The Year: Outstanding And Essential Albums for 2022
Not only does the album continue to thrive as a medium in our Americana field, some artists are taking it to great lengths. This year’s roundup features two projects - Zach Bryan’s American Heartbreak and the Tedeschi Trucks Band’s I Am The Moon - that clock in at over two hours. We also recognize the double album song cycle The Devil And The Deep Blue Sea by Amanda Anne Platt and the Honeycutters. Maybe this reflects a sense of freedom and abundance that came with distance from 2020’s lockdown. Maybe it’s defiance in the face of the TikTok content micro-dosing that’s taking over more pop leaning genres. We’ll take it as affirmation of an important art form.
Covers projects aren’t unusual, but this year featured some historic tributes, including Sam Bush’s hand-picked selection of John Hartford songs and the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s collection of Bob Dylan. One-off collaborations also resulted in exceptional albums as Ry Cooder reunited with Taj Mahal, Brennen Leigh lassoed Asleep at the Wheel for a western swing gem, and the artist Waxahatchie paired up with Jessica Williamson for their release and tour called Plains.
While there are a few bluegrass albums in our list of 30, WMOT now has reason to publish a separate year-end list with the string band music that most moved us in 2022. In March, the station gave the green light for our first show devoted to the traditional wing of roots music. Amy Alvey and I launched The Old Fashioned in March, and it’s been a treat to survey today’s exceptional scene and present the most compelling stuff we find. Watch for that list before Christmas.
As always, this is an unranked “outstanding and essential” list, featuring titles we thought were artistically excellent, impactful, newsworthy and critical to understanding the tides and times of roots music in Nashville and the nation. Records that I covered editorially during the year are linked to their stories or features.
Kelsey Waldon - No Regular Dog
Kentucky native and beloved Nashvillian Kelsey Waldon went west to make her fourth album and her second for Oh Boy Records. The new perspective and the collaboration with producer Shooter Jennings seems to have been an accelerant for this pure country artist’s remarkable growth. Waldon confronts the struggles that even a successful music career brings in the title track and the meaning of resilience in “Season’s Ending,” a song inspired by the passing of her label head/father figure John Prine. Waldon’s one of our finest and her voice has never sounded more naturally supported, well-recorded, or emotionally connected.
A cool wind blew in from the southwest this fall in the form of a duo nobody saw coming between songwriters Jess Williamson and Katie Crutchfield, the artist known as Waxahatchee. From Texas and Alabama respectively, they’d made names for themselves in indie-rock, but each was leaning into country/folk colors when they met and fell for each other’s music during the pandemic. The resulting collaboration harkens to the harmony-rich narrative country music of The Chicks, the famous Trio album, and The Judds, with songs of loving and leaving that sweep us away from topical cares. “Abilene” is a wonderful number about moving on. “Line Of Sight” wrestles with the big questions. And the biting and beautiful “Problem With It,” a candid reckoning with an imbalanced relationship, feels like a nominee for Song of the Year.
Leyla McCalla - Breaking The Thermometer
On one of the most imaginative and atmospheric albums of the year in any genre, the Hatian-American, cello-playing alum of the Carolina Chocolate Drops and Our Native Daughters builds a rich sonic world. The collage of new and traditional songs is enhanced with ambient sound and audio from the archives of a dissident Hatian radio station. There are textures, rhythms, languages and ideas here that stretch the work far beyond the limits of most Americana storytelling. It’s a memoir of identity and a study of democracy itself.
Charley Crockett - The Man From Waco
It seems that as long as Charley Crockett releases albums (which he does at a tempo unmatched in the business) he’ll be on this list. The Texas native exudes authentic connection to the soil, the rivers and the roads of America, even as he dreams up sturdy melodies by the dozen. Highlights of this year’s offering include the smoldering Stax-era “Just A Clown” and swinging, trumpet-etched “Trinity River.” He even released another covers album as Lil G.L. Whenever anybody asks me if I’m concerned about the state of country music, I tell them no, because Charley Crockett is on the job.
Not to be selfish and unfair to an artist who wanted/needed to stretch her young wings and make a variety of music as she launched her career over the past five years, but this is the album we bluegrass fans have been waiting for from the California/Nashville artist and master guitarist. With a well-picked band of young friends, Molly leads a varied and exciting set that shows what’s possible with stringed instruments and fresh thinking. I hope that history records it in its decade the way we mark Flatt & Scruggs at Carnegie Hall and JD Crowe and the New South Rounder #0044 album in theirs. It’s the songs that secure Crooked Tree as a modern classic, including the brilliantly conceived and affirming title track, the gender-flipped murder ballad “The River Knows” and the swinging “Side Saddle.” While “Castilleja” is a great jam vehicle.
Brennen Leigh with Asleep At The Wheel - Obsessed With The West
The challenge with country music so defiantly retro as western swing is to renew it with songwriting that at least approaches the craft and savvy of Cindy Walker, and in this agitated, non-swinging 21st century, Brennen Leigh is the woman for the job. We know her from her snappy duo projects with Noel McKay and her lovely 2020 Prairie Love Letter. Her varied experiences set her up well to match phrases and wits with the top Texas roadhouse dance band of the past 50 years. Not only are the songs smart and tuneful, Leigh’s voice is recorded magnificently, popping out in front of the band with confidence and clarity.
Watkins Family Hour - Vol. II
Sean and Sarah Watkins are impressive solo post-bluegrass artists, but they really shine as collaborators, evidenced by their years with the groundbreaking Nickel Creek. Through their long running Watkins Family Hour residency at Largo in Los Angeles, they’ve established an ethos of building on roots music with sophistication and loose camaraderie. This is their most successful recorded iteration of the idea yet, with fascinating song choices and commanding guest artists. The siblings are joined by Lucius for a harmony-rich “The Way I Feel Inside” from the catalog of the Zombies to open the recording. Elliott Smith’s moving “Pitseleh” sparkles with guitar by Madison Cunningham. Willie Watson joins in for the grassy “Standing On The Mountain.” Also here are Fiona Apple and Jackson Browne. The Watkins make room for many at their table, and it’s striking who shows up.
Billy Strings - Me / And / Dad
Bluegrass touring phenom Billy Strings said years ago that his dad was his role model and he’d have adopted his hobbies and lifestyle whatever they were. Fortunately for music, that was picking bluegrass guitar. So here’s the music Billy was raised on plus the guy who raised him on it. These classic songs are familiar to every bluegrass fan, and Billy’s expert musicianship is supported by Rob and Ronnie McCoury, Michael Cleveland on fiddle and Jerry Douglas on dobro. Billy’s dad Terry Barber sounds charming and wonderful on his lead vocals like “Little White Church” as he is clearly influenced by the style and phrasing of Mac Wiseman. This will be an intro to pure bluegrass for Billy’s wide-ranging fans and it’s a testament to the healing power of intergenerational music making.
Six friends from tiny Castlewood, VA formed 49 Winchester around the end of high school and learned on the job, rising from a humble local act to respected national touring veterans. Their fourth album is bold indeed, with memorable anthems, songs of the road, honky tonk shuffles and bluesy rockers. Lead singer/writer Isaac Gibson’s voice has throw-weight and vulnerability at the same time. The record synched up with (and sparked) a big year that included debuts at the Grand Ole Opry and the Ryman Auditorium.
Zach Bryan - American Heartbreak
I’m trying to make sense of it. Major country labels sign some artists only to stall their careers in over-thinking and focus grouped calculation for radio. But Warner Bros. signed viral breakout Zach Bryan and let him release an epic 34-song, two-hour collection that mingles complete productions with demo-like acoustic solos. But okay then, because the songwriting here is masterful and personal, miles from Music Row groupthink. It’s a lot to take in as an album experience, but drop in anywhere and you’ll find sincerity and songcraft in the vein of BJ Barham and Tyler Childers. The album and its hit single “Something In The Orange” bolstered a breakout year for Bryan as a touring artist.
Tedeschi Trucks Band - I Am The Moon
Released as a sequence of four EPs this summer and then as a complete collection this fall, I Am The Moon is a masterwork by one of the very best bands in American roots music. Grounded in 2020, they wrote this 24-song cycle inspired by the 12th century Persian poem Layla & Majnun, the title inspiration for Eric Clapton’s Layla. And it’s a ride, accompanied if you like by an artistic video documentary. Crank it up and it unfolds like a great concert, with threads and themes and brilliant vocals by numerous members of the band, including of course Susan Tedeschi and Mike Mattison. Pop it on for a Saturday of washing your car and it’s a long easy flow of the succulent southern blues and jam music we expect and crave from this amazing musical hive mind.
A love affair transpires over the arc of this album, from wary early days to passionate consummation in the bookending opening and closing tracks. In between isn’t a song cycle per se, but we do get glimpses of the songwriter’s past and present relationships in her lovely, edge-of-melancholy way. CMA’s voice stands out even in the crowded Americana field, with confidence and vibrato that makes her unmistakable. It’s her fourth in a series that began with her national breakout Honest Life in 2016. While she works with producer Sam Evian, she thinks like a self-producer, and on floating songs like “You Do What You Want” and “These Are The Good Old Days,” we’re swept away by her refined, blushing sound.
Sam Bush - Radio John
The first studio album from Sam Bush since 2016 isn’t just a welcome return, it’s a keepsake tribute to the songs of the late great John Hartford, a posthumous collaboration with a fellow founder of modern progressive bluegrass and string band music. Sam took the unprecedented step (for him) of playing all the instruments here himself. And while that comes off with energy and coherence, it’s the repertoire that makes this special - a mix of some Hartford favorites (“California Earthquake” and “In Tall Buildings”) with gems like “Morning Bugle” and weirdos like “Granny Won’t You Smoke Some Marijuana.” Sam and John were lifelong friends, and it comes through in this affectionate, well-annotated collection.
At a time when so many roots albums are taking on big social issues, Hedley’s newest comes off as a refreshing celebration of aural nostalgia. While his debut sounded like it might have been recorded in 1965, this one’s a romp through the early 90s vibes of Alan Jackson and George Strait, an era that saw me and many others fall in love with commercial country. That doesn’t mean Hedley’s songwriting isn’t sharp. “Country & Western” casts Hedley as a learned pedagogue of the honky tonk arts. “Down To My Last Lie” showcases the Nashvillian’s rich vocal on a clever cheating song. The forms and sounds are proudly derivative but masterfully rendered.
Old Crow Medicine Show - Paint This Town
More than twenty years after they busked their way into the fold of the Grand Ole Opry, Old Crow keeps evolving without losing any of its roughhouse country soul. In fact the album-making has improved dramatically, and they’re on a roll, following up the remarkable Volunteer (2018) with the rollicking but serious-minded Paint This Town. “New Mississippi Flag” is a moving claim on the best values of the South. “Used To Be A Mountain” head-bobs its way to a righteous environmental manifesto, a la 1970s Dylan. Jerry Pentecost, the band’s first full-time drummer, gives the album extra snap and steps forward for a fine vocal celebrating DeFord Bailey.
Asheville NC is associated with traditional mountain music and progressive bluegrass, but remember it’s also the cradle of the Moog synthesizer, evoking a cultural/spiritual fusion I associate with River Whyless. High concept yet down to earth, the quartet pushes the envelope with harmony and rhythm even as the heart of the matter are the oblique but beautiful lyrics. Monoflora recalls some of the finest trance folk of their masterpiece We All The Light while offering some new directions in what they call the most collaboratively written record so far. Their worldly swirl is most elevated in “Heaven And Light” and “Time Is A Holy Ghost,” while “Promise Rings” sparkles with pop melodicism and nostalgia.
Taj Mahal and Ry Cooder - Get On Board
These elders and masters of eclectic American roots music hadn’t played together since their days in The Rising Sons fifty years ago. But they rekindled their friendship at the Americana Honors & Awards in 2014 and eventually they decided to record together when they hit on the right concept - a study of the catalog of the great duo Sonny Terry & Brownie McGhee. Made in a home setting with Ry’s limber-grooved son Joachim Cooder on drums, these timeless blues songs are raucous and righteous. “The Midnight Special” is one prime example of the album’s fervent traditionalism, while the dope beats behind “Packing Up Getting Ready To Go” mark these guys as the forward-looking students of history they’ve been for so long.
Calexico - El Mirador
Americana needs more 1) artists who reach for challenging sonic concepts and 2) more who expound on the heritage of the southwest and the borderlands. That said, such artists would invite comparisons with Calexico, and that would be a humbling prospect. The Tucson band steered by Joey Burns and John Convertino has been at it for 25 years but sounds debut fresh on its tenth studio album. Lo-fi whispers tango with crisp grooves on “Cumbia Del Polvo,” while “Constellation” evokes a cozy drift as the protagonist contemplates the night sky. The mariachi horns and strings of “The El Burro Song” are a celebratory spectacle. Social concerns step to the foreground here and there, but mostly it’s an escapist sonic wonder from end to end.
Madison Cunningham - Revealer
The California folk rocker set expectations insanely high with her Grammy-nominated Who Are You Now of 2019. But with relentless inventiveness and care for every detail, she hits her marks with Revealer. No chord progression is standard, no melodic turn ordinary, yet she’s relentlessly tuneful and catchy. “Anywhere” cycles in 7/4 time but it’s danceable. “Hospital” flumes along atop one of her many tasty guitar riffs. “Life According To Raechel” is a stunning ballad about losing her grandmother. The grand tradition of composing big music around literary language, per The Beatles and Joni Mitchell, is thriving in this generational songwriter/artist.
Miko Marks - Feel Like Going Home
With so many African American women making such personal and even idiosyncratic statements out of various threads in the Americana tapestry, it’s fantastic to have Miko Marks going straight after the heartsounds of 1960 and 70s country soul. It’s her third and best in a run of three albums since 2020 that mark a comeback of sorts for this Bay Area artist and her magnificent, communicative voice. FLGH’s original songs and fervent performances from her band The Ressurectors aren’t so much retro as timeless, and the album’s quality was a factor in Marks landing her Grand Ole Opry debut this year.
Sometimes a breakup is so heavy it takes two albums to tell the story. That’s more or less what’s gone on with Bluhm’s 2018 project To Rise You Gotta Fall and this year’s Avondale Drive. And it was heavy. Nicki had toured, written and shared a musical life with her husband, Bay Area artist Tim Bluhm, for a decade in her band The Gramblers. She had to move to Music City and rebuild, and this diverse country soul project offers closure, affirmation and grace. Always well-received in the jam band world, Nicki’s got a velvety voice and a playful approach to song crafting. Highlights include the dreamy “Sweet Surrender,” the forgiving “Juniper Woodsmoke” and the ballad “Leaving Me (Is The Loving Thing To Do),” where her voice is given room to run.
Adeem The Artist - White Trash Revelry
Zooming in at the last possible second, this December release by non-binary Nashville songwriter Adeem The Artsit has garnered a lot of worthy attention. If you didn’t listen to a single lyric, the album would engage and enliven throughout with varied well-forged country songs and Adeem’s versatile, exceptional voice. But holy heck they can write. From detail-rich depictions of their rural NC upbringing and family through songs of sacrifice, longing, injustice, reckoning and empathy, this defiant country album’s words crackle in the mind and heart like great Southern poetry. The layered, limitless “Middle of the Heart” is reason enough to treasure this collection.
Joan Shelley - The Spur
This Louisville, KY folk singer should get more notice from the Americana world because any fan of Amy Speace or Mary Gauthier should swoon over her work. Her ninth studio album The Spur is rich, contemplative and stronger for its simplicity. I returned to it more than any other songwriter album of its kind this year. Her poetry, as in “Home” and the title track has a Wendell Berry quality to it, while her voice sounds like Kentucky’s answer to the late great Sandy Denny.
Amy Ray’s solo albums have always been good, but this one matches concept, composition and collaborators exquisitely well. I grew up in the same complicated “new South” that Ray did, so I grok her disillusionment, her questions, and her prayers. The material is socially motivated and philosophical, but it rises high on gospel and country updrafts. Ray’s duet with Natalie Hemby on “From This Room” is lovely, followed by the bracing “Tear It Down” with Allison Russell, which takes a wrecking ball to white supremacy. The finale takes us to church in the most ecumenical and compassionate way.
Willi Carlisle - Peculiar, Missouri
No folk album this year overflows more with spirit, story and good humor than this second release from ramblin’ populist troubadour Willi Carlisle. His live show will always be his main draw, but this 12-song set offers an invaluable view into Carlisle’s ingenious mind and his empathy for everyday people. “Tulsa’s Last Magician,” a stunning and novelistic life story, is one of the year’s best songs. “I Won’t Be Afraid” and “Vanlife” are lighter-hearted, but no less indelible.
Since her days as the soft-as-petals voice in Crooked Still, Aoife O’Donovan has been a standard-setter for artful folk pop. Her collaborations - I’m With Her and the Goat Rodeo Sessions - kept her away from solo album territory for a while, but early this year she returned with this nocturnal, luminous project. She was a new mom freshly moved from New York to Orlando by her husband’s conducting job and living in pandemic limbo. She developed the songs and tracks as part of a student lab at a recording school. But the unusual circumstances only inspired extra layers and nuance. The songs follow an arc but defy easy analysis. It’s an album that will grow on us for years.
Montana Hobbs and Linda Jean Stokley met one another and the folk music of their native Kentucky at the same time through the traditional music program at Morehead State University. After a couple of excellent old-time albums, the Lexington-area artists sparked up their sound with a rhythm section and flashes of electricity. The result is farm fresh and wonderfully transporting, with its songs of characters and social forces told in crafty ways. “If I Could Quit” is one of the best addiction songs I’ve heard, sung by Montana in her rich alto. Linda’s “Dead Horses” is one of the most piercing and moving of the year. This wasn’t their first album by any means, but as a rocking folk band with limitless prospects, this constitutes an important and auspicious debut.
Heading into its 15th year, Amanda Platt’s Honeycutters are as central to North Carolina Americana as the Jayhawks are to Minnesota or Calexico is to Arizona. Their solidity is a feature of its leader’s luxurious gift for language, her neighborly voice and her subtle band leadership. It’s unfussy country music with an Appalachian heart. This pandemic-inspired double album plays upbeat on its Devil side and more reflective on The Deep Blue Sea second half. But listen, and you’ll see Platt’s world from both sides now.
It’s too easy to see this as a layup for a veteran group, because one has to acknowledge all that’s behind what is by my count the Dirt Band’s 24th studio album (not counting the stunning achievement of the three Will The Circle Be Unbroken? volumes). Their legacy and longevity virtually matches the Rolling Stones. Jeff Hanna, Jimmy Fadden and Bob Carpenter are carrying on as an excellent band with a new generational twist that features Jeff’s son Jaime and fiddler Ross Holmes. This is their first album with the refreshed lineup, and while the repertoire makes easy work, the jug band feel of “Country Pie” and the punchy “She Belongs To Me” are especially fresh. The all-star ensemble take on “The Times They Are A’Changin’” brings some Circle ethos to this loving tribute.
The Foreign Landers - Traveler’s Rest
Tabitha Agnew and David Benedict represent an international love story bridging his native South Carolina to her native Northern Ireland. Their bluegrass/Celtic hybrid is marked by gentle waves of energy, intricate musicianship and a serene beauty that will delight any fan of Crooked Still or Sarah Jarosz. The singing and instrumental mastery on “Should I Go” is deftly mingled. Their one cover - a slowcore take on “Sunny Side of the Mountain” - lends the bluegrass standard a new burnish. Legendary guitarist John Doyle sits in for a tricky, thrumming instrumental medley. There are a lot of wonderful things happening in traditional acoustic roots music, but this is my debut album of the year.