Already, the first three months of 2004 have given country fans a plentiful batch of fresh and rewarding albums. Some of the following artists are brand new, and others are longtime favorites. While many of these albums are rooted in traditional country, there's also room for folk, blues and bluegrass. Adventurous country fans, please take note.
Live From the Louisiana Hayride (Scena)
Culled from numerous performances in Shreveport, La., from the earliest days of his career, this set is a fascinating look at the evolution of Jones' artistry. At first, he's just another good singer, but when he gets to "Big Harlan Taylor," that famous phrasing is firmly in place. Several '60s classics are included, including a rambunctious version of "White Lightning."
Raul Malo, Pat Flynn, Rob Ickes, Dave Pomeroy
The Nashville Acoustic Sessions (CMH)
Is there anything Raul Malo can't sing? This graceful album has more in common with Eddy Arnold than the Mavericks (which Malo fronts), and the musicianship is top-notch. The project covers 11 classics from "Blue Bayou" to "(I Love You) For Sentimental Reasons" without ruining any of them. Quite lovely, all around.
Alecia Nugent (Rounder)
For those country fans who miss the story songs of years gone by, this bluegrass debut is highly recommended. The Louisiana singer especially nails her performance of the tragic "Paper and Pen." Fresh from his Grammy win for last year's Louvin Brothers tribute, producer Carl Jackson submits another worthy effort here.
Old Crow Medicine Show
With their lively concerts and pierced fan base, these five young men remind me of rock stars, but their music is old-time string band, all the way. They started out busking in Nashville but now spend most of the year on the road. For those under 30 who swear they hate country music, here's the cure. Goes down real easy, too.
Days of Our Lives (Mercury)
His sentimental singles (such as "Days of Our Lives") don't hint at the soulful singing that saturates the rest of his debut album. It's incredibly rare to find a debut artist who can sing with this much passion. If you enjoyed Travis Tritt's roadhouse swagger back in the day, or if Bob Seger still rocks your world, don't miss this one.
Kenny & Amanda Smith Band
House Down the Block (Rebel)
At first, this bluegrass album seems upbeat enough, with its fluid melodies and fine picking. But listen closely, and you'll realize Kenny and Amanda's pleasant voices are singing about suicide, bringing shame on your family and all manner of break-ups. Yet, somehow, it works beautifully. Keep an eye on this ensemble.
One Moment More (Vanguard)
She got big buzz from her cover of Dolly Parton's "Jolene," but it's her heart-on-the-sleeve lyrics and earnest singing that win me over every time. She's been singing in Nashville clubs for several years, but they have never lost their power or their intimacy. If you miss Mary Chapin Carpenter, this might be worth your money.
The Honky Tonk Kid (Sonnet Publishing)
Aaron Watson continues to make a name for himself on the Texas dancehall circuit, all the more impressive for singing his own traditional material. "Reckless" takes a stab at mainstream country, but it's the easygoing shuffles that will make you swear this kid's gonna be famous someday. Willie Nelson pops up on the cinematic title track.
Honorary Texan (Heart of Texas)
Williams may be 61, but she doesn't sing like an old lady in the church choir. With her feisty lyrics and persuasive vocals, this reminds me of an album Loretta Lynn would make if she started hanging out with George Strait. Kicking off the album, "Yes Ma'am, He Found Me in a Honky-Tonk" shines like a huge rhinestone.
Robin and Linda Williams
Deeper Waters (Red House)
There's something very comforting about listening to records by Robin and Linda Williams. Maybe it's the themes of faith and home, or maybe it's how their voices blend so effortlessly. No matter how crazy my world gets, their rolling melodies always bring me back to earth. This is roots music, in the truest sense of the word.