The 20 Best Albums You Might Have Missed in 2003

Traditionalists, Rockers and Reissues Among the Year's Overlooked Gems

With many country stars ducking the limelight over the holidays, many overlooked CDs always seem to resurface on the desks at CMT.com.

Here are several that we’ll still be playing in 2004:

Paul Burch, Fool for Love (Bloodshot)
Not at all retro, Burch is a very measured and innovative caretaker of many musical traditions. A graduate of Nashville’s Lower Broadway bar scene, he captures and nurtures and builds upon trad country, country blues and folk idioms in a very knowing way. Modern life channeled through a Jimmie Rodgers-Hank Williams filter. — CF

Sam Bush & David Grisman, Hold On, We’re Strummin’ (Acoustic Disc)
Two of America’s most innovative acoustic musicians teamed up for an eclectic collection spanning traditional music and an updated take on “newgrass.” Bush and Grisman have been close friends since 1965, and the love and respect shows throughout the 16 tracks. Granted, the world probably didn’t need a mandolin version of the R&B classic, “Hold On, I’m Comin’,” but the humorous reference was almost compulsory given the fact that these two guys can actually refer to themselves Sam & Dave. — CG

Caitlin Cary, I’m Staying Out (Yep Roc)
Fiddler and singer extraordinaire Cary joins fellow Whiskeytown alum Ryan Adams in pursuing a noteworthy solo career. This follows her 2002 solo debut While You Weren’t Looking and continues and expands upon the former CD’s journeys into a complex world of folk-country songs, now delving into love won and love lost and love unrequited. Cary remains as understated as Adams is overstated. — CF

Thad Cockrell, Warmth & Beauty (Yep Roc)
Cockrell often says “There’s no ‘alt’ in my country.” True enough. This is straight-up piano-tickling, tear-dropping, bar tab-busting country music. The amazing part is that he makes it sound so effortless and lovely. Can anything break a heart more quickly than a slow fiddle solo? Highly recommended for those who still love Willie and Wynette. — CS

Anna Fermin’s Trigger Gospel, Oh, the Stories We Hold (Undertow)
This spectacular country album comes from a little-known singer out of Chicago. Contrary to the name, this isn’t gospel music. Yet after listening, you’ll want to testify to the power of passionate country music. Fermin’s vocals sometimes remind me of Tanya Tucker, but the combo’s ambitious musical spirit recalls the Dixie Chicks. Promising. –CS

Roscoe Holcomb, An Untamed Sense of Control (Smithsonian Folkways)
The title of this CD comes from Bob Dylan’s description of the late Roscoe Holcomb, who was the true inspiration for the “high lonesome sound” label often attributed to both Ralph Stanley and Bill Monroe. Holcomb was so raw and intense and so backwoods and so pure that you’ll either love him or hate him. Album producer John Cohen’s eloquent liner notes aptly capture Holcomb thusly: “For those on the path to discovering American roots music, Roscoe Holcomb’s sound seems to be the end of the line. Listeners may start with bluegrass, folk songs, old-time string bands or Appalachian ballads, but once they get to his music, there is no next step.” — CF

The Jayhawks, Rainy Day Music (American Recordings)
The alt-country pioneers re-invent themselves with a guitar-jangling, harmony-laden trip through melodies reminiscent of the Byrds and Crosby, Stills & Nash (Steven Stills’ son Chris sings and plays on the album, and Jakob Dylan also makes an appearance). Gary Louris has never sounded better. The new songs sparkle with their updated sort of traditional treatment. Everything old is new again. — CF

Chris Knight, The Jealous Kind (Dualtone)
When you open the jewel case for The Jealous Kind the grit of Knight’s songs falls out in a tall pile. It’s loaded with stories of people on the edge who are still trying hard or as Knight puts it in the title of the song, “Banging Away.” The one track that speaks directly to all of us is “Devil Behind the Wheel.” It begins: “I need an angel in the worst kind of way. …” Who hasn’t felt that? — JM

Shelby Lynne, Identity Crisis (Capitol)
Lynne wrote and recorded the whole album herself, ensuring her striking artistic vision. Soul, country, pop, rock, gospel — all sung with grit and conviction. Well-rounded music fans should soak it up. — CS

Willie Nelson, Crazy: The Demo Sessions (Sugar Hill)
What a great opportunity to go back in time and eavesdrop as Nelson creates what became the framework of one of the greatest careers and bodies of work in modern country music. These demos for Pamper Music from 1960-1966 were lost for many years, but now you can hear — among others — the demo of “Crazy” that Nelson presented to Patsy Cline after a night of drinking. She reluctantly listened to it — and the rest is hysteria. — CF

Franky Perez, Poor Man’s Son (Lava)
Perez is a Cuban-American rock ‘n’ roller but under the electric guitars and bravado is a genuine storyteller. On Poor Man’s Son, he sings of teenage romance, neighborhood hookers and love for his country all with the same understanding and passion. On most of the 18 tracks, you can feel the sweat that pours off him in concert. — JM

Reckless Kelly, Under the Table and Above the Sun (Sugar Hill)
The toast of Austin’s alt-country scene, Reckless Kelly offered an ideal album for celebrating the crash-and-burn relationships we’ve all endured. Rough around the edges but realistic to the core. — CS

Mack Starks, Elsewhere (Self-released)
OK, so it’s not country, but I listened to this breathtaking record more than any others in 2003. And it’s homegrown, from right here in Nashville. Eloquent writing. Perfect melodies. No poseur vibe. Fans of David Gray, please take note. — CS

Matt Thackston, Better Than Here (Self-released)
For an eclectic blend of Southern roots rock and bluegrass, this is the CD to pick up. Highlights include the country lyrics of “Blood Brothers” and the poignant “Someday Soon.” It’s a nice look into the immense pool of untapped talent coming out of Nashville. — AG

Rick Trevino, In My Dreams (Warner Bros.)
A naïve college student in the early ’90s when the Nashville music machine molded him into a hit-making hat act, Trevino eventually lost his record deal and reluctantly scaled down his career for several years. With Raul Malo producing the sessions, In My Dreams kept Trevino in country music’s mainstream while successfully re-introducing him as an artist of depth, maturity and integrity. — CG

Various Artists, Flowers in the Wildwood: Women in Early Country Music 1923-1939, (Trikont)
Tantalizing glimpses of some of the better-known and lesser-known women pioneers of country. This is especially valuable for the lesser-known artists, whether it’s the intriguing Dezurik Sisters of “trick yodeling” fame or the fiery, militant Aunt Molly Jackson or the mysterious Wisdom Sisters, who came from the shape note fashion of singing taught by the early Southern singing schools. And you’ll soon hear far too much about shape note singing, as a result of the Cold Mountain movie and soundtrack. — CF

Cheryl Wheeler, Different Stripe (Philo)
This retrospective collects the softer side of the New England folk songwriter. She wrote “Aces” for Suzy Bogguss, but there’s much more up her sleeve. Perfect for times of reflection. — CS

Dar Williams, The Beauty of the Rain (Razor & Tie)
I’m a little slow to get on the Dar bandwagon, but please scoot over. Her typically quirky songs make way here for an edgier bent, but she doesn’t lose her folk perspective. Alison Krauss harmonizes on “The One Who Knows,” but really, somebody should make a big ol’ country hit out of this. — CS

Lucinda Williams, World Without Tears (Lost Highway)
She keeps saying she’s not country and you know what? She’s right. Williams has finally entered into Emmylou-dom, the musical Neverland where whatever she feels like doing will be received and appreciated on its own merit, rather than on any genre classification. Many fans will always view her though the measure of the now-deified Car Wheels on a Gravel Road, which cannot be repeated. Obviously, she’s not just that. Along the way, though, her content is becoming subordinate to her style — the sensual, sultry, raw Lucinda is now the preferred Lucinda. She seems to be leaning that way. Tears is what she feels like right now. Predictability and consistency do not seem to be her goals, praise God. — CF

Dwight Yoakam, Population: Me (Audium Entertainment)
Between acting, touring and selling breakfast foods, Yoakam still found time to record one of the best albums of his career. The cynical “No Such Thing” takes the sting out of love gone wrong, while “Fair to Midland” conveys a desolate ache. An additional gem is the melancholy “If Teardrops Were Diamonds” with Willie Nelson. Yoakam’s distinct vocals and eloquent lyrics create an engaging album for both heart and head. Pure audible art. — RR

Contributors include CMT News producers Jennifer Meyer and Robin Richardson, CMT Radio’s Angela Gimlin and CMT.com’s Craig Shelburne, Chet Flippo and Calvin Gilbert.