Cool Album Cuts: George Strait, Toby Keith and More

Vince Gill, Miranda Lambert, Joe Nichols Offer Cool New Music

I must've listened to more than 100 new albums this fall. Along the way, I jotted down my favorite track from each one on a piece of notebook paper. Of course, my scribbles spilled into the margins and onto another whole sheet.

Some of the tunes I liked are from country superstars, while others came from singer-songwriters and independent bands I'd never heard of. Here's a recap of the music that caught my attention in late 2011.

First off, I think George Strait's new album, Here for a Good Time, is top-notch, and "The House Across the Bay" sounds like a long-lost classic from his 1980s catalog. Toby Keith takes a nostalgic look at his youth in the well-written "Clancy's Tavern," the title track to his new album. For you romantics, don't miss Vince Gill's lovely ballad, "Who Wouldn't Fall in Love With You," from his Guitar Slinger project.

My top track on Miranda Lambert's Four the Record is "Same Old You," a catchy and clever tune written by her friend, Brandi Carlile. I'm also enjoying Steve Holy's "Until the Rain Stops," David Nail's "Songs for Sale" (with Lee Ann Womack on harmony) and Joe Nichols' radio-ready "Somebody's Mama." Meanwhile, LeAnn Rimes could break your heart with "I Can't Be Myself," a Merle Haggard chestnut. And don't miss Faith Hill singing with Tony Bennett on the sweet standard, "The Way You Look Tonight."

Now let's take a brief look at two collaborative projects. The Lost Notebooks of Hank Williams pairs Williams' long-lost lyrics with new melodies from first-rate musicians. Although the whole thing is interesting, I especially liked Alan Jackson's "You've Been Lonesome, Too" and Patty Loveless' "You're Through Fooling Me." And these days, I'm often listening to This One's for Him: A Tribute to Guy Clark for its exceptional musical tributes from Shawn Colvin, Rodney Crowell, Patty Griffin, Willie Nelson and many more.

If you want to hear who's new in country music, check out the Dirt Drifters' "Always a Reason," Casey James' "Let's Don't Call It a Night" and Jason Jones' "She Was." Broadway star Kristin Chenoweth also turned in a wicked performance of "Wreck You" on her debut country album.

For longtime country fans, quite a few familiar names released new music this fall. My picks include Merle Haggard's wry "Working in Tennessee," the Kentucky Headhunters' feisty "Roll On Little Pretty," Willie Nelson's rendition of "Roly Poly" and a fun rerecording of the Oak Ridge Boys' "No Matter How High." (I think Willie should cover that one, too.)

I'm always astonished by the swarm of singer-songwriters with new music. Among the stacks, Ryan Adams' "Come Home" is a highlight, along with Robby Hecht's "A Reckoning of Us," Lydia Loveless' "How Many Women" and Shelby Lynne's "The Thief." And if you love steel guitar, check out Arty Hill's "King of That Thing."

Here are more favorites: Griffin Alexander's "On Your Side"; Sherrié Austin's "Tryin' to Be Me"; Pieta Brown's "No Words Now"; the Cordovas' "All I Found"; Madi Diaz's "Johnny"; Ana Egge's "There Won't Be Anymore"; Corey Hart's "Blue Mountain Thistle"; Mason Jennings' "Hearts Stop Beating"; Gill Landry's "The One Night Hotel" (with guest Brandi Carlile) and Nikki Lane's sassy "Walk of Shame."

Take a deep breath. Ready? Here are some more: Benjamin Franklin Leftwich's "Shine"; Sam Llanas' "4 a.m."; Mariah McManus' "Nice to Meet You"; Hannah Miller's "O Black River"; Mother Banjo's "New"; Madonna Nash's "Don't Leave"; Cam Penner's "Driftwood"; Lorrie Singer and Bradley Kopp's "Eye of a Needle"; Carley Tanchon's "Walk Away"; Daniel Tashian and Mindy Smith's "Taking You With Me"; Verlon Thompson's "The Show We Call the Business"; Bill Toms' bluesy "Colleen, Goodbye" and Kenny Vaughan's peppy "Country Music Got a Hold on Me."

Still with me? OK, let's jump to the indie bands: Abbie Barrett & the Last Date's "On the Range"; Big Daddy Love, "Let It Grow"; Blind Pilot's "Half Moon"; Boca Chica's "Sin City"; Carter Brothers' "The Road to Roosky"; the Deep Dark Woods' "The Place I Left Behind"; the Dirt Daubers' "Trucks, Tractors and Trains"; Good Lovelies' "Lonesome Hearts"; the Jayhawks' "Hide Your Colors" and Joy Kills Sorrow's "Wouldn't Have Noticed." For undeniably soulful singing, seek out the McCrary Sisters' "Follow Me Up." I also enjoyed the laid-back vibe of Josh Rouse and the Long Vacation's "Oh, Look What the Sun Did!"

If you're into the Red Dirt scene, pay particular attention to these tunes: Jason Boland & the Stragglers' "Mary Ellen's Greenhouse"; the Damn Quails' "California Open Invitation"; the Gourds' "I Want It So Bad"; Adam Hood's "Once They're Gone"; Drew Kennedy's "Vapor Trails"; Kyle Park's "Make or Break Me"; Reckless Kelly's "Good Luck and True Love"; Sons of Fathers' "The Country" and the enduring Dale Watson's "Her Love."

For bluegrass and acoustic music fans, here are my picks: Bearfoot's "Feel Free"; Bee Eaters' "Cumulus"; Crooked Still's "It'll End Too Soon"; Laurie Lewis' "Hartfordtown 1944"; Russell Moore & IIIrd Tyme Out's "Whippoorwill"; Pert Near Sandstone's "Solid Gone"; Noam Pikelny's "Jim Thompson's Horse"; Junior Sisk and Ramblers Choice's "Cold Heart" and Andy Statman's "Anthem."

And because this year is the 100th anniversary of the birth of Bill Monroe, tip your hat with Lonesome River Band's "Footprints in the Snow," recorded live at the Bean Blossom Bluegrass Festival, as well as Del McCoury Band's "Heavy Traffic Ahead," from their tribute album to Big Mon.

Now for something I never thought I'd write: I'm totally down with the reggae version of "The Chair," performed by Tarrus Riley on the album, Reggae Goes Country. It takes a laid-back and confident performer to make that work -- and for me, it does.

And that's a wrap. Hey, mon, will someone drink me a buy?

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