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The Highway Kind: Spotlight on Americana

The 21 best Americana (more or less) albums of 2011

…that I heard, at least.


By Richard Skanse















The inescapable absurdity of any year-end best-of list — apart from the obvious matter of such things always being a matter of subjective taste — is the simple fact that nobody, no matter how much music they may be exposed to on a regular basis, can ever authoritatively claim to have heard everything. Especially in an era in which DIY albums by resourceful independent artists are becoming more and more the norm and nationally marketed, major-label releases (especially in the Americana field) seem to be coming scarcer by the quarter, the most any professional music critic, blogger or obsessive record-buying fan can hope to hear and really get a handle on is but a mere fraction of what’s out there. Case in point: When the nominations for the 54th Grammy Awards were announced in the fall, a sizable faction of the greater Americana music community got its panties in a wad over the fact that a fairly unknown (OK, almost totally unknown) 51-year-old singer-songwriter from New Jersey named Linda Chorney landed herself a nom for Best Americana Album. The initial furor seemed over the fact that she actively petitioned voters via the NARAS-sanctioned Grammy365.com social-networking site, effectively gathering enough support to edge out more “deserving” and/or established artists. But the uglier and more vitriolic (and personal) the anti-Chorney blog and Facebook posts got — with one alternative weekly writer even lambasting Chorney for playing house concerts (in truth, a legitimate and respected avenue for many a well-established, nationally touring singer-songwriter) and demanding she do the “right thing” and forfeit her nomination — the more it seemed like Chorney’s sin wasn’t “gaming the system” and spoiling the vote, but simply rocking the boat. Which, of course, is pretty ironic for a genre movement that still looks back to status-quo-crashing outlaws like Waylon and Willie as its icons. Honestly, folks — are you sure Hank woulda moaned this way?

Now, come Grammy night, I’ll personally be rooting for Lucinda Williams’ Blessed to take home that Best Americana Album prize — seeing as how it was my favorite record of the year across all genres. But I still salute Chorney for shaking up the system in a manner that might just keep the Grammy door open for many another scrappy independent artist on down the line. And for the record, Chorney’s album, Emotional Jukebox, is on my year-end “best of Americana 2011” list — a very late addition, truth be told, because I didn’t actually get around to downloading it until the 11th hour (late January 2012, to be exact). But better late than never; I’d still bet my meager livelihood that the lion’s share of the angry mob that ranted against her nomination never even gave it an honest listen; sampling sound-clips and YouTube videos does not count. One album that’s still not on my list, though, is Gillian Welch’s widely acclaimed The Harrow & The Harvest — for no better reason than that I still haven’t heard it. I know, my bad, and probably my loss, but regardless, it seems to have found a place on enough other year-end lists that I trust my little voice isn’t going to be missed in the chorus of praise it’s received. Every album that did make my list is one that either landed square on my desk over the last year as part of my main gig editing and writing for LoneStarMusic Magazine, or that I paid cold, hard cash for at a record store or downloaded via a lazy, credit-card-draining click of a link in iTunes. In addition to these records, there were a handful of nearly worthy (and very good) honorable mentions, and a whole mess of albums that didn’t even come close. Some of these albums on my list are by giants in the Americana field — as close to “household names” as the niche, decidedly non-mainstream genre allows. Others are regional mainstays down here in Texas, and some (maybe more than a couple) might even be artists you’ve never heard of before. But they all made damn good records in 2011 that I just happened to hear, so here they are.



1. Lucinda Williams, Blessed (Lost Highway) 

Lucinda Williams isn’t always infallible (her last outing, 2008’s Little Honey, was a lot closer to OK than great, and ’07’s underrated West was, to these ears, a welcome return to form after ’03’s overrated World Without Tears); but Blessed deserves top-shelf placement alongside her consensus masterpieces, ’87’s Lucinda Williams and ’98’s Car Wheels on a Gravel Road. It opens with the ferociously assertive “Buttercup” — far and away the most rockin’ kiss-off anthem of her career — and then rolls from strength to strength through a compelling array of meditations on empathy (“Don’t Know How You’re Living,” “Born to Be Loved”), grief (“Copenhagen”), more grief (“Seeing Black,” “Soldiers Song”), passion (“Kiss Like Your Kiss”) and truths both bitter and beautiful (“Ugly Truth,” “Blessed”). The climax comes with the magnificent “Awakening,” a carpe diem manifesto that moves from simmering slow boil to explosive release.



2. Various Artists, This One’s for Him: A Tribute to Guy Clark (Music Road Records/Icehouse Music)

You could nit-pick yourself up a list of the Americana notables not on this monumental tribute to arguably the greatest living Texas songwriter, but it’d be a mighty short one. This One’s for Him rounds up nearly three dozen of Guy Clark’s most esteemed friends and worthy disciples for a 30-track tribute where individual egos are checked at the door and everyone plays strictly for the sake (and love) of the songs. Inevitably, most Clark fans will insist (not incorrectly) that nobody does his songs better than the man himself, and others might quibble that the arrangements here stick too close to the originals. But hearing them all interpreted by a distinctly different voice allows each song — from Clark classics like “Desperadoes Waiting for a Train” (Willie Nelson) and “Homegrown Tomatoes” (Ray Wylie Hubbard) to more obscure or recent gems like “Cold Dog Soup” (James McMurtry) and “Magdalene” (Kevin Welch) — to stand out on its own like a centerpiece. The women here provide the most illumination in that regard, especially Terri Hendrix (“The Dark”), Suzy Bogguss (“Instant Coffee Blues”), Patty Griffin (“The Cape”) and newcomers the Trishas (“She Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere.”) The men hold their own pretty good, too, though, from Clark running buddies Lyle Lovett, Rodney Crowell and Steve Earle to Kris Kristofferson, Joe Ely, new kid Hayes Carll and, of course, Jerry Jeff Walker. Walker was covering Clark songs long before either artist was anointed a legend in their own time, so he’s given the honor of closing out the tribute with a brand new song, “My Favorite Picture of You.” It’s a worthy addition to the Clark canon that one hopes Clark gets around to recording himself someday. Until then, like every other song on here, it’s in very good hands.



3. Amanda Shires, Carrying Lightning (www.amandashires.net)

Native West Texan Amanda Shires showed heaps of promise on her 2008 sophomore release, West Cross Timbers, but Carrying Lightning marks her true arrival as one of the brightest young Americana artists of the new century. She’s got everything working for her: a fetching vibrato twang; solid instrumental chops (fiddle and ukulele) seasoned by years of road and studio gigs; gorgeously haunting melodies and production; and a novelist’s eye for vivid imagery and smart, intriguing metaphors. Every song here is a flat-out stunner, from the whistle-kissed opener, “Swimmer, Dreams Don’t Keep,” to the stunted-suicide lament “When You Need a Train It Never Comes” to the carnal napalm of “Shake the Walls.” That last one’s easily the second sexiest Americana song of the year — after the same album’s “Sloe Gin,” a woozily erotic paean to the electric charge of palpable passion sparked by round after blissful round of “breathing the same air, at the same time.”



4. Hayes Carll, KMAG YOYO (& other American stories) (Lost Highway)

If the funniest thing about Hayes Carll’s fourth album was its cover photo, the Houston native would still have a leg up on most of his competition. But the sense of humor that pervades KMAG YOYO delivers on the cover’s promise with interest, with song after song capturing the battered-and-weary but still-standing resilience of the American spirit as seen through the eyes of the funniest folk troubadour this side of Todd Snider, if not John Prine. But as winning as the howlers all are (in particular, the cheekily Dylanesque paranoia of the title track and the riotous political-opposites-attract sex romp of “Another Like You”), Carll’s aim is just as true when he plays it straight and goes for the heart (“Bye Bye Baby,” “Grateful for Christmas” and “Hide Me Babe”).


5. Dawes, Nothing is Wrong (ATO)

In a previous incarnation (as Simon Dawes), this Los Angeles outfit skewed a bit more indie-rock. But Nothing is Wrong, like 2009's North Hills before it, is pure Laurel Canyon cosmic-American singer-songwriter gold. The arrangements are full and hearty, suggesting a band that can probably run like a Crazy Horse live (or at least hold it's own backing up a member of the Band, as proved when Robbie Robertson utilized Dawes last year); but the star of the show here is frontman Taylor Goldsmith’s songwriting. Every song on Nothing is Wrong is a beautiful marvel of bittersweet melancholia, with blasts of hope cutting through the gloom like redeeming rays of glorious sunlight. “Time Spent in Los Angeles,” “If I Wanted Someone,” “Coming Back to a Man” and “Fire” (featuring a guest vocal from obvious band influence Jackson Browne) keep things solid from the start, but it’s the magnificent closer, “A Little Bit of Everything,” that will really knock you down. Rarely does a song opening with a contemplation of suicide end up feeling like a triumph of the human heart and spirit.



6. Joe Ely, Satisfied at Last (Rack ’Em)

The title of Joe Ely’s latest may sound like a contented sigh and sign off, but as the antsy rush of the opening “The Highway is My Home” makes clear, the Flatlanders’ resident rocker is as restless and full of kinetic energy as ever. Satisfied at Last is Ely’s first album of brand-new songs in nearly a decade (his twin 2007 releases, Happy Songs from Rattlesnake Gulch and Pearls from the Vault, Vol. 1: Silver City, were both comprised of songs he wrote years ago but never got around to recording). And 35 years after his self-titled solo debut, he’s still the Lone Star State’s most exciting performer and among its most consistently engaging songwriters. Whether he’s tackling cinematic balladry (“Not That Much Has Changed”), swaggering roadhouse blues (“I’m a Man Now”) or roof-raising, rockin’ honky-tonk (“You Can Bet I’m Gone”), everything Ely does best is on full display here — and that goes for his taste in covers, too. The songs by Ely’s fellow Flatlander Butch Hancock (“Leo and Leona” and “Circumstance”) fit him like a glove, and he does just as right by Billy Joe Shaver’s towering “Live Forever.”


7. Rod Picott, Welding Burns (Welding Rod Records)

If all Maine-native Rod Picott had going for him was his Guthrie-esque gift for capturing in writing the soul and plight of the blue-collar workingman, Welding Burns would still be one of the year’s most compelling contemporary folk records. But what really puts it over the top is the fine-grained sandpaper scrape of his voice: husky and course enough to bring out an extra layer of grit and conviction in songs like the desperate-measures-for-desperate-times urgency of “410,” but refined enough to keep just the right amount of wounded vulnerability wrapped around the likes of “Little Scar” and “Jealous Heart.” It’s a voice of total integrity and zero affectation, as lived-in and true-to-life as his father’s work shirts that Picott mentions in “Welding Burns”— the ones with “little holes burned in each one where the good shirts used to be.”



8. The Civil Wars, Barton Hollow (Sensibility)

The teaming of singer-songwriters Joy Williams and John Paul White yielded what may be the biggest success story in independent music of the year — and with good reason. The Civil Wars at first comes across as America’s answer to the equally splendid Swell Season (the duo of Ireland’s Glen Hansard and Czech Markéta Irglová featured in the Oscar-winning 2007 film Once), but the quality of Williams’ and White’s songwriting and the exquisite beauty of their entwined voices puts Barton Hollow in a class of its own.  


9. Lisa Morales, Beautiful Mistake (Zairo Records)

Following a long-run in the Houston/San Antonio-based folk duo Sisters Morales, Lisa Morales steps out with an astonishingly beautiful solo debut that is as cathartic as it is devastating in its fearless confrontation of grief (a double-whammy dose over both the loss of a parent and a relationship in apparent dire straits). The whole record is littered with pieces of broken heart, but even when she declares “I Am the Weakest,” “Fool That I Am” or “You Forgot to Love Me,” Morales’ words and voice resonate with strength and resilience. And in “Looking for Something Beautiful,” she storms out of the depths of despair with the most defiant, cheer-worthy cry of stubborn hope this side of Lucinda Williams’ “Passionate Kisses.”


10. Emmylou Harris, Hard Bargain (Nonesuch)

Emmylou Harris has recorded so many albums over the last 37 years — and guested on countless others — that it’s all too easy to take the singular, silvery beauty of her voice for granted. But Hard Bargain, her fourth solo release of the decade — and strongest outing since 1995’s Wrecking Ball— is the kind of sit-up-and-take-notice effort that demands to be heard and appreciated on its own considerable merits. Harris wrote or co-wrote all but two songs on the album, which was recorded entirely by Harris, producer/electric guitarist Jay Joyce and multi-instrumentalist Giles Reaves, resulting in one of the most personal and immediate-sounding albums of her career. It begins, fittingly, at the very beginning, via the uptempo “The Road,” an exhilarating tribute to her late friend and mentor Gram Parsons. Hard Bargain never gets much better than that, but the quality of just about every song after it measures up to the same high standard. And cripes, can that woman sing.


11. Robert Ellis, Photographs (New West)

Houston kid Robert Ellis is barely old enough to drink, but the heartachy, honky-tonkin’ second half of his national debut sounds like it’s been marinated in whiskey, gin and Lone Star beer for as long as George Jones has been singing “White Lightning.” The first half of Photographs, by contrast, plays like the most fragile 23 minutes of music James Taylor never made. How in the hell Ellis makes both sides fit together so damned seamlessly is a mystery, but keep your eye on this one: if this portrait of the artist as a very young man tells you anything, it’s that he promises to have one very interesting career ahead of him.


12. Steve Earle, I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive (New West)

T Bone Burnett’s claustrophobic production does its best to smother the record under a muddy blanket, but Steve Earle still breaks through on I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive with a handful of his best songs to date. He covers all of his usual lyrical bases via the scathing “Little Emperor” and the topical “The Gulf of Mexico” and “This City”; but there’s another side to the songwriter revealed here that’s refreshingly disarming. His frank admission of faith in a higher power in “God is God” is startling in its sincerity, and the unashamedly tender “Every Part of Me” proves that he’s not afraid to wear his fearless heart on his sleeve.  


13. Michael Fracasso, Saint Monday (Little Fuji Records)

With apologies to Emmylou Harris, no other artist on this list possesses a voice quite as chillingly beautiful as Ohio-reared, Austin-based Michael Fracasso’s high tenor. His pen and melodies are just as mighty (“Gypsy Moth,” “Eloise,” “Saint Monday”), as is his way with a smart cover: His take on John Lennon’s “Working Class Hero” is damn-near definitive.


14. Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit, Here We Rest (Lightning Rod)

To be fair, Alabama’s Jason Isbell wasn’t in the Drive-By Truckers long enough to be called the best thing that ever happened to the band, but Here We Rest proves once again that his show-stealing stand-out cuts during his three-album Trucker haul were no flukes. He front-loads his third solo outing with his biggest guns — the wistful “Alabama Pines,” the defiant “Go It Alone,” the aching “We’ve Met,” and especially “Codeine,” laced with one of the year’s most bittersweet melodies (and sweet harmonies and fiddle courtesy of Amanda Shires) — but there’s really not a bum track on the whole record. Beautiful blue bummers, though, are here in spades. 



15. Robert Earl Keen, Ready for Confetti (Lost Highway)

Robert Earl Keen, the thinking-man’s choice for gonzo-style, singer-songwriter-rooted country, storms back with his most satisfying, freewheelin’ batch of songs since 2003’s brilliant but underrated Farm Fresh Onions. The wonky, carpe diem zest of the title track is irresistible good fun, but the biggest kick in an album full of ’em comes with “The Road Goes On and On,” a gloves-off smack-down aimed at a certain flag-waving, mainstream country yahoo (fans can guess who) that made the mistake of messing with the wrong Texan.


16. Gurf Morlix, Blaze Foley’s 113th Wet Dream (Rootball Records)

Acclaimed producer and guitarist Gurf Morlix (whose credits include Lucinda Williams, Tom Russell and Ray Wylie Hubbard) has recorded a handful of excellent albums of his own material, but he devotes this one to the legacy of his late friend, the enigmatic, Austin-based singer-songwriter Blaze Foley. Foley’s been covered by John Prine, Merle Haggard, and Lyle Lovett (and memorialized by Williams in “Drunken Angel”), but nobody alive does his songs better justice than Morlix, whether he’s extolling the virtues of “Big Cheeseburgers and Good French Fries” or staring down the harsh realities of a “Cold, Cold World.”



17. Ryan Adams, Ashes & Fire (Capitol)

Keeping up with the frightfully prolific Ryan Adams isn’t always worth the effort (his 2010 double-CD set III/IV was, to these ears, a tuneless mess), but this beautifully understated, mostly mellow set of achingly sincere love songs ranks as one of his best since his 2000 solo debut, Heartbreaker. “Kindness,” in particular, kills.


18. Todd Snider, Live: The Storyteller (Aimless Records)

19. Slaid Cleaves, Sorrow & Smoke: Live at the Horseshoe Lounge (Music Road)

Live albums that come across as crass cash-ins, stop-gaps between creative spurts and/or as contractual obligations have no place on a year-end best of list — but neither of these double-discers fit any of those disqualifiers. Todd Snider’s Live: The Storyteller captures every ounce of the humor and yarn-spinning stoner charm that have long made his concerts (in particular, his solo acoustic performances) vastly superior to even his best studio albums, while Slaid Cleaves’ Sorrow & Smoke serves as a long-overdue career overview by one of the best singer-songwriters to plant his flag in Austin soil in the last 20 years. Newbies can now be directed straight to The Storyteller and Sorrow & Smoke as ideal starting points to both artists’ respective catalogues, while longtime fans who wouldn’t dream of touching a “greatest hits” collection get something simply irresistible: not the “best of” Snider and Cleaves so much as Snider and Cleaves at their absolute best.


20. Linda Chorney, Emotional Jukebox (Dance More Less War Records)

Thank goodness for the controversy surrounding Linda Chorney’s Grammy nomination for Best Americana Album: had it not gotten so damn ridiculous, I likely never would have heard of her, let alone finally gotten around to buying Emotional Jukebox. It’s a fun, feisty, and impeccably produced gem of a record. Chorney’s voice — as both a singer and writer — is bold and beautiful, as is her stylistic range (folk, jazz, blues, pop, R&B, and even a 10-minute “symphony”). Her own “Cherries” is my favorite pick of the bunch, but she also sings the hell out the Beatles’ “I’m Only Sleeping,” Zeppelin’s “Going to California,” and the Stones’ “Mother’s Little Helper.” Doubtless covers like those won’t help her cred amongst the Americana Nazis protesting her 15 minutes of Grammy fame, but to paraphrase the final verse of “Cherries,” Chorney is too busy embracing love, putting her heart out on a limb, and joyfully singing her favorite Beatle songs at the top of her lungs to give a damn.



21. Wilco, The Whole Love (dBpm)

I’m only sticking this one at the end of the list out of respect to group mastermind Jeff Tweedy, who has spent much of the last decade and change spreading Wilco’s wings and flying far, far away from the band’s post-Uncle Tupelo alt-country roots. But The Whole Love is one of the finest records he’s ever made, and hands down one of the very best of the year — in any genre.