Best New Country Songs: June 2017
|The Secret Sisters|
1. "He's Fine," The Secret Sisters
Muscle Shoals-based sisters Laura and Lydia Rogers produce a mournful song of lost love — a classic theme in country, but here given additional sharpness by the lyrics. The sisters, in their signature close harmony, sing of a woman who has made life decisions based on what her husband might approve of, only to find him abandon her for a woman who is nothing like her. The song especially makes use of a folk songwriting technique of using an abbreviated meter on the last line, following a relatively long sentence with the words "he's fine," making the line abrupt, ironic, and nakedly painful.
2. "Johnny 99," Shovels and Rope
Charleston's wife and husband duo of Cary Ann Hearst and Michael Trent provide a countrified cover of a Bruce Springsteen song from his famously bleak "Nebraska" album. Shovels and Rope sing the song over a "Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da"-style piano part and sing it with a maximum of verve. Springsteen's original was was punchy but sober, telling of an out-of-work auto worker who has a drunken crime spree. Shovels and Rope's version, with its pounding drums, excitable vocals, and genuine swagger turns Springsteen's tragic lead into a criminal antihero.
3. "Last of My Kind," Jason Isbell
Former Drive By Trucker Jason Isbell performs an exceptionally pretty country ballad about the movement from rural living to the city — a theme that country music has been notably sensitive about exploring for the better part of a century. Isbell's Arkansas-born narrator has moved to the city, where he is failing badly, having dropped out of college, got hooked on amphetamines, and is now roughing it and likely homeless. "Daddy said the river would always lead me home," Isbell sings, but comes to the same conclusion that Thomas Wolfe wrote of, where the country turns out to be a place of constant change. "The river can't take me back in time," Isbell sings.
4. "Muddy Water," The Deslondes
June of 2017 is a month that saw releases of albums by country giants Steve Earl and Glen Cambell (likely Cambell's last due to his Alzheimer's disease diagnosis, and appropriately titled "Adios.") But the album that struck me the most was by the critically beloved but comparatively obscure New Orleans band The Deslondes. Every single song on the album is superb, both in composition and arrangement, exploring an impressive variety of country styles.
Any of the songs on the album might have made this list, but I chose "Muddy Water," which starts with a plain, folk-style guitar lick that has the tawngy reverb sound of a resonator guitar, with the lyrics, telling of the improved games of rural children, sung with a weary, raspy voice. The band soon joins in with close harmony, honky tonk piano, and wailing pedal steel, joining together on the song's brash chorus like the song has become country gospel: "We drink muddy water because it makes us stronger."
5. "Never Going Home," Tara Dente
Based around essentially the same chords as Status Quo's "Pictures of Matchstick Men," New Jersey folk musician Tara Dente builds a haunted melody that sounds somehow ancient, as though American folk and country music had never left its occult Celtic roots very far behind. This sense is especially assisted by the song's use of spare, deep, booming drums. Unlike Isbell's deep ambivalence about leaving rural life, Dente's story feels like the start of some sort of mystical quest, as though one can never truly know themselves until they leave their home behind. This is not the story of the collapse of rural life; this is an immigrant's song.
6. "No Right Way to Be Wrong," Jim Lauderdale
Over a rocking, Bakersfield-style arrangement, Grammy-winning country artist Jim Lauderdale oozes out his lyrics, which consist of entirely sensible advice. The song is about the moments in life when you are faced with two decisions, one right, one wrong, and how the wrong choice can quickly compound into a real crisis. But Lauderdale sings it with a weird, enjoyably sleazy eagerness, as though he were winking the entire time, and that the wrong choice might be the wrong choice, but it might also be the fun choice.
7. "Pretty Saro," Rhiannon Giddens
I am not-very-gradually coming to the conclusion that North Carolina-born, opera-trained singer Rhiannon Giddens is the most important voice in modern country. No other artist has engaged in such a profound and complicated exploration of country's international and multi-ethnic roots, buoyed by her extraordinary voice, which she shades according to the song she is singing.
Here, as an example, she turns to a British ballad — a category of music she has essayed for more than a decade. "Pretty Saro" is the story of an immigrant describing their extraordinary loneliness on arriving in a new country, and it turned into an Appalachian favorite and a bluegrass standard, as well as inspiring a Bob Dylan song.
Giddens takes it back to its roots, singing the whole thing without accompaniment, her voice here raw and folksy, drawing both from the slight tawnginess of early Appalachian singing and the ornamentation of Irish and Scottish old style singing. In doing so, the song doesn't just tell of an immigrant's experience, but vocally builds a bridge between the singer's old world and new, seeming to exist at the exact moment when a British song became an American one.
8. "Unquiet Grave," House & Land
House & Land, consisting of the duo of Sarah Louise and Sally Anne Morgan, describe themselves as "haunting psychedelic Appalachian folk drone," and it's interesting to parallel their song "Unquiet Grave" with Rhiannon Giddens. Both have looked to a song from the British Isles that turned into an American folk song, but while Giddens strips the material down to find its origins, House & Land produce a deeply, delightful weird recording from their material.
The women sing with sharp, nasal voices over a blasting drone and wild, almost abstract drumming. I have a collection of songs compiled into a playlist called "Old Weird England," mostly consisting of experimental 70s reinterpretations of the famous Childe Ballads, of which "Unquiet Grave" is one. House & Land would feel right at home in that collection, even with its occasional mountain fiddle playing in the background. The lyrics are satisfyingly grim, telling of a lover looking at the grave of their beloved, and finds himself chastised by the body inside, which cries out "who sits weeping on my grave?"
9. "Walkin' in LA," Steve Earle
Steve Earle's new album, "So You Wannabe an Outlaw," is another sampling of the songwriter's absolute mastery of melody: Every single song on the album is instantly memorably, distinct, and, well, tasty — they're just fun to listen to.
I picked this one off the album as my favorite mostly because I appreciate Earle's sheer nerviness in appropriating a title and basic theme of a 1988 Missing Person's song. Both songs address the fact that Los Angeles is a town where you are judged by the car you drive, and so people with no cars tend to be at the bottom of society.
Earle's luxurious song sounds like a slightly punky version of a Countrypolitan song — it has the sophisticated pedal steel and fiddles of the classic Nashville sound, but on top of a fuzzy guitar, and it sounds just right for a song about how having to hoof it in LA is the clearest sign that someone is down and out.