In the first half of the year, there has been no shortage of great music. I have rocked out to Keith Urban’s Ripcord, tried to belt to Randy Houser’s Fired Up and got schooled in country rock guitar on Brothers Osborne’s Pawn Shop. I was swept away with Sturgill Simpson’s A Sailor’s Guide to Earth, Blake Shelton’s realness on If I’m Honest and the small town drama on Brandy Clark’s Big Day in a Small Town.
Off the charts and off the critics’ list, here is a list of some personal favorites that may have been missed. Among the 15 albums and five EPs are projects by some rowdy honky-tonk heroines, Texas troubadours, two Country Music Hall of Famers and a legendary Memphis soul group.
Ryan Beaver, Rx
Beaver’s introspective third album explores raw human emotions starting with the lead single “Dark,” a powerful ballad about facing life’s darkest days without fear. Classic Fleetwood Mac soundscapes can be heard on the Maren Morris collaboration “When This World Ends” and an acoustic version of Kris Kristofferson’s “Jesus Was a Capricorn” leads into “Kristofferson,” an original tune co-written with Jessie Alexander and Jon Randall. Be careful driving while under the influence of “Fast.” My speedometer goes up every time it blares through my car stereo.
Memphis soul meets country on the Bo-Keys’ latest album. Produced by bassist Scott Bomar, the 10-song collection puts a classic soul spin on Harlan Howard, Merle Haggard, Hank Williams, Freddie Fender and Floyd Cramer. Vocalist Percy Wiggins captivates with his performance on Bob Dylan’s “I Threw It All Away.” Guests include Hi Records artist Don Bryant, keyboardist Al Gamble of St. Paul & the Broken Bones and roots guitarist John Paul Keith.
Hayes Carll, Lovers and Leavers
Less is more with Carll’s fifth studio album, which features some of his most confessional song poetry to date. The songwriter’s vulnerability shines through with minimalist production by Joe Henry. Co-written with Darrell Scott, “Sake of the Song” offers some sage words of advice for anyone interested in a music career: “Tell your truth however you choose and do it all for the sake of a song.”
Aaron Einhouse, It Ain’t Pretty
Much like Carll’s Lovers and Leavers, Einhouse’s It Ain’t Pretty is among the year’s most literary country collections. For his fourth studio album, the Texas native wanted to explore some of life’s harsher truths. In the title track, he sings, “I’m here to tell you it’s all wrong/I’ve been lied to by fairy tales and songs.” “The Fall of Eli Wilde” plays out like a Samson and Delilah epic, telling the story of a mountain man who gets his heart broken by a woman. “My Susannah” is a classic honky-tonk cheating song about a man who kills his high school sweetheart in a drunken episode.
Vince Gill, Down to My Last Bad Habit
Gill latest album is one of the year’s most complete collections on love and all its facets. He truly believes a human being’s sole purpose in life is to love. Listen for Cam on the Leslie Satcher co-written weeper “I’ll Be Waiting For You,” Little Big Town on “Take Me Down” and trumpeter Chris Botti on “One More Mistake I Made.” Grab a box of tissues (or a dance partner) for the George Jones tribute “Sad One Comin’ On (A Song for George Jones).”
Kree Harrison, This Old Thing
Holy hairbrush songs, Batman. Harrison just released one of the greatest country soul records I’ve heard in ages. It’s the kind of music that’s born out of the night life in East Nashville where there are at least three major dance parties every Monday night. With pedal steel, gospel keyboards, classic soul horns, “Every Time I Fall in Love” might be the sweetest love song released this summer. It almost plays out like a cute romantic comedy where the leading lady loses her keys and loses her cool every time love comes around. With funky bass lines, girl group strings and dreamy pedal steel, the 10-song collection gets you back to your roots no matter where you’re from.
Leave it lifelong music students like Lauper to make great music no matter the genre. She can do pop, Broadway and blues crazy well. She even studied dulcimer at Vanderbilt University’s Blair School of Music in Nashville during the ‘90s. Featuring 12 songs, Detour is Lauper’s salute to classic country with covers of Wanda Jackson, Patsy Cline and Dolly Parton. Gill appears on “You’re the Reason Our Kids Are Ugly,” Alison Krauss sings backup on “Hard Candy Christmas,” Emmylou Harris guests on the title track, Willie Nelson sings and plays on “Night Life,” and that’s Jewel yodeling on “I Want to Be a Cowboy’s Sweetheart.”
True Detective fans will recognize Lynn as the sultry barroom singer from season two of the HBO series. She returns with Resistor, a brooding collection of 10 songs with a pulse. Lynn starts off in high gear with the driving opener “Shape Shifter” then dips into a range of rhythms and sounds reminiscent of Fiona Apple’s Tidal. Resistor is a great way to end any night.
Loretta Lynn, Full Circle
Full Circle is a fantastic album by one of country’s sharpest tongues. Produced by her daughter Patsy Lynn Russell and family friend John Carter Cash, the country legend is in good hands. Leading into the first song she ever wrote, “Whispering Sea,” a minute of banter opens the 14-song collection and gives fans incite into Lynn’s creative process. Elvis Costello appears on the Todd Snider-co-written song “Everything it Takes,” while Nelson guests on the closer “Lay Me Down.” Listen for her spin on the A.P. Carter song “I Never Will Marry” and the traditional “In the Pines.”
Parker Millsap, The Very Last Day
Interesting characters come alive on Millsap’s sophomore album. The 11-song collection kicks off with “Hades Pleads,” a fiery number about the mythological Greek god of the underworld begging a woman like a dog to get her to his house on the river Styx. In the striking “Heaven Sent,” Millsap sings of a gay son who comes out to his preacher man father. A struggling military veteran turns into a gas station robber in “Hands Up.” Fans of the Rolling Stones’ Sticky Fingers album will recognize the blues spiritual “You Gotta Move,” which is the only song Millsap didn’t write on the album.
Moore put in some major work making his latest album Getaway. Including guitars, piano and drums, he tracked 11 instruments throughout the 14-song collection, which is full of radio-ready summertime hits. He pours on the soul in “Sand in the Bed,” “Bring on the Rain” and “Here For You.” He sings of highway flirtation in “Stop Light Love.” Think Clark Griswold trailing Christie Brinkley in National Lampoon’s Vacation.
Margo Price, Midwest Farmer’s Daughter
Price hopes those with the blues find comfort as she reveals her own on her 10-song debut from Third Man Records. The collection draws easy comparisons to work by Loretta Lynn, Jeannie C. Riley and Dolly Parton. Any act who’s ever been rejected by a record company knows the pain of “This Town Gets Around.” She sings of time of the slammer in the two-step number “Weekender.” But the best parts happen when the musicians do their thing in the breaks between verses. Tracking the album at the famed Sun Studios in Memphis gives the music an added touch history. The music gods of the famed facility would be pleased.
The title of the latest Randy Rogers Band album serves as a tip of the hat to Rogers’ late mentor Kent Finlay, founder of the famed music venue Cheatham Street Warehouse in San Marcos, Texas. Dan Tyminski and Alison Krauss appear on the Earl Bud Lee-written ballad “Look Out Yonder.” Jerry Jeff Walker sings on the roadhouse scorcher “Takin’ It as It Comes” and Jamey Johnson guests on “Actin’ Crazy.” But the best parts happen when Rogers talks Texas. In “Tequila Eyes,” which he co-wrote with Dean Dillon and the collection’s producer Buddy Cannon, Rogers sings, “I noticed when I first walked in that the stool beside you needs a friend/It looks like you could use one, too.”
Sellers is a Nashville songbird who delivers some serious R.L. Burnside attitude with her 14-song debut. She calls the new music garage country, and the name makes total sense because it’s served with heavy dose of blues and alternative rock. The title is taken from a line in “People Talking,” which Sellers co-wrote with Mando Saenz about the feeling of not fitting in.
Grammy-winning producer Dave Cobb assembled an all-star cast of Nashville’s best music makers for his 12-song compilation honoring the humble family traditions that come with growing up the South. In “Grandma’s Garden,” Zac Brown reflects on countryside wisdom that’s passed on down through the generations. With her husband Chris Stapleton on backing vocals, Morgane Stapleton takes the lead and turns “You Are My Sunshine” into a bluesy lullaby. Brandy Clark eulogizes her late grandpa with the soul-stirring “I Cried.” Do not miss the Rich Robinson and the Settles Connection wrap the collection with “The Way Home.”
EPs You Need
Kelleigh Bannen, Cheap Sunglasses
Bannen continues to deliver the genre’s edgiest country pop with her latest five-song EP. In the lead single “Landlocked,” Bannen wishes fans a happy summer from the heartland part of a U.S. map where the nearest ocean breeze comes from a box fan and the closest body of water is in an aboveground pool at a neighbor’s house. Misery loves company in the sunny opener “Welcome to the Party,” while “All Good Things” puts value on enjoying the free things in life. In the title song, she cleverly uses cheap sunglasses as a metaphor for a summer fling.
Leading with his latest single “Tonight,” Kinder’s gravelly vocals and a hypnotic low end are the thread of his five-song EP of radio-ready hits. Listen for the guitar breakdown in “Are We Doing This” and what happens when two friends are onto something more in “Something.”
Steve Moakler, Suitcase
Growing up near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Moakler salutes the blue collar community that shaped him with the opener “Steel Town.” The heart of the song comes towards the last refrain when he sings, “In a steel town/You realize we’re all in this thing together/And you learn to take the heat and withstand the pressure.” In the lead single “Suitcase,” Moakler sings of love being better than any pot of gold.
Maggie Rose, The Variety Show Vol. 1
Doing what feels right sounds great coming from Rose, who breaks new ground into pop with her first Variety Show collection. Her piano ballad “Love Me More” is written from a perspective of an independent woman moving on from a bad love situation, while “Broken” is a very revealing acoustic track about the importance of showing your heart, scars and all.
Tara Thompson, Someone to Take Your Place
Written with Leslie Satcher, the title single is the blue collar bad girl anthem the world needs right now. In “Side Effects,” Thompson sings of loving coming with a warning label. “Pregnant at the Prom” is based on a true story of her mother being an expectant teen mom at the high school dance.