My musical soul was crushed this year in several ways. First and foremost, my main squeeze and constant source for inspiration and new music vanished without warning from my satellite receiver. XM’s Cross Country became another murder ballad in the longstanding war against anything decent on the radio. Replaced with “outlaw country,” Cross Country is a loss for their live shows, countdown shows, and specialty shows featuring artists like Robbie Fulks, Robert Earl Keen, and Dave Alvin to name a few. There is a hole in my heart that this radio station often filled. I have about 30 hours of it recorded on my Pioneer XM Radio so I guess I will be stuck with that as a souvenir. After the first three days of “outlaw” country, I haven’t turned it on again and WILL NOT renew my subscription. It makes me sick mad so I will just move on, bottle it up, and probably pour it all over someone if I ever get a chance.
The second most jarring blow came in the form of records that missed me (and I argue, missed in general) as their audience. I did turn 30 this year but most of the stuff I listen to is either ageless or aimed at my age range. Ryan Adams, Drive By Truckers, Chris Knight, and the Old 97’s are easily four of my top six or seven acts. Each released new material this year and in each case, the new material wasn’t up to their previous work. This isn’t to say I have thrown these artists under the bus nor do I ever intend to but this year’s stuff didn’t do it for me. DBT’s release had too many sleepers and was a significant downward shift from my favorite of theirs A Blessing and A Curse too.
While I could wallow in all this for a bit, I am going to try to see the silver lining. I saw five of my top ten in concert this year and saw several other more than noteworthy concerts. I am thankful for the opportunities afforded me to listen to outstanding groups and continue pursuing the next dose of auditory enlightenment.
1. James McMurtry–Just Us Kids
The wrinkled face of Americana is contorted into a snarl as McMurtry croons his latest creation, Just Us Kids. The title track is the best song of the year. McMurtry’s characters and situations come to life throughout the CD, noted for the protest “Cheney’s Toy,” through his masterful writing. His music is timeless because it is built on some of the very best word by word songwriting. This guy is an English major’s dream.
1. Band of Heathens–Band of Heathens
Three songwriters met at an open mic in Austin and started playing together a couple of years ago, the BOH is full of perfect harmonies, perfect melodies, and lyrics which can make you laugh in one song, turn you in a second song (refer to “Cornbread”), and make you cry in a third, the BOH has been on my radar for about 18 months after, thanks to XM CROSS COUNTRY, I heard the song I still consider their best, “Judas Scariott Blues.” As Ray Wylie Hubbard said about these folks, “they are so funky you can hammer a nail with them.” What does that mean anyway? He repeated it like everyone at Gruene Hall would know exactly what he meant. That show was my best of the year; all apologies for not writing it up and posting it. I saw it at my busiest time of the year.
3. Scott Miller—Appalachian Refugee
If this is just the crappy demo to Scott’s next album, we are all in for a treat. This stands alone; it is a release that if nothing else is an example of songwriting most artists only aspire to. Somewhat surprisingly Miller does cover three songs on the 12 song demo, shipped in a self-decorated cardboard CD sleeve. Maybe he forced his family into a decoration day (sic) to pump those out?
The title track is killer. “Knoxville Viceroy” is a combined biography of Miller and a history of the town. The CD doesn’t get any better sonically than it does on his full band, ball-rocking cover of “Wildcat Whistle.” “Hubbardville Store,” though acoustic and a cover, is equally incredible.
4. Conor Oberst–Conor Oberst
No matter how much I wanted to hate this guy when I saw him live and couldn’t and no matter how much I try when I listen to this CD, I love this music. Lyrically and sonically challenging, Oberst may not be a guy I want to hangout with, but I will continue to cherish this album as the gem it is. It feels good but it has something to say too. Why do I still hate Bright Eyes but like this? I am drinking the Kool-Aid on this effort by Oberst and loving it. “I Don’t Want to Die (in a hospital)” is the worst song I have heard in years though.
5. Rodney Crowell–Sex and Gasoline
While many other records on this list (and off of it) rocked me in various ways, this was the most musically and lyrically beautiful CD. I have never listened to Crowell before, at least by name. After hearing the title track, I was interested but figured the rest of it would be a fleeting glance. How wrong I was. “Moving Work of Art,” “The Rise and Fall of Intelligent Design,” and “The Night’s Just Right” are three of my favorites. This is as good as it gets.
6. Old Crow Medicine Show–Tennessee Pusher
I agree with most of the pundits on this; it is solid. These guys are growing up and are headed in the direction of being one of the all time old timey bands if they can stay true to the sound and stay together. There isn’t a “Wagon Wheel” on this record; I heard Toby Keith is cutting that now. Kidding, but someone poop country will and it will further their infantile fame. Rather, I hope they continue to get attention for this and subsequent maturing efforts. “Methamphetamine” is my favorite track, but it is solid throughout and easy to listen to at once.
7. Justin Townes Earle–The Good Life
Besides being a scrawny little punk and one who should dropkick his dad for his middle name, this generation of Earle is off to a much faster start than good ol’ Steve. I had a few late night musings considering some unsolicited advice we could offer Steve Jr. 1. Don’t get so with being political that it limits what you do. 2. You are a musician, not a prophet. 3. If your first marriage doesn’t workout, just keep trying.
But I digress. This is a solid little CD with minimalist production and maximum songwriting. “Ain’t Glad I’m Leaving” is an entry point but “Far Away in Another Town” is every bit as good.
8. Reckless Kelly—Bulletproof
This is the national “red dirt” band I listened to before I knew what Red Dirt from Oklahoma and Texas was all about. I don’t consider them in that category though they are Austin-based and often pigeon-holed into that like Chris Knight. They are alternative. This CD is better than anything they have put out since The Day. I still listen to Wicked Twisted Road with some regularity too. “Ragged as the Road” was the bulletproof single and the album charted at 22 on the US Country charts (normally that would disqualify any band I listen to) but not in this case. Who knows, Randy Rogers Band played David Letterman last week too.
9. Jason Ringenberg–Best of Jason Ringenberg 1979-2007
I am not really sure if “best of” CD’s can make a list like this but Jason’s effort goes above and beyond any rules. This is a phenomenal retrospect on a legendary career. Would there have been an Uncle Tupelo, Whiskeytown, or Old 97’s without Jason? Would it have sounded differently? To paraphrase Neil Young, I think the tracks Ringenberg left (and is leaving) in the sound will be forever heard.
10. Hayes Carll–Trouble in Mind
This effort by Carll received some deserved critical claim. I saw him at George’s in Fayetteville and he seemed to have that golden boy (poop country) charm which would surely take him far. I very much still enjoy listening to this record and think it and the artist will be around for decades. Major props to Hayes, he opened for the Old 97’s for a bit and is opening for the Drive By Truckers later this year. His taste is improving.
HM: John Mellencamp-Life, Death, Love, and Freedom—”If I Die Sudden” is one of my top ten songs of the year. I like this CD.
HM: Old 97’s—Blame it on Gravity
HM: Chris Knight-Heart of Stone—Much has been said about this. It is the weakest effort of Knight’s career in my opinion.
HM: Ryan Adams-Cardinology—I will continue to try to like this.
HM: DBT-Brighter than Creation’s Dark
HM: Brandon Jenkins-Faster than a Stone– I feel honored to have opened for this legendary songwriter. His music will be around for decades even if he as an act isn’t.
Three efforts standout as assured 2008 Top Tens except for the fact they were released in 2007.
Walt Wilkins-Diamonds in the Sun—This is my most played CD of 2008 and I would highly recommend it to anyone with ears. Beautiful harmonies and songwriting are lifted by soulful rhythm and graceful guitar work. “Trains I Missed” is a Top 25 all time song. John Hiatt (seriously old dude) and Elliot Randall were the two others slated for the Top Ten of 2008 until I realized they had aged by the time I heard them. All threee were XM finds before their dreams were bought and sold.
Thanks for reading and listening. I look forward to your comments and questions.