Country California

Country music. Seriously.

Musical Discoveries of the Year (So Far)

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?

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  1. Chely Wright. I didn’t truly understand her greatness until I heard “The Metropolitan Hotel”. I’ve always liked her, I just haven’t been as OBSESSED as I am now.

  2. Excellent idea for a post CM, and I’m glad you finally came around to digging 1100 Springs and Townes.

    Also, good call on Aaron Watson as continuing the spirits of the hat acts, I knew there was something I didn’t like about him.

    You know, this year so far I’ve been focused on branching out rather than working on my country chops. My main discoveries have been:

    The Almanac Singers: Led by Pete Seeger and at times featuring Woody Guthrie, they sang super leftist stuff and have a whole album of union songs which is badass.

    Sonny Boy Williamson – He’s a blues harp player, but what I like about him is his throwaway, shivvering vocal style and hank williams-esque level of songwriting.

    Tom Waits – His music is strange and out of its time and gorgeous. Meanwhile his lyrics are Bukowskian and painfully revealing. His voice sounds like Whiskey and Razorblades. He’s awesome.

    Connor Oberst – I know, Bright Eyes is whiny is lame, but his record last year was pretty solid country folk rock.

    Iris Dement – this has been my big country discovery of the year. I have no idea how it took me so long. Her voice is way moving and though I suspect her songs would be less effective were someone else singing them, when she does them they are totally effective.

    She and Him - I’m not crazy about M. Ward’s solo stuff, but his pairing with Zooey made for a mighty fine pop record.

    Shooter Jennings – I think that my expectations that he be a traditionalist held me back from liking him for a while, but once I returned to his greatest hits record with an open mind I was really won over by his southern rock sound, sense of humor, and vocal performances. I may cede it’s not groundbreaking or crazy good stuff, but I listened to that record for days and days.

    • Ben said: “The Almanac Singers: Led by Pete Seeger and at times featuring Woody Guthrie, they sang super leftist stuff and have a whole album of union songs which is badass.”

      Ben, you would have made a great IWW spokesman / agitator (er community organizer) back in the early 1900′s. Your love of this album makes you an honorary “Wobbly”! I hear the song book derived from this album was used as the “hymnal” at Obama’s Trinity United Church in Chicago. Unfortunately their “holy trinity” was labor unions, marxism, and a communist dominated world government…

  3. Danni Leigh is amazing, CM! Check out her “29 Nights” album. Great version of The Hag’s “Mixed Up Mess of a Heart” on there.

    Wanda Jackson: I know I’m over 50 years late here, but I think Wanda is amazing! Her rock ‘n’ roll stuff, her Country material – amazing! And the best version of “Crazy” I’ve heard. She’s pretty much all I’ve been playing for the last fortnight.

    The Brian Setzer Orchestra – The Stray Cat’s singer and his swing jazz band. Not country, but some clear rockabilly influence prevail in their material – and I LOVE swing jazz, anyway. Great band.

    Chris LeDouz – A fantastic artist. Great Country/Rock – reminds me of Brooks and Dunn’s stuff.

    John Berry – A very unique voice, and these days vastly underated. A marvelous ballad singer too.

    BlackHawk: 90s band. I’ve been hearing a lot of their 2002 CD Spirt Dancer lately. Lead singer Henry Paul has a great nasal wail.

  4. I’m trying Drew Kennedy as well; I think he’s a very good writer but I’m not quite sold on him as a singer yet.

    Aaron Watson was one of my last year’s discoveries, although I’ve just acquired some of his back catalogue material; he’s exactly the sort of artist who *should* be a mainstream star. I started listening to Jason Boland and Australian country singer Adam Harvey last year but am exploring their music further this year.

    And for the really embarrassing admission: Tammy Wynette. I always liked her voice but had never really got far beyond the big hits until recently – I don’t know why.

  5. Danni Leigh = the female Dwight Yoakam. Nice choice and I’m glad somebody else is enjoying her music. I have ‘A Shot of Whiskey and a Prayer’, her 2000 album but not the one you mentioned. I’ll have to look for it.

  6. Glad to see Sara Watkins made your list!

    Mine will go outside country as well:

    -Neko Case: I love Middle Cyclone, one of my favorite albums of the year so far

    -Mary J. Blige: I loved her collaboration “If U Leave”, and then I bought Growing Pains

    -Kelly Clarkson: I got her latest album and My December, and I’m really digging her voice

    -Melinda Doolittle: I liked her on American Idol, but her covers album blew me away!

    • Oops, forgot Patty Loveless! I got Sleepless Nights right by Christmas and followed up by buying her 3 studio albums before that one- she’s now one of my favorite artists.

  7. She and Him – I skipped over this album last year because of all the hipster hype, but in doing so, I missed out on a real gem of a folksy pop throwback. Really good album.

    Drew Kennedy – He’s my Twitter “friend” and a damn good singer/songwriter

    Just started loving Lee Ann Womack’s “Call Me Crazy” this week. I liked it a ton and respected her work a great deal up until now, but it just hit me hardest for some reason in recent days. Not really a discovery, but definitely a new appreciation.

    On the guilty pleasure side, I just discovered a sleazy hard rock band called The Last Vegas. They sound like a mix of everybody I liked back in my mullet days with a modern twist. Fun stuff.

  8. Awesome topic, man.

    Only two are popping to mind for me right now.

    Freddy Fender – I had heard a couple of hits and knew him from the Texas Tornados, but only decided to pick up an album a couple of months ago. His voice is whiny and turns a lot of people off, but I dig it. He’s got soul. Plus he has one of the greatest ‘fro/mustache combos of all time.

    The Hollyfelds – My most recent discovery. They just released an EP called Black Heart Blue, which is how I heard of them. Love their harmonies.

  9. Man, I guess I’m really having to give Eleven Hundred Springs another shot. I was like you; couldn’t get into homeboy’s voice and it sort of kept me at bay from paying attention to the actual music.

    I’ve spent a lot of this year so far just catching up as cheaply as possible on legendary older music I had never gotten around to checking out, that Townes album being among the best discoveries I made. My current project is Johnny Paycheck, who is surprisingly easy to compile a pretty good collection on except for one particular much-revered but out-of-print Little Darlin’ compilation that’s currently going for like $50 on Amazon. I like what else I’ve heard of him so far enough that I took a chance and bought it for around $20 disc-only; all I can say is I hope it’s worth it!

  10. *really going to have to give Eleven Hundred Springs. Ugh.

  11. Stoney Larue – one of the best artists to come out of the Red Dirt / Texas scene in years. He and his band, The Arsenals, are absolutely F-ing great live.

  12. Eleven Hundred Springs really bored me the times I listened, but maybe I should revisit them.

  13. A few bands I’ve been listening to recently are the Charlie Shafter Band, Jason Boland Band, Jeff Hobbs & The Jacks, and Whiskey Myers.

  14. CM, I absolutely relate, but I’ve learned to admit my green-ness about artists long ago, because it would be just my luck that the truth would come out anyway.

    Like Ben, Iris Dement has been a wonderful discovery of mine this year. It’s funny what gets me to really look into an artist. I’d heard of her before and Kevin’s even mentioned her in the past, but Juli’s article at The9513 is what lit the fire under me. Coincidentaly, on the same day that I decided I would probably dig her, a friend of ours sent us a CD of hers for us to check out. So, I guess it was meant to be.:)

    I’m glad to see Sara Watkins on your list. I’d include her on mine, but I’ve already been afan for awhile. I discovered Aaron Watson early last year. I also discovered Eleven Hundred Springs last year when Rick and The9513 guys were going back and forth about them. I ended up siding with The9513.

    Allison Moorer is another person I’ve really gotten into this year. I knew a little of her stuff and really liked her voice, but it turns out I love her first two albums.
    I know there are others, but I can’t recall them right now. Great topic.

    • I should also add one of my very favorite discoveries this year, The Little Willies. I can’t believe I didn’t know them earlier, but I can’t get enough. They’re just so cool, which is the only way I can think of to describe them. They do the first version of “Tennessee Stud” that I’ve ever enjoyed. I can’t get the musical hook out of my head. I think I”ll go listen to them again now.

  15. Kate & Kaceu Coppola, and Jessica Harp

  16. “Danni Leigh = the female Dwight Yoakam.” I’m sold. I’ll check her out!

    I’ve bought so much music this year that I can’t even keep up. I’ve finally come to terms with the fact that I can’t hear it all, much less absorb it all.

    The artists I’m finally getting around to digging into a little deeper:
    Gillian Welch
    The Flatlanders (and solo stuff by Joe Ely and Jimmie Dale Gilmore)
    Raul Malo
    Gram Parsons
    Billy Joe Shaver

  17. Thanks for all the great comments, everyone. I have a few new artists and a couple new Danni Leigh albums (cheers to David and J.R.) to check out, so I’m calling this one a win-win.

  18. Thanks to Borders selling off their CD stock for 50% off, I’ve discovered Raul Malo and Social Distortion. I’ve never gotten any of Malo’s solo stuff, as it left me with the impression that he’d drifted away into the land of the lounge lizards with no hope for return. “Lucky One”, the new album, is reminiscent of Trampoline-era Mavericks, and the voice is still otherworldly. As for Social D, I can put Mike Ness in the same group with Jack White and John Doe as rock gods with more country soul than 90% of Nashville country singers.

    • I think Mike Ness recorded a couple country-ish solo albums. Have you heard either of those?

    • Ah I took advantage of the Borders deal, but it was only 40 percent and many of the albums that were marked down would have still been less expensive or equal to music from Amazon or Target/Wal-Mart. I did get an Elizabeth Cook album that I couldn’t find digitally for around six bucks though.


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