The decades go by, and here we are in the dreaded 2020s still getting new music from legends like Loretta Lynn, Steve Earle, and Robert Plant among others.
2021, the year that brought some semblance of hope in the form of a vaccine, was still chock full of hardships and setbacks, but through it all, the music never stopped coming.
As someone with an old soul and a deep affinity for the songwriting legends still among us who continue to put out new material, I tip my hat unto thee with this here list of my Top 10 albums from those precious few in 2021.
10. Jackson Browne – Downhill From Everywhere
The 15th studio album from Jackson Browne, Downhill From Everywhere, is a delightful easy listen, loaded with that classic contemporary charm Browne has been synonymous with. You know what you’re getting with Browne: no frills, nothing out of left field, and he’s never trying to do too much.
Browne’s single, “My Cleveland Heart,” definitely hits that heartland songwriter-rock sweet spot. And the subsequent music video is worth a watch, too. He is seen looking like Tommy Chong’s younger brother (I say that as a compliment) who receives a mechanical heart transplant among many medical onlookers and surgeons who are simultaneously singing his song, and soon don their respective instruments, hospital garb in tact. There’s even a Phoebe Bridgers sighting (she’s everywhere these days) as a nurse, later seen post-gnaw on Browne’s former heart.
I’m not the president of the Jackson Browne fan club by any means, but if you’re looking for some experienced and refined blue-collar songwriting, you can’t go wrong with Browne and Downhill From Everywhere.
9. Rodney Crowell – Triage
With his 18th album, Triage, Rodney Crowell channels his feelings of the modern age by showing and not telling in his lyrics. His thoughtfulness and intention within his vocals are as prominent as ever, and the legendary songwriter strikes a chord with listeners far and wide throughout the 10-track album.
Crowell told The Bluegrass Situation, “…the broader stroke on the album, and in my contemplation as I was writing the song, was how do I weigh in without dating myself? If you go political, or if you go topical in the moment, six months from now … you know, unless you write ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’ or ‘This Land is Your Land,’ you’re not timeless.”
He would go on to say, “So my overview is that I want to write about, say, climate change, and I want to write about a monotheistic approach to livin’ my life, and instead of writing about boy/girl love, to write about a higher love — as Steve Winwood sang, ‘Bring me a higher love.’ That’s what I had in mind, so I spent a lot of time revising all of the songs, checking and double-checking to make sure that I was grounding the language, because I was reaching into that place that’s very hard to define.”
8. James McMurtry- The Horses and The Hounds
As if Texas didn’t have enough top-shelf songwriters, James McMurtry is another esteemed notch in the musical belt of The Lone Star State.
For his 10th album, the Long Horn storyteller lets it all out. Via New West Records, The Horses and The Hounds dropped this summer, and is – like the rest of this list – an album for those who want to feel the magic of authentic storytelling through song. Whether it’s heartache, loneliness, being on the road, or other common and uncommon themes, McMurtry delivers.
Songs like “Canola Fields” and “If It Don’t Bleed” display qualities of raw folk songwriting coupled with heartland-style Americana rock, not unlike a Tom Petty. Lots of mighty fine songs to blare while cruising down Kansas farm roads. (or any roads, really) As the offspring of acclaimed fiction writer Larry McMurtry, writing is in this songwriter’s DNA. He paints vivid pictures with his lyrics, which is notable throughout the album.
7. Jim Lauderdale- Hope
This 13-track album of Jim Lauderdale’s marks his 34th studio album, which is two more than years old I am. I wonder how quickly he can rattle them all off. I feel like I could never remember. It’s a testament to the limitless fountain of creativity, experience, and skill Lauderdale has displayed over his storied career. Impressive doesn’t do enough justice for the body of work he’s churned out.
Hope is the one word answer as to what we all need right now, and Lauderdale does his part in delivering this message to us in these particularly trying times through his sonic abilities. With songs like the album opener, “The Opportunity To Help Someone Through It” and “Memory”, Lauderdale sends warmth, guidance, and – you guessed it- hope. And for better or worse – especially on “Sister Horizon”- I hear a lot of Van Morrison.
When it comes to breezy, easy on the ears contemporary country singer songwriting, it doesn’t get much better than Lauderdale and Hope.
6. Tony Joe White – Smoke From The Chimney
You know you’re in for a sonic southern delight with most three-named songwriters.
The late great Tony Joe White had a posthumous album released this year, entitled Smoke From The Chimney. Perhaps best known for his swampy country rock tune “Polk Salad Annie,” which saw covers from Elvis, Tom Jones, and others, White made his mark as a renowned Louisiana storyteller throughout the decades and up until his passing in 2018.
Smoke From The Chimney is comprised of demos from White, which were then produced by The Black Keys’ frontman Dan Auerbach and his label Easy Eye Sound, along with the help of a cast of Nashville session musicians. There’s always a tinge of sadness behind posthumous albums despite the sound or lyrics, but this one kicks off with an especially somber number in “Del Rio, You’re Making Me Cry.” However, it’s soon followed by his signature swamp-ridden country rock sound and rich smoky vocals in “Boot Money.” The album is ripe with contemporary country sounds, gritty rock grooves, and White’s seasoned storytelling.
5. David Ferguson – Nashville No More
If I could have one person tell me stories of Nashville lore, David “Ferg” Ferguson would be a top candidate.
Mostly known for his prowess as a producer and engineer (Sturgill Simpson, John Prine) Ferguson has worked and befriended most the Nashville heavyweights when he was a wide-eyed lad in the eighties doing anything and everything to infiltrate the country music business- and he did so with great success, starting as a helping hand for Cowboy Jack Clement.
This summer, Ferguson released his own album, Nashville No More, and I liken it to a warm, peaceful afternoon relaxing in or around a lakeside log cabin. It’s easy on the ears and a beautiful listen. While some songs possess that authentic and traditional Nashville country sound like “Knocking Around Nashville”, other songs like “Fellow Travelers” have a beautiful almost dare I say Disney-esque sound to it with its twinkling piano, Venetian-feeling accordion, and Waltz-like energy coupled with Ferguson’s crooner vocals.
It’s no surprise given Ferguson’s track record he would assemble a masterful crew to create a masterful sound, and that’s what Nashville No More does. Praise be to the legends still among us with stories of old, ’cause once they’re gone, they’re gone.
4. John Hiatt and The Jerry Douglas Band- Leftover Feelings
Also via New West Records this year came the album Leftover Feelings by another heavy-hitting power duo. Legendary songwriter John Hiatt and dobro extraordinaire Jerry Douglas, (and his band) got together to make this modern masterpiece.
I actually came across Jerry Douglas playing with Alison Krauss and Union Station on AXS TV the other day for a concert special, and it drove me crazy trying to figure out what year it was from. (it was 2003, and it was awesome)
Getting back on track here, songs like “Mississippi Phone Booth” and “Long Black Electric Cadillac” are chock full of that down-home swampy country blues, and the album as a whole is damn good road trippin’ record. The subsequent video for the latter song is worth a watch, too. Just a couple of dudes cruisin’ and enjoying life- and why wouldn’t they. Props to them for repping electric vehicles also. Leftover Feelings has all the twang and grit you could want in a modern album coupled with no-frills beautiful songwriter songs.
3. Loretta Lynn – Still Woman Enough
Forty-six and eighty-nine. Those numbers are the amount of solo albums this queen of country has put out, followed by her age. (shame on me for displaying the latter) But truly, Loretta Lynn is a force of nature in the country music world, and deserves any and all accolades.
Still Woman Enough, produced by her daughter Patsy Lynn Russell and John Carter Cash at Cash Cabin Studios in Hendersonville, TN, dropped in March on Legacy Records. The album is the fourth in a planned series of five albums, following Full Circle (2016), White Christmas Blue (2016), and Wouldn’t It Be Great (2018). The album is a mixture of new songs and new versions of songs Lynn has previously recorded. Seven songs from the album are new versions, namely the mega-hit “Coal Miner’s Daughter.”
The album kicks of with the title track, which features Reba McEntire and Carrie Underwood, and they sure as hell don’t mess around. It’s a badass twangy country tune with attitude and grit, and reels you in from the jump. The album drives full steam ahead from there, with all the honky tonk flare and soulful gospel-like sounds you’d expect. Lynn and company pull out the big guns on Still Woman Enough.
2. Steve Earle & The Dukes – J.T.
It doesn’t get any sadder than a father recording an album for his late son- let alone an album comprised of the son’s songs. Well, that’s exactly what Steve Earle did with his album, J.T.
Released in the first few days of 2021 and recorded at Electric Ladyland Studios in New York, Earle & The Dukes pay tribute to Justin Townes Earle with this collection of the latter’s songs, along with the help of Earle’s son and Justin’s brother, Ian. “For better or worse, right or wrong, I loved Justin Townes Earle more than anything else on this earth. That being said, I made this record, like every other record I’ve ever made…for me. It was the only way I knew to say goodbye,” Earle stated about the album.
From ” I Don’t Care” to “Harlem River Blues,” the album is a beautiful testament from a father to a son, and is ripe with the signature Earle snarl and grit we know and love.
According to The Americana Music Association, the album reached #16 on The Top 100 Americana Radio Airplay Albums Of 2021 chart – the highest rank as far as this list goes.
1. Robert Plant & Alison Krauss – Raise The Roof
From Raising Sand (2007) to Raise The Roof (2021), the delightfully unlikely duo of Led Zeppelin powerhouse vocalist Robert Plant and top tier bluegrass songstress Alison Krauss are back at it.
Produced by the legendary T. Bone Burnett – as was their first album together – the record is masterfully strung together from start (“Quattro”) to finish (“Somebody Was Watching Over Me”). It showcases the strengths of each artist with a powerful yet cohesive juxtaposition between the two’s natural musical stylings. Their single, “Can’t Let Go”, is a swampy barn burnin’ number full of mystery and intrigue within their vocals, and almost sounds like an Elvis tune. The unique and varied instrumentation backing the two iconic singers (a lot of reverbed percussion and bass with western guitar licks) throughout is nothing short of enticing, and it’s no surprise this was/should be one of the albums of the year.
According to the Americana Music Association, “Can’t Let Go” reached #5 on the Top 100 Americana Radio Airplay Singles of 2021 – the highest rank on such a chart as far as this list goes. And as far as the album radio play chart goes, it ranks at #17, just behind Steve Earle’s album, J.T.