Independence Day is a perfect time to celebrate independent music. After all, that free-thinking spirit is what made our country — and country music — great. Here are 20 new tracks from artists forging their own path with influences ranging from country, bluegrass, folk, jazz and pop music.
With Keith Urban, “Good Time Charlie’s Got the Blues”
Wilson is a Nashville-based jazz singer who enlisted numerous country stars for her latest project, Countrypolitan Duets. Originally a pop hit for singer-songwriter Danny O’Keefe in the early ’70s, this downbeat tale offers Urban as her singing partner and captures that “you win some, you lose some” approach. Put this one in the “win” category.
Bleu Edmondson, “The Future Ain’t What It Used to Be”
Edmondson takes a somber approach on the thoughtful title track to his latest album. The Texas songwriter sings about the bright future he shared with his woman until fate and foolish pride intervened. With a gravely baritone and spare production, this troubadour lays it all on the line.
, “Blue Moon of Kentucky”
An awesome guitarist and esteemed rockabilly bandleader, Setzer injects this classic tune with a burst of vitality. Of course you need confidence when you’re tackling a song made famous by Bill Monroe and Elvis Presley. Nevertheless, Setzer has swagger to spare on this instrumental.
Dead Rock West
, “What Are They Doing in Heaven Today?”
This eloquent hymn was written by a preacher in the early 1900s, yet I had never heard it until I started going to bluegrass festivals. This quiet version by the California-based folk-rock band Dead Rock West conveys the loneliness of losing a loved one and curiosity about the afterlife.
the Del McCoury Band and Preservation Hall Jazz Band
, “You Don’t Have to Be a Baby to Cry”
Here’s an immensely satisfying collaboration between longtime masters in bluegrass and New Orleans jazz. McCoury takes the lead vocal, singing an old song about a man who’s so brokenhearted, he’s brought to tears. Yet the peppy brass section should bring a smile back to his face — and yours.
Like an old mountain ballad, this intriguing narrative weaves the story of a sister who falls for the wrong man. With a folk arrangement and a confiding voice, the Nashville-based Jones begins by firmly singing, “The devil lives in our town,” and you know this isn’t going to end well.
, “Gotta Little”
This tall Texan treats listeners to a positive song about having a little pocket money and a pretty girlfriend. That’s easy to agree with. Like many aspiring Americana musicians, he’s “living out of suitcases and trying to find some new places.” In the meantime, he’s well-placed in Austin.
Farm County Jubilee
, “Gonna Throw Myself a Party”
This simple composition still rings true more than 50 years after the great Don Gibson wrote and recorded it. Farm County Jubilee rendered their nifty, bluegrass-inspired tribute at historic RCA Studio B. Whenever you’re wallowing in pity, just cue up this old-school country tune.
, “Angel of Darkness”
Don’t you want somebody to love? Founded by Jefferson Airplane members Jack Casady and Jorma Kaukonen, Hot Tuna just released their first new album in 20 years. And it is electric, man. To me, “Angel of Darkness” recalls an anthem from those iconic 1960s rock festivals.
Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit, “Alabama Pines”
A northern Alabama native, Isbell wistfully wants to go home in his country-tinged ballad. You can sense the motion in the melody as he’s trying to get there. This meaningful song draws on the struggles of his friends and neighbors as well as his own soulful Southern musical influence.
Has love ever turned your world upside down? And exactly when you least expected it? That’s what this happy little tune is all about. Pousette-Dart’s band recorded for Capitol in the 1970s and toured with Peter Frampton and Yes. Even so, this catchy chorus sounds like a hit right now.
The Judds With Alison Krauss, “Back Home”
This reminds me of the Judds, circa 1985, with its themes of determination, family and faith. Written by Darrell Scott and Bruce Robison, this song gets a gold star — especially with Alison Krauss’ exquisite voice. If the mother-daughter duo chose it as a fitting farewell, they chose well.
, “Thanks for Nothing”
In my 20s, when I was terribly sarcastic, I’d have posted this true-to-life ballad on my MySpace page. Like a passive-aggressive letter to your ex, the song ultimately flips the bird to the one who broke your heart. The trio of young, indie bandleaders recorded this diverse project in Nashville.
This Austin-based ensemble boasts a myriad of influences, yet this enjoyable instrumental may be the best example of their bluegrass roots. A few members are award-winning players. There’s a jazz lilt in this song, too. This tune shows they can play well without spilling over each other.
Mr. Isaac Allen
, “Forget Who You Are”
The mesmerizing piano is a perfect match for Allen’s low, mysterious voice. As a boy, he moved often with his family, eventually landing in Indonesia, a region that still speaks to him. His adult years have been turbulent, yet clearly inspiring. This melancholy blues song is worth hearing.
The New Familiars
, “So Alive”
This North Carolina band’s slogan, “Americana with a grand heartbeat,” is truth in advertising on “So Alive.” It’s an ode to getting older, falling in love with music and finding yourself in someone else. They tour constantly, combining Appalachian influences with lively rock ’n’ roll.
, “Watching the Sparks Fly”
To celebrate the Fourth of July, here’s a slice-of-life tune about barbecues, sparklers and budding romance. Raised on a New Jersey farm, Cattaneo has refined her musical talent in Italy, New York City, Nashville and now Boston. With a broadcasting background, she knows how to share her story.
Tony Holt and the Wildwood Valley Boys
, “I Know That You Know That I Know”
If you love Buck Owens and bluegrass, check out this plaintive cover tune by this Indiana-based acoustic group. It’s all there — nimble musicianship, solid harmonies, expressive lead vocals and that classic country wordplay that makes it more fun (if not more challenging) to sing along.
, “Without Love”
This soulful singer has enthralled listeners for decades. And yes, she knows hard times. Her farmhouse burned down last year. Firefighters extinguished flames in her studio in time to rescue the masters for her new album. Yet, with John Cowan’s help, she belts out what truly matters.
, “If I Can’t Trust You With a Quarter (How Can I Trust You With My Heart?)”
This Seattle musician soaks her songs in steel guitar and sly observations. This time out, an enticing stranger at the bar blows his chances at the jukebox. “When you said you’ve never heard of John Prine/I knew right away you weren’t worth my time,” she notes. Nicely done, sister.