Whenever I hear a cool independent album that doesn't quite fit the country format, I always think, "What am I going to do with this?" Of course, the answer is always the same. First, I'll give it a few more spins in my car and then tell you about it in a story like this. Check out these 10 recent albums you might have missed.
Jack Cooke, Sittin' on Top of the World (Pinecastle)
A bluegrass picker since 1955, Jack Cooke still has some spring in his step. This lively solo debut gets a boost from producer Jim Lauderdale (his song "That's How the Cookie Crumbles" is a witty highlight) plus guest spots by Del McCoury and Ralph Stanley.
Cedar Hill, Portrait of a Song: The Drasco Sessions (Hay Holler)
This traditional ensemble hails from the fertile bluegrass territory of the Ozarks. With three expressive lead singers and top-notch original songs like "Let It Ride," they're heading in the right direction. If you enjoy Del McCoury's music, give this a try.
Roddy Hart, Bookmarks (Compass)
This youthful Scottish songwriter sings like a natural. He deftly balances the romantic tunes ("She Is All I Need") with the introspection you'd expect from a thoughtful fellow who's not yet 30. Fans of Ray LaMontagne and early Ryan Adams should check this out.
The Holmes Brothers, State of Grace (Alligator)
The spirit here is undeniable. Lyle Lovett must surely dig their interpretation of "God Will" and "If I Had a Boat." Their soulful take on "I Want You to Want Me" will move you, and Joan Osborne's vocals on "Those Memories of You" will really get you moving.
Elana James, Elana James (Snarf)
Who can resist a Texas fiddler? Not me. A former member of Hot Club of Cowtown, this ambitious musician kicks up her heels with kiss-off originals and a few choice covers. After three tours in Bob Dylan's band, she also offers a cool take on his "One More Night."
Bill Kirchen, Hammer of the Honky-Tonk Gods (Proper)
With its sizzling Telecaster and an infectious groove, it's impossible to sit still when the title track comes up in the shuffle. This is a solid record all around, and the great good-riddance song, "Get a Little Goner," is a boisterous country hit begging to be covered.
Chris Knight, The Trailer Tapes (Drifter's Church)
Now a successful songwriter, this Kentucky native didn't shine up these 1996 demos for Nashville. They're now on disc for the first time, but they don't seem at all outdated. "Rita's Only Fault" and "Hard Edges" rank among his most devastating character studies.
Olav Larsen & the Alabama Rodeo Stars, Love's Come to Town (Hyena)
Still living in his small hometown in Norway, Larsen grew up on Hank Williams and John Prine. You can hear their influence in these charming songs. The lyrics are often uplifting, if not exactly profound, and I find myself smiling wide every time I listen.
The National Lights, The Dead Will Walk, Dear (Bloodshake)
This one is about drowning your girlfriend -- I think so, anyway. The imagery is kind of creepy (blood, bones, death, ghosts, etc.), yet the melodies and harmonies are so soothing, it's easy to enjoy on repeat, as long as you don't focus too much on the lyrics.
Various Artists, Endless Highway: The Music of The Band (429)
A tribute to The Band, Josh Turner turns up the twang on "When I Paint My Masterpiece" while Lee Ann Womack sings "The Weight" like she believes every word. (What is that song about anyway?) Other fine readings come from Steve Reynolds and My Morning Jacket.