Whenever I discover an interesting indie album, I stash it in my top desk drawer, giving me easy access whenever I need a musical pick-me-up. Here are 10 of my favorites from that cache, listed in alphabetical order and ranging from country and bluegrass to folk and Americana.
Justin Townes Earle, Harlem River Blues (Bloodshot)
This talented Nashville native recently relocated to New York City, which may have opened up a whole new world of songwriting inspiration. You get the feeling he’s been listening to a lot of music from before he was born, like old folk and gospel tunes. He also writes from a variety of unexpected characters, like a city bus driver. This guy’s really going places, and the album’s steadily thumping rhythm section certainly makes a fine traveling companion.
Key tracks: “Harlem River Blues,” “Wanderin'”
Lonesome River Band, Still Learning (Rural Rhythm)
This longtime bluegrass ensemble lead their new album with the nostalgic “Record Time Machine,” which helps prepare the listener for country chestnuts from an earlier generation by heroes like Merle Haggard and Mel Tillis. Brandon Rickman takes lead on a few original songs about settling down, but on the whole, this album enjoys a unique momentum thanks to some clean picking, pleasant vocals, distinctive melodies and diverse material.
Key tracks: “Goodbye Wheeling,” “I’ve Seen the Blues,” “Record Time Machine”
, Ghost Town (Sage Arts)
These guys have been around for decades and, for this album, they enlisted producer Cowboy Jack Clement to capture their easygoing, wise vibe. Along with a few originals, the band chose notable material from the likes of Emmylou Harris, John Hartford, Tim O’Brien and Warren Zevon. Nearly every song has someone happily singing in the background — not always in harmony but definitely in the spirit of this likable project.
Key tracks: “Less and Less,” “Light in the Forest,” “Love and Happiness for You”
, Honest Words (Ryko)
Coming up in the Nashville clubs, Megan McCormick managed to stand out for quite a few reasons — smart songs, unique vocals, a cool look and, perhaps most of all, her skill on electric guitar. Although she studied bluegrass music in college, the Alaska native grabs onto more of a pop-rock vibe for her debut album. Writing from a vulnerable, yet hard-won, perspective, her album captures a woman coming of age — and hints at an artist with immense potential.
Key tracks: “Driveway,” “Honest Words,” “Wreck”
Frank Solivan & Dirty Kitchen
, Frank Solivan & Dirty Kitchen (Fiddlemon)
Here’s an exciting bluegrass entry heavy on original tunes and crisp, clean production. Following a path that found him in the U.S. Navy’s country band and teaching music lessons in Alaska, Solivan leads this ensemble with exceptional mandolin picking, engaging vocals and the strongest set of bluegrass originals I’ve heard in a long time. If I booked festivals, I’d put these guys onstage every afternoon.
Key tracks: “Driftin’ Apart,” “The Note That Said Goodbye,” “Together We’ll Fly”
The SteelDrivers, Reckless (Rounder)
This bluesy bluegrass band from Nashville could have named this project after one of the tunes, “Guitars, Whiskey, Guns and Knives,” since that Outlaw imagery runs throughout. But when the bravado is downplayed, they fearlessly delve into grief, growing old and guarding your heart. Soulful singer Chris Stapleton has since departed, but the potent songs he’s written here with Mike Henderson will endure. Tammy Rogers’ feisty fiddle keeps the momentum pounding, too.
Key tracks: “The Reckless Side of Me,” “Where Rainbows Never Die,” “You Put the Hurt on Me”
Marty Stuart, Ghost Train: The Studio B Sessions (Sugar Hill)
This one sparkles — and not just because of Stuart’s jacket. A longtime advocate for traditional country music, Stuart lays his striking vocals over glorious work by guitarist Kenny Vaughan and legendary steel guitarist Ralph Mooney. Studio B, where numerous stars for RCA Records recorded their classics, serves as a perfect backdrop for this innovative nod to the past. Stuart wrote a lion’s share of the songs here, including a couple of heartfelt numbers with his wife, Connie Smith.
Key tracks: “Crazy Arms,” “Little Heartbreaker (The Likes of You),” “I Run to You”
Various Artists, Crazy: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack (Favored Nations)
This indie film retraced the life of famed guitarist Hank Garland, whose craftsmanship could be heard on multiple country recordings in the 1950s. As the movie shows, his life turned out to be tragic, yet the music he left behind is sublime. The new instrumentals set the nostalgic mood, and it’s a treat to hear contemporary singers like Shawn Colvin and jazz star Madeleine Peyroux try out some country classics.
Key tracks: “I Fall to Pieces” (with Mandy Barnett) “Sugarfoot Rag,” “Tennessee Waltz” (with Colvin)
Dale Watson, Carryin’ On (E1)
His fan base may be surprised to learn that the Austin stalwart made a record in Nashville, but this self-financed project is far removed from the city’s contemporary scene. With steel guitar aplenty by the great Lloyd Green, this album sticks close to traditional country, thanks to Watson’s wise writing, rich singing and more mature perspective. That said, “Hey Brown Bottle” is my favorite drinking song of the year, especially with those lilting background harmony parts.
Key tracks: “Don’t Wanna Go Home Song,” “Hey Brown Bottle,” “Heart of Stone”
, Water Bound (Thirty Tigers)
This one’s hard to categorize, which is probably why it’s so intriguing. Based in Asheville, N.C., this singer-songwriter blends her banjo licks with contemporary production by Neilson Hubbard. Her delivery is unhurried, but more times than not, she writes from the perspective of a woman who knows precisely what she wants. And her persuasive alto just might convince you to agree.
Key tracks: “Am I a Stranger,” “Put Me Back,” “Taking It Hard”