I sat recently in my Los Angeles living room, calming the throws of homesickness by swigging Bud Light Lime every time someone on ABC’s new hit series Nashville made use of a terrible southern accent, when it occurred to me that country music might be making something of a comeback. I use the term “comeback” loosely, because in many artistic communities, and on many a radio station presets, country never went anywhere. But in those scary places in the world where people turn their cold, runny noses down at country, the winds are beginning to warm, and more and more listeners are starting to smell the wildwood flars (June Carter speak for flowers). Some people still need even more of a warming though, and others just need an education (because as happy as I am that bands like The Avett Brothers and Mumford & Sons exist, they still aren’t that country, and they still make me just wanna be all, “okay we get it, you have a banjo in your band.”) So here is a mix of new, old, well known and up-and-coming country artists, all of whom I think represent a different side of country music, a side that you won’t find on any T-Swift album (I really hope she tweets about this later).
1. The Dixie Chicks
First of all, they covered Stevie Nicks (“Landslide”) and it wasn’t just a plea for relevance, but instead actually breathed their own life into an already timeless song. Also, Natalie Maines has one of the most expressive voices country music has ever heard. Furthermore, they’re ladies with balls, and they play their instruments damn well. Most importantly for new country listeners, DC strike a balance between classic country and contemporary radio listenability. I would also do anything for a comeback album, so if you do listen to, and like them, please write a congressman.
2. Allison Krauss
Well if you don’t have the O’ Brother, Where Art Thou soundtrack, go buy it immediately. And if you don’t like it, well you should probably stop reading now. Allison Krauss’ voice is either entirely holy, or unholy. She also is a brilliant harmonist, musician, and songwriter. The best part about adding her to this list though, is that she recorded an album called Raising Sand with Led Zeppelin front man Robert Plant in 2007 (which won the Grammy for album of the year in 2009) that is a whole haunting decoupage of country, folk, rock, blues, etcetera.
3. Old Crow Medicine Show
A lot of people don’t realize when they say they don’t like country music that they do actually like a lot of things that come from, or are a part of, country as a whole. One of those things is bluegrass. To like one is not to necessarily like the other, but it is some variant on that whole sum of the parts analogy, or whatever. End of story, Old Crow is Gen Y’s father bluegrass (at least to the youngins too sad to know who Bill Monroe is). You can’t listen to it without foot grabbing someone inappropriately, so go do that.
4. Justin Townes Earle
Yes, Earle as in son of Steve Earle, so for you Old Heads this should be an easy sell. But JTE has hollowed out his own place in country, taking more of a lost on an American highway with nothing but a guitar approach to country than the Celtic riff, power rasping kind of country of his father. Finding a home in New York, JTE also provides the converse to the ever tired and recycled – inner tube in a crick behind my house with a beer and all my old friends – kind of song, with a little bit of Yankee twang. Recommended for the lonely lumberjack in Buffalo who dreams of paisley-wearing waifs in Greenwich Village.
5. Wanda Jackson
The queen of Rockabilly, perhaps she reigns too high for this list, gets to the point of just how versatile the country genre really is. At 73, she is not only still making music, but also inspiring young movers and shakers to clamber to work with her; her latest album was produced by Justin Townes Earle (Unfinished Business), and the one before that by the notorious Jack White (The Party Aint Over). Jackson should be listened to because she inhabits so many planes (she might be a witch), and is timeless without effort, qualities every woman should strive for and every man should look for in a female mate. Just watch the video for “Am I Even A Memory,” and try not to feel something, you robot.
For you country feminists, they have a song about warshin’ your big ole pussy ‘fore you go to town … nuff said. The duo is delightfully irreverent to say the least. They combine performing (the art of it), with clever lyricism and classic accompaniment. Birdcloud cunningly takes the subtle innuendo of old country greats and puts it in your face like a $3 peep show, while also flipping the tables on country songs written for men, by men. Not for the faint of heart, but stop being so damn boring, y’all.
7. Shovels and Rope
If you can get behind Johnny and June, Tammy and George, Loretta and Conway, you can get behind these guys. They’ve given the original twang-y, whiskey filled, love bursting country duet a modern, lo-fi, dark twist. They’re spunky and rhythmic, whaling about scrounging for cash and Tennessee girls. If you can open yourself to that new Mumford & Sons single that’s always on the radio now, you owe it to yourself to listen to Shovels and Rope. And Lucky for you they have a Christmas EP out this month.