August is finally here, and early this morning in Georgia the thermometer touched 67 degrees, hinting at fall’s eventual arrival. Of course, it will be nearly 90 degrees by the middle of the afternoon, and September and October promise many more steamy late-summer days, but, still, it was nice to daydream about autumn even for a moment. Despite the cuckoo Southern weather patterns, this time of year is often synonymous with new beginnings: a new school year, a new harvest, a new season. All of those events may look different this year due to the present circumstances, but one aspect of the calendar—the music release calendar—has returned mostly to normal. In July, we heard some of the year’s best roots, Americana, country and folk albums. Courtney Marie Andrews displayed abundant grace on her charming country record Old Flowers, Lori McKenna shared her always trustworthy wisdom on The Balladeer and The Chicks raised hell on Gaslighter. Read about these albums and more of our favorite July roots records below, listed alphabetically.
At the time of May Your Kindness Remain’s release, Andrews already had three excellent records under her worn leather belt. But this call for compassion solidified her as a lyricist with more empathy than she knew what to do with. On Andrews’ new album Old Flowers, that benevolence is abundant yet again, even though she wrote it following the messy disintegration of a nine-year relationship. While it occasionally loses itself in the past, Old Flowers doesn’t rely solely on nostalgia for its power. Andrews never wallows. She is somehow able to be both full of regret and gratitude at the same time. But Andrews is singular because she’s unafraid to look back on past loves with ample forgiveness. Old Flowers might make you cry, but it’s also an eloquent reminder that grace is always possible. —Ellen Johnson
It almost feels like shortchanging Lori McKenna to call her a singer/songwriter. Storyteller doesn’t seem quite sufficient either. She is both of those things, of course. But McKenna—a Massachusetts resident and Nashville heavyweight, thanks to hits she’s penned for Tim McGraw, Little Big Town and others—has long written songs that paint more vivid, more detailed, more dynamic pictures of daily existence than just about anyone else. Perhaps it’s more accurate to call her a documentarian of humanity, or an interpreter of the human experience. Put simply, she is one of Music City’s most in-demand songwriters precisely because of her priceless ability to write about people in a way that appeals to people. McKenna showcases that skill all over her 11th solo album, The Balladeer, while also mining the same rich vein of inspiration—family—she explored on her most recent album, 2018’s The Tree. But where The Tree hinted at unease within domesticity and the ever-quickening passage of time, she sounds much more comfortable with those topics on her new album. At McKenna’s stage of life, with her elders in their twilight and children heading out on their own, a significant shift in perspective is no surprise, even in the span of just a couple of years. —Ben Salmon
Margo Price’s new album is the work of a singer ready to shake up preconceived notions. The Nashville musician has been doing that all along to a degree, but That’s How Rumors Get Started is a conscious—and sometimes self-conscious—step out from under the shadow of all the “bright future of country music” buzz that surrounded her previous solo work. That’s How Rumors Get Started is Price’s third LP as a solo artist, after three previous albums fronting the Nashville band Buffalo Clover. If that group had a shaggy late-’60s blues-rock bent à la Big Brother and the Holding Company, Price certainly leaned more toward the sound of fiddles and pedal steel guitar on Midwest Farmer’s Daughter in 2016 and All American Made in 2017. The latter even featured a duet with Willie Nelson. This time around, there’s as much blustery rock and hard-edged soul as there is country twang. Some of that change is probably due to Price’s old pal Sturgill Simpson, who produced the album and assembled a band to play on it, in place of Price’s usual road band. On the other hand, the mix of sounds is more in line with what Price presents onstage in concert. When it works here, she demonstrates a certain amount of breadth as a performer. Yet it doesn’t always work. There’s a difference between upending expectations and contrarian posturing, and the songwriting on That’s How Rumors Get Started isn’t consistently sharp enough to strike the right balance. Price goes for broad strokes on these 10 songs, musically and lyrically. —Eric R. Danton
The Chicks have never tolerated liars, cheaters or scoundrels. They coaxed dirty secrets from their lovers’ mouths on “Let ‘Er Rip,” promising strength in the face of the truth. In another case, the offender in question was such a scumbag they plotted his murder. In 2006, on their most recent album Taking The Long Way, they still weren’t ready to make nice. While they’re famous for romantic songs like “Cowboy Take Me Away” and hopeful ballads like “Wide Open Spaces,” Natalie Maines, Martie Erwin Maguire and Emily Strayer have always been tough as nails. So it should come as no surprise that the band are consistently resilient on their relentless fifth LP Gaslighter. Ultimately, Gaslighter is powerfully split between the band who were once the Dixie Chicks and who are now The Chicks. Old demons dance alongside new loves. Meanwhile, Natalie, Emily and Martie shout their political opinions, cries for justice and messages of support on behalf of abused women everywhere from the mountaintops, all to the tune of polished, country-pop gold (in part thanks to the production savvy of Jack Antonoff). —Ellen Johnson
“It’s something that I’ve wanted to do for a long time,” Crain says of her new quarantine hobby, the remarkably meticulous craft of basket-weaving. “But I just recently had the time to sit down and really get into it, so I’ve been doing a lot of basket weaving lately. But I hop around—I’m kind of ADD when it comes to projects. I get really, really obsessed with something for a while and just dive into it, and then I get sick of it and move on to the next thing. So music is the one creative project that’s been consistent in my life.” The coronavirus didn’t make her a candidate for the butterfly nets, she adds with a laugh. It was just every traumatic event in the past two years of her turbulent existence leading up to it that nearly did. All of which found its way into her deceptively tranquil, self-produced new album, A Small Death, her sixth overall. And the cabin fever she’s enduring now is child’s play compared to the living hell she’s just staggered through, gracefully—but obliquely—covered on the disc, from the lonesome funeral strummer “An Echo” through a spider-filigreed “Holding to the Edge of Night,” the skeletal processional “High Horse,” the dark Neo-psychedelic strummer “Reunion” and a decidedly Poco-ish “Tough For You.” The set closes with the penultimate shoegazer “When We Remain,” sung in Crain’s native Choctaw language, adding even more warmth to her already hickory-smoked, reverb-rich singing voice, one of the most memorable in modern folk-rock. The finger-popping, almost Wanda Jackson-ribald “Little Bits,” reveals the artist’s latent love of more modern devices, like punchy punk riffs and a playfully tinny syndrum rhythm. —Tom Lanham