OUR FAVORITE MUSIC OF 2020
Updated: Aug 1, 2021
Welcome to SoulCountry’s first-ever “favorites” list. There was so much unforgettable music made in 2020 that'll stay with us long after these strange times have passed. Some performances we especially loved:
Now in his 80s, this Memphis soul-songwriting master returns with his second latter-years album and proves the man who married the great singer Ann Peebles can still groove with the best of them. Producer Scott Bomar (who did the soundtrack to Dolemite Is My Name) teams Bryant with members of the famed Hi Rhythm Section and younger musicians—members of St. Paul and the Broken Bones, the Sensational Barnes Brothers, Matt Ross-Spang and others—for an outstanding album of newer songs and a few remakes. One highlight is the irresistible “99 Pounds,” a Peebles track released in 1972 and a tribute to her “natural-born goodness,” powerful songs, and all that love that spouts from her itty-bitty body and mighty big soul.
Matt Rollings, Mosaic
Best known for his virtuosic piano work for Lyle Lovett and Mary Chapin Carpenter across the decades—and producer of Willie Nelson’s two Sinatra tribute albums, one of which arrives in January 2021—this Nashville stalwart released his own overlooked collection this year. Man, is it great: He teams with songbird Alison Krauss and Vince Gill on the lovely, memorable “Stay,” plays a striking cover of The Police’s “Spirits in the Material World” with singer Charlie Greene, and gets help from friends Nelson, Lovett and Ramblin' Jack Elliott on “Lucky Old Sun.” Rollings also teams with Lovett on a song we all needed to hear, “Accentuate the Positive,” delivers the spiritual “Wade in the Water” with the showstopping husband-and-wife duo The War and Treaty and the Blind Boys of Alabama, and covers the late Nashville and Austin crooner Walter Hyatt on “I’ll Come Knockin’.” with Lukas Nelson, Molly Tuttle and Buddy Miller. Seek this one out, y'all.
This one's from late 2019, but I'm including it anyway: Memphis Queen of Gospel Elizabeth King went about five decades between releasing music, and 2021 promises new tunes from this talented matriarch. Part of the Bible & Tire Recording Co. family, Ms. King recorded singles with the all-male Gospel Souls in the early 1970s for local Memphis labels run by Pastor Juan Shipp, a longtime gospel DJ and minister now in his eighties. Record collectors helped Shipp round up his master recordings (see our feature here), and veteran producer and engineer Bruce Watson is releasing them anew (see The JCB Records Story: Volume I, also excellent.) Look no further for authentic gospel-soul that’s as good as any R&B record of the era—but a bit rawer. And look for King’s new album in April 2021 and more collections in 2021. Also check out these other excellent sacred soul-revival artists from Bible & Tire: The Sensational Barnes Brothers and the Dedicated Men of Zion.
The veteran Nashville guitarist and singer-songwriter who works regularly with Emmylou Harris, Jimmy Buffett, blueswoman Shemekia Copeland and others, made this acoustic collection at home during the pandemic. All of Will’s albums are good, including those he’s done with pals the Red Dirt Boys, Daddy (with Tommy Womack) and soulful folkie Brigette DeMeyer. On this intimate new album, he resurrects an older song “Philadelphia, Mississippi,” a beautiful narrative about going away and coming home. “All Fall Down,” with just Kimbrough on guitar and harmonica, would sound great fleshed out with a full band—the Heartbreakers could have played the hell out of this one —reflecting the album’s notion of making peace even as we stand for justice and work for change. “The Late Great John Prine Blues” features some Piedmont blues-style picking from Kimbrough, while expressing all of Nashville’s music community’s shock and sense of loss when songwriting genius John Prine passed away this year. Kimbrough does so with the wry aplomb that Prine would have adored. (See our feature profile of Kimbrough.)
Our musical soul sister’s latest is definitely one of her best. One of Nashville’s most literate, hilarious, wild-buck storytelling songwriters since the 1970s, this is her first album of covers—songs that helped her survive a serious illness even before COVID-19 came to town. With a stripped-back sound featuring Will Kimbrough on guitar and producer Neilson Hubbard on several instruments, Chapman brings her best weathered Carolina drawl to classics by Leonard Cohen, Otis Blackwell, Carole King and Johnny Cash, and finishes with the spiritual “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands.” It’s a gospel number from the lady who once sang about being rode hard and put up wet, to which most of us can relate.
Preacher and gospel blues-rocker Wilkins died of complications from COVID-19 only weeks after he released this excellent new album. The Memphis-area music community was devastated by the loss of a friend and legend who connected them directly to the origins of the blues and rock ‘n roll. His father was the Rev. Robert Wilkins, the Original Rolling Stone, whose “That's No Way to Get Along" became the Rolling Stones' “Prodigal Son.” John Wilkins’ guitar stands out on O.V. Wright's lost 1960s soul classic, “You're Gonna Make Me Cry.” He also sang with a group on Designer Records and became a motorcycle-riding pastor at Hunter's Chapel in Como, Mississippi, the home congregation of fife player Othar Turner, bluesman Mississippi Fred McDowell and others. On the title cut of his final album, Wilkins sings about these troubled times, saying that he had in mind what was happening in the White House in recent years and put his musings down to a “stanky beat.”
Jutz was born and raised in Germany but loved the sounds of the American South enough to eventually make his way to Nashville. He’s found a songwriting and performing niche, of all genres, in bluegrass. His songs are often covered by others and beautifully tell tales of the South, its rivers, wars and lost souls. Together with his singer-songwriter cohorts Eric Brace and Peter Cooper, Jutz is a musical force. His preceding To Love in Two Worlds, Vol. 1, was just nominated for a Grammy for Best Bluegrass Album.
One of Nashville’s best singer-songwriters and emerging producers put out this EP of cover songs as a break from years of churning out her own tunes and co-writing with lots of gifted folks in town. With a soft but powerful voice and a touch of south Georgia twang, she takes a truly stunning turn at Jackson Browne’s “Our Lady of the Well.” Then she cranks up a cover Aaron Lee Tasjan’s terrific “Don’t Walk Away” with help from her buddies, Drivin n Cryin, and seems to slice open a wound with a daring version of Roy Orbison’s “You Got It.”
Speaking of Tasjan, his new album Tasjan! Tasjan! Tasjan! may not arrive until February 2021, but his first single is one of his best. An eclectic purveyor of glam- and roots-rock who’s played guitar for both Todd Snider and The New York Dolls, Tasjan presents a delicious pop-rocker for these times: “Staying Up All Night” should be the single of the year. A catchy tribute musically to Tom Petty and the Traveling Wilburys, he adds a little disco and new wave, along with some serious depth in a simple set of lyrics—working in fluid sexuality, personal growth and with a wicked synth-guitar (perhaps?) solo that sticks with you. Petty would be proud to pass the torch to this cool, forward-looking cat who’s finally finding his musical direction after many entertaining interludes.
Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit, Reunions
Americana king Isbell and his band—including Isbell’s talented spouse, songwriting fiddler Amanda Shires—continued their streak of great rock albums with the somber Reunions. While not quite the landmark Americana albums Isbell has produced in recent years (Southeastern, Something More Than Free, and The Nashville Sound), this one’s a perfect fit for the long winter 2020 had become. Along with the brave rocker “Be Afraid” and confessional “What’ve I Done to Help” with David Crosby, my favorite here is “Overseas,” a hooky rocker that recalls the Heartbreakers and the Eagles, with lyrics and Isbell's sobbing guitar solo that seem to share the emotions of a man torn from his partner by military service or war—with a turn that suggests how Americans missing loved ones likely have much in common with today’s immigrants who’ve separated from their families for work, hope, and freedom.
Other favorites from 2020:
Katie Pruitt, Expectations (album)
Chris Stapleton, Starting Over (album)
“Long Violent History” by Tyler Childers
“Colors” by Black Pumas
“Back Down South” by Larkin Poe
“March, March” by The Chicks