When it comes to new music, this summer brought a bounty of country-inspired albums. And I'm almost caught up listening to all of them. In the meantime, here are 10 recommended new tracks that slowed me down, only because I couldn't keep my finger off the "repeat" button.
Ronnie Dunn, "Cost of Livin'"
My uncle comes to mind whenever I hear this song. With decades of experience in construction, he scraped by as projects started drying up. He's back on his feet now, but that helpless sensation is hard to shake. Dunn delivers this true-to-life ballad with sensitivity, compassion and grace.
Edens Edge, "Amen"
When the gossip indicates a local guy is back on the market, singer Hannah Blaylock sends up her praises. Yet, it's her harmonious blend with mandolinist Cherrill Green and Dobro player Dean Berner that makes me rejoice. Listen for the bluegrass flourishes in this sweet love song.
Bela Fleck & the Flecktones, "Gravity Lane"
The momentum in this upbeat tune is undeniable. For their first album with the original lineup since 1991, the jazz-inspired combo melds banjo, bass, harmonica and percussion -- and makes it fit. To my ears, it sounds as if Vince Guaraldi got Charlie Brown stoned on Christmas morning.
Jimmie Dale Gilmore and the Wronglers, "I Wonder Where You Are Tonight"
The respected Texan teams with an old-fashioned ensemble on a unique album of hillbilly music. His plaintive, distinctive vocal neatly fits this longing ballad. And if you've ever gone to Hardly Strictly Bluegrass in California, the Wronglers' Warren Hellman, who has enjoyed a successful day job as an investment banker, generously pays for all of it!
Levon Helm, "Ophelia"
On this energetic live recording, the crowd goes crazy when The Band's Levon Helm rambles onto the Ryman stage. He promptly proves the adulation is deserved when he opens his set with "Ophelia," a New Orleans-esque track from The Band's iconic music film, The Last Waltz.
Whitney Mann, "Home"
This cute little song finds Mann wanting to move out to the country, start a family and drink some iced tea. Yes, it's a familiar theme. However, this Wisconsin singer-songwriter arranges the tune with pleasing acoustic instruments to complement the natural warmth in her voice.
Storyhill, "Lay Down Your Weary Tune"
Two of my best friends have opposing views of Bob Dylan's music. Yet I think they'd agree on this solemn request for peace, reimagined by the folk duo Storyhill. In tight harmony, their clear voices accentuate the poetic lyrics while the ebb-and-flow melody is vintage Dylan all the way. The track comes from a tribute album, A Nod to Bob 2.
JD Souther, "I'll Take Care of You"
Souther's newly recorded version of this love song finds him quietly comforting someone who needs it. Decades later, the first line remains true: "Times are hard and rents are high/What can a working girl do?" The Dixie Chicks recorded their lovely version on Wide Open Spaces.
The Sweetback Sisters, "It Won't Hurt When I Fall Down From This Barstool"
For party gals who long for the good old days, seek out this Brooklyn duo. Their swingin' sound is inspired by '50s and '60s country, yet their sensibilities are definitely modern. This clever tune, about chasing away the memories with whiskey, comes from Dwight Yoakam's early catalog.
Randy Travis and the Zac Brown Band, "Forever and Ever, Amen"
Travis will be still taking requests for this tune when he's 100 years old. While I do have a soft spot for the original, this duet version with the Zac Brown Band is a lot of fun, too. Brown injects his own phrasing into the verses, but that's OK. You're singing along, too, right?