I couldn't resist writing about these particular albums after celebrating Independence Day. All were released on small labels in the last few months, and they all offer a distinctive approach to country music. Now that the fireworks are over, it's time to crank up the music.
David Ball, Heartaches by the Number (Shanachie)
A lifelong fan of traditional country music, Ball dusts off classics by Don Gibson, Webb Pierce, George Strait and Bob Wills. "Please Feed the Jukebox," the only new song on the disc, fits right in. Somewhere, Ernest Tubb is smiling.
The Basement, Illicit Hugs and Playground Thugs (Zealous)
This hip UK band shows a lot of swagger, but it still sounds like country music to me. Regrets, secrets, long nights, lonely dreams -- it's all here. On tracks like "I Just Caught a Face," John Mullins' ragged voice suits his songwriting wonderfully.
Johnny Bush and Justin Trevino, Texas on a Saturday Night (Heart of Texas)
Nothing but pure Texas country music. These big-voiced singers sound even better surrounded by steel guitar and fiddles. Highlights include a cover of Hank Cochran's "If She Could See Me Now." Top to bottom, this calls for a cold one.
Dry Branch Fire Squad, Thirtieth Anniversary Special (Rounder)
The Boston-area ensemble has endured numerous lineups, and this compilation shows off their unflagging enthusiasm. From gospel to country to bluegrass, these well-chosen songs (like "The Orphan Train") should satisfy new listeners and longtime fans.
Rodney Hayden, Down the Road (Palamino)
This native Texan has a lot of things going for him -- a keen power of observation, a knack for telling a story and not watering down country music's Western influences. Check out the saga of "Silverado Boys" and "These Arms," a lively duet with Sunny Sweeney.
Dwight McCall, Never Say Never Again (Rural Rhythm)
He currently supplies tenor vocals and mandolin to J.D. Crowe & the New South, and those talents are put to fine use on this crisp-sounding disc. Staying true to bluegrass, memorable songs include the nostalgic "West Virginia Ground."
Onion Creek Crawdaddies, Irons in the Fire (self-released)
I first heard these guys at an easygoing bar near Austin, Texas, called The Oaks, and the laidback vibe there complements their loose approach to bluegrass. You can't help but sing along to the energetic lead track, "Dusty Bibles Lead to Dirty Lives."
John Prine and Mac Wiseman, Standard Songs for Average People (Oh Boy)
Without a doubt, this is the year's most charming album so far. These new friends dug up a batch of songs they both loved, traded verses in the studio and made it look effortless. Writers include Tom T. Hall, Kris Kristofferson, Leon Payne and even Bing Crosby.
Larry Sparks, The Last Suit You Wear (McCoury Music)
An esteemed bluegrass vocalist, Sparks makes you lean in and listen when he sings. For his debut on Del McCoury's label, he lets stories like "Casualty of War" and the title track unfold in their own sweet time, cracking your heart open at the end.
Paul Williams & the Victory Trio, Where No One Stands Alone (Rebel)
Williams has been blessed with a commanding voice and a deep conviction that infuses this bluegrass-gospel album. There's something right about listening to "A Long Time Ago" and the rest of these stirring songs on a bright Sunday morning.