It’s been kind of a rough year for the show. This was the year we made the Big Name Change from Taproot Radio to the Americana Music Show. This meant changing domain names, RSS Feeds, iTunes Directories. Lots of churn. Lots of angst. But through it all the music kept pouring in. More music was submitted to the show than in any year prior. And I’m happy to say the show has more listeners than ever before, despite all the churn. Thanks to all of you for listening!
As always, the Best of 2012 list is selected from the self-produced artists and independent labels that have submitted music to the Americana Music Show. I think you’ll agree that 2012 has been a very good year for americana music.
Best of 2012 Americana
#1 Down The River – Malcolm Holcombe
Malcolm Holcombe lives in the mountains of North Carolina where he write songs with a voice that sounds just as old as the mountains. The music on his latest album, Down The River, is mostly acoustic, driven by an energy that breaks guitar strings and punches holes in kick drums. His lyrics are cryptic, visionary, and biting. On some songs he’s the crazy grampa no one quite understands. On some songs he’s the working man that doesn’t have the time to suffer fools. Sometimes he’s the alcoholic picking up the pieces of his life, but making no apologies. Most people highlight “Trail O’ Money,” which he did with Steve Earle. But for me the highlight tracks are “I Call The Shots,” “Whitewash Job,” and “Down The River.” But the song that blows you away is the opener, “Butcher In Town.”
#2 Grifter’s Hymnal – Ray Wylie Hubbard
It’s like that story about Robert Johnson meeting the devil at the cross roads in rural Mississippi and selling his soul for success. You listen to Ray Wylie Hubbard’s Grifter’s Hymnal and think that there’s got to be some Faustian deal in his back story. It’s like he stumbled out of the backwoods bearing Grifter’s Hymnal in one hand and a bunch of chicken bones tied up with guitar strings in the other, muttering something about finally understanding the relationship between the Devil, God, and Man. You want to call this music the blues, just to try to connect it to something earthly. You know that ain’t quite right, but that’s the best you can do. You kinda want to call it rock, but not that kind of rock that makes kids jump around, the kind that makes kids go slack-jaw. You might even want to call it gospel, but it would raise the question of just whose side is Hubbard on, anyway. Stand out tracks for me are “Coricidin Bottle,” “South Of The River,” “New Year’s Eve At The Gates Of Hell,” “Mother Blues,” and “Henhouse.”
#3 Next To Nowhere – Beth McKee
Beth McKee is more than just a southern singer/songwriter. At some level she’s like a preacher. She’s got her own movement called the “Swamp Sistas,” and they spread the gospel according to New Orleans far and wide. And when you listen to Beth McKee’s latest album, Next To Nowhere, it’s practically impossible not to get sucked into the good-natured vibe. This is another album that’s hard to pick favorites, but I gotta say I like the title track, “Shoulda Kept On Walkin’,” “New Orleans To Jackson,” “Same Dog’s Tail,” and “On The Verge.”
#4 Free – Bonnie Bishop
There’s just no way to describe Bonnie Bishop’s album, Free, other than southern blues-rock. And like the best rock and roll there is a shot at redemption buried in the narrative. Bonnie Bishop is a master at building up that sense of redemption and the joy. By the time you get to the end of this album you’ll be waving your hands in the air as if you’re at a revival. My favorites are “Shrinking Violet,” “Bad Seed,” and “Right Where You Are.”
#5 Ghost of Browder Holler – Chelle Rose
Chelle Rose writes rock n roll songs, but songs that could only come from the Great Smoky Mountains. That’s not to say this is a folksy album full of traditional instruments. But it’s infused with gospel preachers, mountain flowers, rusted cars, home made quilts, and the ghosts of ex-boyfriends. The songs are stunningly original and bluesy. You listen to these songs and think, “well, its rock and roll, but I’ve never heard anything like it before.” Highlights for me are “Ghost of Browder Holler,” “Rattlesnake In The Road, and “Shady Grove Gonna Blow.” And to tell the truth, my favorite track is a soul number called “Rufus Morgan” that would have made Dusty Springfield proud.
#6 Two At A Time – The Two Man Gentlemen Band
Two guys on tenor guitar and upright bass writing music inspired by the 30’s and it’s so damn authentic even the most hard core audiophiles and musicologists think their original tunes are covers of classic tin pan alley. But this isn’t some dreary ode to yesteryear. They are writing fun, high energy music about modern day subjects and entertaining crowds everywhere they go. You’ll be amazed at the how much their songs will make you grin. My favorites are “Two Star Hotel,” “Pork Chops,” “Please Don’t Water It Down,” and “Cheese and Crackers.”
#7 I’ll Keep Calling – JP Harris and the Tough Choices
If you built a still out on the back forty, shredded every honkytonk album you ever owned and mixed it up with the mash and distilled it for a year you might get something approximating the concentrated twang on I’ll Keep Calling by JP Harris and the Tough Choices. The songs are so perfect they ought to be in a museum, but thank goodness they are available anywhere you feel like doing the two step. Highlights for me are “Two For the Road,” “I’ll Keep Calling,” “Shake It,” and “Gear Jammin’ Daddy.” But the song that I keep going back to over and over is “Badly Bent.”
#8 Birds of Chicago
JT Nero and Allison Russell have put out their debut, self-titled album and it’s one of those creations that I want to put in the hands of everyone I know. There’s not a single person I’ve shared this album with that didn’t thank me for it later. But what kind of music is it? uhhhhhhhhhhhhh. I’m gonna have to go with electric-folk-pop. Maybe. The songs have a bounce to them. The lyrics are mostly sunny. Allison’s voice is sweet and gorgeous. She and JT Nero have great chemistry together. Somewhere deep in the music there’s an old school spiritual vibe. Hard to pick favorites on this one, but I’d choose “Trampoline,” “Cannonball,” “Sugar Dumplin’,” and “Galaxy Ballroom.”
#9 Volume Ten – Junior Brown
Junior Brown’s 6 track Volume Ten EP was almost too short for me to consider for the Best of 2012. But here’s the thing. Every song on this disc is a perfect example of the many different sounds and styles of music he’s been known for over his long and storied career. You’ve got honkytonk, western swing, surf rock, jazz standards, and the occasional foot tapping novelty tune. If you’ve never experienced Junior Brown before this is a great first album of his to have. And conveniently, the cover art includes pictures of his other nine albums as a handy reference. If I had to pick highlight tracks, I’d go for “I’m Headed Back To Austin Tonight,” “Trust Me,” and his tribute to Buddy Charleton, “Almost To Tulsa.”
#10 Good Day – AJ Downing
AJ Downing writes cathartic, blue collar, barroom rock and roll and sings with the longest drawl in Texas. His songs are the tell-it-like-it-is variety. Nothing is glossed over or prettied up in his music. And that’s what makes it feel good. Highlights for me are “American Junkie,” “My Wagon Just Won’t Roll,” “Willie (Had We Never Been High),” and “The Other Cheek.” But the stand out track is the have a good day come hell or high water title track.
#11 Radar’s Clowns of Sedation
So many people who claim to write blues music these days are writing quaint odes to yesteryear that couldn’t ruffle a feather with the help of a strong breeze. So it’s refreshing to hear Pete Pawsey come along with his new band line up, Radar’s Clown’s of Sedation, and a set of songs that are rude, socially unacceptable, and even a little seditious. YES. This is the blues kids used to sneak away from their parents to hear. This is the blues that used to get banned from the radio. This is is the blues said the things that god folk didn’t have the guts to hear. My favorites from the self-titled release are “The Word (Came Down),” “She Likes To Ride,” “Death Follows Everyone,” and “Yesterday’s Clothes.”
#12 Packed for Exile – Jason Heath and the Greedy Souls
Even though Jason Heath and his band, The Greedy Souls, are based in L.A, they sound like a pure heartland American band. Lots of accordion, fiddle, and acoustic piano riffs mixed in with the electric guitar. But more than that, the songs have a feel good quality to them. Even my favorite track, the hard edged “Devil Ain’t Talkin'” has a high energy road house feel to it. I’m also into “California Wine,” “#1 With A Bullet,” and “Truth Rag.”
#13 Man About Town – Moot Davis
We were long overdue for a new Moot Davis album and we finally ended the drought with Moot Davis’ Man About Town album. His music reminds me a lot of Lyle Lovett’s music. There’s just something a little but classier about his songs than the usually roots music fare. I like to call it “coat and tie country.” His lyrics are top notch, his riffs will make you tap your foot and he has a vocal style that is reminiscent of Roy Orbison. My favorites are “Rags to Rhinestones,” “Queensbury Rules,” and “Fade To Gold.”
#14 The Shovel vs. The Howling Bones – Lincoln Durham
Under the tutelage (or corrupting influence?) of Ray Wylie Hubbard, Lincoln Durham has honed a knack for creating music that is unmistakably blues, but it’s creepy scary deep woods blues. The kind of blues that gives you bad dreams and goose flesh. But it’s oh so good. I like “Clementine,” “Mud Puddles,” and “How Does A Crow Fly.” But the stand out track by far is “Reckoning Lament.”
#15 Makin’ Our House A Honkytonk – Rachel Harrington and the Knockouts
After exploring folk and some of the softer side our country music on her previous album, Rachel Harrington decided she was going to jump in with both feet and create a full-on country album in the classic country tradition. Makin’ Our House A Honky Tonk is a first class success she nails the sound on the opening track and has written an classic country style duet called “I’ll Show You Mine.” But she’s gone way beyond just mimicking the sounds of yesteryear. Her band, the Knock Outs keep the sound fresh with a classic rock edge in all the music, which will appeal to hipsters and old-timers alike. My favorites are the title track, “I’ll Show You Mine,” and “Hippie In My House.”
#16 Mighty Lonesome Man – James Hand
Finally set free to do what he wants to do with his music, James Hand hooked up with Hillgrass Bluebilly records and created an album of country music so pure it you’d think he is the reincarnation of Hank Williams. James Hand traces his roots back to that era. He’s played the Grand Old Opry and he’s lived on the road touring. He’s paid his dues and these songs, like all great country music, are simple, wise, and dance worthy. My favorites are the title track, “Wish You Would Kiss Me,” and his cover of Johnny Cash’s “Get Rhythm.”
#17 Drop In On My Dream – The Cornell Hurd Band
Cornell Hurd can trace is musical career all the way back to the days of Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airman. So when he plays music that sounds like the early days of cosmic americana it’s because, well, that’s his music. And in those days, among the folk influenced country rock cross over songs, there was also a healthy dose of Western Swing. Cornell Hurd’s bands have covered every facet of that vein of music. But they are massters of the western swing and Corn Hurd has been inducted into the Cow Town Society of Western Music’s Hall of Fame. This album is a collection of mostly new songs which highlight the best of western swing and it will make everyone want to get on the dancefloor. I like “The Bad Girl I Keep In My Heart,” “Whiskey Drinking Women,” and “Our Future (Isn’t What It Used To Be).”
#18 Pick Me Up – Ryan Purcell and the Last Round
Ryan Purcell and the Last Round play loud, high energy rock and roll that deserves to be played in sports stadiums, desert canyons, and the wide open plains. Their sound is huge. It will make you drive fast. My favorite tracks are “Cover Your Tracks,” “Good Looking SOB,” and “Get It Right.”
#19 Working Girl’s Guitar – Rosie Flores
Rosie Flores’ Working Girl’s Guitar is filled with guitar work that draws from the 50’s era rockabilly and 60’s era surf/garage rock and combines it with a Patti Smith toughness. My favorites are “Little But I’m Loud,” “Surf Demon #5,” “Drug Store Rock and Roll,” and the cover of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps.”
#20 Kin – Michael Rank and Stag
Michael Rank assembled a who’s who of music talent from the Raleigh / Durham / Chapel Hill area to help him recreate a classic rock and roll sound and help him spill his guts. There is an album full of bloody fingernails, regurgitated poison pills, and swallowed tears, and yet you can’t turn it off or even look away. It’s an album that reminds you music is an expression, not a product. Highlights for me are “tenderhook,” “on the bleed,” “goat,” and “arrowheads.”
#21 Sunday Run Me Over – Holly Golightly and the Brokeoffs
Holly Golightly and Lawyer Dave, collectively known as Holly Golightly and the Brokeoffs dig deep into southern music styles and mix them up into a concoction that wanders between lo-fi blues, experimental garage rock, and Pentecostal fevers. My favorites are “Godamn Holy Roll,” “Tank,” “I Forgot More,” and “Turn Around.”
#22 Not The One… – DL Marble
DL Marble and the Amazing Hippies play blue collar rock that’s surprisingly catchy and upbeat. Yeah, there are songs about the usual drugs, sex, and rock’n’roll. But the band gives you a sense of guys who are making it work, who are getting through the day. And the songs are full of characters you’d like to have at your back in a bar fight. My favorites are “Good Sign,” “Two Lane Highway,” and the every country boy’s fantasy, “Lucky Tonight.”
#23 Indestructible Machine – Lydia Loveless
How such a soft-spoken, mild-mannered woman can walk on stage and transform into one of the angriest punk rocker’s working today is going to be one of the great unsolved mysteries of 2012. If you want some cathartic, gut-clenching, ear-bleeding cow punk, and honestly, who doesn’t?, this is the album for you. Highlights are “Bad Way To Go,” and “Can’t Change Me.” But my favorite is “More Like Them,” which gives you a little insight into Loveless’ psyche.
#24 Cheap Cigar – Maynard and the Musties
Imagine a band that has had a little too much to drink and has listened to a little too much Felice Brothers and you’d come pretty close to Maynard and the Musties. The music on Maynard and the Musties’ Cheap Cigar is loose and worn and boozy. Every note is a surprise. Every line is sad but true. This is highly recommended as good hanging out and drinking music. My favorite tracks are the title track, “Pretty and Cryin’,” and “Marfa.”
#25 Cabin Fever – Corb Lund
Yeah, I suppose technically you gotta say that Corb Lund is a country-ish singer. I mean he’s got a western swing-ish song called “Cows Around,” which could only be written by someone who was very familiar with raising cattle. The the big radio hit is song he did with Hayes Carll called “Bible On The Dash.” But Cabin Fever is really more like a rock and roll album with punk-like social commentary telling it like it is. “Getting’ Down On The Mountain” is a slap in the face of the anti-oil crowd. “Dig Gravedigger Dig,” sounds like it could be an old blues tune, but it’s got that creepy call and response that can make your skin crawl. “The Gothiest Girl I Can” borrows a 50’s guitar vibe, but fits right into today’s hookup culture.
#26 The Far West
Lee Briante and Robert Black write songs for The Far West Band that have a smooth lyrical rhythm laid over a country sound that has a little bit of a Bakersfield influence in them. Even though they are based in LA, the sound has a heartland feel to it, probably because they play gigs at American Legion Halls and other down home venues in the area. “Bound To Lose” is the track that first caught my attention, the lyrics have a troubadour feel to them and reminds me of a young Paul Simon. Other highlights for me are “Bitter, Drunk, and Cold,” and “I’ll Never Drink Again.”
#27 Thankful N’ Thoughtful – Bettye LaVette
Bettye LaVette’s Thankful N’ Thoughtful is kind of a self-contradiction. On the one hand, she’s covering material from all over the place, Dylan’s “Everything Is Broken,” The Black Key’s “I’m Not The One,” Tom Waits’ “Yesterday Is Here” (my favorite), and bunches of others. But no matter what genre she’s pulling from, she delivers it with the gritty R&B vibe that she’s known for. This album would make a great gateway album to rhythm and blues for people who think it’s not their kind of music. You’ll be sinign the blues right along with her by the time you get to the end of this album.
#28 Memphis Boys: The Story of American Studios – Various Artists
Back in 1964, before the word “indie” had even been coined American Studios in Memphis opened it’s doors. It was one of the few recording studios that wasn’t affiliated with a major label so it was available to independent bands and artists who wanted to record their songs and shape their sound the way they wanted it to sound, completely independent of the labels’ influence. It was founded by Chips Moman, who had previously worked at Stax. It’s never been as famous as the Stax studio or the Sun studios. But it American Studios produced quite a few major hits and helped shape that southern soul sound. Earlier this year Roben Jones published a book about the history ot American Studios and, of course, they had to release a companion album to go with it. It’s go hits from Dusty Springfield, Elvis Presley, Solomon Burke, James Carr, Bobby Womack, and Wilson Picket. And how could you blame them? They want to establish themselves as part of America’s music history. But it’s the lesser known gems that are really appealing on this one. The Mark James version of “Suspicious Minds,” Merilee Rush’s version of “Angel In The Morning,” and Danny O’Keefe’s “Good Time Charlie’s Got The Blues” will give you a fresh look at these classics.