September delivered a collection of great rock and pop albums, but now it’s time to turn our attention to folk, country, Americana, bluegrass and all the other subgenres under the “roots” umbrella. We received another perfectly pastoral record from Bill Callahan, a surprise folk-rock delight from Fleet Foxes and another surprise album from Kentucky country singer Tyler Childers. Additionally, we heard a standout country EP from rising star Mickey Guyton and the folk-country return of Joan Osborne. Find all our roots favorites from September below, listed alphabetically.
Bill Callahan has an unnatural knack for finding the cosmic in the mundane. A quiet drive back from work, staring out at the crops of a field, doing the dishes before heading up to bed with his wife—these sort of moments form the quotidian fodder for revelation in the singer’s universe. In not running away from, but embracing and elevating his gradual slide into domesticity, the artist formerly known as Smog has been one of few musicians to not only sound comfortable in middle age, but to have released some of the richest material of a roughly 30-year career within it. The artist’s new album, Gold Record, is no exception. It’s out now via Drag City and follows 2019’s acclaimed Shepherd in a Sheepskin Vest. —Jack Meyer
Fleet Foxes: Shore
There are several elements that make a Fleet Foxes album great. Layered vocals, daring instrumental swells and vibrant, at times anxious, lyrics are all present throughout their catalogue, from the assured folk-pop of their 2008 self-titled debut to the magnificent existential ramblings on 2017’s Crack-Up. These signifiers are all present on their new album Shore, but the effects are much more nuanced. Fleet Foxes remain a quintessential millennial band, and, on Shore—which dropped with only a day’s warning—they’re once again tapping into the millennial psyche, this time with a little more optimism. Upon first listen, Shore lacks the immediacy of Fleet Foxes and 2011’s Helplessness Blues—at least from a sonic standpoint. But frontman Robin Pecknold’s astonishingly thoughtful lyrics quickly bring the listener back up to speed, at times recalling the grandiose scope of Crack-Up’s more cheerful moments, even if the indie-rock stylings are lagging a bit. —Ellen Johnson
Times are tough right now, but luckily we have a new Joan Osborne album to raise our spirits. With Trouble and Strife the singer/songwriter returns to tender folk-country, and it’s an oasis in times of madness. For her new album, she enlisted a large live band (including several musicians who played on her last album, Songs of Bob Dylan), featuring guitarists Jack Petruzzelli, Nels Cline and Andrew Carillo, keyboardist Keith Cotton, bassist Richard Hammond, drummer Aaron Comess and vocalists Catherine Russell, Ada Dyer, Martha Redbone and Audrey Martells. —Danielle Chelosky
Nashville’s Mickey Guyton is the unapologetic voice country music needs right now. Unfortunately, women in country music still don’t receive radio airplay equal to that of their male counterparts, and for a Black artist like Guyton, the odds are even more stacked against her. That hasn’t stopped Guyton, who has released some of the best country songs of the year in her singles “Black Like Me” and “Heaven Down Here,” both written in response to 2020 and ongoing current events and featured on her Bridges EP. In the former, Guyton sings freely about the racism she encountered in childhood—and, sadly, still faces today: “Now, I’m all grown up and nothin’ has changed,” she sings. “Yeah, it’s still the same.” She calls for equality, but, ultimately, she’s displaying hope and pride: “Oh, and some day we’ll all be free,” she sings. “And I’m proud to be, oh, black like me.” It’s 2020, and a country song like this shouldn’t feel out of ordinary, but the fact of the matter is this song is radical. Country fans, listen to Mickey. We can learn so much from her. —Ellen Johnson
As his career in country music has taken off over the past few years, Kentucky-born-and-bred singer/songwriter Tyler Childers has proven to be a bit of a tough nut to crack. On his two excellent first albums—2017’s Purgatory and 2019’s Country Squire—Childers sings eloquently about drinking and drugs, making music, missing his woman, raising hell and living the hillbilly lifestyle. He’s a top-shelf storyteller, but if you’re looking for lyrics that reveal how he feels about certain issues or current events, you’re out of luck. All of this is perfectly fine, of course. There is no rule that Childers must express his opinions through song or dance around on stage to prove he’s having fun. His style is his style, and it has worked well for him as he has quickly built a sizable nationwide fanbase of people who connect with his authentic twang, working-class anthems and credible perspective on life in the rural American South. But even Childers is done playing it close to the vest after the year we’ve had. It’s not immediately obvious on his new album Long Violent History—surprise-released on Sept. 18—but to ensure absolutely no one misses the main point, Childers released a six-minute-long video along with the album to act as an introduction to the work. —Ben Salmon