After years in which mainstream country was dominated by beer-swilling patriotism and heartfelt odes to pickup trucks – see Luke Bryan, Jason Aldean, Blake Shelton, and other purveyors of so-called bro-country – a burgeoning movement to get back to the genre's less-polished roots and honest tales of daily life has unfolded. Stars have been made, for instance, of Sturgill Simpson, Kacey Musgraves, and Chris Stapleton, who returns this week with From a Room: Volume 1, a handcrafted effort that avoids the carefully groomed sounds of Nashville's business elite in favor of intimate journeys through America's music history. Outlaw hardiness distinguishes Stapleton and his peers, but there's also a very real desire to present songs at their most uncooked. In honor of Stapleton's new effort, here are five other must-hear country artists getting back to basics.
Rawness courses through Gilded, the debut from the young Jade Jackson. "Good Time Gone," for instance, owns a bluesy swagger. But the star is Jackson, whose lyrics and vocals possess a fists-clenched, arms-crossed toughness as the protagonist fends off a would-be suitor. "My skin's a lot thicker than you think it'd be," Jackson sings on "Finish Line," an acidic, reflective ballad that comes with more attitude than mournfulness. Produced by Mike Ness, a punk-rock veteran known best for his work in Social Distortion, Gilded has a road-weary dryness that gives the album a rough-around-the-edges tone that allows the listener to feel each one of Jackson's bruises.
Nashville's Lille Mae often wields the fiddle as a weapon, using it as a forcefully dominating instrument that leads the songs on her debut solo album, Forever and Then Some, through a musical tour of Southern sounds. Strands of folk, gospel, bluegrass, and straight-up old-fashioned country pepper the work. And tunes like "Over the Hill and Through the Woods" let interlocking guitars dig up gravel-like grit. Mae previously worked in the family band Jypsi, which put a soulfully pop spin on country, and has collaborated with Jack White, who signed her to his Third Man Records. Here, all her genre-hopping influences get distilled into songs that feel lifted from a dive-bar jukebox.
Nikki Lane comes at country via the lens of a rock n' roller on her third and most refined effort, Highway Queen. A sense of restlessness pervades the work, as the road-ready anthems take an unflinching look at love, death, marriage, and divorce. Standout "700,000 Rednecks" even takes aim at the music-buying populous, questioning our devotion to celebrity. Lane also brings a brazen, Western mindset to the album's slower material. Check "Lay You Down," where a guitar orchestra merges acoustic and electric tones to create a haunting soundtrack for Lane's blunt lyrics in which a man's last night on earth gets met with indifference. Whether careening into rhythm & blues or retro pop, the imagery remains evocative even as it deals with unsavory emotions.
Two albums into his career, Sam Outlaw continues to marry rootsy, SoCal-inspired refinement with a country twang. As demonstrated on his 2015 debut, Angeleno, created in tandem with composer/producer Ry Cooder, Outlaw favors arrangements with wide-open romanticism. On his latest, Tenderheart, Outlaw continues to go for subdued reflection that contrasts with his bold stage name. Songs such as "Bottomless Mimosas" and "Bougainvillea, I Think" emphasize patience, boasting relaxed acoustics and tender vocal approaches. Don't be fooled by the clever song titles. A tune such as "She's Playing Hard to Get (Rid of)" comes off as a calming, heartbreaking ballad.
Jamie Wyatt's recent Felony Blues is only seven songs deep, but a lifetime of hard living informs the content. The Santa Monica native battled personal demons – and jail time – to arrive at a work that echoes the sun-scorched poeticism of Lucinda Williams and leather-tough demeanor of Merle Haggard. Regrets and bitterness tango in "Wishing Well," where Wyatt's downplayed vocals capture the pessimistic take on optimism coursing through the song's gunslinging, country-rock gallop. "From Outer Space" launches with a twinkle of piano notes, but a melancholic slide guitar soon brings the music back down to earth. Then there's "Wasco," where violins and guitars tussle amid a honky-tonkin' stomp.
Photo credit: Eden Tyler