By Jeremiah Tucker
JOPLIN, Mo. —
On the Fourth of July, I played a lot of modern country. There were explicitly holiday-appropriate tunes such as Brad Paisley's "American Saturday Night" as well as songs that spoke to the spirit of the Fourth, such as Lee Brice's "Beer."
While at a public park waiting for the fireworks to begin, I blasted them as loud as my iPhone would allow. Soon I noticed a lot of people giving me dirty looks. Apparently, I was surrounded by freedom-hating communists.
Over the years I've found that among people with strong musical preferences, no genre elicits more qualifiers than country. Rarely does anyone hate it outright. Rather, they hedge their appreciation: "I only like the old stuff;" "I like the music but can't stand that exaggerated country twang;" "I like real country, not that crap about dogs and pickups they play on the radio."
Regardless of the complaint, the one uniting factor is their distaste for modern country music.
As for me, I'm the guy still hoping Juliette Barnes, the fictional young country star played by Hayden Panettiere on the primetime soap opera "Nashville," overcomes the shame alt-country snobs have made her feel for her pop-crossover success and embraces her inner Taylor Swift.
I'm also the guy who watches "Nashville."
I understand the qualifiers though. In my wayward youth, I held similar opinions. Not that I ever really tried to listen to country music back then, but I understood implicitly that the Shania Twains of the world weren't to be trusted. That was the whole message of the outlaw movement, right?
But if Waylon, Willie and the lesser-well-known artists who inspired the outlaw movement wanted to make weirder music than the Nashville machine allowed, why do the latter-day artists hearkening back to this style of "real" country sound so safe and conservative?
In theory, I should love alt-country, Americana, roots-rock or whatever label you want to apply to artists playing a sparer, more traditional style of country music. In practice, however, I find most of it incredibly dull, despite deep affection for its influences.
I'll admit much of it sounds pretty. This is why it works so well in small doses, such as on "Nashville" or any other soundtrack overseen by alt-country eminence grise T. Bone Burnett. But over the course of an album I find the reverence and humorlessness so endemic to this genre tedious. Give me the gaudy bluster, professionalism and tight songwriting of modern country any day.
But anytime I read about a newly feted alt-country artist, I'll usually check it out. Here are the best I've listened to this year.
Jason Isbell: 'Southeastern'
I loved Jason Isbell's songwriting since hearing "Outfit," the song he wrote as a member of the Southern rock band Drive-By Truckers and the ultimate anthem for Father's Day. After his ouster from the band in 2007, caused in part by his alcoholism, Isbell released three solo albums, all of them pleasant but unexceptional.
"Southeastern," his fourth album and his first since getting sober, is a stunner. While Isbell has always been a strong lyricist, here his songs match the narrative momentum of his words, building to moments of revelation and devastation.
The chilling "Live Oak" is the best murder ballad you'll hear all year, and if there's a better song about the existential fear of drinking yourself to death in a budget motel than "Super 8," I'd like to hear it. Or maybe I wouldn't.
This is what alt-country should sound like! "Muchacho" sounds like a world-weary troubadour fronting a cantina band, all of them on peyote.
Matthew Houck, the songwriter at the heart of Phosphorescent, has been around for awhile. In 2009, he released a tribute album to Willie Nelson aptly titled "To Willie" that I liked quite a bit, but Phosphorescent has always been the kind of band where I'd earmark a couple songs as keepers and rarely revisit the albums.
"Muchacho" is the band's most fully realized album to date. There are big arrangements -- lots of horns -- but it leaves room for quieter moments, too, such as the gorgeous, trance-inducing "Song for Zula." It's a restless, ambitious album worth exploring.
Patty Griffin: 'American Kid'
Griffin has been a staple of the Americana genre for nearly 20 years. The stripped-down tastefulness of the music on this, her seventh album, flirts with the qualities I generally find off-putting, but there's a gun-metal steeliness to Griffin that pushes the songs beyond pleasantness. She sounds battle-tested and, on the rollicking "Don't Let Me Die in Florida," like she'd tear you apart if necessary.