From country and blues legends to gospel kings, it was another strong month for roots music. Here are the top releases in alphabetical order — just click on the cover picture to read the original review (and listen to the album in full):
WHO IS HE? The Houston kid who became a Grammy-winning country star. The former husband of Rosanne Cash and son-in-law of The Man in Black. The artist whose enviable discography includes Diamonds and Dust, Fate’s Right Hand and last year’s delightfully barbed holiday set Christmas Everywhere. And most importantly, one of the finest singer-songwriters ever to come out of the great state of Texas — which is really saying something.
WHAT IS THIS? Just what it sounds like — an album of Texas-centric tracks he’s written and/or recorded over the past several years. But he’s not the lone star here: The star-studded set includes cameos by Willie Nelson, Lyle Lovett, Ronnie Dunn, Billy F. Gibbons, Randy Rogers, Vince Gill, Lee Ann Womack, Steve Earle, Ringo Starr and others.
WHAT DOES IT SOUND LIKE? A master at work — and at the top of his game. After 40-plus years and 19 albums, Crowell knows what he’s doing, how to do it right — and how to make it look easy. Plus, his hickory-smoked pipes and everyman lyrics continue to get more potent and expressive with age. No wonder he was inducted into the Texas Country Music Hall of Fame earlier this month.
WHO ARE THEY? A retro-cool Twin Cities jazz-blues combo featuring superb singer-pianist Davina Sowers, a pair of horn players and a rhythm section.
WHAT IS THIS? Recorded in Nashville, Sugar Drops is their third studio album of mostly original material, their sixth release overall, their first disc cut outside of the rising stars’ home state — and their first that finds Sowers working with studio aces instead of her regular combo.
WHAT DOES IT SOUND LIKE? Something old and something new. Although Sowers’ approach remains rooted in vintage New Orleans viper blues and hot jazz, her songs also reflect her troubled youth of drugs, homelessness and incarceration. Fittingly, her brassy tones and funky grooves come updated with contemporary pop, soul and R&B touches — ensuring Sowers and co. won’t be easily dismissed as another gang of kitschy revivalists.
WHO IS HE? A Texas blues singer-guitarist who should be better known than he is — and might be if he hadn’t put his solo career on hold to be a part of The Departed and to perform with his wife Jessica Murray.
WHAT IS THIS? Just the fourth solo album of his lengthy career — and (unless I’m missing something) his first release under his own name in a decade.
WHAT DOES IT SOUND LIKE? Not like the rest of the Stetson-topped herd. While James can pick a 12-bar lick with the best (and the rest) of them, these dozen songs have more cut in their strut and more glide in their stride, thanks to hefty portions of mellow southern soul, country rock, R&B and soul, New Orleans grooves and more.
WHO ARE THEY? A trio of Texans who traffic in old-school country-rock — and look the part with their anachronistic western leisure suits, big hats and funky facial hair.
WHAT IS THIS? True to its title, Let It Roll picks up where their 2017 debut On the Rocks left off, with songs about lovin’, cheatin’, fussin’, fightin’, hurtin’, leavin’, drinkin’, truckin’ and honky-tonkin’ — set to their winning amalgam of smooth ’80s country twang, ’70s FM rock and timeless pop.
WHAT DOES IT SOUND LIKE? Your daddy’s country albums — assuming daddy was into Dwight Yoakam, George Strait, Bocephus, Eagles and the like.
WHO IS HE? The pedal steel guitar virtuoso who got his start playing sacred steel gospel music in New Jersey churches before breaking through to a larger audience with more rocking secular material.
WHAT IS THIS? His sixth studio album, the followup to his Grammy-nominated 2017 outing Got Soul — and his first collaboration with superstar Nashville producer Dave Cobb, whose client list includes Jason Isbell, Chris Stapleton and Sturgill Simpson.
WHAT DOES IT SOUND LIKE? A heavenly return to form. Randolph has never completely abandoned gospel music, but this disc finds him moving a little closer to his spiritual beginnings.
WHO IS HE? The King of the Chitlin’ Circuit. The International Dean of the Blues. The man who wrote Chicken Heads. The Blues Hall of Famer. And the living legend who started playing juke joints while he was a teen with a fake moustache — and is still going strong at the tender age of 85 (but now with his own facial hair, presumably).
WHAT IS THIS? The latest of countless releases in his seven-decade career and the followup to his acclaimed 2016 outing Porcupine Meat, which finally earned Rush his long-overdue first Grammy.
WHAT DOES IT SOUND LIKE? Modern urban blues cut with funk, soul and R&B — and topped with Rush’s gruff vocals, tall-tale lyrics and skillful harmonica work.
WHO IS SHE? The hell-raisin’ country spitfire who scored her first hit with Delta Dawn at the age of 13 — and who will celebrate the 50th anniversary of that milestone in just a few years.
WHAT IS THIS? The 60-year-old semi-retired Nashville icon’s excellent comeback album and first release since 2009’s My Turn. While I’m Livin’ was co-produced by second-generation outlaw Shooter Jennings and recently anointed superstar Brandi Carlile, who also wrote most of the songs on the album specifically for Tucker.
WHAT DOES IT SOUND LIKE? A veteran getting her long-overdue due. While Tucker’s voice is husky and rough around the edges — at times she sounds like the Marianne Faithfull of country — her weathered pipes and no-nonsense delivery fit perfectly with the been-there, done-that tone of Carlile’s tunes. For his part, Jennings plays it straight with instrumentation, arrangements and production, reining in his eccentric tendencies and harder-edged leanings for simple, sincere Americana and ’70s country-rock.