Best new country songs: May 2017

Back in 2015, a study came out that made the case that at age 33 people stop listening to new music. In part, this apparently represents a maturing of tastes, with audiences moving away from popular new music in favor of less mainstream, less contemporary artists.

Some of it, however, represents a calcifying of musical taste, which I have seen in my own life. Some of the people I know seem to have simply lost interest in any music that came out after they turned 26 or so. I've been guilty of it too — a vast majority of the new music I buy is actually old music, released years or (more often) decades before I bought it.

When the study came out, I decided to reverse course on this, because who wants to be one of those old dudes shaking a fist at a young person with a boom box, or whatever young people have nowadays, and complaining about their music?

So I started regularly checking the various music charts and, when a song caught my fancy, downloading it. And I think I understand why 33-year-olds stop doing that.

It's because most online music services are designed to push you toward a very small number of artists, generally the ones who are already popular, are being heavily promoted by their studios, or are working in a pop idiom that the services think are salable. It takes some extra work to get off the beaten path, and this is a blog dedicated to the unbeaten path in country music.

So every month I will offer up my pick of a handful of my favorite new country songs from the previous month. I probably don't need to preface this by saying my tastes are idiosyncratic and my definition of country is far too broad. All I can say is that these are the new songs that jumped out at me, and I think deserve a larger listenership.

1. "Honey Honey, "Ancient Cat Society 

Houston's delightfully named Ancient Cat Society starts this song with a bouncing cowboy guitar and bass, as well as melancholy lap steel; the song is a spirited, lightly sung, closely harmonized song about waiting for a date who is taking too long to get ready. This may seem like a slight subject for a song, but the Ancient Cat Society makes it absolutely charming.

2. "Tears Don't Stain," The Country Side of Harmonica Sam

This note-perfect recreation of the classic 1940s honky tonk sound comes from an unlikely source: The Country Side of Harmonica Sam is a Swedish band, specifically from Malmö, which is otherwise best-known for the Nordic Game conference that takes place every spring.

The sound is stripped down and deeply reverbed, with a pedal steel that constantly wails in the background. Lead singer Harmonica Sam wails in the foreground, sobbing out his songs with a sort of melodramatic emotion we haven't seen since Johnnie Ray; it would be no surprise to discover that the singer tears his hair and weeps onstage, as Ray did. Any of the band's songs off their album "Tears Don't Stain" are worth listening to, but I'm especially fond of the title song, in which the singer realizes that he weeps so much that it would ruin his clothing if tears left marks behind.

3. "Shotgun," Amilia K. Spicer

Amilia K. Spicer, who alternates between Los Angeles and Austin, seems to have a little of both in her songs. The guitar-based "Shotgun" has a lolling, folky quality that wouldn't feel out of place in the Laurel Canyon of the folk rock craze, but her leisurely, lovely voice brings an Austin quality, first in its presentation of the song's surprisingly grim lyrics, in which she dreams fleeing her heavily-armed and immensely stressful town to the Serengeti, where there are only lions to worry about. There's also a hint of Austin in the song's imaginative arrangement, in which Spicer's voice provides a fluttering, birdlike harmonies.

4. "Finger Up My Butt," Wheeler Walker, Jr.

I'd say that Wheeler Walker, Jr. is the foul-mouthed, brutish, unpleasant alter ego of comedian Ben Hoffman, but Hoffman's real-life persona is pretty foul, brutish and unpleasant. He put out an album last year that was a mix of uproarious and weirdly mean, and his new follow-up album, "Ol Wheeler," is likely more of the same.

But I can't help but like the honest raunchiness of "Finger Up My Butt," which musically sounds like it could come off a 1970's blue collar comedy. There's a throwaway line about the attractiveness of one of his sexual partners, but otherwise the song is a comically straightforward expression of sexual preference.

5. "Snake Mountain Blues," Colter Wall 

I'm partial to Canadian country music — I'll probably end up writing a post or two on the subject — and this quietly menacing fingerpicked tune is a great example. Colter Wall has a thick, deep, hoarse voice — it's rough but also sounds like a mountain man had just started singing with an unexpectedly pure tone.

The song makes no bones about its subject: It's sung to a wealthy interloper who has designs on Wall's woman. Wall couldn't be clearer about his intentions toward the man: "You'll die where you stand."

6. "Kiss My Ass God Bless the USA," Bob Wayne

Bob Wayne plays outlaw country, with all the druggy good-old-boy bravado that suggests, but he's a keener songwriter than he might seem on first blush. His songs tend to have titles that sound like blind, reactionary rage — this album, "Bad Hombre," contains songs with titles like "Take Back The USA" and "The Last Breath You Take" — but there's more than initially meets the eye.

Take "Kiss My Ass God Bless the USA," as an example. The title sounds like something Ron Swanson might say in an especially ill-tempered mood, but the song itself is a clear-eyed representation of the sort of reckless bravado that comes with falling off the wagon. The guitar and fiddle arrangement are cheerful almost to the point of mania, but barely hidden beneath the song's macho posturing is the singer's recognition that he has profoundly screwed up.


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