When I finally find my way around to an artist who has been recording for years, my inclination is usually not to publicly announce myself as a newcomer; if I don’t mention exactly how long I’ve been listening, I figure people might give me the benefit of the doubt and assume I’ve known all along. Who wants to be that green kid asking everyone if they’ve heard that Dylan guy 40 years after the fact? Not me.
But the truth is that there’s a lot I haven’t heard yet, I’m always discovering new stuff, and it’s pretty silly to be ashamed of a learning process. It’s not that I don’t want to know about all the music in the world; it’s that I can’t. I only have so much attention. So I pick up what I can at my own pace, waiting for the right song or album to convert me to a particular artist, waiting for all the pieces to fall into place. And this is something I do all the time, with artist after artist, because I like good music and thrive on the process of discovery.
So, with little regard for anyone’s perception of my coolness, here are a few of the acts I’ve started paying attention to for the first time in 2009. I might write more about a few of them at some point. There are others I’m not mentioning now because I’m hoping to do write-ups on them soon. If you’re the sort that’s always looking to expand your musical horizons, perhaps the following list might give you a new lead or two.
- Aaron Watson – The Texas references littered throughout his songs initially scared me away – like an inside joke clearly not intended for me – but it turns out that this is where the spirit of ’90s hat acts went when country radio switched over to an ‘anything but country’ format.
- Claire Lynch – Although she has been active since the ’70s, this bluegrass darling has spent much of her time as part of an ensemble, as a songwriter, and as a session vocalist for Emmylou Harris, Dolly Parton, Kathy Mattea, Patty Loveless, and others. For those who haven’t discovered her as a solo artist just yet, the folksy bluegrass (or bluegrassy folk?) of 2007’s Crowd Favorites will be a revelation.
- Danni Leigh – Who says women can’t honky tonk? Give 2007’s Masquerade of a Fool a listen.
- Drew Kennedy – Rodney Hayden was one of my big discoveries of 2008. The other half of The 9513’s New American Voices tour has come to my attention in 2009. You can hear (and download!) some of his music for free at the tour website.
- Eleven Hundred Springs – Some of those The 9513-ers were preaching it, but I couldn’t see the light until I warmed up to lead singer Matt Hillyer’s voice. Of course, now I don’t know what my problem was. Eleven Hundred Springs isn’t just mindlessly working within a tradition; they’re doing something with it and creating a sound that’s uniquely their own in the process. Pretty awesome.
- Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit – Certainly more alt than country, which would usually be a deal-breaker for me, but the songs on their self-titled disc are sharp and sort of melodically addictive.
- Jason Roberts – The Asleep at the Wheel fiddler put out his own album (produced by Ray Benson) in 2002. He croons like George Strait in Western swing mode.
- Roger Alan Wade – Who’d have thunk that Johnny Knoxville’s record label would produce one of the finest outlaw efforts of recent years? It’s true. Look no further than 2008’s Stoned Traveler.
- Sara Watkins – I never caught the Nickel Creek fever, but heard enough of them to know that I’d be interested in Watkins’ solo album. As most every review will attest, it doesn’t disappoint.
- Townes Van Zandt – This is downright scandalous, but I hadn’t heard many of Van Zandt’s songs from his own mouth until this year. Unsurprisingly, the album that won me over was Live at the Old Quarter.
- Trent Summar and the New Row Mob – I’ve already written about them here.
- Walt Wilkins – Pat Green’s hero/friend/collaborator had a hand in writing songs like Pam Tillis’ “Someone Somewhere Tonight” and Eric Church’s “Livin’ Part of Life,” but he’s better and funkier on his own. His recordings – solo and with the Mystiqueros – make it clear why he’s a hero to many of the younger acts on the Texas scene.
What artists (old or new, obscure or mainstream) have you started paying attention to in 2009?