Before I start spring cleaning around my desk, I'd like to draw attention to my favorite tracks released over the winter.
From the world of mainstream country, Dierks Bentley brings an upbeat (and bittersweet) perspective to "Heart of a Lonely Girl." Although it's from his new album, Home, it could've come from the Up on the Ridge sessions because there's a little bit of bluegrass flavor in there. Here's hoping he'll play some festivals this summer because this is a perfect fit.
Hey, who's ready for a Tim McGraw/Faith Hill duets album? Until then, you might like "One Part, Two Part" from McGraw's latest album, Emotional Traffic. With its soulful groove, there's no better harmony singer he could have chosen. I'm looking forward to more music from both artists.
The American Idol hopefuls are turning in good work, too. Of course, Carrie Underwood's sassy new single, "Good Girl," will be a summertime smash. I've also enjoyed Casey James' ode to a laid-back lifestyle in "The Good Life," while Kellie Pickler shows a serious and sultry side of country music with "100 Proof."
As for straight-up traditional country music, Gene Watson's rerecorded version of "Love in the Hot Afternoon" is a delight. (In fact, his entire Best of the Best: 25 Greatest Hits is a stand-out.) Country traditionalists will also be thrilled to hear Lyle Lovett and k.d. lang, who have forged brilliant careers by staying left-of-center, on a fantastic duet of the country classic "Release Me." It comes from Lovett's new album of the same name. Along the same line, the Little Willies (featuring Norah Jones) submit a sincere rendition of "For the Good Times" on their new album of the same name. They sound like a barroom band, as they should since they regularly play clubs around New York City.
I'm a big fan of folk and Americana music. One of the prettiest, most touching love songs I've heard this year is Dave Carter and Tracy Grammer's "Better Way." In this ballad, Carter (who died unexpectedly in 2002) dedicates himself to being a better partner. Another sweet song comes from Darrell Scott on "You're Everything I Wanted Love to Be." If I was a country star looking for material that might be played at weddings forever, I'd record this one in a minute.
Fans of singer-songwriters will be intrigued by these cuts: Bahamas' "Caught Me Thinkin'," Mikki Brisk's "Moment of Youth," Jeff Campbell's "Promise," Rose Cousins' "What I See," Lincoln Durham's "Trucker's Love Song," Fred Eaglesmith's "6 Volts," Kathleen Edwards' "A Soft Place to Land," Laura Gibson's "Milk-Heavy, Pollen-Eyed," Kevin Gordon's "Gloryland," Susan Greenbaum's "He's Not Leavin'" and Josh Harty's "On My Mind."
Other recommendation in this category include: Amos Lee's "There I Go Again," Drew Nelson's "Lessons," Logan Mize's "Sunflowers," David Olney's "A Soldier's Report," Clark Paterson's "If I Were You," Gretchen Peters' "Hello Cruel World," Chuck Prophet's "The Left Hand and the Right Hand" and Amy Ray's "I Didn't."
For an incredibly intricate video, look up Josh Ritter's "Love Is Making Its Way Back Home." After that, you can track down Martin Sexton's "Fall Like Rain," Rosie Thomas' "Where Was I," Randy Thompson's "One Guitar," Tommy Womack's "It Doesn't Have to Be That Good" and Martin Zellar's "Wore Me Down."
Meanwhile, bluegrass fans should take note of these new tunes: Bill Emerson & Sweet Dixie's "Castle Hayne," the Matt Flinner Trio's "Big Bug Bop," the Grascals' "Life Finds a Way," Humming House's "Young Enough to Try," Chris Jones & the Night Drivers' "Final Farewell," Lonesome River Band's "Close the Door Lightly When You Go" and the Steel Wheels' "Fridley's Gap."
Americana followers are encouraged to find these songs: Erik Brandt's "Wherever You Go," Buxton's "Riverbed," Cornflower Blue's "Run Down the Rails," Moot Davis' "Rags to Rhinestones," Rachel Harlow's "To Be Found," the Hobart Brothers' "Ballad of Sis (Didn't I Love You)," the Honeydogs' "Always a Long Time," I See Hawks in L.A.'s "Bohemian Highway," the Iveys' "Falling" and Julie Lee and the Baby-Daddies' "Time Enough."
For more Americana, Sam Lewis' "I'm a River" blends an R&B feel with some country influences, and The Lumineers' folk-pop "Ho Hey" is a whole lot of fun. I've also enjoyed O Fidelis' "On the Mountainside," the Pines' "If by Morning" and Sugar & the Hi-Lows' "See It for Yourself."
Ty Stone's "Anywhere's Better" brings a real grit to his brand of country music, perhaps due to producer Kid Rock. Meanwhile, the title track of Justin Townes Earle's new album, Nothing's Gonna Change the Way You Feel About Me Now, shows his observant songwriting skill in top form.
And finally, I'm charmed by Chuck Mead and Elizabeth Cook's version of an old song, "Pickin' Wild Mountain Berries." If romance is in the air for you this spring, this tune would be a terrific backdrop.