There are no two ways about it, 2013 was the year of Jason Isbell. He toured everywhere to support Southeastern, and Terry Gross of NPR’s “Fresh Air” devoted an entire hour-long show to an interview and some live performances. It was on many top 10 lists regardless of genres, and it was many folks’ number one -- including this magazine's that was just announced as I write this. It was his monster year and he wore it humbly and well. The album also included my song of the year, “Elephant.” The song has taken the breath away from everyone who has heard it. A magnificent achievement.
However undeniably great Southeastern is, the album I played most often was Patty Griffin’s American Kid. It, too, is a challenging record, with a resonance that only could have come not only by way of a great musical talent, but also the years of living that younger talent coming on the scene simply do not have. And to have the official release of Silver Bell (likely the most bootlegged album of the past decade) after all these years fully demonstrates to those first heard her in the Band of Joy that Griffin has been making great music for quite some time.
The remaining eight essential albums of the year are split evenly between artists that have been around for a while and those who definitely deserve wider attention. Neko Case has always beena bit of an enigma to me, despite the fact that I cannot quit playing her albums ever since I first heard her during her Bloodshot days. As with Cat Power and Feist, Case did not follow-up her extremely popular last record with more of the same. All three resulted in a drop off in sales, but their expanded visions are worth the trip — for those who made the effort.
Richard Thompson’s Electric and his version of the power trio seemed to open up some pent up resting on his laurels frustrations. Or not. Either way it was nice even for a die hard fan of his duo days with his then-wife Linda to hear him stretch out new and older songs in this format.
Kelly Willis once said, when introducing her husband some years ago, that behind every successful songwriter is a stunned mother-in-law. Well, she should stunned no more after Bruce Robison’s string of hits for others. Even though they have been married for some time, Cheater’s Game (save for a seasonal album) is their first record together. I found that I played this record significantly more than several other duo albums that were released to greater acclaim.
The last time I saw a full performance by Guy Clark some years back I told friends to see him as soon as they could as he was wearing his mortality on his sleeve. On My Favorite Picture of You he is wearing his love for his wife Susanna on his sleeve. His voice is better, more secure in an informal way. I hope it’s not his last.
While still relatively young, Holly Williams has been knocking around for awhile, and The Highway is her breakthrough, and the song “Waiting on June” demonstrates that she has tapped into the same well as her grandfather.
Willie Sugarcapps is a new group, some say a supergroup, of Americana veterans living in Nashville, Grayson Capps, Will Kimbrough and the duo Sugarcane Jane are its core. They were among my favs at this year’s AMA, and are more than a sum of its parts. As the group live has more significant presence live than on record, you should catch them as they are in the midst of a heavy touring schedule.
I was a fan of Crooked Still from the first time I heard them at MerleFest some years back, and it was at MF 2012 that I heard of them going on hiatus (current status?) and I could surmise from a conversation with Aoife O’Donovan at that time she was unsure what the future held other going on a tour as a lead singer for The Duhks. Again, she and her band of Chris Eldridge (Punch Brothers) on lead guitar and Jacob Silver supplying subtle bass lines have made quite an impact. As with Willie S, Fossils is good, but they have an extra layer of depth live. I hope that they record two songs that they nail live: Blaze Foley’s “Clay Pigeons” and a re-working of “1952 Vincent Black Lightning” more from Red Molly’s perspective.
Motel Mirrors is another collaboration between two working musicians, Amy LaVere and John Paul Keith. The former is moderately well known for her own recordings, bass playing and Dali imitation mustaches. Keith is a Memphis guy with several records that have yet to break out. Together, they are the heart of Motel Mirrors, a throwback to honky tonk/rockabilly but without irony or camp. Performed in a straight ahead manner that is like sipping something cool. Certainly my fav album cover of the year. Released only in digital formats and vinyl, it may foretell the future: the only physical copy is vinyl, CDs are passe.
There are some others I had to leave out simply due to being limited to ten (or eleven), such as Blue Yonder, the wonderful Valerie June, Henry Wagons' excellent EP that was recorded live to analog tape at the United Record Pressing plant in Nashville, Pokey LaFarge's second album, Anais Mitchell & Jefferson Hamer’s Child Ballads, Caitlin Rose's, Amanda Shire's, Emmylou & Rodney’s Old Yellow Moon, Linda Thompson's, not to mention albums I have to actually hear, Bill Callahan’s Dream River that tops some friends’ lists, Rokia Traore’s, and Laura Cantrell’s and Diana Jones’ UK only releases.
And not meaning to rain on anyone's parade, the Brandy Clark and Kacey Musgraves albums have a certain amicable sheen and some nice phrasing turns, but something tells me that their rebelling against a conservatism that has not existed for 30 or 40 years is a calculated cynicism to gain insider status. Interestingly enough, most of the folks I know who are drawn to those two records live in large urban areas. Listen to Zoe Muth instead.