If you prefer music just beyond the mainstream, here's a playlist with highlights from a stack of new (and mostly independent) albums that have crossed my desk recently. Hopefully, it will entice fans of Americana, bluegrass, country, folk, singer-songwriters and even Western swing.
"Your Lonely Heart," Carrie Rodriguez and Ben Kyle
Ben Kyle fronts a cool band called Romantica, while Carrie Rodriguez has made a name for herself as a fiddle player, duet partner for Chip Taylor and an intriguing solo artist. Together, they sound splendid. This country duet makes me want to dance, drink, cry and keep it on repeat.
"Two Years Old," Bobby Long
This British singer-songwriter is enigmatic in his lyrics, yet the melancholy in his rich voice is undeniable. This ghostly track comes near the end of the album -- which, in the folk tradition, has a pretty high body count. The exquisite production by Liam Watson matches it perfectly.
"Colorado Motel," the Bridge
Although this Baltimore-based band's album covers a lot of musical territory, this particular song reminds me of a cross between the soul of Lyle Lovett and the groove of the Allman Brothers Band. As a fan of both, I dig this easygoing track. When the hand claps start, I can't help but join in.
"20 Years," the Civil Wars
Don't let the band name fool you. There's no in-fighting here as the haunting harmonies, brooding lyrics and melodic guitar all share equal billing. This mysterious track about a family secret leads the duo's debut project, perhaps the most buzzed-about indie album of early 2011.
"Plan on Me," the Damngivers
A "three-minute, positive, not-too-country, up-tempo love song," as Alan Jackson wryly sang about, isn't as easy as it sounds, but this one comes off as fun and effortless. This Americana outfit hails from Long Beach, Calif., and their folk-rock leanings radiate a sunny spirit.
"Know Thy Place," Danny Schmidt
This folk singer from Austin, Texas, offers a trembling voice well suited to his poetic lyrics and spare guitar playing. It's a compelling study of learning to trust yourself: "I'm here to tell you this/That the sky is yours to kiss/So go and lift your lips/And raise your eyes and expect surprise."
"Fire and Dynamite," Drew Holcomb & the Neighbors
The electric undercurrent in this love song grabbed my attention first. And I know a few smart girls who might blush at this lyrical compliment: "You are a novel in a sea of magazines." The video was filmed in a neighborhood bar, but the "whoa-oh-oh!" wrap-up would work in an arena.
"Baby Can I Crawl Back to You?" Gurf Morlix
One Austin musician honors another in this catchy little tune. Morlix spent years traveling with Blaze Foley, by all accounts a talented but troubled songwriter who was murdered in 1989. The drunk loser in this Foley tune just can't win. Meanwhile, I can't get this rhythm out of my head.
"She's Killing Me," Hot Club of Cowtown
The boisterous Texas trio tips a hat to Bob Wills, the king of Western swing. Elena James rips up a few fiddle lines while Whit Smith's phrasing playfully depicts a woman who can wear you out. On bass, Jake Erwin keeps the song popping. The energetic live feeling is inescapable.
"This Time," Jamey Johnson
The line to walk from Waylon Jennings' raw country sound to Jamey Johnson's rugged musical direction is short indeed. Free to speak his mind at last, Jennings laid down the law in 1974 with this No. 1 hit. On a new tribute album, The Music Inside: A Collaboration Dedicated to Waylon Jennings, Volume 1, Johnson delivers it with unwavering conviction.
"Blue Skies Again," Jessica Lea Mayfield
This sweet-voiced singer grew up in a family bluegrass band, and you can hear a little twang in her vocals. But now Mayfield is an indie darling who is surprising (and mesmerizing) new fans by drawing on the screwed-up relationships of her early 20s, all set to engaging melodies.
"Fallen Leaves," Joe Mullins & the Radio Ramblers
A melodic chestnut from Grandpa Jones gets a bluegrass gospel treatment from this Ohio singer and his tight ensemble. The song gently reminds listeners that friends are more important than money and that when you leave this world, "the only things you take are what you gave away."
"Hard to Believe," John Shipe & Halie Loren
Even though it's the only duet on Shipe's album, "Hard to Believe" stands out with a believable back-and-forth between the singers about the downside of love, while Loren's lovely voice complements his straightforward vocals. It reminds me of a sad, pretty the Everly Brothers tune.
"You Were the Devil," Nicole Atkins
She's a hell of a singer, and on this devilish song, she employs a spooky orchestration for this tale of a compulsive relationship that led her to the dark side. The guitar riffs are hypnotic, and with such psychedelic flourishes, it wouldn't sound out of place in a Quentin Tarantino flick.
"All My Favorite People," Over the Rhine
This long song reveals a truth about a lot of creative folks -- all of their favorite people are broken. But the difference is that singer Karin Bergquist has fallen in love with a few and lived to tell. "You might as well sing along," she implores. With a slow, relatable chorus, she's right.
"Waikiki '79," Steve Wariner
Just when a tropical vacation seems like an ideal escape, this elegant melody takes me right to the islands. Wariner wrote this breezy instrumental while recalling his first trip to Hawaii on tour with Chet Atkins and meeting one of his dad's musical heroes, steel guitarist Jerry Byrd.
"Delilah," Teddy Thompson
A forceful singer who isn't afraid to stab you in the heart with his lyrics, Thompson dives right into this heartbreaker, realizing he's sorry and still in love. Sorry, bud. As he sings, "a perfect set of his and hers" has already been split up. He hits those high notes like it's nothing.
"East Nashville Skyline (live)," Todd Snider
Along with countless scruffy musicians, I've lived in East Nashville for about 10 years, so even the specific lyrics ring true to me. (Yes, I still miss the Slow Bar, too.) The local references are plentiful, yet I think the theme of being comfortable in your own back yard will speak to anyone.
"Eager for Your Love," Tristen
This fledgling songwriter from Nashville (and Chicago before that) doesn't flinch in the lyrics to this up-tempo tune. Despite the perky melody, she's apparently calling a guy out for keeping his girlfriend tamed, thin and hungry and insisting the other woman isn't cursed, just blindsided.
"You Are Here," Wailin' Jennys
Everyone has a friend who's constantly looking for inner peace, never convinced they're in the right place. This comforting ballad will assure them that they have indeed arrived safe at home. With three intertwined women's voices, this folk group sends a message that it's OK to relax.