The first half of 2013 has already whizzed by, and with it, the first half of the year’s album releases. Most music critics and fans would agree it’s nearly impossible to keep up with them all. You’re bound to miss some gems along the way.
As we approach Independence Day, the CMT Edge editorial team thought this would be the perfect time to put our heads together and assemble a list of 10 of our favorite independent Americana albums of the year so far.
In the process of comparing our notes, we’ve made some new discoveries of our own. Thanks to my Austin-based colleague Brian T. Atkinson for turning me on to toughened Texas troubadour HalleyAnna. Let freedom of musical choice ring.
Slaid Cleaves, Still Fighting the War
Cleaves chisels earthy narratives (“Welding Burns”) and ethereal poetry (“Voice of Midnight”) with a razor sharp pen. The celebrated Central Texas-based songwriter’s Still Fighting the War spotlights an artist in peak form. “Slaid’s a craftsman,” Terri Hendrix says. “He writes with optimism and a wise voice.” — Brian T. Atkinson
William Clark Green, Rose Queen
This Texas singer-songwriter landed on my radar with bright, confident vocals and vivid storylines. Rose Queen is full of well-formed characters and believable situations. And with the immediacy of his top-notch country-rock band behind him, he sounds like a veteran with a rookie’s enthusiasm. “Rose Queen” finds a screw-up courting the popular girl in school, “She Likes the Beatles” calls foul on the “opposites attract” theory before making a sweet turn and “Let’s Go” rolls with radio-friendly charm. — Chris Parton
HalleyAnna’s seamless self-titled album frequently tempers heart (“Out of the Blue”) with humor (“Tattoo”). The San Marcos, Texas, resident’s high watermarks showcase a singular troubadour on the rise (“The Bee”). “It’s been a joy to watch her grow,” says old friend and recent tourmate Todd Snider. “She’s like Hayes Carll but pretty.” — BTA
Hiss Golden Messenger, Haw
A California native relocated to North Carolina, Taylor plumbs the deepest musical traditions of the Tar Heel State as Hiss Golden Messenger. Named for the river that flows near his home — a river that has figured prominently in the region’s history and industry — Haw blends ‘70s AM country with Appalachian folk, creating a breezy sound that disguises serious, often dark ideas about the joys of family and the speculations of faith. — Stephen Deusner
Jason Isbell, Southeastern
Isbell has entered a new chapter of his life and prolific songwriting career on Southeastern. His marriage to fellow musician Amanda Shires inspires a pessimist’s surrender to passion and love on “Cover Me Up,” and a new commitment to sobriety forces Isbell to consider what pieces of himself will be flushed out along with the poison on “Live Oak.” “The Elephant” will weigh a ton on anyone who’s ever watched a friend fade away. By probing the parts of a Southern identity that rarely get talked about, he’s written a rich and thought-provoking body of work. — CP
Courtney Jaye, Love and Forgiveness
Sure, the title suggests this album could turn out to be pretty darn conventional, middle-of-the-road fare, but you’ll find there’s plenty to savor on Jaye’s latest. The Nashville fixture, who remains largely under the radar elsewhere, cut this sparkling, California twang-pop set with Mike Wrucke, one of Miranda Lambert’s producers. The result? The burnished, ‘70s-flavored production and buoyancy of Jaye’s delivery accentuate both the lasting pleasures of her melodic hooks and the resonance of her deceptively simple musings on how elusive mutual love can be. Ain’t a bland thing about it. — Jewly Hight
Lori McKenna, Massachusetts
McKenna has a wonderfully sweet disposition, but she’ll punch you in the gut with a few of these songs. When I attended her album release show in Nashville, the last line of “Shake” just about knocked me to the floor. While she doesn’t make every word hurt, I’ve got to say this one could leave you bruised. Even so, I highly recommend it to fans of smart, sharp lyrics and confident singing. — Craig Shelburne
Bobby Rush, Down in Louisiana
There’s a reason I tend to approach new blues albums by up-in-years performers with a degree of wariness. Often enough, their vital music-making days, and their senses of humor, are well behind them. Rush has been in the game for half a century, but it took just the first 30 seconds of this album to convince me he’s nowhere near calcified. Among the rootsiest entries in his catalog, Down in Louisiana is full of winking wit, celebratory carnality and first-rate showmanship. In other words, it’s a hell of a lot of fun. — JH
Holly Williams, The Highway
After two albums on majors, Hank’s granddaughter became her own boss for The Highway. She formed a new label and released the damn thing herself. Freed from industry expectations and beholden primarily to the songs, she made an album that is, fittingly, all about escape — whether from a no-account husband on “Drinkin’,” a mundane existence on “Railroads” or life itself on “Waiting on June.” Conveying both the burden and the romance of an open road, The Highway sounds spare and liltingly austere, as though she’s hesitant to weigh these songs down too much for their journey. — SD
Kelly Willis and Bruce Robison, Cheater’s Game
With her honeyed vocal and his observant songwriting, you can’t go wrong with Willis and Robison’s first-ever duets album, Cheater’s Game. Then you add the dynamic of being a married couple, as well as Brad Jones’ thoughtful production, and you realize that Cheater’s Game is that beautiful and rare album that makes you think and sing along at the same time. Listen to “Lifeline” and “Ordinary Fool” back-to-back and you’ll be smitten, too. — CS