Country Music, Roots Music, Americana, Ameripolitan- call it what you will. How do you, do we, define the music we listen to (and review)? When we started out doing Lonesome Highway it looked like we were able to cover all the bases. All the music we liked that seemed to fit our remit, but now I’m not so sure. Much of what is called ”country music” these days bears no relationship to the music I love and my personal definition of it. Yet that music that first drew me in is still out there. The list below is a testament to that. As long as I can remember there has not been a year without a significant number of albums that fulfil my need to listen to music that meant something on some level. Some are staunchly traditional in nature and could have been made anytime over the last several decades, while others have taken the form and transposed it into something more contemporary while retaining the spirit of the music.
Perhaps the C2C Festival was a perfect example of the range of music that now fits under the corporate “country” umbrella. From out and out pop and hard rock/soft metal to those who, on record, have elements of country music in their sound but live are a much more boisterous affair to the more traditional elements of the outstanding Ashley Monroe and the long-standing Bakersfield influenced sound of Dwight Yoakum.
‘Something for everyone’ it could be argued and certainly the most interesting line-up for C2C at that point. Yet one wonders how well it would have gone down if it had been aimed at one sector or another. Perhaps there is an opening for more small stages to feature up coming acts of one strand or another - as happened in the London staging of the event.
One thinks back to the show in the then Point Theatre that was headlined by the very mainstream and crossover Reba McIntyre yet also featured Brad Paisley and Ricky Skaggs as well as Wayne Hancock and The Derailers on the bill (not to mention your Lonesome Highway team doing between act DJ work and stage announcements). A truly wide ranging and cosmopolitan line-up. Showing that the music can be many faceted but still include artists who are normally on the fringes. But times and tastes change, though the feeling is that in the mainstream you get what they want you to hear and see rather than what you might want - or at least have a chance you might not otherwise have to see some of these acts. Then at least you can make up your own mind.
ALBUMS OF THE YEAR (in no particular order):
Luke Bell Luke Bell
Honeycutters On The Ropes
Jack Ingram Midnight Motel
Cody Jinks I’m Not The Devil
Dori Freeman Dori Freeman
Western Centuries Weight Of The World
Caleb Klauder & Reeb Willms Innocent Road
Margo Price Midwest Farmer’s Daughter
Buddy Miller & Friends Cayamo Sessions At Sea
Dave Insley Just The Way That I Am
The Heresies I Want My Honky Tonk Back
The Cactus Blossoms Your Dreaming
All of these above albums stick close to an individual take on traditional country music.
Grant-Lee Philips The Narrows
Michael McDermott Willow Springs
Danny Schmidt Owls
The Handsome Family Unseen
Nate Currin The Madman And The Poet
Kacy & Clayton Strange Country
Teddy Thompson & Kelly Jones Little Windows
Jesse Dayton The Revealer
Reckless Kelly Sunset Motel
While these albums explore a broader context that includes story telling in a roots rock, folk or country-rock way.
They all share an integrity and vision that remains true to the artist rather than a enforced PR idea of
what might sell in quantity or gain airplay on what is currently passing for “country radio” in the main.
They all deserve to but most likely won’t.
Gigs Of the Year
Lindi Ortega - Whelans, Dublin
Michael McDermott - Whelans, Dublin
The Cactus Blossoms - Rough Trade, New York City
Blue Rodeo - Grand Social, Dublin
Chris Stapelton - C2C, Dublin
Ashley Monroe - C2C, Dublin
Joe Ely - BB King Club, New York City
2016 was a ruthless year in the music industry, taking the lives of Leonard Cohen, David Bowie, Merle Haggard, Sharon Jones, Prince, Leon Russell and Glen Fry in the space of ten months.
By way of contradiction 2016 offered, for me, most probably the finest output of music, across many genres for many a year, resulting in an altogether challenging task of selecting year of end album, song and concert highlight lists.
After much deliberation and mind changing my favourites in order of preference were:
Richmond Fontaine You Can’t Go Back If There’s Nothing To Go Back To
Fittingly bowing out with a piece of work to match their best, Willy Vlautin both revisited characters from previous albums and introduced us to other unfortunate and desperate individuals. A brilliant swansong.
Margo Price Midwest Farmer’s Daughter
Wonderful autobiographical tales delivered with honesty from an artist virtually unheard of twelve months ago. A true indication of what perseverance and belief in oneself can achieve, it took a lot of rejection before Jack White’s Third Man Records recognised the quality and signed Price to their label.
Peter Bruntnell Nos Da Camrade
Possibly a career best from Bruntnell, one of the UK’s finest songwriters for many years. Equalling the dizzy heights of his 2002 classic Normal for Bridgwater.
Dori Freeman Dori Freeman
Breath of fresh air from the 25-year-old from Virginia. Simple, crystal clear vocals, crafted song writing and fortunately benefiting from not being over produced.
Neko Case, kd lang, Laura Veirs Case, Lang, Veirs
More than the sum of their parts, the challenge offered to them resulted in a piece of work to match any of their individual releases.
Erin Rae & The Meanwhiles Soon Enough
Soon Enough found the young Nashville resident Rae out front rather than contributing backing vocals to other’s music. Beautifully delivered vocals and equally impressive songs from one of the finds of 2016.
Ryley Walker Golden Sings That Have Been Sung
Appropriate successor to 2015’s Primrose Green with Walker in more experimental form with his hypnotic mix of folk, psychedelic and free form jazz.
Carter Sampson Wilder Side
Finally making a deserved breakthrough in Europe the artist known as The Queen of Oklahoma repeats the high standard of her 2011 recording Mockingbird Sing.
Drive-By Truckers American Band
There most complete and strongest album since The Dirty South (2004) with the band tackling current thorny political issues and in particular racism. Not simply a protest album but one that questions with much concern what is exactly happening presently in their home country.
Marlon Williams Marlon Williams
The 24-year-old New Zealander’s debut album is a blend of Scott Walker vocals and Tim Buckley emotions with lashings of country twang on the side. It’s a lot of fun too!
Aoife O’Donovan In The Magic Hour
Delightful introspective concept album reflecting on freedom, childhood and mortality. The work in particular found O’Donovan exploring her Irish roots following the passing of her grandfather in Clonakilty, Cork where she spent many summers as a child.
The Jayhawks Paging Mr. Proust
Featuring the line-up that appeared on Rainy Day Music in 2003, it’s business as usual with songs, harmonies and melodies to match that 2003 classic.
Lucinda Williams The Ghost of Highway 20
More than a mere survivor, Williams has continued to challenge herself in recent years to attain the perfection she always strives for. The Ghost of Highway 20, in a similar vein to 2014’s Down Where The Spirit Meets The Bone, more than reaches her high standards. The common denominator on her current double album, is Interstate 20 which runs between Texas and Georgia and the various locations in between that inspired some of the most personal songs written by her.
Jim Lauderdale This Changes Everything
Back to basics for the prolific Lauderdale with a ‘country’ album afters 2015’s venture into Memphis soul with Soul Searching.
Daniel Romano Mosey
Nudie suit replaced by a sombrero for Romano’s latest which experiments with a sound closer to the Mexican border than Nashville but which works every bit as well as his previous impressive output.
John Blek Cut The Light
Quality set of songs from the prolific young Cork songwriter. More laid back than his work as leader of John Blek and The Rats and displaying an ability to pen classic folk songs with traditional leanings as well as the fuller sound of his writing with his band.
Aaron Lee Tasjan Silver Tears
An artist with the ability to amuse as well as excite the listener with his skills as a songwriter, musician and indeed performer. Silver Tears is a further indication as to why comparisons are being made with big hitters Todd Snider and Hayes Caryll.
Amanda Shires My Piece of Land
A mature and reflective recording from an artist that improves album on album. Shires and her husband Jason Isbell appear to be both benefiting in creative terms since their marriage. Long may it last.
Elizabeth Cook Exodus of Venus
Reflection on a period of personal turmoil, Cook has produced an album that compares with her best, often dealing with painful and personal issues. Not anywhere as much twang as her previous work but from the heart and with Dharma Gate she has recorded one of the most beautiful songs of the year.
Hayes Caryll Lovers & Leavers
Personal stories closer to home than on his previous albums but every bit as impressive from one of the most talented song writers in the Americana genre.
Gene Clark American Dreamer 1964-1974
Superb body of work featuring twenty four tracks from The Byrds, Dillard and Clark, The Flying Burritos and Clark’s solo work.
Gillian Welch Revival
A thrilling revisitation of her debut album.
Margo Price at the Deaf Institute, Manchester
Jason Isbell at the O2 ABC Glasgow
Richmond Fontaine at St. Patricks Gateway, Waterford
Dori Freeman at Cannery Row, Nashville
Natalie Merchant at The Olympia, Dublin
Dylan LeBlanc at The Anchor, Nashville
Peter Bruntnell at Ryan’s, Kilkenny
Giant Sand at Whelan’s, Dublin
Marlon Williams at The Mercy Lounge, Nashville
Hayes Caryll at The Set, Kilkenny
The Year in Review – 2016
It is a well-worn statement that reminds us “constant change is here to stay” and nothing could ring more true when I look at the state of things across the broad spectrum that is classed as Country Music today.
We have the similar adage that “change is good”, so as things move on, you would expect that they improve over time…
Well, when the year ends with Beyoncé appearing onstage at the CMA Awards singing with the reformed Dixie Chicks (watch out Trump) and Garth Brooks wins Entertainer of the Year at the same headline event; you just have to wonder…
At least there was due recognition for Dolly Parton with a Lifetime Achievement Award and for Randy Travis who appeared onstage for the first time in public since his stroke to rapturous applause. Signs that the industry hasn’t lost all its’ class yet…
Sadly, Country music radio is choking the life out of the Industry with restricted play lists and no opportunity for new artists to have their music heard across the U.S.A.
I think back to Elvis and the impact he had in the 1950’s when rockabilly changed the way that teenagers listened to what was the Country sound of the time.
Forward to the Eagles in the 1970’s and the introduction of a commercial rock sound into what was popularised as Country-Rock.
Garth Brooks and Tim McGraw gave us big-hat stadium country into the 1990’s and in the last decade everything exploded with other musical genres crossing over into country territory as the urban shift to the big cities continued at a pace for the next generations of rural kids who grew up listening to their Parents’ record collections.
Country Rap and hip-hop influences have been emerging with plenty of looped beats and hard driving syncopated rhythms and synth drums filling out the sound of many contemporary country music artists.
At least Bro-Country seems to have run out of road and all those trucks where everything was supposed to happen have ground to a halt and started to rust – good riddance!!
The future will certainly be different to anything we can imagine but whether country music ever returns to its’ roots is highly debatable. In the year where we lost the legendary Merle Haggard perhaps the past is better left where it was & that is in the past …
Top 12 Albums of the year:
The Ghosts of Highway 20 - Lucinda Williams
The queen of bittersweet reflection is still calling the shots with this compelling 2-disc release
Down To My Last Bad Habit - Vince Gill
The voice is as pure as ever and the soulful playing just reminds me how good he has always been. Pure class.
You Can’t Go Back If There Is Nothing To Go Back To - Richmond Fontaine
Wonderful music and a storyteller’s gift for lyrical narrative. This wonderful band called it a day this year but what a way to bow out.
Reckless - Martina McBride
Back to her best with the first release in 5 years. This veteran of the microphone can still sing most of the opposition into a country cocked hat.
The Things That We Are Made Of - Mary Chapin Carpenter
Call her Folk or call her Country, Mary still holds the contemporary crown for literary song-writing and sweetly sourced melody. A real gem.
The Weight of These Wings - Miranda Lambert
Her body of work is building nicely and this was the sign of a mature woman coming out of the crowd of young developing artists to deliver a song collection that is both moving and of enduring quality.
American Band - Drive-By Truckers
Still a distance above any pretenders to their throne. The riffs and rhythms are as strong as ever and the songs hit hard with an angry political statement about the state of the U.S.A. One of their best.
In The Magic Hour - Aoife O’Donovan
An excellent song collection from this blossoming talent which puts her into the Premier League of ‘ones to watch’.
Exodus Of Venus - Elizabeth Cook
What a strong return after a 6-year absence. Songs that visit deeply personal matters are addressed with plenty of grit and rousing sassy class.
Little Seeds - Shovels & Rope
Always a joy to listen to this duo who have delivered another strong collection of songs that have swagger and passion.
Robert Ellis - Robert Ellis
A very under-rated song-writer who delivers another quality album filled with life lessons and reflection.
Scheherazade - Freakwater
First release in 11 years and what a wonderful example of classy mature song-writing and harmony singing from 2 ladies on the dark side of Country introspection.
All the following artists have been reviewed by Lonesome Highway over the past year and are deserving of a place in any music collection. Terrific releases, one ‘n’ all;
Long Time Leaving - Christa Couture
Starlight Highway - Corinne West
Muscle and Bone - Peter Gallway
The Poet and the Rose - Buford Pope
Soon Enough - Erin Rae & the Meanwhiles
Fall Away Blues - Red Tail Ring
Color Wheel - Jenai Huff
Fairweather - Roger Roger
Follow Me Moon - Mia Rose Lynne
Tears and Laughter - Robin Greenstein
Tree - Anna Elisabeth Laub
The Wayside - Kelley McRae
Gretchen Peters - Essential
Blue Rodeo - 1987 to 1993. Eight disc treasure chest.
Emmylou Harris - The Life & Songs of Emmylou Harris
Eddi Reader - The Blanco Y Negro Years. Five discs of real quality.
Van Morrison - It’s Too Late to Stop Now (Expanded edition with DVD. Essential)
Steve Earle - Guitar Town (30th Anniversary edition)
Dolly Parton, Linda Ronstadt, Emmylou Harris - The Complete Trio Collection
Various Artists - The Last Waltz (40th Anniversary edition)
Patty Griffin - The Olympia. January
Krista Detor - Ballymore Eustace. February
Eddi Reader - The Pavillion. February
Blue Rodeo - The Grand Social. May
Doug Paisley - Whelans. June
Lera Lynn - Whelans. June
Carlene Carter - Whelans. June
Country 2 Country - 3 Arena. June
Freakwater - Whelans. October
Richmond Fontaine - Whelans. October
Songs of the Year:
God is a Working Man - Jason Isbell
Burning House - Cam
Friend of the Devil - Rob Ickes & Trey Hensley
Pushin’ Time - Miranda Lambert
No More Crying The Blues - Cactus Blossoms
All Blue - Luke Bell
Rum - Brothers Osborne
Ain’t Nobody - Dori Freeman
Story - Drake White (acoustic live)
Train of Time - Shakin’ Stevens (apocalyptic white gospel from an unlikely source)
Albums of the Year:
The Weight of These Wings - Miranda Lambert
Southern Family - Various Artists
I’m Coming Over - Chris Young
For Better, or Worse - John Prine & Various Duet Guests
El Camino - Frankie Ballard
Young In All The Wrong Ways - Sara Watkins
Swimming Pools, Movie Stars - Dwight Yoakam
New City Blues - Aubrie Sellers
Rattle & Roar - Earls of Leicester
North By South - Claire Lynch
Gig of the Year:
The Alvins - Whelans, Dublin
Disappointment of the year: Chronic over-production – Jay Joyce totally messed up Brandy Clark’s Big Day in a Small Town just as busbee
over-decorated Maren Morris’ otherwise excellent Hero. Both these albums would have made my top 10 list otherwise. Producers
should try to live by the maxim that it is helping the artist, not show off the producer’s ego and pet signature sound.
Best Gigs in date order
Sturgill Simpson - Button Factory, January
Lindy Ortega - Grand Social January
Chris Stapleton/Ashley Monroe/Dwight Yoakum - C2C 3 Arena, March
Dierks Bentley - Olympia, April
Lera Lynn - Whelans, June
Phil Vassar - Whelans, June
Hot Club of Cowtown - Sugar Club, October
Donal Lunny and Mick Hanly - Conservative Club, November
Plus, too many class acts to mention at each
Shannonside Festival - Six Mile Bridge Winter
Galway Arts Festival - Galway Summer
Omagh Bluegrass Festival - Omagh
Best Albums 2016 (I can’t even begin to number rate them)
They are all special in their own way and I suppose I wrote them as they came to mind so that might be a sort of listing.
We Banjo 3 - Galway String Theory
Planxty - Between the Jigs and the Reels - A Retrospective
Special Consensus - Long I Ride
Earls of Leicester - Rattle and Roar
Dolly Parton/Emmylou Harris/Linda Ronstadt - Complete Trio Collection
Band of Ruhks - Band of Ruhks
Rob Ickes and Trey Hensley - The Country Blues
Claire Lynch - North by South
Blue Highway - Original Traditional
Time Jumpers - Little Sister
John Prine - For Better or Worse
Del McCoy - Del and Woody
Cup O’Joe - Bluebirds
Caleb Klauder and Reeb Willms - Innocent Road
Sarah Jarosz - Undercurrent
Tyler Grant - Earth And Wood
O’Connor Band - Coming Home
Balsam Range - Mountain Voodoo
Cathal Hayden - Hooked On Banjo
Fireball Mail - Bending The Rails
20 here and I could easily hit another 20. Bluegrass, crossover country/trad and straight folk they made for an amazing year of great listens.
All of the above and so many more that I haven’t listed are the staple music of my Ronnie Norton - Lonesome Highway radio shows on
www.cmrnashville.com and www.worldwidebluegrass.com check the websites for broadcast times.