I’m a metal kid from the sticks who was reintroduced to my country roots through Johnny Cash’s resurgence in the early 1990s. From the American Recordings album, I struck out exploring more classic country artists — guys like Waylon, Willie, David Allan Coe and others — and I found a certain kinship with the metal music I loved. Not in sound, of course, but in the attitudes and the desire to do things their way.
Now, amid the glitzy rock-rap-pop sound that seems to have overtaken country music, I still look for those artists that do it their way. I freely admit that I don’t explore country as deeply as hard rock and metal, and there are probably some fantastic albums that I missed this year. Feel free to point them out to me because I’d love to give them a listen. But, of what I heard this year, here are the 10 albums I’d recommend to others …
10. Jonathan Parker and the Bel-Airs -- They'll Never Play My Songs in Nashville: Here’s my 1970s throwback listen of the year. Heavily influenced by Waylon Jennings and with a country drawl that reminds me a lot of Jamey Johnson, Jonathan Parker can deliver a rowdy hell-raising tune with the best of them, but can also capture the emotion of an old-fashioned crying-in-your-beer tune about love and loss.
9. Dillon Hodges -- Rumspringa: Probably more folk or Americana than country or Southern rock, but this is my list, and I say he fits. The dark number “Bullet for a Broken Heart” was one of my favorite songs of 2012, so I was looking forward to hearing a full album of material from Hodges. I still think that’s the best tune of the bunch, but Hodges has some great, often haunting songs delivered in an incredibly soulful voice.
8. Wayne Hancock -- Ride: Hancock could be credited as the guy that launched the neotraditional movement in the late 1990s, and he’s still going strong on his latest record. As Hank III once said, Hancock has more Hank Sr. in his music than Jr. or III. The sound is rooted in the classic country of the 1950s, but Hancock also delivers a surprise here and there.
6. Dale Watson and His Lone Stars -- El Rancho Azul: Dale Watson does what he does, and it’s outstanding as usual. It’s another collection of Texas honky tonk tunes about drinking, cheating and rambling, with a few more serious turns. He’ll make you want to raise a brew, but he’ll also jerk a few tears.
5. Powder Mill -- Land of the Free: Rowdy Southern rock from the Ozarks that’s heavily influenced by Black Oak Arkansas. It’s a lot of fun, often downright gnarly and even occasionally heartfelt.
4. Jackson Taylor and the Sinners -- Crazy Again: I’m not sure there was a more fun country record released this year than Jackson Taylor’s Crazy Again. The album is loaded with full-blast, hell-raising numbers like “Whiskey Drinking Song,” “Jack’s Drunk Again” and “What a Way to Go,” but also delivers a surprisingly soft and tender number in “This Ain’t Goodbye (Paul’s Song).” Taylor, for whatever reason, often gets overlooked in the underground country discussion, but he shouldn’t be.
3. Fifth on the Floor -- Ashes and Angels: I said in my initial review of this album that Fifth on the Floor was one of, if not the, best things going in Southern rock these days, and I stand by that. This album, along with their previous release Dark and Bloody Ground, provide a high bar for other aspiring Southern rockers. Nobody out there right now does it better — new or old.
2. Sturgill Simpson -- High Top Mountain: This is a record that has done nothing but grow on me as the year has progressed. There’s an old soul to what Simpson does and a depth that’s lacking in much of the country music world today. Sure, there are the defiant, outlaw-type numbers, but there’s also some gut-wrenching songwriting on display. Simpson takes the base of 1970s outlaw country and embellishes with flourishes of bluegrass and gospel, for a real, honest sound.
1. Shooter Jennings -- The Other Life: With some time to listen to it, I do believe that this might be Shooter Jennings’ finest moment. It’s still a tough call for me between this album and Electric Rodeo, but The Other Life seems to be a more complete view of what Shooter is. There’s very traditional country, there’s sweet Southern soul and rowdy Southern rock, and there’s even a bit of the experimental rock we heard from his Black Ribbons album. Good stuff all around.
Best country song lyric of the year … or possibly ever: “Darling, I love you like the rednecks love to fight.” — Charlie Robison, “Monte Carlo” from High Life.
Most embarrassing moment of the year … or possibly ever: “Titty’s Beer,” Montgomery Gentry. And Hank wept.