This is the first time that I’ve ever enjoyed enough records from the country and Southern rock genres to put together a list. Maybe I’m getting old and turning into that country music-loving guy that my relatives always told me I would when I “grew out of all that crazy stuff and realized what good music was.” Then again, have you seen my other list?
CHELLE ROSE – GHOST OF BROWDER HOLLER: At times mean and ugly, at others downright beautiful. At times strongly reflecting her Appalachian roots, at others blowing the speakers out like a rocker girl. Chelle Rose’s debut was easily one of the more interesting releases of the year in country music.
KYLE TURLEY – DEATH, DRUGS AND THE DOUBLE CROSS: OK, I admit, as much as I liked Turley when he played for the New Orleans Saints, I thought — when it came to his second career in music — he was an aging football player trying to cash in on his name recognition. But this, his second record, is actually a pretty good collection of Southern rock tunes. “Cellar Door” is a particular favorite.
JAMEY JOHNSON – LIVING FOR A SONG: A TRIBUTE TO HANK COCHRAN: How could you go wrong with this? You’ve got Jamey Johnson and an all-star cast that includes Merle Haggard, Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson, Bobby Bare, Leon Russell, Vince Gill, Alison Krauss, Ray Price, Emmylou Harris, George Strait and Elvis Costello. They’re performing pretty faithful versions of some of Cochran’s best-known songs. It’s a no-brainer.
TURNPIKE TROUBADOURS – GOODBYE NORMAL STREET: The Troubadours last outing, Diamonds and Gasoline, drew a lot of praise, but this one connects more with me on a personal level. Like the new release from Blackberry Smoke (coming up later), I found a bit of myself in quite a few of the songs. And, let’s just be honest, “Gin, Smoke, Lies” is probably the best country song not appearing on a Blackberry Smoke record this year.
WILLIE NELSON – HEROES: This record was more about introducing Lukas Nelson to Willie’s audience than anything else. For me, the younger Nelson’s voice doesn’t seem quite as impressive when placed next to the rich character of his dad’s vocals, but he holds his own. Despite a pot anthem or two, Heroes really gets back to some of the things that Willie does best.
SHOOTER JENNINGS – FAMILY MAN: Shooter kind of confounded people a little by going off to do his experimental Black Ribbons project, but here he gets back to country and releases possibly the most country record of his career. “The Real Me” also gave us one of the best choruses of the year with its rapid-fire “double talking, chicken licking, meaner than the dickens, sick and wicked, hole digging, picking son of a gun.”
BOB WAYNE – TILL THE WHEELS FALL OFF: After debuting on Century Media with a lot of re-recordings of songs from his self-released albums, Wayne delivers a hell-raising collection of mostly new music, and it’s just as good as the old stuff. He mixes in a little more of his softer side among the rowdy on this one, and both sides shine.
ZZ TOP – LA FUTURA: Am I cheating by putting this one on my Southern rock list? You bet I am. But Texas is still south of most places in the U.S. , and the bearded ones rock harder on La Futura than they have in a long time. There’s a healthy dose of their 1970s classic blues rock mixed in with some of their more modern sounds.
CHRIS KNIGHT – LITTLE VICTORIES: Knight is a highly underrated talent and one of the best songwriters out there. Nothing changes on this record. He delivers a collection of songs that speaks to the heart of true country people and their real experiences, not the idealized mud-riding, beer-drinking party that Nashville pushes these days.
BLACKBERRY SMOKE – THE WHIPPOORWILL: Not only my favorite country/Southern rock release of the year, this was my favorite album of the year, period. Maybe even the last few years. The Whippoorwill is a record that really speaks to the place that I am in my life right now, and just about every song on it resonates with some aspect of my own life. Besides that, they’re just really good tunes. They turned down the country rock guitars of past efforts a little bit and focused on grooves, soul and songwriting to great effect. “Ain’t Much Left of Me” is easily my favorite song of the year, and there are several more contenders on the album.