as on “Help.” The lyrics can be oblique but the wordplay is always seductive, especially with Joseph Terrell and Libby Rodenbaugh’s voices in tandem and taking turns. Also don’t miss Libby’s remarkable solo, self-made album Spectacle of Love, which we covered earlier this year.

The Secret Sisters - Saturn Return

With two voices this pure, two souls this self-aware and songwriting this powerfully collaborative, it’s hard to imagine there will ever be a Secret Sisters album that doesn’t qualify as Essential. Here the concept is the 29.5-year solar orbit of the symbolic planet Saturn, synching up in Laura and Lydia’s lives with the music. As I wrote in April, “They were one Saturn Return old while having babies, reorienting their lives and writing these typically powerful songs.” My favorites then remain my favorites now: the updated balladry and matriarchal honor of “Silver” and the poppy glimmer and vocal dance of “Hand Over My Heart.”

Daniel Donato - Young Man’s Country

Whether in performance or conversation, 25-year-old Daniel Donato radiates positive vibes, up energy and leadership skills. The same initiative and hutzpah he leaned on to talk his way into Nashville’s most prestigious guitar gig at age 16 gets poured into this enthralling debut, produced by under-rated guitar star Robben Ford. Donato’s Telecaster tone is signature from the opening of “Justice,” a cleverly constructed love song. “Sweet Tasting Tennessee” builds a world on a tricky, memorable lick that unfolds into a spicy, derring-do guitar jam. And the covers, including the Dead’s “Fire On The Mountain” and John Prine’s “Angel From Montgomery” don’t waste effort trying to sound like anybody else but him. Cosmic and down-home in equal measure, YMC announces a major triple-threat talent to watch in the years to come.

Lucinda Williams - Good Souls Better Angels

The high priestess of Americana songcraft is mad (and sad, and determined) as hell, and she’s not going to take it anymore. The 67-year-old’s first album of new material in four years is in tune with the quasi-apocalyptic times and recorded with contained urgency by her old producer comrade in arms Ray Kennedy. She affirms her freedom, and ours as well, on the opening “You Can’t Rule Me.” She savages President Trump in “Man Without A Soul.” And she prays for strength and resolve in the long incantatory final track “Good Souls.” When we want to hear a soul laid bare and measure our own insecurities against a musical mystic, Lucinda is still very much there for us.

Ray Wylie Hubbard - Co-Starring

It was a year of renewed appreciation of wily Wylie Hubbard, that grizzled Texas poet with a witty tongue and a kind heart. He played his first headlining Austin City Limits and his first Grand Ole Opry, acknowledged by all as overdue. And he made this star-studded collection of new songs, which feels more like a nicely varied RWH album with tailored band mates than just some tribute exercise. But the respect of the 74-year-old is obvious, as on opener “Bad Trick,” with no less than Ringo Starr, Chris Robinson, Don Was and Joe Walsh lending support. “Fast Left Hand” with The Cadillac Three has the deepest groove. “Hummingbird” with Peter Rowan offers acoustic air and space. Pairings with Larkin Poe and Ashley McBryde lean into the spooky outlaw underworld, where Hubbard is a deity.

Lilly Hiatt - Walking Proof

Nashville’s Lilly Hiatt says she tried to write a better version of her breakout 2017 album Trinity Lane before realizing that wasn’t getting anywhere. A fresh batch of songs and production collaboration with Cage The Elephant’s Lincoln Parrish led to a new palette, from the candy-striped cover to the power pop bon bons within. The songs tell story fragments that reveal how Hiatt feels her empathic connections to other people while leaving room for us to see ourselves in them. Hiatt’s career blossomed when she truly found her voice and point of view, which feels to me like a down-to-earth Patti Smith or a neighborly Chrissie Hynde, and this is the proof.

Brandy Clark - Your Life Is A Record

Americana’s Brandi with an ‘i’ has oft overshadowed Brandy with a ‘y’ in the media, but Brandi Carlile’s fellow Washingtonite Brandy Clark is second to nobody in the field for literate, heart-tugging country songwriting. On this cleverly titled opus, Clark dials back the wit and the winks of earlier songs like “Stripes” and gets candid, in her very connecting and sonorous voice, about a devastating break-up and a world losing its compass. “Pawn Shop” tells a chill-bump tale of fate and love in classic country form. “Bigger Boat” is a smiling duet of social comment with Randy Newman. “Can We Be Strangers,” with its strings arranged by producer Jay Joyce is typical of her chance-taking and its rewards.

Logan Ledger - self-titled

Such a story. A Bay Area native (who resembles a young Jerry Garcia) plays bluegrass and country, moves to Nashville, makes a demo and gets invited into the lair of producer T Bone Burnett. Because Logan Ledger has a one-in-a-million voice, and that’s not the usual deal with male Americana protagonists. With shades of Roy Orbison, Jim Reeves and Chris Isaak, Ledger’s debut album on Rounder Records glides us into a dreamy place with natural musicianship and a week’s ration of reverb. His songs (see “Starlight” “Invisible Blue” or “The Lights Of San Francisco” penned with Steve Earle) have drama and weight. It would be a good companion to Tami Neilson’s magnificent Chickaboom!, which similarly offers the countrypolitan modern roots music needs.