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Tuesday, December 10, 2019

featuring the very best of americana, and roots music
December 8, 2019
Scott Foley, purveyor of dust


Has it been a good year for music?  Let's be honest, they're all good as long as we can continue to crate-dive deep into the webs, riffling through new stuff until something catches our ear and we just have to share it.  Nothing beats that New Record Smell.  It's an especially good year when there happen to be likeminded souls on the receiving end of our musical SOS, folks who get, appreciate and even look forward to each week's review and ROUTES-cast.  And those numbers continue to increase, inching above the clouds every now and then during an especially strong month.  Those peak moments tend to be driven by artists who catch wind of our humble operation and draw the valuable attention of their own fans our way.

So Thanks & Thanks Again to you.  All you perusers and frequenters.  You regulars and occasionals, friends who tell friends about what you've discovered here.  Thanks to the busy artists and promoters and labels who take a sec to honor the fact that this thing works best as a reciprocal conversation.  To you fellow sufferers of the blogging bug who have linked to our site, who have tipped me off to new stuff, thereby helping me to make my own site better. All you intrepid musical adventurers, braving the current of culture to reach beyond established artists in search of something more.  We're certainly a minority, but it means everything to me.

Where possible, I've borrowed blurbs from my own reviews.  Where we  couldn't do that, I wrote a little something new.  Without spilling more digital ink, here are the records that defined 2019 for Routes & Branches:

30. Charles Wesley Godwin, Seneca  (Godwin, Feb 15)
Roots deep in tradition, Charles Wesley Godwin is never musically beholden to what's come before.  To his credit as a writer, he tells a great story but never neglects his own role in carrying it all forward.  Godwin honors that tradition while also avoiding the stereotypes and tropes that can mire a lesser artist.  As a result, the songs of Seneca are both timebound and timeless:  I'll sell my craft for half its price / To city folk passing by / In a covered shack by the side of the road / With a cardboard furniture sign.

29. Ian Noe, Between the Country  (National Treasury, May 31)
While he's being embraced by the country purist crowd, Ian Noe occupies that shadowy space where Appalachian music carries a deep folk influence, musically and thematically.  Noe's Kentucky is a rough place where desperate people in dire straits make questionable choices.  "Letter to Madeline" is delivered by a holed-up outlaw surrounded by a hundred guns:  Beside the buckshot door I stood still / Wondering how the hell the bastards found me in those hills / And clinging to a letter that I wish I'd mailed.  Like most of producer Dave Cobb's projects, the space on Noe's songs is tastefully filled by a small gathering of capable players.  Especially welcome is singer Savannah Conley, whose backing vocals float through the songs like an avenging angel.

28. Alexa Rose, Medicine For Living  (Big Legal Mess, Oct 4)
This is one of those better than it needs to be records, finding the rising roots artist fronting a band that features members of Lucero, St Paul & the Broken Bones, Will Sexton and others.  Set to tape in Memphis, Medicine's reach stretches from there, across Nashville and to the mountains of Appalachia, as does Rose's phenomenal voice.  Like early Shannon McNally or her contemporary Courtney Marie Andrews, Rose shares something timeless and sets the stage for great possibilities.

27. Joshua Ray Walker, Wish You Were Here  (State Fair, Jan 25)
One of the first records I heard in 2019, the young Dallas artist remains in my rotation as we head into the New Year.  Walker's debut is crowded with quality songs, fluent in the Texas country vernacular but capable of overflowing the limits of that box.  Whether simmering on "Canyon" or burning on "Burn It", his delivery is genuine and steeped in the ghosts of what's come before. 

26. Vandoliers, Forever  (Bloodshot, Feb 22)
Vandoliers share a hard-driving, fast-forward appeal with those Texas music legends, even as they've charted their own proper course.  "Ring of Fire" horns and fiddle challenge charging drums for the upper hand on "Troublemaker", a story of the artist as a young badass with a tattooed heart and bloodshot eyes.  The tune tumbles recklessly, irresistibly forward, a meeting of Josh Fleming's alt past and country present.  It's the sound of gasoline and a Zippo lighter, heard also on "Sixteen Years".  Like much of Forever, it's a story rooted in the writer's own story.

25. Cody Jinks, After the Fire/The Wanting  (Late August, Oct 11/18)
Jinks could have sold his soul for the golden ring a couple years ago, but has stayed true to his origins on this rewarding pair of releases (which, I'll be honest, just should've been issued as a double record).  While others are restless to update their sound or to hitch their wagon to the day's celebrity cowriters, Jinks keeps it in the family.  Recorded with his longtime band and a select few close friends, both records speak to his comfort and maturity as a writer, even as they present a tighter, fuller approach to production. 

24. Daniel Norgren, Wooh Dang  (Superpuma, Apr 19)
As a man who pays really close attention to what's happening on the fringes of our kind of music, I gotta thank the universe when I come across something new and revelatory.  Wooh Dang (Superpuma) is Swedish artist Daniel Norgren's 8th project, though it's his first widely released record and my inaugural foray into his wonderful work.  I use a select few words to describe the kind of magic that happens in sessions like these:  Flow, groove, pocket, soul.  Zen.

23. Lucette, Deluxe Hotel Room  (Rock Creek, May 17)
While Lucette's soaring vocals are typically treated with echo and reverb, she never sounds lazy or removed.  And while the trappings are atypical, thematically and structurally Lucette's songs are firmly in the roots realm.  Where Musgraves' recent work sounded like a California breeze, Deluxe Hotel Room brings to mind rain and sleepless nights and no place to go when the bars are closed.  I've been waiting on my mind / To come around and think for itself / I've been feeling so unkind / Mostly when it comes to myself  she sings on "Talk to Myself".

22. Matt Woods, Natural Disasters  (Lonely Ones, Jun 28)
In the great tradition of heartland rockers, Matt Woods injects his performance with a giant beating heart.  He draws from that working class mythos, but opts for inspiration rather than pity, never abandoning his characters to stereotype.  More importantly, he includes himself among this community.  "Blue-Eyed Wanderer" portrays Woods reflecting on years of tilting against windmills:  I keep getting caught on barbed wire thoughts / Of old girlfriends and wrong things I've said.  It's a rage-against-the-storm anthem on a record overflowing with them, big-hearted rockers driven by his talented band and corralled by producer Joey Kneiser.

21. Sturgill Simpson, Sound & Fury  (Elektra, Sep 27)
Folks have been braying about Sturgill's perennial drift away from literal country music almost since his 2013 solo debut.  As if we weren't sufficiently primed by '14s Metamodern Sounds or '16s Sailor's Guide, his new collection was largely greeted with shrugs and sighs.  Even if they are abraded by noise and buried by grit, Simpson's songs remain strong, an appeal that will shine through with repeated exposure.  I still haven't watched the anime shorts intended to compliment Sound & Fury, but for now I'm satisfied with the visions conjured by Sturgill's ever expanding reach.

20. Jason Hawk Harris, Love & the Dark  (Bloodshot, Aug 23)
Like Robert Ellis, Harris is grounded in the language of country and folk, even as he chooses to overrun those boundaries. "Blessed Interruption" begins at his mother's funeral: When they lower her down (in a clockwise motion, now) / It can't be too slow and it can't be too fast.  It couldn't have been easy to come of age with an alcoholic mother, but her death has apparently burned a fiery hole in Harris' heart. Whether struggling against his demons (Once upon a time I wasn't such a mess) or raging against the dark of his family's tragedy, music is an obvious catharsis for the songwriter, a vehicle to confront those ghosts and perhaps to achieve some tentative peace.  The musical wtf-ery contributes mightily to the overall vision of Love & the Dark.  Like Sturgill Simpson's groundbreaking Metamodern Sounds or Sailor's Guide, Jason Hawk Harris plants himself firmly in the soil of roots music, then uses the plot as a springboard for some iconic departures of his own.

19. Kelsey Waldon, White Noise/White Lines  (Oh Boy, Oct 4)
Been awhile since St John Prine added another act to his selective label, and Waldon wasn't an especially obvious choice.  Like Margo Price or Jamie Lin Wilson, she slides comfortably into the lineage of classic country acts while maintaining a gravity and a grit that deepen her appeal.  What's more, Waldon's third full-length is a solid leap forward that exceeds early expectations. 

18. Anna Tivel, The Question  (Fluff & Gravy, Apr 19)
Nowhere is this potential closer to realization than on "Worthless".  There's a touch of Tom Waits or Fiona Apple in the tune, surrounding Tivel with as much sound as we've heard from her music, from strings played in reverse to the squelchy sound of a bassline slowly burning.  Tivel's way with an overheard conversation or her attention to the details of a small life will always be her calling card, but these moments of pushing her comfort zone hint at possible directions for her future growth.  Even as she continues to wander darkened streets and to gaze up at the glow of late night windows, it's evident there's more to be heard from Anna Tivel's stories.  Two quarters in my hand, nothing else in my pocket / I'm a wild horse pawing at the cracked dead earth / The stoplight turning and a long white Lincoln / Goes screaming by, the bass line lingers ...

17. Simon Joyner, Pocket Moon  (Grapefruit, Oct 25)
Pocket Moon's arrangements are lovely, serving as a perfect counterbalance to Joyner's cracked and weathered voice.  "Yellow Jacket Blues" and "You Never Know" are the CD's most direct tracks, both featuring vestiges of country.  "Tongue of a Child" evokes Leonard Cohen's deceptively flat, deadpan delivery, coupled with a slightly Latin rhythm and a satisfying extended piano/fiddle passage.  The songwriter has admitted, I like things most when they're on the verge of falling apart.  These songs are hardly ramshackle, but there is an abiding feeling of hesitance or humility throughout these sessions, a spirit that serves them well. 

16. Shovels & Rope, By Blood  (Dualtone, Apr 12)
There's really no reason why Cary Ann Heart and Michael Trent should continue to surprise me. Nevertheless, with each subsequent record and each step further into the spotlight they've managed to maintain their edge.  They're also the rare act that bottles their live spark and transports it into the studio without sacrificing any heat.  By Blood is an uncompromising blend of dark and light, harmony and dissonance, beauty and heartbreak.

15. Chris Knight, Almost Daylight  (Drifters Church, Oct 11)
For all its overcast prophecy, Chris Knight and Ray Kennedy have built a great sounding album. Almost Daylight isn't a departure from the pair's previous work on 2012's Little Victories, though this ninth record sounds thicker, the guitars louder and the troubles deeper.  "Trouble Up Ahead" is delivered through the eyes of a man whose reputation has preceded him into town.  Drums kick up in the wake of the first verse, as the song grows like a contemporary "Copperhead Road".  The magic even drills through a tune like "Everybody's Lonely Now", a downcast number that originally appeared on 2008's Heart of Stone.  This new take is heartbreakingly soulful, making the original sound like a demo:  I wanna reach out and hold you / But I feel like I'm in the way.

14. Tyler Childers, Country Squire  (Hickman Holler, Aug 2)
Just a couple albums into his career, and Tyler Childers is showing up on favorites lists the world over, even from folks who really have no business sharing year-end country music rankings.  Still, he's not necessarily found a formula that's secret from other artists.  Country Squire simply offers a handful of very good country-folk songs that may just lodge themselves in your ears early on.  And it certainly won't tarnish Childers' profile to tag around the country with Sturgill Simpson through Spring.

13. Erin Enderlin, Faulkner County  (Black Crow, Nov 1)
Ultimately, Faulkner County tells stories, leaving listeners with the picture of a town haunted by lost souls and dark secrets, folks drifting away from last call with nobody to go home to.  After all, that's country.  Even so, some of Enderlin's most impressive pieces boldly challenge the long established country music traditions.  "Hometown Jersey" is a Springsteen-esque song about a hometown hero, lifted high on the shoulders of the townspeople one last time.  And "Queen of Marina del Ray" is a slyly transgressive cowrite with Felix McTeague and the great Shane McAnally.  The identity of the narrator of the blues-rock number only gradually becomes evident:  Blessed with a sick kind of strangeness / I wore like a cheap crown of thorns.  Moments like these speak to Erin Enderlin's ability not just to honor and embrace the beloved country music of her youth, but to play an important part in moving the genre forward into new lanes, telling new stories.  

12. Ags Connolly, Wrong Again  (Finstock, Nov 1)
So thanks and thanks again to Ags Connolly, for broadcasting these masterfully witsful vignettes from across the proverbial pond directly into our hearts.  Wrong Again can readily compete with records with three times the production cost, its humble odes to heartbreak cutting deeper than any other act reaching for the country golden ring.  Ags may be building his reputation from several time zones to the East, but they hit more truly than stuff written much closer to home.  He's not just one of the finest country songsmiths from England, he's fast becoming one of our best, period.

11. Yawpers, Human Question  (Bloodshot, Apr 19)
I suppose the real secret is that The Yawpers have grown musically into a really solid outfit, no longer simply that trio that bashes away on their instruments.  Guitarist Jessie Parmet is a secret weapon throughout these new sessions, consistently creative and versatile in his expression.  While drummers have come and gone, Alex Koshak plays with nuance that might be seen as unnecessary in a band with less lofty intentions.  With his demons and his ghosts, Nate Cook has been accurately credited as the band's troubled enfant terrible.  In my review of American Man, I began with, "Something tells me that The Yawpers won't end well ..."  Nothing in Human Question points to any great peace that he might have achieved.  That said, Cook is as smart and deliberate a writer as we have in our kind of music, well-read and as steeped in his philosophers as he is in his rock knowledge (I would love to see him apply himself to a book-length novel or memoir someday).

10. Caroline Spence, Mint Condition  (Rounder, May 3)
All of which seems to be part of Caroline Spence's current trajectory.  To celebrate, she's apparently just doing more of what landed her here in the first place.  That is, delivering solid country-folk songs that quietly but confidently leave a listener ready for another round.  That first two-song single introduced us to "Long Haul" and the record's title track.  Both are imminently listenable, tuneful and timeless pieces that make an immediate impression.  Spence commits her nose to the proverbial grindstone on "Long Haul", declaring her intention to do what it takes to achieve a degree of Music City success: I crossed my T's and dotted my I's / And sold my soul to the 1-4-5.  Like Amanda Anne Platt or Lori McKenna, Spence shows a masterful ear for the poetry of the everyday, never overreaching or adding undue sparkle and shine to her verse.  Emmylou Harris christens "Mint Condition" with her backing vocals, a tender acoustic lovesong for the ages: Our bodies they age, wrinkle and tire / That feeling of comfort overtakes desire / I might have to learn to live here alone / But I'll love you through ash or through stone.

9.  Will Johnson, Wire Mountain  (Keeled Scales, Sep 27)
What seems exotic early on establishes itself as more familiar and purposeful with repeated listenings, thoughtful and rewarding work that takes its place alongside years of Will Johnson's other projects.  Like Jason Molina and David Bazan and others with whom he's shared a groove, he maintains a mystery from record to record, while building a trust and an intimacy that bring us back with every new iteration.  Wire Mountain can be beautiful and chilling, with a wide-open allure of an artist who satisfies at every turn:  So when it comes time for our parting / Find the spirit and the force and the light / Let the shadows and moonlight still guide you / With a voice you can trust in the night.

8.  Delines, The Imperial  (Decor, Jan 11)
On these new sessions, The Delines are more confident in their direction and their identity.  Sometimes this means permitting songs to unfurl in their own good time.  Elsewhere, the solidified confidence means taking chances and working new angles.  The beautiful “Let’s Be Us Again” is a Solomon Burke-like country-soul gem that finds Boone begging her beau to resurrect a relationship that’s been snuffed.  The band typically opts for a lighter touch, though the title song swells with strings and added layers for an effective touch of drama.  This strain of country-soul is hard to come by nowadays, even in the midst of a newfound appreciation of artists like Bobbie Gentry and Charlie Rich.  Though both Willy Vlautin and Amy Boone have dabbled in the stuff over the years, The Imperial creates a space for both to indulge their fantasies, to give rein to talents in service of a sweet melancholy that nourishes the soul.  

7.  John Calvin Abney, Safe Passage  (Black Mesa, Sep 27)
For its studio of stars, Safe Passages is a confidently laidback album, instrumentally solid and capable of delivering a warm musical embrace.  "Turn Again" most fully realizes Abney's country leanings, including Megan Palmer's fiddle to great effect: If you find yourself turning / Back to the places you've been / Turn again.  "I Just Want To Feel Good" is a barebones voice-and-guitar session, but it speaks volumes and sets the stage for the record's generous spirit.  The fingerpicked guitar is elegant, with Abney delivering his lyric like Tallest Man on Earth.  A hushed secret shared among friends: I'm here most nights / Singing to make sense / Of the uncertain times / I just sat upon the fence / Singing for green grass and falsehoods / Now I just want to feel good.

6.  Justin Peter Kinkel-Schuster, Take Heart Take Care  (Big Legal Mess, Aug 30)
God bless him, Justin Peter Kinkel-Schuster draws much of his guidance from literature, from writers like Barry Hannah and Charles Portis.  An extended passage from the great William Boyle welcomes us to his website with a piece of writing light years better than you'll find here: We're in deeply hopeful territory.  Even the overall acoustics of the new record speak to turning a corner into the light.  Take Heart is not an especially quiet collection, built on electric guitar and the singer's increasingly confident vocal.  "Plenty Wonder" introduces the CD with a sturdy guitar hook, adding an undercurrent of organ to the reflection about striking a balance in relationship: There's plenty of wonder in this world still to be found.

5.  Fernando Viciconte, Traitors Table  (Fluff & Gravy, Jun 21)
Traitors Table takes admirable care to represent a myriad of voices from the fray, even ones that come across as fringe.  What makes this Fernando's most resonant record, however, is that it's ultimately driven by the artist's own story, the boy from Argentina growing up in America without an invitation to the table.  The album closes with "Turned Away", an acoustic strummer that slips without warning into angry mayhem:  They say that every dog will have his day / Now they're chasing you away / As if you were a stray / Turned away for now.  It's a sobering reflection from one of the year's strongest releases, a collection that reminds us that Fernando Viciconte belongs alongside Alejandro Escovedo as among our most eloquent spokespersons for encouraging a long memory, keeping mindful of both our diverse origins and our collective fate.

4.  Angie McMahon, Salt  (Dualtone, Jul 26)
She's not a heroine.  Angie McMahon is simply too busy being a young woman, lost as often as she is found, whip smart and temperamental but exceedingly genuine.  Oh there's cracks in me, she confesses on another of Salt's strongest moments.  But later on "Keeping Time", conducting slicing guitar and big banging drums: I want someone who's funny looking when they dance / I wanna dance with them.  The collection delivers countless pitch-perfect moments, connecting with solid emotional punches throughout.  She bares it all in the remarkable "And I Am a Woman", building to a raw cry that will cut deeply.  I have a sense that Angie McMahon will prove to be the largest artist on the Dualtone label - heck, they've had quite a year so far.  Her message will likely land on countless young ears at a critical time.  She will have the opportunity to grow as an artist, to try new things with her voice and her guitar, and one hopes/trusts that the refreshing integrity she exhibits on Salt will follow her into these new places. I'm taking flight / Or at least I'm about to ...

3.  Allison Moorer, Blood  (Autoelic, Oct 25)
Regarded as a piece, Allison Moorer's CD and book stand as the year's most impactful, emotionally resonant statement.  I haven't felt a book so deeply since Joan Didion's memoirs about the passing of her husband and daughter (Year of Magical Thinking and Blue Nights - read 'em and weep).  Blood is a glimpse into a raw wound, a lovestory written to a family that Moorer both adores and resents.  The lifelong fury she directs at her father is tempered only by her aching desire to understand him.  Most striking is the range of real emotion she demonstrates towards her mother and father, the insoluble brew of love and guilt and hatred and pity that she carries to this day.  It's a project that is fraught with feelings that are difficult to bear, especially for listeners or readers for whom the topics land close to home.  But it's what matters about books and music, finding commonality and unexpected understanding, discovering a mirror to hold up to better comprehend who we are.  And then sharing it with one another.  Look what I've found ... Magic churns around everywhere and it can be harnessed with the right tools ... To see an artist in her full glory renders the world bearable.  (p255)

2.  Brittany Howard, Jaime  (ATO, Sep 20)
As the undeniable force behind Alabama Shakes, Howard announced her arrival with 2012's Boys & Girls, an album that largely altered the musical swath we cut for Routes & Branches.  The follow-up, Sound & Color boldly widened that lane, as Howard expanded the Shakes' sound into unforeseen territories of funk 'n soul.  For my purposes, I wanted nothing more than more of the same.  But for the brashest, boldest vocalist in our kind of music, that meant pushing again.  Pushing so far beyond expectations that Jaime merited a separation from Howard's band.  It demanded nothing less that redefining her cut of alien funk, song after song finding her exploring a new pocket, stretching that uncommonly warm and expressive voice in ways that bring it all back home.  She is our Nina Simone.

1.  Yola, Walk Through Fire  (Easy Eye, Feb 22)
Where Brittany Howard sought new avenues of expression, Yola's debut full-length warms with the familiar trappings of roots and soul.  With producer Dan Auerbach, she  delivers her songs in arrangements that remind us of these elements that helped birth out kind of music, sounds that should have been there all along.  With baskets of award nominations and end-of-year plaudits, there is the sense that Yola is poised to attract the attention of even more listeners as we head into the next decade.  As she proves on a newly-released take on Elton John's notoriously difficult to sing "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road", she really can sing anything.  For that reason, we're so lucky that Yola has chosen to stake her claim using americana music as her home base.  

We're taking a week off from our usual practice of sharing ROUTES-casts playlists.  Please know that there is several months' worth of those available for your listening pleasure, simply by visiting the Routes & Branches page on Spotify.  We'll be removing most of our 2019 lists as we trip into the New Year, so please enjoy them as you're able.  And don't hesitate to share your own favorites, either with a comment below or by emailing

Look this way next week for another Episode, catching up with new stuff on the horizon from Leon Bridges, Dave Simonett, John Moreland and more.  And we'll get you our award-winning holiday ROUTES-cast in time for several pre-Christmas spins.

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