I used to say I hated country music. At high school dances, when the DJ played country, my friends and I would sit stubbornly on the floor, waiting indignantly till we could get them to put on some Violent Femmes, NIN, REM, Prince, Bell Biv Devoe, or (at the very minimum) old-school Michael Jackson. We were unforgiving, arms crossed, passing judgment.
I don't hate country music. I never really did. I just hated most of what I heard on country radio stations. Mostly, I still do. (I'm not *totally* over the passing-judgment syndrome.)
Here's the funny part. Today, you can go right on ahead and call me a huge country music fan. Most of the shows I've spent money on over the past three years have been country, or Americana, or whatever you want to call it. Most of the music I've downloaded to my phone is the same. For my honeymoon, I chose Nashville and Memphis. You get the idea.
Gloriously, over the past several years, there's been a re-emergence of what I will go ahead and high-falutingly call real country music. The stuff that Willie, Waylon, Dolly, Patsy, and Johnny would all recognize as such. There's a growing number of artists out there who are taking old country new directions. It's exciting. It's energizing the industry. And the music is crazy good. This week's nice thing is a selection of songs from some of the artists who are fixing country music. Enjoy.
My current love affair with country has primarily one man at its center. That man is Sturgill Simpson. His voice sounds like a cross between Waylon Jennings and Randy Travis, but it's also totally his own. His lyrics and style know no real boundaries: He's country, he's rock, he's psychedelic, he's pop, and he's everything in between. And let's face it, I may have a little bit of a crush.
The song I selected, "Turtles All the Way Down," is a solid representation of his style. If you listen closely to the lyrics you'll realize you've gone on a literal trip through the world's religions while simultaneously being treated to some fairly sage advice about how to deal with the world's shit.
Sturgill and his band can also rock the hell out of a stage. Check out this version of "Brace for Impact" for a taste of that.
I owe my introduction to Jason Isbell to my friend Natalie, who got us NightGrass tickets to see him at the 2014 Telluride Bluegrass Festival. We were both dead tired and up way past our bedtimes, but, hearing this dude, we knew we had to buck the hell up and listen. His lyrics, delivery, and band are all killer.
It was hard to pick a song, because he's got so many great ones. But I picked this one, "Cover Me Up," because he wrote it for his wife and he gives it his fucking all every time. If you want to hear another, check out "Something More than Free."
Tyler Childers is the real deal. He can write a helluva chorus. After hearing some of his songs for the first time, you feel like you've somehow already known them for years. Sturgill produced Tyler's last album, Purgatory, which makes total sense.
I first got to see him play solo, just him and his guitar, on a small stage at the 2017 Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival. I've since seen him play with his full band, too. He's fantastic both ways. He's got slow songs, rockers, and everything in between. Some of his stuff is pure country, while other songs, like "Universal Sound," go directions you may not have anticipated. My advice? Follow this man everywhere.
Colter Wall is the only artist on this list I haven't seen live. That will change. Once you hear his voice and his tone and his songs, I fancy you'll immediately understand why. His sound is way reminiscent of Johnny Cash, but in a way Cash would appreciate and be totally cool with.
Anyway my husband, John, found Colter's album Imaginary Appalachia recently, and I may have listened to it three times in a row the other day. There's just that much to digest. If you want to check out another Colter Wall song, try "Fraulein," which also features our boy Tyler.
Brent Cobb is, for me, the newest addition to this list. I only first heard his name just under two weeks ago, when I saw him play the Keystone Bluegrass and Beer Festival. Apparently, he's already old news to many, given that he's been opening for (real) country superstar Chris Stapleton for awhile now. But he was news to me, and he was a kick to see live. He's a true southern boy, and his invariably catchy lyrics invariably feel genuine and heartfelt. Also, he and his band get fairly noodly and psychedelic and it's way fun.
Small caveat: Sadly, when afterward we checked out one of his albums, it lacked the electricity of the performance we'd just seen. I later read an article that may explain that: On tour with Stapleton, Cobb has apparently learned the necessity of making his sound bigger. Whatever made it happen, I'm jazzed to hear more of it.
If you'd like to check out another song, check out this clip, which breaks it down to just the man, his guitar, and one of his stories.
Before I leave this particular Cobb, it's time to call out that Brent Cobb's cousin is one Dave Cobb, a producer of everyone on this list save the Sturgill-produced Tyler Childers. Dave Cobb also produces Stapleton, John Prine, Brandi Carlile, and many others. In other words, the talent runs deep in the Cobb family, and Dave Cobb is one to track. It sounds like he's got the right attitude, putting the artists' talent at the forefront and giving it a space to shine.
Anyway. I hope you liked some of these songs. In my experience, a solid song can make any day better and brighter. Whether you're a country music fan or not, these songs should work that way.