The past few years have not seen the release of a lot of great country music, but 2010 provided some pleasant surprises, including the return of some veteran artists we haven’t heard from in a while, which may be a sign that the genre is finally getting back on the right track. I was able to compile my Top 10 choices with a lot less difficulty than last year, which surely is a sign that things are starting to improve. Here’s my list:
10. Sammy Kershaw – Better Than I Used To Be. I’m not sure that Sammy is better than he used to be, as the title of his current album says, but he’s definitely as good as he once was, as Toby Keith might say. I was pleasantly surprised by the strength of the song selection on this album.
9. SteelDrivers – Reckless. For their sophomore release, this progressive bluegrass band doesn’t stray too far from the formula that made their debut album a winner. While not quite as good as its predecessor, Reckless offers a refreshing alternative to the often lackluster fare offered up by the mainstream.
8. Willie Nelson – Country Music. His voice is not what it once was, but Willie is still able to use it to great effect. For his Rounder Records debut, he chose a solid set of traditional old-time bluegrass and folk songs, that didn’t require him to stretch beyond his age-imposed vocal restrictions. Commercial concerns don’t seem to have been given much consideration in this project, and the result is an album that truly shines.
7. Merle Haggard – I Am What I Am. Like Willie, Haggard’s voice is showing signs of wear and tear, but it worked well with the album’s material, in one of his strongest efforts in recent memory.
6. Dierks Bentley – Up On The Ridge. That this bluegrass-inspired project was released on a major label by an artist who is still consistently charting in the Top 10 is nothing short of miraculous. Bentley and Capitol had originally planned to release a pure bluegrass album, but appear to have gotten cold feet and issued a set that is heavily bluegrass-influenced, but with some concessions to more mainstream tastes. Nevertheless, they deserve great credit for daring to buck commercial trends in an era in which “play it safe” is the norm.
5. Joe Diffie – Homecoming. Diffie’s bluegrass album is more traditional than Bentley’s, a luxury afforded to artists who are no longer competing for radio airplay. After a six-year hiatus from recording, it was great to hear from Joe again.
4. Zac Brown Band – You Get What You Give. I didn’t really give this band a fair chance when they first showed up at country radio,being a bit put off by the “genre-defying” moniker that many critics were using to describe them. Like their previous album, not everything on You Get What You Give is traditional or even country, but all of it is quite different from what anyone else is doing at the moment, and I ended up liking this album a lot more than I ever expected to.
3. Alan Jackson – Freight Train. This solid follow-up to 2007’s disappointing Good Time suffered commercially from Arista’s decision to release two of its weakest tracks as singles, while passing over much stronger alternatives. It was also the last studio album Jackson owed them under his contract, and that may have resulted in less promotional support than usual. Nevertheless, there are some very fine moments on this album, not the least of which is his duet with Lee Ann Womack, a cover of Vern Gosdin’s “‘Til The End”, which was nominated for Musical Event of the Year by the CMA.
2. Jamey Johnson – The Guitar Song. This double album, the long-awaited follow-up to That Lonesome Song, has been in heavy rotation in my CD player and iPod since it was released in September. It was recently awarded gold certification, despite a lack of support from radio.
1. Marty Stuart – Ghost Train. If I were stranded on a desert island with only one album from 2010 to listen to, this would be the one I’d choose hands down. This labor of love shows us what country music once was, and what it could and hopefully will be once again. I cannot praise this near-flawless masterpiece enough.