Amidst the torrent of modern-country anthems praising pickup trucks, beer, bros, and sweet things in tight jeans gushing out of Nashville these days, there’s an undercurrent of stellar music that’s also making waves. Listen hard to the radio and you might even hear it.
Jason Isbell’s latest solo shot ranks with his best. His songwriting is a fresh breeze compared to the Modern Country smog. And while he may not have a rave-up rocker here like Southeastern’s “Super 8,” every song is chock full of cool riffs and hot licks.
Bookended by the phenomenal “Last Of My Kind” and “Something To Love,” Isbell’s lyrics are smart, thoughtful, and introspective while still alive with spirit, playfulness, and verve. And his guitar picking moves effortlessly between classic country stylings and flat-out rocking. “Tupelo” and “Cumberland Gap” are standouts.
Chris Stapleton was an established songwriter-to-the-stars before launching his solo career with 2015’s Traveller, which carried him straight to headlining arena gigs and two Grammys. His followup is equally powerful – with a Volume 2 promised for later this autumn.
The leadoff “Broken Halos” is the best of traditional and alt country, proving his songcrafting prowess yet again. Stapleton’s voice is pure country, and he and producer Dave Cobb play the acoustic and electric guitar lines, backed by Robby Turner’s glorious pedal steel. The combination makes for a heady brew, proven on tracks like the laidback lament of “Last Thing I Needed, First Thing This Morning” and rollicking “Up To No Good Livin’.”
Steve Earle returns with his umpteenth album of trademark twang with a country lilt. After touring last year to celebrate the 30th anniversary of his breakthrough Guitar Town, this latest disc appears to picks up the rockabilly leanings of that album – and happily so. Earle can pick with the best, and he’s backed by longtime side man Chris Masterson on guitar and multi-instrumentalist Eleanor Whitmore shining on fiddle. The title track shines.
So if you despair that all the good country is dead and gone, listen again. There’s hot pickin’ and great songs in the air.
This article originally appeared in VG September 2017 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.