Discover 10 Independent Albums for Independence Day

Laura Cantrell (top left), Willie Watson, Robby Hecht and St. Paul and the Broken Bones

You’ve got craft beers in the cooler, burgers on the grill, citronella candles on the picnic table and illegal fireworks ready to go bang. But what to play during your Fourth of July festivities? Here are 10 of our favorite independently-released Americana albums from the first half of 2014.

Del Barber, Prairieography
Del Barber grew up on the wide-open prairies of Manitoba, Canada, and his gentle country songs reflect that isolated but beautiful landscape. On Prairieography, his fourth album, Barber colors tales from the North American breadbasket in golden wheat and bright blue sky. He starts by gleefully shrugging off the life of constant work on “Living With a Long Way to Go.” But the farther he explores from home, the more he begins to appreciate it. In “Big Smoke” (a Canadian nickname for Toronto), he poignantly writes about a brother who’s losing himself in the city. — Chris Parton

Laura Cantrell, No Way There From Here
I called Laura Cantrell years ago while writing a Kitty Wells obituary, knowing the singer-songwriter had pondered the connection a contemporary, cosmopolitan woman could forge with such a paragon of ‘50s femininity. I was delighted, and not at all surprised, to find equal perceptiveness in this finespun, scaled-down countrypolitan set of Cantrell’s. She’s adept at capturing the subtlest negotiations between high-flown desire and domestic disappointment. — Jewly Hight

Robby Hecht, Robby Hecht
Robby Hecht’s self-titled collection captivates with adventurous arrangements (“New York City”) and subtly stunning vocals (“The Sea and the Shore”). No surprise: Hecht’s “Chemicals” froze my tracks six years ago on his album Late Last Night. Then the Nashville-based songwriter doubled down with songs like “A Reckoning of Us” on Last of the Long Days in 2011. Robby Hecht delivers on all his promise so far. — Brian T. Atkinson

Hurray for the Riff Raff, Small Town Heroes
Led by singer-songwriter Alynda Lee Segarra, Hurray for the Riff Raff released their first major album in February, Small Town Heroes. A one-time train-hopping street kid, Segarra weaves deeply-considered observations on society in with eclectic roots influences. Simple themes of love and sparse decoration on “Blue Ridge Mountain” and “The New SF Bay Blues” feel immediately timeless, while Segarra explores the bigger picture of community and equality on tunes like “St. Roch Blues” and “I Know It’s Wrong (But That’s Alright).” — CP

Lavender Country, Lavender Country
Widely recognized as the first openly gay country album, Lavender Country is an important artifact. But it’s also much more than that. Written and sung by a Seattle gay-rights activist named Patrick Haggerty in 1973 (who recruited members of his commune to back him), it has been reissued by North Carolina indie label Paradise of Bachelors, and in the ensuing decades, these songs have lost none of their urgency or potency. The music is loose, as though held together only by a common mission, and Haggerty’s songs are outraged, poignant, hilarious and incredibly brave. — Stephen M. Deusner

Amy LaVere, Runaway’s Diary
On her fourth solo album, Memphis-based singer-songwriter Amy LaVere plays an emotional game of what-if. When she ran away from home as a teenager, what if she had stayed on the road? What if she had tried to fashion a life for herself as a transient? Would her story have ended happily or grimly? Whether covering Townes Van Zandt or inhabiting one of her own candid lyrics, LaVere sings her story with a sober twang, as if she has only just realized how precarious life can be. That only makes the penultimate track, “I’ll Be Home Soon,” sound all the more triumphant. — SD

Doug Paisley, Strong Feelings
When it’s time to mellow out, I reach for Strong Feelings. Many of the songs take a realistic and relatable view of long-term relationships, as if he’s trying to figure out how to stay invested or even interested. Working with some of Canada’s most talented roots musicians, Paisley employs a laid-back approach reminiscent of a classic Don Williams record. “Radio Girl” and “Song My Love Can Sing” prove he’s a strong vocalist, too. — Craig Shelburne

St. Paul & the Broken Bones, Half the City
I’ve watched St. Paul & the Broken Bones grow, and rapidly, from a baby Alabama soul band into a surefire, headlining draw on the strength of their gritty, youthful charisma. That’s a tricky quality to translate to tape, but they’ve pulled it off. Half the City highlights the ferociously sensitive showmanship of soul shouter Paul Janeway, the knotty, nervy licks of guitarist Browan Lollar and virtually every other strength of this horn-heated outfit. — JH

Willie Watson, Folk Singer Vol. 1
Watson recorded this low-key project with little more than a set of strings, a head full of folk tunes and David Rawlings in the control booth. His high, pliable voice brings out the wit and heartache in the lyrics — sometimes simultaneously, as in the case of “James Alley Blues.” I was unfamiliar with about half of Watson’s selections. Now I’m hoping for second installment. — CS

Graham Weber, Faded Photos
Graham Weber sketches indelible portraits framing broken dreams (“Boston”) and unraveling seams (“Ballad of the 04 Lounge”). “Faded Photos lives in late night alone when you’re staring at the man in the moon,” he says, “and expecting him to answer questions you refuse to ask in the daylight.” The masterful Austin-based songwriter’s new collection might be his finest yet. — BTA