10 Great Country and Americana Albums Released So Far in 2019

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10 Great Country and Americana Albums Released So Far in 2019

It’s nearly June, and any hope that 2019 would prove less brutal than 2018 has been chucked out the window along with women’s rights, Grumpy Cat and all your favorite CW shows. It’s lucky, then, that 2019 has delivered unto us a heavenly haul of great new music, especially in the sphere of country, folk, roots and Americana (whatever that means these days). Following Billboard’s withdrawal of Lil Nas’ country trap hit “Old Town Road” (still the number one song in America—ask any youth you see passing by on horse or otherwise) from the country charts, the genre has been in the midst of a Southern Baptist sermon-sized reckoning. The very definition of country music is at stake, and while high-ranking industry jocks will have to sort out what that means for the business, the root of the genre remains the same to its makers and its listeners, be them rappers or rockers: Country songs are about real people, real struggles and real sadness. Like any and every category of music, it has undergone changes and will continue to do so. Below is a roundup of artists making country and Americana music for a 2019 audience. We hope whether you’re historically a fan of the genre or not, you’ll find something here that sparks some joy in your heart and mind—this year often feels like a whirlwind of ridiculousness, so we have to seek it out wherever we can. More great music will certainly arrive before December, but here are 10 great country, roots and Americana records released so far in 2019, listed in alphabetical order by artist.

1. Caroline Spence: Mint Condition

Caroline Spence isn’t asking for much on Mint Condition. She’s just hanging in there, never making any demands too lofty. “I’m alright, my dear,” she sings on “Sit Here And Love Me.” “I don’t need you to solve any problem at all / I just need you to sit here and love me.” Since the release of her debut album Spades & Roses in 2017, the Virginia via Nashville singer/songwriter signed to Rounder and took a turn for the country. Spence has always had an ear for stories, but on Mint Condition she’s even more inclined to tell the tales of the everyman (read: woman) and embrace Americana’s twangier side. On “Song About A City,” she takes an autumnal road trip to evade the ghost of an old relationship; on the title track, she’d rather preserve it, acknowledging, “This life that we see ain’t no apparition.” She later wonders “Who’s gonna make my mistakes if I don’t?” and saddles in for a “Long Haul,” bracing for a physical and emotional journey. Mint Condition isn’t perfect. It doesn’t glide—it moseys. And the brief blunders along the way are just reflective of Spence’s own, the “mistakes” made by a human woman just trying to figure some sh*t out. As it happens, that soul-searching sounds like one of the best country releases of the year. —Ellen Johnson

2. Daniel Norgren: Wooh Dang

Daniel Norgren’s new album Wooh Dang sounds like someone slowly rolling a radio dial across several AM stations, each broadcasting a field recording. Some are strange. Some are gorgeous. Some ache and some comfort. Some sound muffled and others are so intimately captured, it feels like Norgren is singing from inside your ear canal. All of them, though, showcase the sound of an ambitious singer/songwriter at the height of his powers, plus the creaky 19th century farmhouse where Norgren and his friends recorded the album live to tape on analog gear. Throughout Wooh Dang, Norgren proves himself unafraid of a sparse arrangement. Songs like “The Flow” and “The Day That’s Just Begun” revolve around his voice, with minimal accompaniment by piano, guitar feedback, yawning harmonica or the low hiss of the room. And yet it’s “When I Hold You In My Arms”—a lush little ditty that floats like angels’ wings across a distinctly Latin rhythm—that might be the most instantly likeable moment on the album. It’s that stylistic diversity—and Norgren’s obvious skill and feel for most anything he tries—that really gives Wooh Dang that AM radio feel. With every turn of that invisible dial, another delight awaits. —Ben Salmon

3. Hayes Carll: What It Is

“In times like these, everybody could use a hand,” Hayes Carll sings on “Times Like These.” Ain’t that the truth. Carll, a writer of smart, funny, no-frills country songs, followed his commercial breakthrough KMAG YOYO and 2016’s Lovers and Leavers with this year’s excellent What It Is, a plainly stated take on the tomfoolery of today viewed through the eyes of one regular joe. There’s a surveying of stakes on What It Is, as well as a whole lot of heart. He continues, “I just wanna do my labor, love my girl, and help my neighbor / While I keep a little hope for my dreams / But it’s sure getting hard, brother, in times like these.” There’s also no shortage of side eye: Carll gets told off in the wry “None’ya” and gives “a damn” (or several) in “If I May be So Bold.” Then there’s the roadside benevolence of “Jesus and Elvis” and the “American Dream’s” tendency to swallow us all. It is “What It Is,” but Carll would have us believe the worst modern maladies aren’t permanent. “There’s a whole world out there waitin’,” he sings. “Full of stories to be told / And I’ll heed the call and tell ‘em all / if I may be so bold.” —Ellen Johnson

4. Josh Ritter: Fever Breaks

Josh Ritter  always returns when we need him most. In April, he released his 10th album, Fever Breaks, which was produced by Jason Isbell and features the 400 Unit. Thanks to that collaboration, it’s a fuller southern rock sound than some of the folk-leaning fare of Ritter’s early catalogue, but maintains his narrative lyrical abilities. At times, Fever Breaks collapses into bluesy fits (“Old Black Magic”) before relaxing into more tender territory, like on the subdued swing of “I Still Love You (Now and Then).” In his 20 years as a working songwriter, Ritter has given us plenty of songs that don’t need any extra flash—his words bring all the pizzaz you could want. But it’s still enjoyable to hear him up the ante with the 400 Unit on Fever Breaks, a record that sometimes boils over with searing southern rock ‘n’ roll but more often still simmers with the warm, weary words of a man who’s done a lot of living in his 40-some-odd years. —Ellen Johnson

5. Joy Williams: Front Porch

So much of country music is just about being from somewhere. Maybe you’re a small town lifer, or maybe returning to your Kentucky (or Virginia, or Tennessee, or Michigan) hometown is complicated. Sometimes going home is hard. Joy Williams knows it too—she “took the long way, looking for the shortcut” before discovering home “was made of the best stuff.” On the title track from her new album Front Porch, the singer/songwriter positions home as a place of safety. “You take it all for granted, then you leave,” she sings. “And then it takes a while to realize what you need.” The Nashville-based, California-born musician’s latest solo LP is deeply rooted in the idea of comfort and where it comes from. It’s stripped-down, maybe even more so than some of her folk ventures as one half of the now-defunct duo The Civil Wars, and it’s undeniably country in its tropes if not always its sound. Following the birth of her second child, Williams took a slow trip back home on Front Porch. Its prevailing idea is a familiar one, but it’s worth hearing again and again: “I may not have everything I want,” Williams sings. “But I got all I need.” —Ellen Johnson

6. Lula Wiles: What Will We Do

Lula Wiles are provocateurs of the best kind, rabble-rousers with the purest intentions. One of the brightest recent signees to Smithsonian Folkways, the Smithsonian Institution’s nonprofit record label, Lula Wiles are a Boston-based folk trio made up of Isa Burke, Eleanor Buckland and Mali Obomsawin, and it seems like they’re hellbent on stirring up country conventions for the better. They make traditional roots music stacked with warm harmonies, acoustic expertise and the occasional electric element, but there’s nothing antiquated about the subject matter of their songs. The three women, who were swapping songs at summer camp in Maine long before they attended college in Boston and became a band, sing with distinctly American voices, but they’re not afraid to question every single thing it means to be just that. To that end, one of their most in-depth tunes is “Good Old American Values,” a single from their label debut What Will We Do, is a striking critique of country music’s and American pop culture’s repeated abuse and misrepresentation of indigenous culture. Elsewhere on the record, Lula Wiles tackle small-town tribulations on “Morphine” and “Hometown,” love’s selfish side on “Shaking As It Turns” and crushes gone wrong on the witty “Nashville Man.” Even as they play raw, old-time melodies and whittled-down folk arrangements, they’re sharing honest, modern music told from a refreshingly smart millennial perspective. —Ellen Johnson

7. Orville Peck: Pony

Masked country crooner Orville Peck is forging a path all his own. Hot on the heels of his illustrious and mysterious debut album Pony (out now on Sub Pop), Peck first caught our attention thanks to his look, act and secret identity (we still don’t know who he is, exactly), but his music secured the hold. Pony is a weirdly satisfying musical milkshake, an at-times spooky blend of classic country, shoegaze ambience and vintage rock ‘n’ roll that goes down more like a smooth slurp of whiskey. At its core is an emotional journey, at times told through the lens of outlandish characters who’d feel right at home in a spaghetti western (two canyon-traversing cowboys caught up in a doomed romance on “Dead of Night”), and, at others, through more personal anecdotes (“Turn to Hate” tracks a series of internal struggles, told from a male, gay perspective we may not otherwise hear in country). The voice of Merle Haggard and the heart of an earnest indie-rocker make for a singular combination, one that should solidify Orville Peck as a country innovator, not an outsider. —Ellen Johnson

8. Rhiannon Giddens & Francesco Turrisi: there is no Other

On her newest endeavor, the album there is no Other (out now on Nonesuch), former Carolina Chocolate Drops frontwoman and banjo whiz Rhiannon Giddens, along with the Italian multi-instrumentalist Francesco Turrisi, tracks the movement of people—and their music—across cultures and centuries, particularly in regards to their respective areas of expertise: Giddens knows inside and out the African American influence on roots, acoustic and old time music; for Turrisi, it’s a deep knowledge of Arabic music and its imprint on Europe and beyond. The album is grounds for a smaller world, a beautiful narrative convincing us of our similarities, not our differences. The stories in these songs can act as hymns, folktales or dispatches from some lost time or place, but it’s really in the instrumentation where the album’s deepest messages—a condemnation of “othering,” the social practice of ostracizing those considered outsiders, and a campaign for the similitude of human experiences—come to light. If instruments from different parts of the world can work together so seamlessly, why can’t people? —Ellen Johnson

9. Robert Ellis: Texas Piano Man

It’s funny that Robert Ellis’ new album Texas Piano Man was released on Valentine’s Day. While there are a good number of love songs on the record, it’s alarmingly disillusioned, not the idealized stuff of greeting cards and romantic comedies. There’s a cheeky examination of bickering in “Aren’t We Supposed To Be In Love,” acts of longing and desperation on “When You’re Away” and a seemingly funny tune about a “Passive Aggressive” partner that’s actually kind of sad. “That’s one way to communicate,” Ellis sings. “I wish you would just give it to me straight”—not exactly the doe-eyed love song you’re after on Feb. 14. The relationships on this dazzling album are far from perfect, but they’re honest, and the multi-talented Ellis, coming off a string of breakup records, sounds more comfortable in his skin than ever before. Texas Piano Man is exactly what it sounds like: a cross between country-blues and piano-pop. Ellis surely knows his way around the keys, and his fifth studio album is funny, frank and alive. It’s a storyful, self-realized album that also happens to be a hell-of-a good time to listen to. —Ellen Johnson

10. Yola: Walk Through Fire

Yola Carter’s mere presence—the rare Black artist amid the otherwise pale skinned world of roots music—would have been enough to at least train one’s ear in her direction. But the British singer/songwriter’s performances are nothing short of revelatory, a conjoining of American musical interests (country, blues, soul, pop) warped by years of personal turmoil and bursting free via her sturdy, resolute vocal performances—a far cry in tone from her artistic heroes (Dolly Parton, Neil Young and The Byrds, among them) but firmly connected to their influences, lyrically and emotionally. Her debut full-length Walk Through Fire only solidifies Yola’s position as a talent of rare vintage. Recorded with Dan Auerbach of The Black Keys at his studio in Nashville with a crack team of backing musicians, including former Johnny Cash bassist Dave Roe, legendary session pianist Bobby Wood and a guest spot from Vince Gill, the album is steeped in woozy country (the dusty title track), hip-swinging ’60s R&B à la Dusty Springfield (“Still Gone,” “Ride Out in the Country”) and the peaceful, easy feeling that can arrive when trying to meld those two aesthetics. —Robert Ham

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