Country Ain't Dead: Contemporary Country Albums to Listen To
Ask your closest music aficionados how they feel about country music, and you’ll get a few common answers. “I listen to everything but country,” or “Only the classics.” Sure, it’s expected to love and admire the outlaws: Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash, David Allan Coe, Townes Van Zandt, but today’s popular country music is derided. Considering the vacuous lyrics and tasteless attempts to blend genres in modern mainstream country music, this hate isn’t completely unjustified.
However, and especially in the last 10 years, there has been a surge of forward-thinking artists challenging the notion that country is at the bottom of the hierarchy in terms of artistic merit. Here are some albums to listen to if you seek satisfying country music outside of the Top 40 bubble.
A Sailor’s Guide to Earth
Sturgill Simpson evokes the sound of classic outlaw country while expanding the sonic depths that are conventional to the genre. It’s informed by the past, but looks towards a progression in country music. The Dap-Kings are hired on to give the record subtle, soulful touches. Written as tribute to the birth of his son, Simpson guides the listener through lush intricate, refined, and densely layered country tunes. As a bonus, the album includes a bold cover of Nirvana’s classic “In Bloom.”
Jason Isbell, formerly of The Drive-By Truckers, is an admirable storyteller. Eschewing country’s biggest lyrical clichés, Isbell tackles on darker subject matter such as cancer and sexual abuse. He can discuss drugs and depression while simultaneously singing of love and personal redemption. Isbell disregards no facet of the human experience. The lyrics are married to effortless melodies and stripped arrangements. Isbell has an ear for detail while never adding more than needs to be there.
Same Trailer, Different Park
Kacey Musgraves’ music is deceptively breezy. Hidden within her seemingly light-hearted songwriting is a cove of meaning. Musgraves deconstructs the small town mythos with her sharp-eyed observations and direct, matter-of-fact delivery. Musgraves distinguishes herself from her contemporaries with her glowing wit and refined sense of wordplay. “ “Follow Your Arrow” promotes personal autonomy and liberation while giving a nod to the LGBT community, not a gesture typically expected from a Texas bred country singer.
From a Room: Volume 1
Chris Stapleton is the most intertwined with the country mainstream on this list. But he differentiates himself with his back-to-basics, traditionalist approach. On From a Room: Volume 1, the first in a two part series, Stapleton presents endearing balladry on “Broken Halos” to rockers like “Midnight Train to Memphis” with a refreshingly vintage sound. There is nothing indulgent about Stapleton’s music, just pure songwriting and an irresistibly warm, soulful voice.
On the other side of the spectrum, Wovenhand is the most left-field here. On Refractory Obdurate, David Eugene Edwards adds densely distorted guitars to give Wovenhand a heavier sound than onpast releases. Edwards’ approach to country is dark and bleak, adding touches of gothic rock, gospel, and neofolk. A professing Protestant, Edwards packs his lyrics with Biblical imagery, especially more unsettling Old Testament material. Refractory Obdurate is a haunting, convicting listen for those who want to experience country music at a more challenging and abstract level.
Only 22 on this debut album, Colter Wall really shouldn’t posses such a distinguished and wise voice. Wall reminisces of the most classic and timeless outlaw classics. His rootsy, thin acoustic led numbers are effortlessly arranged. He has an impeccable sense of dynamics, knowing when to let his gentle playing let loose into something more heavily stimulating. His gruff singing perfectly suits his bleak, world-weary storytelling. Colter Wall is pure, untapped potential that is far from peaking.