What To Buy: Country And Americana
Chris Parkin uncovers the latest gems in a particular genre. This time, it’s a road trip into country territory to meet some new friends and see some familiar faces
Every year is a big year for country and Americana. Like metal and hard house, they’re genres that will never die and 2017 was full of notable releases. Willie Nelson took time off from developing his legal marijuana brand to release his 72nd studio album, God’s Problem Child, and it’s his best in years; Alison Krauss made a solo album for the first time since 1999; and Chris Stapleton continues to reign. With the US in turmoil, then, purveyors of the heartland sound have much to twang on about.
Margo Price honed her outlaw sound, informed by Emmylou Harris and Tammy Wynette, through years of indifference from the industry and finally caught a break with her 2016 debut of heartbreaking and shit-kicking country, Midwest Farmer’s Daughter. That record won over purists, but her powerful follow-up, All American Made, treads new ground. Price adds gospel and soul to her empathetic twang and honky-tonk rhythms, kicking up dust with observational, doomsaying songs about the state of the union. She takes up with Nelson, too, on the baton-passing Learning To Lose, a reminder of our eternal travails.
On his own latest album, Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy pays tribute to the music of one of Nelson’s closest compadres, Merle Haggard. Fans of Will Oldham’s absurdist tendencies might deny Best Troubador’s charm, but this hefty double-vinyl tribute to the hard-drinking, fist-fighting country hero fits snugly alongside Oldham’s recent albums of reflection. On intimate form, Oldham avoids the wildman songs and instead focuses on Haggard’s meditations on love, following your own path, and the American Dream.
EVERY YEAR IS A BIG YEAR FOR COUNTRY AND AMERICANA. 2017 WAS FULL OF NOTABLE RELEASES; WITH THE US IN TURMOIL, THEN, PURVEYORS OF THE HEARTLAND SOUND HAVE MUCH TO TWANG ON ABOUT
In 2013, Oldham paid tribute to The Everly Brothers on an album called What The Brothers Sang. Glendale, California’s Mapache – that’s Spanish for raccoon, by the way – are on a similar page. Only just in their 20s, the self-titled second effort from Clay Finch and Sam Blasucci is a blissfully easy-going, long-haired album of fingerpicking, pedal-steel cosmic country that references Phil and Don, Gene Clark, and psych-country revivalists Beachwood Sparks.
John Moreland is more of a straight-up sort of dude. The gravel-voiced Oklahoman has been doing his thing – poetic heartbreak songs from the Midwest – for nearly a decade now, with indie-rock fans oblivious to his every move. However, newly signed to 4AD, he’s gained fresh ears and this new record from the self-proclaimed “sad bastard” doesn’t shy away from them. On Big Bad Luv, he deals in the same themes as usual – heartache and a life gone to shit – but with a feisty sound that lets the honky-tonk loose and his optimism shine.
Dave Rawlings has been at it for longer still. He and Gillian Welch play on each other’s records, and Welch’s fans will fall hard for Rawlings’ Poor David’s Almanack. Closer to Welch’s music than Rawlings’ own previous albums, this is wild, gothic Americana to stomp, yowl and cry to.
Also worth foregoing a few warm beers for is the new album by former Drive-By Trucker Jason Isbell, The Nashville Sound, and the pissed-off ornate Americana of The Weather Station’s self-titled record.