THROUGH THE LENS: Six Overlooked Roots Music Releases of 2023
Jon Byrd - AmericanaFest 2021 - Photo by Amos Perrine
As the year winds down, many of us take time to look back on the year that was, and it was a busy one for roots music releases. This week’s column offers some quick summaries of six titles that got kind of lost in the shuffle. I hope you give them a listen.
Karen & the Sorrows – Why Do We Want What We Want [EP]
Replacing the omnipresent driving steel guitar of her regular band with a mournful dobro on this five-song EP, Karen Pittelman digs deeper into familiar territory, an ethos of gothic queer country ghost stories. In a voice much like Dolly Parton’s had she never left Little Pigeon River, Pittelman gets right to the point on the title track, but with a great sense of foreboding: “Why do we want what we want / When it spits right back in our face? / Why do we cry when it’s gone / When we know we ought to pray / To be saved / From what we want.” And in the distance the wind begins to howl.
Jon Byrd – All Your Mistakes
Many times I have heard Byrd say that what he plays used to be called country music. Joined by Paul Niehaus on pedal steel, he takes me back to the honky-tonks my parents took me to as a child. Not that Byrd is a throwback or nostalgic. On this, his fifth album, he expands on his previous work to include strings, especially noteworthy on “Golden Colorado” and “Why Must You Think of Leaving,” making those melancholic songs even more heartbreaking. After all, isn’t that what country music is all about?
Todd Burge – Seed
West Virginia’s most prolific and successful roots singer-songwriter has taken a decidedly different tack for his 22nd album. In a conversation he told me he wants others to view the songs as seeds that “kickstart creation in others. To see where the breeze might take them and discover what might bloom, in soil that I’m not so familiar with.” That takes nothing away from the quality of these 11 songs, which are also among his most personal. I hear them as meditations on the nature of existence, songs of an examined life. Be it weeds in the lawn or an asteroid hundreds of millions miles away, they are all part of a light that he sings about in the ironically titled “Moth Man” — always seeking the brightest light, yet a bit apprehensive of what he might discover.
Johnny Dowd – Is Heaven Real? How Would I Know
Dowd is not so much a shapeshifter as he is an adventurous wanderer, seeking an elusive muse that will keep him forever moving. This one has him going to Memphis to record with longtime pals Amy LaVere and Will Sexton, among a host of others. The result has Dowd resembling the itinerate street preacher Hazel Motes in Flannery O’Connor’s Wise Blood, bringing in the sheaves. Whether expressed via the overtly gospel organ of the title track or the album’s ever-present tinkling piano, Dowd fears neither storm clouds nor winter’s chilling breeze. Rather, he rejoices in both shadows and light, and bids us welcome in the tabernacle of being and nothingness.
Stacey Kent – Summer Me, Winter Me
What the world needs now that we are deep into a gloomy November is a summery record, one that turns the overcast grayness into a shimmering light, one that makes you get up and dance. While lighthearted in tone, Kent’s new record (her 17th) has a depth of musicianship few others can match. Additionally, who else can you name whose longtime collaborator is a Nobel Prize-winning author, Kazuo Ishiguro? Three of their tunes are on this album, along with jazz standards. But what strikes my ears is how Kent breathes new life into several overly done songs of their day. A prime example is Jacques Brel’s “If You Go Away,” the “’Hallelujah” of the 1960s. Everyone seemed to perform it either as a sacrificial anthem or a desperate plea. But Kent delivers it as a promise, like the renewal of spring after a long, lonely winter. This is the perfect holiday album that you can play all year long.
Martha Scanlan & Jon Neufeld – Buckbrush/XO
Joined by ND columnist Rachel Baiman on fiddle, Scanlan and Neufeld’s new double-sided single is a pair of love songs. The first, “Buckbrush,” is named after an evergreen that grows in the mountains of Western Montana whose seeds only germinate with fire. The other, “XO,” is a cover of Beyoncé’s embrace of what happens after that fire. Both are passionate, swirling, vulnerable journeys of the temporal, the indefinite, the mysterious.
Click on any of the photos below to view the gallery as a full-size slideshow.