Although the major labels appear to be hibernating when it comes to superstar albums, plenty of independent labels have awakened curious music fans with cool, notable releases. Country fans will recognize names like Sara Evans, Charley Pride and actor-banjo picker Steve Martin. Meanwhile, other artists are ripe for investigating, like Americana favorites Buddy and Julie Miller, promising singer-songwriter Caitlin Rose and bluegrass newcomer Sierra Hull. Here are 20 hand-picked tracks from a garden variety of projects released over the last few months.
Alexi Murdoch, "Some Day Soon"
With a pretty melody and sparse accompaniment, this singer-songwriter reflects on loneliness, darkness and mortality. Still, a sense of optimism wins out over a sad mood. When he's not in New York, Murdoch spends his time in Scotland crafting songs as well as wooden sailing boats.
Bart Crow Band, "Driftin' in the Wind" (live)
Next time I'm in Texas, I'd like to catch the Bart Crow Band in concert. The group plays about 200 dates a year so the wandering aspect to this song is a natural fit. Even though it's a breakup song from a desperate point of view, the charging tempo makes it a highlight of their live album.
Buddy and Julie Miller, "God's Wing'ed Horse"
Buddy Miller gathered numerous friends to record his eclectic new album, yet it's this haunting duet with his wife, Julie Miller, that sticks with me. When that horse arrives, will we find peace? Julie co-wrote the song with Bill Frissell, whose distinctive guitar playing graces the project, too.
Caitlin Rose, "Own Side Now"
A sweet-voiced singer with an awareness that belies her youth, Rose has issued perhaps the most compelling project from Nashville this year. This ballad, which finds her wondering where she'll find comfort next, shows a softer side. Beautifully produced, this debut album never feels forced.
Charley Pride, "This Bed's Not Big Enough"
A marriage unravels in this classic-sounding cheating song. However, it's the woman who's done him wrong. With his convincing vocals, Pride gives an ultimatum -- "Make up your mind which one you want to keep." As for me, I choose this one from the Hall of Famer's new album.
Exene Cervenka, "Falling"
Cervenka established her musical pedigree in the L.A. punk band X, so it's surprising to hear such a country-ish, harmony-filled unrequited love song. Just over two minutes long, this original tune sounds like something you'd hear on the oldies station, but with that indie edge.
Ian Moore, "Newfound Station"
This guitar-slinger infuses a soul-rock song with determination. In the chorus, he insists he wants to break out of the crowd. Indeed, this track rises above. The title comes from this poetic lyric: "I'm laying down a new foundation, a newfound station, a brand new road to the stars."
Josh Williams, "Lonesome Feeling"
A promising bluegrass musician, Williams masterfully blends his skills as a singer and guitarist for this up-tempo song about the rigors of the road. Even though it's written from the perspective of a road-worn traveler, the melody chugs right along. Rhonda Vincent takes the high harmony.
Larry Cordle, "Pud Marcum's Hangin'"
This clever bluegrass tale unfolds like a suspenseful Southern movie. Poor Pud Marcum, a country guy with a heck of a name, gets hanged for murdering his uncle and now the grass won't grow at the gallows. Cordle's curious narrative is enhanced by Del McCoury's distinctive tenor.
Larry Sparks, "Almost Home"
Blessed with that plaintive, bluegrass voice, Sparks excels at singing about the old home place. This lonesome song illustrates the longing you feel when you're far from your roots. With his vivid descriptions of honeysuckles and cabins, it's like flipping through a country calendar.
Lucinda Williams, "Buttercup"
This sassy track kicks off Williams' latest project, Blessed, with astute songwriting that recalls her Sweet Old World album. She kicks the guy to the curb here and rarely dips into romantic turf on the rest of the album. I thought marriage might make her boring, but I was blessedly wrong!
Matt Urmy, "The Old Photograph"
This is the kind of story you get when you see a sad guy at the bar and ask, "Everything OK?" Urmy's voice is gravely but sincere, yet the emotion is elevated when bluesy Nashville singer Jonell Mosser chimes in. Yes, we all need forgiveness. And sometimes, soul music heals, too.
Matt Wertz, "Feels So Right"
The production is pop, but with the right arrangement, this finally-falling-in-love tune would be the country hit of the summer. Not even two-and-a-half minutes long, it has stuck (like glue) in my head much longer than that. If you like Sugarland's upbeat songs, check out this one, too.
Ron Sexsmith, "Miracles"
This soft-spoken singer-songwriter usually complements his despondent lyrics with bright melodies, but on this track, it's all sunshine. I try not to be cynical about such things and it is reaffirming to hear about those unexpected twists of fate, like new love and creative inspiration.
Sara Evans, "My Heart Can't Tell You No"
My mind is cluttered with '80s pop tunes, so I recognized this song from Rod Stewart's rendition. Still, Evans gives it a whirl with real fine results. Written by Simon Climie and Dennis Morgan, it captures the torture of loving someone you can't have. She sings it like she's lived every word.
Sierra Hull, "Tell Me Tomorrow"
This mandolin prodigy wants to keep love alive just one more day. With her light voice floating over such a engaging melody, you wonder how anybody could do her wrong? Hull, who is Nashville-bound after her Berklee graduation in May, wrote the bittersweet tune with her dad.
Steve Conn, "Easier Said Than Done"
With graceful piano accompaniment, this longtime songwriter reflects on his life's most pivotal decisions. The story follows a mature musician who wonders if he should have had a "normal life" instead of chasing a creative career. Despite the fights, he hasn't quit believing in himself.
Steve Martin, "The Great Remember (For Nancy)"
Again chasing his bluegrass muse, Martin shows a light touch with the five-string banjo, while the Steep Canyon Rangers ably accentuate the lovely melody. Many bluegrass instrumentals are wicked fast, but this one pleasantly unfolds like a picnic blanket on a perfect spring day.
Steven L. Smith Band, "Can't Take It With You"
As I was listening to this nifty slice-of-life song, I heard a familiar voice on harmony -- and it turned out to be Crystal Gayle. Delivered with an earthy, Americana approach, the message will resonate with listeners who don't let a lack of money stop them from having a meaningful life.
Tiffany, "He Won't Miss Me"
On her first country album, the former teen star plunges into Nashville's songwriting scene. Amid several party anthems, this heartbreaking ballad is as candid as they come. She gave her love away but he was indifferent -- and that's worse than rejection. Her vocal is persuasive, too.