Chris Knight: Heart Of Stone
Knight, one of the most underrated singer/songwriters in the
Americana genre, hammered out another fine
country-rock-folk-blues collection. Former George Satellites
frontman Dan Baird sat in the producer’s chair for Heart
Of Stone. Baird and Knight make a powerhouse team.
Knight continues to mine the dark side of life in his songs.
Rattling rockers "Homesick Gypsy" and "Hell Ain’t Half Full"
are tempered with the 3/4 time "Danville" and the delicately
fingered "Crooked Road."
2. John Mellencamp: Life Death Love Freedom
Who would have thought Mellencamp would release one of the
best albums of his career this year? The Indiana native
returned with an acoustic album of well-crafted gems. Save
for the first single, the clangorous "My Sweet Love,"
Life Death Love Freedom is a stark collection made up
of folk songs that sound like they could have been written a
hundred years ago. Whether it’s the delta blues texture of
"If I Die Sudden," or the strummy spiritualization of "Don’t
Need This Body," Mellencamp strips away the mainstream sheen
of the past and comes up with a jaw-dropping effort.
Jamey Johnson: That Lonesome Song
People who complain that "country ain’t country" anymore
need look no further than Nashville wordsmith Jamey Johnson
for a dose of the real thing. Johnson, the man behind hits
for George Strait and Trace Adkins, digs deep in the dirt
and comes up with a fistful of diamonds. The
singer/songwriter chronicles the personal misery that came
calling right around the time he was enjoying his greatest
success as a songwriter. "High Cost Of Living," a drug and
booze soaked canticle that ends with the gruff singer’s
redemption, and the tear stained "Stars Over Alabama," an
emotional number written for his mother, are as real as it
4. Rodney Crowell: Sex & Gasoline
Riding a string of brilliant albums – The Houston Kid,
Fates Right Hand and The Outsider – Rodney
Crowell returned this year with Sex & Gasoline.
Once again Crowell is in fine writing and vocal form. While
not as penetrating as Fates Right Hand or as
lyrically and musically gripping as The Outsider,
Sex & Gasoline is a solid album. Guitarist Will
Kimbrough, who played a big role in both Fates Right
Hand and The Outsider, is absent this time
around (which might be one of the reasons the disc doesn’t
quite live up to Crowell’s last two releases). "Sex &
Gasoline" and "Forty Winters" stand among the best
compositions Crowell has ever written.
Jakob Dylan: Seeing Things
Jakob Dylan stepped out from the shadows in a big way this
year. On break from his band The Wallflowers, Dylan released
Seeing Things, a stripped down acoustic album that
rivals his legendary father’s best work. Dylan has penned a
set of timeless folk songs, songs that live and breathe in
the sparsest (and often darkest) environments. Tracks like
"Evil Is Alive And Well," "War Is Kind" and "On Up The
Mountain" are poetry set to music. Dylan may or may not
return to The Wallflowers, but one thing is for sure, he
doesn’t ever need to write another song to prove he is every
bit the artist his father is.
6. Lucinda Williams: Little Honey
"Singer/songwriter Lucinda Williams is the female equivalent
of Steve Earle. Scratch that, Steve Earle is the male
equivalent of Lucinda Williams." These words were lifted
from my review of Little Honey which appeared on
Walmart.com. There really is no better description of
Williams. The singer/songwriter is the Queen of Americana.
The raw-voiced wonder is a master at cutting right to the
bone with simple words and melodies. Whether she’s rocking
out on the AC/DC like opener "Real Love," or berating a
loser ex-boyfriend on the whiskey and tobacco streaked
"Jailhouse Tears," Williams has never sounded better.
Ray Scott: Crazy Like Me
After being unceremoniously dumped by Warner Brothers
Nashville, Ray Scott did what any wise singer/songwriter in
the digital age would have done, he released an independent
album. Crazy Like Me may not have the major label
polish of Scott’s competitors, but what it lacks in
production (which is actually very little) it more than
makes up for in soul and authenticity. Scott, who’s Warner
debut My Kind Of Music was a hardhitting,
old-school collection, sticks to his Waylon and Haggard
steeped sound on Crazy Like Me. Standout tracks
include "Hell Got Raised Tonight" and "Sometimes The Bottle
Hits Ya Back."
8. Kenny Chesney: Lucky Old Sun
Chesney’s Lucky Old Sun was a huge surprise.
Country music’s entry into the rock star world turned down
the amps for a tasteful singer/songwriter collection that
shows there’s more underneath the hood than the arena rock
anthems he’s come to be known for. On Lucky Old Sun
Chesney sounds like he’s found life’s sweet spot and is
loving every minute he spends cradled in it. "Boats" and
"Spirit Of A Storm" are soulful tracks worthy of numerous
Wade Bowen: If We Ever Make It Home
Texas singer/songwriter Wade Bowen is one of the lone star
state’s brightest rising stars. Bowen has matured a great
deal between Lost Hotel and If We Ever Make It
Home. From the gear jamming opener "You Had Me At My
Best, to the ear-pleasing "Somewhere Beautiful," Bowen has
whipped up a magical Americana collection. Chuck Cannon’s
"Daddy and The Devil," a lump-in-the-throat tale of a lost
soul who just never found his wings, is the album highlight.
Bowen smothers the track in red dirt emotion and sells it
like a prosperity preacher sells religion.
10. Zac Brown: The Foundation
If you could jam Jimmy Buffett, Uncle Cracker, Greg Allman
and the original Lynyrd Skynyrd (not the current cover band
version) into a magical musical blender, you would probably
come up with Zac Brown. Brown is the anti-country music
star; he doesn’t look like he has a stylist on the payroll.
The singer/songwriter, who earned his stripes the hard way-
by busting his ass, pens meaty songs that reach beyond the
soccer mom audience. The Georgia native is proof positive
that you don’t have to sell your soul to have a hit single.
The Foundation is all killer, zero filler. The
island flavored "Toes," the Groovelicious "Chicken Fried"
and the funny bone tickler "Sick 'Em On A Chicken" are album
Other notable releases from 2008:
George Strait: Troubadour, Alan Jackson: Good
Time, James Morrison: Songs For You, Truths For Me,
John Hiatt: Same Old Man, Lee Ann Womack: Call
Me Crazy, James Otto: Sunset Man
(Todd Sterling is a
freelance writer and songwriter from Canada: