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Essential 2016: Americana Albums We Loved

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (CRAIG HAVIGHURST)  --  The new WMOT/Roots Radio is less than four months old but behind the scenes over here are a bunch of people who’ve been passionate lovers and supporters of Americana music for decades.

So we’re thrilled to present our first-ever roundup of our consensus favorite recordings of the year. This is not a “best of” countdown; we’re not into that. It’s our best attempt, as fans and in no particular order, to spotlight great work. Most, but not all, are from or influenced by Music City. They all display inventive and distinctive takes on American roots. Are there too many? Probably. So what? We encourage you to listen to this abundance of excellence in the year and years to come.

Darrell Scott – Couchville Sessions

A 15-year-old recording of home studio sessions matching the Americana superstar with steel master Dan Dugmore, drummer Kenny Malone and acoustic bass icon Danny Thompson was unearthed and touched up with the help of Little Feat keyboardist Billy Payne. Nine are Scott originals. Five are bold interpretations, i.e. the slippery funk of “Big River.” The pure, top-shelf ingredients and the years in the wine cellar make for a special decanting.  

Kelsey Waldon – I’ve Got A Way

Her rural Kentucky origins shine like a 1970 Loretta Lynn gold record on this sophomore effort. Waldon says she feels like it’s the sound of her coming into her own and singing from the heart, and with the way her keening voice and evocative lyrics blend with Brett Resnick’s remarkable pedal steel guitar, we agree.

Paul Burch – Meridian Rising

Burch is one of the retro-revolutionaries who brought classic country back to Lower Broadway in the 90s and he’s never made a dull or derivative album since. Here he posed himself the huge challenge of evoking the life of Jimmie Rodgers in song and tone. It’s an aural time machine. Set this for the stage and it could be Mississippi’s version of “Hamilton.”

Derek Hoke – Southern Moon

Hoke is the smoothest country cat in Music City with an ease of delivery and clarity of voice that suggests Vince Gill after a couple of shots of expensive whiskey. There’s plenty of calm soul music here, but songs like “Still Got Time” keep the tempo snapping. Not ground breaking but classic and well executed.

The Stray Birds – Magic Fire

This Pennsylvania trio is growing and developing as if in time lapse; this excellent album is their third in six years. Maya de Vitry’s distinctive alto voice is a nice match for the band’s fiddles and accordions. The Cajun-tinged “Sabrina” has proven a seductive radio track.

Rob Ickes & Trey Hensley – The Country Blues

The second album pairing highly decorated bluegrass dobro veteran Ickes with the young East Tennessee talent Hensley improves on their Grammy-nominated debut as a duo. Hensley’s ginormous voice is classic to the core and his guitar chops are equally jaw dropping on electric and acoustic. The dobro of Rob Ickes has its own voice on the project, as emotional as the vocalist even if it can’t form words.

River Whyless – We All The Light

The rising Asheville quartet stands on Appalachian bedrock but layers on textures and timbres from world music, classical and jazz. Banjos kiss pizzicato fiddle and woodwinds swirl behind lush ensemble vocals. The rising chorus of “Bend Time” is pure morning light. “All Day All Night” is a groove palace. The project has dramatic arc and internal logic. It’s heady and artsy but down to earth as well, a kind of old-time take on the Talking Heads. Speaking personally, it was my favorite Americana album of the year.

Aaron Lee Tasjan – Silver Tears

Many artists move to East Nashville to ply their trade. Few have so quickly earned as much admiration and awe as this former New York Dolls guitar slinger turned psychedelic country rocker. Silver Tears has trajectory, variety, texture and a dash of mystery. As of now, Tasjan is The Most Interesting Man In Music City.

Margo Price – Midwest Farmer’s Daughter

Watching Margo Price’s rocket ride from local gigs at the 5 Spot to Saturday Night Live has been as validating for Nashville Americana as anything in the last ten years. Her LP debut was the first full-length singing on Third Man Records, and it will be seen as a historic release – a talisman of the 2010s in Music City. It’s an album of profound emotion and deep azure sonics, like country music is supposed to be.

William Bell – This Is Where I Live

Not infrequently do senior soul and blues singers return to the studio for a swan song, but Bell’s album, written and produced with John Leventhal, is much more. The lyrics chronicle the mixed blessings of age with vivacity and wisdom. The luxurious soundscape is made for vinyl, and Bell’s voice is one of the sweetest and richest you’ll ever hear. An Atlanta/Memphis masterpiece.

Sturgill Simpson – A Sailor’s Guide To Earth

This detailed and ambitious opus is on everyone’s list, including the Recording Academy which nominated it for Album of the Year. Details in our Grammy roundup.

Aubrie Sellers – New City Blues

This under-rated debut throws off sparks and galvanizes commercial country polish on a roots rocking chassis. I felt like I was hearing Lee Ann Womack as produced by Buddy Miller, which suddenly made sense when I discovered she’s Womack’s daughter. But more than just the vocal timbre, she picks up her mom’s integrity and second-by-second excitement.

Brent Cobb – Shine On Rainy Day

It feels like 1974 in a good way when Brent’s first album as a leader in 10 years plays from the next room and fills the house with an aura of a Georgia peach orchard. He’s a successful Music Row songwriter with cuts by Miranda Lambert and quite a few others. His famous producer cousin David Cobb, no surprise, favors Brent’s laid back sincerity with minimalist roots instrumentation.

Dori Freeman – Dori Freeman

Her backstory, growing up at the fiddle conventions of Galax, VA, primed us to hear an Appalachian balladeer. And that’s there, but production collaboration from Teddy Thompson (whom she approached cold on the internet) takes her crafty songs into seductive and varied pop territory. She’s an old soul with a lovely voice we’ll be hearing for years to come.

Town Mountain – Southern Crescent

This Ashville band killed it at the Ryman this summer opening up the bluegrass series and they put out this stellar collection of original songs that asserts them as the hippest, bluest traditional bluegrass band of their generation. In an era of bluegrass with manners, they cut with a serrated edge.

Becky Warren – War Surplus

This Nashville artist took a big risk writing a musical song cycle about a couple processing a veteran’s post Iraq PTSD, but it’s a triumph of narrative imagination and taught roots rock. Difficult subjects like disillusionment and domestic violence are handled with subtle imagery and unsparing truth-telling.

Earls of Leicester – Rattle & Roar

As a super-group of bluegrass and country veterans playing Flatt & Scruggs music, they could hardly miss sounding great. But when this second album of wisely chosen songs followed the band’s award winning debut, they became a fixture in today’s trad music scene.

Sierra Hull – Weighted Mind

After a string of delightful but relatively conventional collections, the Tennessee prodigy attended Berklee and aimed to do something more creative and self-realizing. With Bela Fleck’s production and spare instrumentation, she pulled it off. Her voice is tender and true, and her mandolin playing is just jaw-dropping. For this she was named the first female IBMA mando player of the year.

Lori McKenna – The Bird and the Rifle

Nobody mines domestic life for meaning and story like McKenna, who’s produced an uncanny amount of great work as a recording artist and a hit songwriter for others. Her first album with star producer Dave Cobb is on everybody’s year-end lists.

Tim Carroll – It’s All Politics

Somebody needs to keep garage rock and roll alive in Nashville, and Tim does so much more than that with his smart songwriting and infallible knack for well-placed guitar string bend. His 5 Spot club residency and his musical partnership with his sweetheart Luella are dank and dirty but flush with joy, and so is this record.

Tommy Womack – Namaste

It starts with the lyric “Angel, Hello” which is one plausible translation for Namaste, the peaceful blessing that titles Tommy’s first album after recovering from a serious car accident. He thanks the universe with wit, stories, characters, hooks and timeless songcraft. There’s a range of styles here too, culminating in a live jazz rap on contemporary Nashville more insightful than any op-ed.

Other staff favorites.

Jeff White – Right Beside You  // Sara Watkins – Young In All The Wrong Ways // Lake Street Dive – Side Pony // Robbie Fulks - Upland Stories // The Jayhawks - Paging Mr. Proust // St. Paul & The Broken Bones - Sea Of Noise // Jamestown Revival - The Education of a Wandering Man // Seth Walker - Gotta Get Back // Dylan LeBlanc - Cautionary Tale // Cactus Blossoms- You're Dreaming // Amos Lee – Spirit // Bonnie Bishop - Ain’t Who I Was // Parker Millsap - The Very Last Day // John Prine – For Better Or Worse // Elizabeth Cook - Exodus of Venus // Todd Snider - Eastside Bulldog // Jim Lauderdale - This Changes Everything // Sarah Jarosz - Undercurrents