While great mainstream releases have been a little thin on the ground, there’s been some good music released if you look around, on both major and minor labels. Here are my favorite albums of the year (with links to fuller reviews):
10. Aaron Watson – The Road And The Rodeo
The best Texas country album of the year by a solo male vocalist. In the opening track Aaron talks about “seldom being heard on your radio”, but this is just the sort of music which ought to be at the heart of the mainstream.
9. Dierks Bentley – Up On The Ridge
Not quite everything gelled for me on Dierks’s bluegrass-influenced project, but it was a brave attempt at artistic growth and one of the most ambitious and adventurous records of the year. He was rewarded with three CMA nominations, more airplay than bluegrass can usually command, and respectable sales figures.
8. Merle Haggard – I Am What I Am
The legend returns with his best work in years. His voice has suffered the ravages of age, but his songwriting is still inspired, with ten of the twelve tracks consisting of solo Haggard compositions which stand comparison with his past repertoire. Highlights include the reflection on the changes brought by time, ‘I’ve Seen It Go Away’, which opens and sets the tone for the album.
7. Amber Digby and Justin Trevino – Keeping Up Appearances
A delightful set of covers of classic country duets by the excellent Amber Digby with her producer Justin Trevino recall the best of country music’s proud duet tradition.
6. Brennen Leigh – The Box
A really charming set of folk-country songs with pretty tunes mostly penned by the singer. The highlight is the Louvin Brothers style ‘Are You Stringing Me Along’, but it’s all worth hearing.
5. Jamey Johnson – The Guitar Song
Jamey’s magisterial double album opens with his cover of a previously unrecorded Keith Whitley song, ‘Lonely At The Top’, contrasting the miseries of fame with the greater problems of those less successful. It is chock full of songs about broken hearts, an unsentimental look at poverty (‘Poor Man Blues’, ‘Can’t Cash My Checks’), God (‘I Remember You’, ‘My Way To You’), country life, and country music itself, plus a song for Jamey’s little girl (‘Baby Don’t Cry’). Alongside the Whitley song are covers of Vern Gosdin’s ‘Set ‘Em Up Joe’, the Kris Kristofferson-penned Ray Price classic ‘For The Good Times’, and a malevolent take on ‘Mental Revenge’ (written by Mel Tillis but best known by Waylon Jennings), and legendary songwriter Bill Anderson duets with Jamey on the title track. This is not as dark as Jamey’s masterpiece That Lonesome Song, and I didn’t feel the songs were quite up to that standard. With the whole more than the sum of its parts, this is still a deeper and more challenging record than almost everything else cut in Nashville these days. Jamey has managed to sell pretty solid numbers despite the lack of a real radio hit so far this time around.
4. Marty Stuart – Ghost Train
This record was something of a revelation to me. I’ve never really got Marty Stuart’s music before, respecting his musicianship and admiring his approach, but never really loving the results. At last, this statement of what country music should be grabbed me from the first vibrant notes of opener ‘Branded’, in a set which is full of fire and energy. The backing is superb (with a handful of instrumentals including a steel guitar centered performance of ‘Crazy Arms’ by its writer Ralph Mooney). Marty’s vocals are truly heartfelt on the ballads and forceful on the up-tempo material, with wife Connie Smith duetting with him on a love song, and the material is excellent. Favorite tracks include the somber co-write with the dying Johnny Cash, ‘Hangman’.
3. Joe Diffie – Homecoming
Our August Spotlight Artist Joe’s long-awaited bluegrass album was well worth the wait. His voice sounds as good as ever and is ideally suited to the high lonesome sound, the production and musicians were spot-on, and the songs were great.
2. Joey + Rory – Album #2
I loved their debut, and their follow-up has all the charm of the original. Joey’s beautiful voice is still front and center, but Rory gets a bigger profile than previously, with the odd solo line and one lead vocal on his touching tribute to his father, ‘My Old Man’. Carl Jackson’s lovely clean production is the perfect match. Songs range from the witty sideswipe at the music industry which provides the title track to a set of sincere love songs, with a warning to a potentially erring husband (‘God Help My Man’), some western swing and country gospel along the way. This is one of those albums where you believe every word is true.
1. Ken Mellons – Rural Route
Dierks Bentley and Joe Diffie’s respective takes on bluegrass got most of the headlines this year, and both won places in my personal top 10. But for my money, the best of the lot was the underrated Ken Mellons with this superb album with character filled, emotional vocals, excellent material and outstanding bluegrass picking. It was hard to put my top five in order, but in the end this one just edged the rest. If you haven’t heard it, and like bluegrass as well as country, it really is an essential purchase.