The first half of 2006 is already gone, and only a few independent albums are still standing -- in a tidy stack on my desk, that is. Here are 10 of the year's keepers so far.
Wade Bowen, Lost Hotel (Sustain)
This one comes from an upstart label in Texas, where Wade Bowen makes his living by constantly touring the dancehalls. The singing, songwriting and production of Lost Hotel are all on the level of contemporary Nashville at its most capable, especially the tension and anger in the cheating song, "All Over Town."
Slaid Cleaves, Unsung (Rounder)
Slaid Cleaves is a folk music star, if such a thing exists. Yet, on Unsung, the transplanted Texan lifts beautiful and eloquent songs written by friends who still toil away at open mike nights with gleams in their eyes. Cleaves is an expressive singer who lets a good lyric take center stage, especially on the stunning "Getaway Car."
Dave Evans, Pretty Green Hills (Rebel)
It only takes five minutes to behold the power of Dave Evans, a potent bluegrass vocalist with a knack for wringing emotion out of every word. The magnificent title track (written by Dixie and Tom T. Hall) leaves me feeling like I was somehow driving through those hills, too. Not a bad way to spend five minutes -- or a full album's worth.
Jeffrey Foucault, Ghost Repeater (Signature Sounds)
Jeffrey Foucault's rich, revealing voice immediately drew me into his music. Most of these songs are about his new marriage, but I keep returning to "One Part Love," about meeting a kindred musical spirit during a long, exhausting tour -- not to be taken lightly when you live on the road. If you gravitate toward subtlety in songwriting, check him out.
John Gorka, Writing in the Margins (Red House)
Nobody turns a phrase like John Gorka, a beloved songwriter for nearly 20 years now. Whether he's writing about soldiers on leave or an elusive feeling of abandonment, his engaging melodies always say as much as his captivating lyrics. That said, "I Miss Everyone" is the most insanely catchy country song I've heard all year.
Hacienda Brothers, What's Wrong With Right (Proper)
They've knocked around the business for a while, and their hard-won experience is evident in Chris Gaffney's pleading vocals and Dave Gonzalez' Western-tinged guitar work. A production boost from soul songwriting hero Dan Penn, a stellar steel guitarist and a sturdy rhythm section really make these nuggets sparkle.
The Hoyle Brothers, One More Draw (Loose Booty)
The honky-tonkin' Hoyle Brothers are as country as it gets. Slathered in steel guitar, these easygoing originals remind me of a neon buzz, a beer buzz and a "you gotta go see this band" buzz. If jukeboxes still beckoned in the country bars, this Chicago band would have no trouble at all getting discovered.
Peter Ostroushko, Postcards (Red House)
A Prairie Home Companion regular for more than 25 years, fiddler-mandolinist Peter Ostroushko composed much of this album while on tour with the famous radio show. Inspired by numerous locales, the mostly instrumental Postcards covers a broad variety of American musical styles with skill, energy and grace.
Mark Schatz and Friends, Steppin' in the Boiler House (Rounder)
This versatile, hard-to-categorize album from the beloved banjo player offers the most beautiful and boisterous instrumentals of the year. With friends like fiddler Casey Driessen, guitarist Jim Hurst and bassist Missy Raines, I'd probably make an album, too. "Eileen's Waltz," written for Schatz's wife, is as romantic as it gets.
Dale Watson, Whiskey or God (Palo Duro)
Anybody with a tender spot for honky-tonk singers probably already knows about Dale Watson. He's now on hiatus in Baltimore, but Whiskey or God is a super stopgap. The barroom weepers are as brilliant as ever, but the novelties hold up, too, especially "Heeah!!!" -- a memorable ode to those crotchety neighbors of our youth.
And yes, I realize these are all men. To see what the women have been up to, continue reading.