I'm a fan of making mix CDs, and I'm always happy to share my playlists. Although my musical tastes are mellowing as I get older, I still like my bluegrass fast and furious. If you're curious about new music, here are 20 new tracks from the realms of country, bluegrass, folk and Americana.
Alison Krauss & Union Station, "Paper Airplane"
The acclaimed acoustic ensemble returns with an exquisite breakup ballad written for them by Robert Lee Castleman. Yet, despite the theme of falling apart, everything fits together perfectly -- the lyrical angst, the gorgeous melodies, the exceptional musicianship and that singular voice.
Amy Speace, "It's Too Late to Call It a Night"
With a warm, confiding voice, this folk singer has relocated to East Nashville from New Jersey, inspiring a new batch of original music. On this track, Speace flirts with a companion at the end of a wine-soaked night, slowly and seductively making a case for not going home. Hard to resist.
Andy Friedman, "Going Home (Drifter's Blessing)"
Weaving his way back, this troubadour looks forward to his role in the family routine -- washing dishes, making coffee, etc. "But after I get there, it creeps in slowly/I miss the lonely American highway," he sings, with an unhurried tempo that suggests yet another long haul in his future.
Band of Heathens, "Polaroid"
Looking back through old photos and that little black book -- ah, the memories of youth. Still, this Austin-based band realizes that indulging in nostalgia can bring comfort at the end of a crazy day. Their blend of country, rock and acoustic music is a natural fit in the Americana realm.
Ben Hall, "Mimi & Me"
With a rare knack for thumb-picking like Merle Travis, this 22-year-old guitarist honed his skills by listening to his dad's record collection. Endorsed by the late Charlie Louvin, Hall compiled an album of songs by classic country artists such as Chet Atkins, a few jazz tracks and this nimble original.
Brian Wright, "Maria Sugarcane"
A Gothic tale with a body count, this ballad unfolds like a campfire story. Wright came up in the bar scenes of Austin, Dallas and Waco, Texas, but he now lives in Los Angeles. The tempo is slow enough to follow the compelling plot, imbued with ghosts, romance and a few shocking twists.
Dennis Crommett, "Bright Light of the Cape"
If you've experienced a satisfying transition from drinking with college buddies to settling down with a spouse, you may catch a glimpse of your own life in this slice-of-life folk song. The quietly-strummed guitar ties together the phases and stages, all the way through its happy ending.
The Dirt Drifters, "Something Better"
When that day job drags you down, this catchy single should get cranked up. A hard-working band that travels by RV, the Dirt Drifters are making their first foray to country radio with this roots-rock tune about keeping your eyes on the prize. Here's hoping they find that pot of gold.
Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver, "Greenbrier Hop"
One of the most established contemporary bluegrass bands, DL&Q let 'er rip on this lively, original instrumental, anchored by Lawson's reliable mandolin picking. His band lineup is ever-changing, but the musicianship remains top-notch. On tour, it's guaranteed to be a showstopper.
Hang on. In a whirlwind two minutes, this exciting bluegrass band grabs your attention with Steve Gulley's invigorating vocal, Alan Bibey's breakneck mandolin riffs and an action-packed story. Gee, "Run" will please any bluegrass fans who like their rhythms fast and relentless.
Israel Nash Gripka, "Red Dress"
With an earthy approach to soulful Americana songwriting, Gripka shows a glimmer of romance on "Red Dress." When she slips on the crimson outfit and gives him that look, he's a goner. He recorded his solid new album, Barn Doors and Concrete Floors, on a farm in upstate New York.
Josh Kelley, "A Real Good Try"
On this sincere mid-tempo ballad, Kelley insists he's working hard to achieve his lofty, longtime goals, even though he's crumbling under the pressure. Of course, the message pertains to more than just aspiring country stars. With his rich, persuasive vocal, this could be his breakout hit.
Kermit Lynch, "Tell Me I'm Crazy"
The iconic wine producer and importer recorded his new country-blues album in Nashville. The terroir is evident on "Tell Me I'm Crazy," a subdued, sexy song by local talents Rory Michael Bourke and Mike Reid. With Lynch's sandpaper voice over seductive piano, it's a nice pairing.
Luke Mitchem, "Love, Laura and the Bomb"
Told from the viewpoint of a traveling musician who falls in love on the road, this tune gradually unfolds like a short story or an indie romance. Of course, she gets away ... or does she? A soft, feminine harmony underscores the fact that neither party can deny that there was a spark.
Maggie Bjorklund, "Wasteland"
An evocative pedal-steel player, this native of Denmark infuses her melodies with a Western sensibility. And by Western, I mean gunfights and saloons. She studied her craft in Nashville before landing in Seattle's music scene. Her eerie, beautiful music sneaks up on you, pardner.
Marcia Ball, "Between Here and Kingdom Come"
Let's pause to celebrate the small-town life. This Austin-based blues singer cheerfully describes it this way: "It's not close to anywhere/Every call is long-distance there." If you're proud of your rural roots and enjoy hashing out all the old stories, this piano-driven number's for you.
Michael Cleveland & Flamekeeper, "Maine Line"
A fantastic fiddler with a big bluegrass following, Cleveland surrounds himself with exceptional musicians on this upbeat instrumental. Jesse Brock, who shines on those bright banjo licks, wrote the tune. Cleveland, by the way, is an eight-time winner as the International Bluegrass Music Association's fiddle player of the year.
The Roys, "Coal Minin' Man"
Here's a simple bluegrass song about family pride and a strong work ethic. Already a favorite in the inspirational country realm, the sibling duo's voices blend effortlessly and the musicianship is high-caliber. (Many of the pickers come from Ricky Skaggs' band.) It's a terrific tribute.
Shannon McNally, "When I Am Called"
With ties to country, blues and classic rock, this songwriter describes her sound as "psychedelic Americana." And on this leisurely track, she considers her spirituality, insisting she will be ready when her time comes. The unusual, stream-of-consciousness narrative captures its earthy vibe.
William Fitzsimmons With Leigh Nash, "Let You Know"
Comforting and hypnotic, Fitzsimmons and Nash reassure each other that all is well, returning to the phrase, "I will never let you break." Fitzsimmons battled mental illness as a therapist and in his own life, so the album can be heavy. Yet, this duet gently conveys a message of healing.