BLACK WOMEN RULE: MY 2021 FAVORITES
Updated: Jan 15, 2022
I began writing my list of favorite music from 2021 several weeks ago, and I must confess that I came to the same conclusion as NPR music writer Jewly Hight, culture writer Marcus K. Dowling and others.
And appropriately so.
Any year-in-review article on American roots music simply had to begin with the emergence — indeed the ascendance — of Black women as an integral creative force in country music and all of its related tributaries.
Not only have artists such as Adia Victoria, Allison Russell and Mickey Guyton become some of the most important country-influenced performers and songwriters in an era of political division and racial backlash.
They’ve become some of music’s most accomplished artists, leaders of new creative direction and exploration, and mentors to younger artists climbing their own ladders in many interesting directions.
These women rule. They sing and speak write with mighty voices. They’re true artists who make popular music. Emblematic of our society’s strongest persons. Defiant in their entrance into a largely white institution that never should have gone almost solely in that direction.
Their presence as individuals — and their artistic expressions and bravery in reflecting on some of their own deep experiences — make me a better man, a better Southern man, a better gay Southern man, and a better Southerner and country-rooted soul.
My new friend Queen Esther — more on her later in this article, and look for my profile soon of this fascinating New York-based Southerner, a stage actress and Americana singer-songwriter — said it well during a panel discussion at AmericanaFest in September:
“More young folk listen to gay folk, people of color, Black women because they want to see themselves in the music they listen to,” she said. “Everybody’s gonna find out where all the good music is, because not only is their market waning—they’re dying.
These women and roots-music artists are helping lead a creative title wave that will sell records and concert tickets — but will also leave their mark on many other artists of all kinds, along with writers and collectors like me.
For more on Black women who emerged this year in country and Americana, check out the musical timeline in this NPR Music feature article by music writer and author Andrea Williams, Dowling and Height wrote for NPR in December.
As Height wrote in a wonderful additional piece for NPR Music about the Black Opry House and how many Black country and roots artists connected during AmericanaFest:
“These performers congregated around shared experiences, having each encountered formidable barriers in the way of their aspiration to work anywhere along a continuum of country, contemporary folk and roots music that’s been preserved and promoted as a domain of whiteness.”
Exactly, and thank goodness. Yet there’s plenty of work to do in this little corner of the art-and-entertainment world and in every facet of our society.
With that, here’s an in-depth look at some of my favorite music of 2021.
I didn’t appreciate this album, at least not profoundly, until I saw Allison Russell exuberantly perform these songs with her all-female (presumably — forgive me if some members identify differently) touring ensemble at in Nashville during AmericanaFest back in September.
In her soulful performance, I felt Russell unleash her victory over pain, recovery from abuse, and the monumental courage in her singing and dancing and writing and speaking — all with a spirit of inspiration and empathy.
That’s a remarkable feat for a popular music album (and concert).
Nominated for three Grammy Awards and named the second-best album of the year by The New York Timesin any genre’, Russell expertly performs Outside Child with the deepest of passion, translating the deeply personal so expertly that in my view, only a gifted, veteran writer and performer such as Russell could achieve.
Russell is a supportive fan of this blog. She’s among the artists I’ve encountered who fill my thoughts and life with such beauty, intelligence and grace, I simply have no choice but to write about them.
Russell opens Outside Child with “Montreal,” an emotional ode to her hometown, sung in French and acknowledging all of the art and pain the city has wrought for her.
Russell has written about the song: “I was a teenage runaway – I believe in many ways the City herself protected me. I wandered the Mountain at all hours and slept in the graveyard in the summertime. I haunted the Cathedrals and slept in the pews. Sometimes I stayed up all night playing chess with the old men in the 24-hr cafes. I got to hear Oscar Peterson play for free in the park during Jazz Fest… I was very lucky to grow up there.”
Then on “Nightflyer,” Russell sings of newfound strength in her becoming a mother for the first time. One of the most immediately memorable songs from her album and performances, especially when performed live by Russell and her band of women including the amazing Sista Strings duo:
“I am the mother of the evening star, I am the love that conquers all.”
Russell has said the line in “Nightflyer” is “the most defiantly triumphant, hopeful line I’ve ever written.”
The song was inspired after Russell read The Thunder, Perfect Mind, a poetic passage from one of the “Gnostic Gospels” discovered in Egypt and believed to date to the 4th Century.
Indeed, “Nightflyer” seems Russell’s hymn to women, to Black women, and people who find strength in faith and from deep within — a hymn to herself and all her power and pain:
Yeah I’m a midnight rider Stone bonafide night flyer I’m an angel of the morning, too The promise that the dawn will bring you
I’m the sick light of a hurricane’s eye I’m a violent lullaby I’m six fireflies, one streetlight I’m a suffocating summer night hmm mmm I’m each of his steps on the stairway I’m his shadow in the door frame I’m the tap tap of a lunar moth I’m the stale beer on his breath hmm mmm His soul is trapped in that room But I crawled back in my mother’s womb Came back out with my gold and my greens Now I see everything Now I feel everything good lord What the hell could they bring to stop me Lord? Nothing from the earth, nothing from the sea Not a God Almighty thing
On “Persephone,” Russell further reclaims her childhood trauma through a gorgeous melody and staggering, poetic lyrics. During her show at AmericanaFest, she told the audience of how she would escape from violent childhood abuse at times by making a break for a close friend, her first love, who’d offer sheltering arms:
Blood on my shirt, two ripped buttons Might've killed me that time, oh, if I'd let him He's slow when he's drunk, and he lost his grip on me Now I'm runnin' down la rue St. Paul Tryna get out from the weight of it all Can't flag a cop 'cause I know he won't stop I'll go see Persephone
Tap, tap, tappin' on your window screen Gotta let me in Persephone Got nowhere to go, but I had to get away from him My petals are bruised, but I'm still a flower Come runnin' to you in the violet hour Put your skinny arms around me, let me taste your skin
Mouth to mouth, mouth to flower Salty sweet you give me power I feel you shake under my lips Your fingers tender find my secrets
Don't make a sound, don't cry out love Your parents are sleepin' just above I kiss you once, I kiss you twice Fall asleep lookin' in each other's eyes
More recently during the pandemic, Russell has explained that she’s found shelter at home in Nashville with her partner JT Nero, with whom she formed the group Birds of Chicago, along with their child and close friends (and stellar artists) Yola, The McCrary Sisters, and Outside Child producer Dan Knobler.
Adia Victoria, A Southern Gothic
Adia Victoria’s music examines the South and all its meanings: It’s home, but a place you might desperately want to leave — yet it never leaves you and always calls for your return. I included her fantastic single, “South’s Gotta Change,” produced by T-Bone Burnett, on last year’s favorites list.
The South Carolina native — who often returns there from Nashville to tend her grandmother’s garden and visit kin — presents her most cohesive set of soulful, gothic blues-rock (if that’s a remotely apt way to describe her sound). Mostly, it’s just her own.
Made with musical partner Mason Hickman after earlier forays into swampy Southern-punk and other winding routes, on this record Adia Victoria feels the region’s heartbeat and feels a part of the region—but also apart from it, like so many of us do.
I included her fantastic single, “South’s Gotta Change,” produced by T-Bone Burnett, on last year’s favorites list.
She’s joined on her new album by Jason Isbell (for whom she’s opening a bunch of tour dates in early 2022) and many other guests on songs that warn of revenge and pine for home, meditate on migration and return, tenderness and violence, and love and hate.
On “You Was Born to Die,” she powerfully warns her lover not to cross her, singing with musical friends Kyshona Armstrong and Margo Price, and Isbell on guitar.
Then on “Magnolia Blues,” she longs for a life back South, but also nods to the death that accompanies that life:
I'm going back South Down to Carolina I'm gonna plant myself Under a magnolia
I'm gonna let that dirt Do its work I'm gonna plant myself Under a magnolia, a magnolia Magnolia, a magnolia, a magnolia
On “Carolina Bound,” she gives a bow to blues tradition and also seems to speak to today’s music business. Adia Victoria has spoken in interviews of working at an Amazon warehouse while writing some of these songs — showing how she and many other gifted musicians must eke out a living while carving out time for their creativity:
Tennessee has broke me Brought me to my knees The pretty boys in Memphis Have made a fool out of me Times are hard in Nashville The cash I had is gone I left my kind in Caroline This land is not my own… I'm Carolina bound I'm Carolina bound
In “Far from Dixie,” she writes of being a Black woman away from home:
Many neighbors are sweet as a Southern sky When the sun goes by, when eat the pie But when the light comes through They keep their eye on you
Mickey Guyton, Remember Her Name
Mainstream country music’s most prominent Black female artist, Mickey Guyton leads off her first full-length album leads off with the title cut, a remarkably fierce country-pop anthem.
Co-written by Guyton, she uses the social-justice slogan about remembering the names and lives of victims of police violence to speak simultaneously to her own personal pride and growth, reflecting her desire to become a larger presence in country music.
On the whole, Guyton’s album, which has earned three Grammy nominations in total, is an often poignant, heartfelt mainstream country record that should be a massive hit. Guyton’s profile is certainly on the rise. Greater exposure and success for her and other artists in her fold is hopefully just around the bend.
Be sure to check out the title track from Guyton’s album below, and my recent review of her concert at the Ryman Auditorium that includes my musings about why her voice matters so much to the future of country music.
Miko Marks & the Resurrectors, Race Records and Our Country
One of the best country singers, California-based Miko Marks toiled in near-obscurity for many years.
Her road as a Black artist pursuing country music has been difficult and heartbreaking at times, but Marks let loose her bottled-up talent this year, releasing two of this year’s most beautiful country albums.
Our Country, her first full album in 13 years, arrived first. The album includes several bracing Marks originals and her covers Stephen Foster’s “Hard Times (Come Again No More),” which carries new depth and meaning here.
She also adapts a spiritual that inspired many fighters for peace during the Civil Rights Movement on “Not Be Moved.”
When I spoke with Marks at AmericanaFest, she made clear why she never let country music go:
“My family is rooted and grounded in country,” she said. “My family is from Mississippi, and when we migrated north … all of that history moved with us. Blues and gospel and country—all the music Black people helped to carry.”
“So when I get the question, ‘Why country?,’ I don’t understand it,” she said.
In October, Marks released Race Records, an album which in her own words highlights “the insanity of the separation of ‘race records’ and ‘hillbilly music’ in the 1920s.”
She sings “Foggy Mountain Top” by The Carter Family, “because they were really closely associated with a Black man … who gave them the origins of their songs,” she said, speaking of songster Lesley Riddle, who helped A.P. Carter travels the hills of Appalachia searching for songs.
She beautifully transforms other classics into country-soul, with an emphasis on country — a raucous cover of “Whiskey River” made famous by Willie Nelson, Doc Watson’s “Long Journey Home,” Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Long As I Can See the Light,” and more.
“It’s just really highlighting the absurdity around the genres, because the music was really blended back then anyways,” said Marks, who once sang in a group with alt-R&B maven Erykah Badu while the two were studying at Grambling State University in Louisiana.
“I wanted to take these songs written by white men and put a Black face on it — mine,” she said. “I can’t stop. I won’t stop.”
(Read more about Miko Marks in my earlier story on the Black country movement, based on conversations at AmericanaFest.)
Queen Esther, Gild the Black Lily
There have been many firsts in my time writing SoulCountry, but Queen Esther takes the cake.
She’s an accomplished stage actress. She’s also Black Southerner who lives in New York and spent many of her childhood years in Georgia and South Carolina — and she sings hard country music.
I mean George Jones-and-Tammy Wynette country music. And she’s proud of it.
Her accomplished and fascinating bounty of songs on 2021’s Gild the Black Lily runs the gamut from striking originals “The Whiskey Wouldn’t Let Me Pray” and “The Black Cowgirl’s Song” to her George Jones cover — renamed “He Thinks I Still Care”— and even the Eagles’ “Take It to the Limit.”
“I’m convinced whatever it is that you create is infused with the spirit that you carry,” Queen Esther said during a panel discussion at AmericanaFest. “I think the music is a spiritual conduit. I know it is.”
Read my full feature and interview with Queen Esther, hear her brand-new single and watch the accompanying video, right here at SoulCountry in the coming days.
Barry Gibb, Greenfields: Vol. I
While this was the year of ascendance for Black women in country and Americana music, the return of Barry Gibb, by way of this country-duets album from January, did as much to prove the relationship of R&B to country as any album in many years.
This is a special record that briefly hit No. 2 on the Billboard pop album charts but still feels neglected.
While Gibb’s album has a weak moment or two, it’s a glorious, compelling comeback overall by one of the best-selling artists of all time — and one of the few white singers ever to score major hits on the soul charts.
In releasing his first full country-and-Americana album, Gibb and his guests strip some of the Bee Gees’ biggest pop and R&B hits down to their roots.
Gibb’s duets with Brandi Carlile, Jason Isbell, Dolly Parton, Alison Krauss and others are some of the best performances of the year. Producer Dave Cobb drafted a crack studio band to back Gibb and all his guests.
On Greenfields Vol. I, Carlile soars on the Bee Gees early hit, “Run to Me,” while Krauss joins Gibb for a graceful take on the 1978 classic, “Too Much Heaven.”
Isbell turns up his Muscle Shoals-trained, soul-country pipes and turns in one of his finest vocal performances on the obscure Gibb song “The Words of a Fool.”
Gillian Welch and David Rawlings join Gibb for the ancient-sounding “Butterfly,” a Bee Gees’ folk number from 196x.
Whether disco, folk, rock or country, Gibb sees it all the same.
One of the most legendary R&B/disco [and folk-rock] performers of all time, Gibb had another song from this record was a hit for Conway Twitty, and of course Gibb co-wrote and produced Dolly and Kenny’s “Islands in the Stream.”
“There’s a streak of country music in all of our songs,” Gibb told the Minneapolis StarTribune. “I'm a country artist. It doesn't matter what anybody else thinks I am. Always have been.”
Makes me wonder what Gibb might sound like with others in the genre—and our most enthralling newcomers like Adia Victoria, Yola, Allison Russell, Amythyst Kiah and others.
What a country-soul album that would be.
Read more about Gibb’s album and his country and soul influences in my article from earlier in 2021,SoulCountry’s best-read piece of the year.
John Hiatt and The Jerry Douglas Band, Leftover Feelings
My favorite songwriter John Hiatt had felt a little adrift at times on some of his recordings over the past 15 years.
On first listen, the album seemed to be another step toward retirement for Hiatt, now 69 years old.
A few more spins, however, revealed Hiatt’s strongest batch of songs in my view since 2012’s Mystic Pinball and 2011’s Dirty Jeans and Mudslide Hymns. His voice may be a little scratchier and his range slightly more limited, but Hiatt is in great form.
Somehow, these songs benefit from airy performances largely recorded live at Nashville’s historic RCA Studio B with Douglas, bassist Daniel Kimbro, guitarist Mike Seal and fiddler Christian Sedelmyer.
Hiatt and Douglas’ group also lit up the Ryman Auditorium this fall, a performance before their hometown audience that I found especially electric.
Douglas — the master of the dobro and one of the planet’s most brilliant musicians in case you don’t know — and his band opened the show at the Ryman with some original numbers that transcend style by incorporating bluegrass and jazz, alongside cuts by the likes of Jimi Hendrix.
Then Hiatt joined the group for a set that I found impressive in scope and ambition.
Even without a drummer, the set rocked. The band added new country shine to some of Hiatt’s rock classics “Slow Turning,” “Drive South” and “Thing Called Love,” and a pure rockabilly version of “Memphis in the Meantime.”
The band also brought depth and beauty to some of Hiatt’s best ballads, such as Crossing Muddy Waters,” the spiritual “Lift Up Every Stone,” and the stunning “Feels Like Rain.”
Back to the new album: One of the highlights is the group’s take on one of Hiatt’s fiercest rockers, “All the Lilacs in Ohio,” performed with Douglas, a native of the Appalachian portion of the state.
Hiatt weaves humor into many of the songs, as he often does, like on the modern life-meets- rock ‘n roll fantasy “Long Black Electric Cadillac” and in the narrator’s poignant advice in “Buddy Boy.”
Then Hiatt drops his first song about his brother’s suicide decades earlier. In “Light of the Burning Sun,” Hiatt recalls the unending pain brought about by the tragedy so powerfully, you can almost feel his father slamming his fist against the wall upon hearing the news.
Most of all, I love Hiatt’s “The Music Is Hot,” an evocative character portrait of a strong woman that pays tribute to Waylon Jennings and Johnny Cash, both of whom recorded classics at Studio B, tapping into country music’s meaning and deep connection to many people’s lives.
The song’s chorus is one of Hiatt’s most beautiful:
You got a story ‘bout 20 miles long
You got a tune like a number-one song
You got the sweat like the shirt off my back
You got a heart, let me open it a crack
Fiddle and steel taking you higher
Past cotton fields and telephone wires
Back to the church and the gospel choir
And you’re gone
This album’s title refers to Robinson’s songbird of a voice but may also be a nod to the thread in many of her songs — that people are complicated, things aren’t always what they seem, and in fact things may be better than we think — or far worse than we imagined. Cool.
Many listeners will find their favorite song or lyric here. Mine is from her evocative “If Trouble Comes a Lookin’,” which explores love and sin and redemption in a way that’s both contemporary and timeless.
It’s a story of how two wayward souls—a lonely woman and a Catholic priest searching for more light—end up in each other’s arms one night at a Doubletree in Little Rock.
How about that?
Get this line, which says so much from a young songwriter, on her first album with the John Prine family’s Oh Boy Records.
At quarter ‘til, the bartender will make the final call
She’ll slip down off her stool and sway slowly down the hall
And he’ll kiss her like she always wanted
Back against the wall
And she’ll step out of her dress
Looking like Eve before the fall
The Bible & Tire Recordings:
Living in the Last Days, Elizabeth King
The Last Shall Be First: The JCR Records Story, Volume 2, Various Artists
Sacred Soul of North Carolina, Various Artists
Already Made, Elder Jack Ward
Sacred Soul: The D-Vine Spirituals Records Story, Volume One (coming in January 2022)
If you’re a regular SoulCountry reader, it’s no surprise that the collections here of lost 1970s gospel singles from Memphis — and new recordings by some the best surviving artists — made my year-end list.
A great place to start is Elizabeth King’s Living in the Last Days, at times a blistering, other times sweet collection of rockin’ gospel music that’ll thrill your soul whether you’ve seen the light or not.
Mrs. King has returned to recording after some of her local singles from the 1970s local singles were rereleased on a 2020 compilation album by Bible & Tire.
And don't miss “What You Gonna Do?,” the new burn-down-the-world single and video from That song is from Ms. King’s forthcoming album in 2022.
Backed by an incredible band led by guitarist Will Sexton and produced by Bible & Tire owner Bruce Watson, King’s first recordings in nearly 50 years are not to be missed.
The same is true of Elder Jack Ward, whose group recorded with Pastor Shipp back in the 1970s and this year made his first full album in decades
Then there are the re-releases of the Memphis gospel singles from the early 1970s, including early cuts by Mrs. King and other groups who recorded with local producer Juan Shipp, a minister and DJ who produced singles on his own JCR and D-Vine Spirituals labels.
Pastor Shipp assisted former Fat Possum Records blues producer Watson in selecting these reissues, after Detroit musician and record collector Michael Hurst and Shipp unearthed the old recordings.
The whole story has been made into a short documentary, which will be released in the future. I wrote about the resurgence of Mrs. King and others who recorded with Pastor Shipp for No Depression.
I also recently wrote about a screening of the new documentary film and a recent concert in Memphis that marked a return to live performing by Mrs. King and Elder Ward.
Chris Pierce, American Silence and Leon Creek, Leon Creek
Veteran Los Angeles soul singer Chris Pierce explored some new directions this year. First, he released a provocative solo album, American Silence. Most of the tracks feature only his voice, guitar and harmonica in a Dylan songster style.
Pierce also formed Leon Creek, an Americana-music trio in which he sings lead and plays harmonica alongside guitarist-keyboardist-producer Eric Janson and guitarist-banjo player Matthew Stevens.
The group’s self-titled debut album, which hopefully will be followed by lots of touring, organically weaves together Pierce’s vocals, rock guitar and folksy banjo, and beats from a drum machine often used in early hip-hop. Acoustic-roots and electronic sounds…
I enjoyed meeting his Leon Creek bandmates at the music festival, who were excited about the prospect of visiting Memphis one day.
“I think I spent the first half of my life — I’m 48 now — trying to figure out where I could blend in, and I think I’ve seen from all sides," Pierce told me in an interview at AmericanaFest.
“I’ve seen intolerance and misunderstanding about who I am and what I do and why I do what I do… and why I have a guitar… At the same time I feel like there’s been a wide acceptance when it comes from here and speak my truth,” he said.
Durand Jones & the Indications, Private Space
This year’s Private Space may be Durand Jones & the Indications’ strongest collection, and I loved their debut album and 2019’s American Love Call.
I love Jones’ voice — a strong, smooth baritone like you’d expect from any retro-soul group. While the songs on the newest record are alternately
This album breaks new ground, at least for retro-soul, with socially conscious messages woven into Philly-style soul and disco grooves. At times, their lyrics even touch on such serious themes as racial violence, including our nation’s history of lynchings.
The band formed several years back when the guys were graduate and undergraduate students at the University of Indiana.
Worth noting is the increasingly prominent role of drummer Aaron Frazer and his falsetto lead vocals, which of course pays tribute to “sweet soul” singer Russell Thompkins of The Stylistics along with The Temptations’ Eddie Kendrick, the great Curtis Mayfield, Frankie Valli, and Philip Bailey of Earth Wind & Fire.
John Paul Keith, The Rhythm of the City
Why this Memphis rock ’n roller isn’t better known in many circles is beyond me. His sound is precisely what it seems: A punk-influenced, power-pop singer and guitarist (formerly of Motel Mirrors) who now incorporates the roots of rock and the incredible soul and blues that surround him in his adopted hometown.
All of that makes The Rhythm of the City soulful and endlessly listenable, with Keith's own twist on a classic American sound. Maybe that's why he's in demand in Europe, ironically, more than here in the States, releasing his albums on Wild Honey Records, based in Italy.
Don’t miss this album, especially “Don’t You Walk Away from My Love,” which leads off the album with a little baritone sax from Art Edmaiston; the sitar-laden bit of silver lining-R&B “The Sun’s Gonna Shine Again”; and the soulful title cut, which would sound right at home on Stax or Hi Records.
Many great Memphis musicians join Keith on the record, including singers and sisters Tierinii and Tikyra Jackson, whose band Southern Avenue also released a good album this year, Be the Love You Want.
I had the joy of a long musical conversation with Keith earlier this year about this record and earlier projects, including his song this year for soul great Don Bryant, “World Like That,” which pretty much says it all about 2021 and the world we’re living in now.
Grace Pettis, Working Woman
Melodic roots-rock by a powerful female singer didn't get much better this year than the newest album from Grace Pettis.
One of the highlights is the catchy but poignant important “Landon,” sung with the Indigo Girls, a wrenching exploration of Pettis’ regret for alienating her gay best friend in high school because of her family’s misinformed fundamentalist religious beliefs.
Produced by singer-songwriter and rising star Mary Bragg, this music is personal lyrically but is also worthy of cranking up.
Check out Pettis’ salutes to women and her powerful singing on “Oklahoma,” Working Woman” and “Tin Can,” and the album's more hushed ballads with guests such as Bragg and Ruthie Foster.
Pettis sang these and other songs during a knockout-loud, rock-oriented set at Nashville’s The 5 Spot during AmericanaFest. It was a great way to highlight her terrific album and promising future.
Robert Plant and Alison Krauss, Raise the Roof
I’m quite certain that in 2007, Alison Krauss became the first bluegrass artist to cover “Let Your Loss Be Your Lesson” by blues-and-soul man Little Milton. That track is just one wondrous, bizarre, thrilling moment from Raising Sand, the album that made Robert Plant and Krauss unlikely heirs to the Everly Brothers and other great musical duos.
T-Bone Burnett’s murky, mysterious, haunted production on Raising Sand gave way in late 2021 to Plant’s and Krauss’ excellent, sparkling follow-up, Raise the Roof, also produced by Burnett.
It’s one of the most enjoyable albums of 2021, in my view. It’s beautiful, delicate, not quite as daring as Raising Sand, but eclectic and cool, with many corners to explore.
I especially love their gorgeous take on Calexico’s “Quattro (World Drifts In),” Plant taking lead on a reimagined version of Anne Briggs’ traditional folk song “Go Your Way,” and Krauss’ lead with Plant’s harmony on “Last Kind Words Blues,” originally sung by 1930s blues woman Geeshie Wiley.
Read more about this album and the origins of some of Plant and Krauss’ songs in an upcoming SoulCountry feature.
Jon Byrd, Me and Paul
Jon Byrd has one of the coolest country voices in Nashville, which is saying a lot. He’s also one of the city’s best gut-string guitar players, and his performances, songwriting and song-selections are tasteful, too.
All of this shows up on his self-produced EP from this year, Me and Paul.
Recorded with his friend and musical partner, steel guitarist Paul Niehaus (of Lambchop and other groups), the five-song collection includes covers of songs by J.J. Cale and the Louvin Brothers, plus two originals.
The album also features James Kelly’s moonshine-running tale, “Ballad of Junior and Lloyd,” on which storytelling reaches for heights not unlike Townes Van Zandt in “Pancho and Lefty.”
“Why Must You Think of Leaving,” which Byrd wrote with singer-songwriter friend Shannon Wright, is among his best hard-country ballads, with a beautiful narrative that drips with heartache:
Say she’s a walking Tchoupitoulas…
Yeah, I might’ve cried a river
But my old levy is made for flood
Across my levy she’ll come walkin’
And I’ll be her only one
Byrd’s previous solo albums also deserve your time: 2017’s Dirty ‘Ol River, Route 41 (produced by Byrd and bluegrass-and-folk singer-songwriter Thomm Jutz) from 2014, and 2011’s Down at the Well of Wishes.
On Route 41, check out Byrd’s stunning interpretation of Pamela Jackson and Davis Raines’ “Going to Montgomery,” in which he sings:
Rock me in the cradle
Where the moss hangs off the trees
Where it’s hard and hot and hateful
Where it’s soft and cool sweet
I’m going to Montgomery
I’m going to Montgomery
On that same album, Byrd also does a fine version of Peter Cooper and Baker Maultsby’s wonderful song “Wine,” which would sound great sung by Emmylou Harris. Another highlight is “In the Back of Your Mind,” written by Will Kimbrough and Mando Saenz.
You can see Byrd live for yourself every Wednesday at Dee’s Lounge, one of Nashville’s best little honky-tonks, in nearby Madison.
Thanks to my friend Peter Cooper at the Country Music Hall of Fame for introducing me to Byrd at his show at Manny’s Guitar Shop in East Nashville. I hope to write more about Byrd in the new year.
Aaron Lee Tasjan, Tasjan! Tasjan! Tasjan!
I included Aaron Lee Tasjan’s “Up All Night,” the first single from this terrific album, on last year’s list. And that was before I heard the rest of the album.
“Up All Night” is the Americana song of the year — and the rock ‘n roll song of the year, too, in my view. It’s a delicious single with a straightforward musical hook, with lyrics that reflect life’s spectrum of sexuality and gender in a creative and touching way.
The rest of the songs on Tasjan! Tasjan! Tasjan! are often fun, catchy and weird.
Tasjan critiques popular music and culture, jokes about modern love and speaks to our increasing loneliness even with technology that allows more mass communication than ever.
He accomplishes all of this in an inviting, Jeff Lynne/Tom Petty musical vein not unlike the Traveling Wilburys’ records and with the same good humor. Tasjan's is an album can speak to the alternative set and mainstream listeners with equal aplomb.
It doesn’t hurt that Tasjan, whom I met at one of his shows through my friend Mary Bragg, is also one of Nashville’s coolest and most gracious young artists. What's not to like?
Jon Batiste, We Are
This was a late addition because, well, I thought it came out in late 2020. Nominated for 11 Grammy Awards for this spring’s ceremony, the New Orleans native — who seems to carry the spirit of the city everywhere — has recorded what really should be the Album of the Year. (It’s nominated as such.)
While his previous records have leaned or wholly been focused on jazz, this record is creative and original, unafraid to add interludes that seem to have personal meaning. The album will thrill most lovers of R&B, jazz, soul—and does so with great meaning and boundless jubilance.
That’s true from the opening number “We Are,” which features a breakdown by Batiste’s very own high school band, the widely admired St. Augustine High School Marching 100, David Gauthier, the Gospel Soul Children’s Choir and others.
The song is an anthem for Black Americans—and anyone who feels alone—that answers our tumultuous times and the era of police violence with overwhelming, abundant soul:
The ghetto is full of stars Bless them, shine from afar On days when it's hard, and always Nana knows how to sing And sooth the soul From summer to fall, and always
We are, we are, we are We are the golden ones (Oh-oh) We are, we are, we are We are the chosen ones…
We're never alone, no, no We're never alone
Then there’s “Cry,” a beautiful, funky, roots-rock song that makes you feel good even though it’s about being down.
The same is true of “Sing,” on which Batiste’s voice wears a lovely falsetto. A new deluxe version of the We Are album features soul singer Tori Kelly on this one.
Batiste sends tributes galore to friends and neighbors from New Orleans such as Trombone Shorty and PJ Morton — along the great Mavis Staples on a short inspirational number.
Maybe the best-known cut from this album might be, “Freedom,” accompanied by a big-production video that captures some of the spirit of New Orleans’ neighborhoods. Batiste reminds people that while music makes you think and reflect, it’s also OK to shake off those blues and cut a rug.
And there’s “I Need You,” his semi-biographical hymn to love.
The depth of these joyful performances shows why Batiste is one of the top talents in popular music and beyond. Batiste also won an Academy Award for writing and performing much of the music in the Disney-Pixar film Soul, with Trent Reznor (yep, that Trent Reznor) and Atticus Ross.
Hard to imagine any band could become worthy heirs to one of Memphis’ most precious jewels, Booker T. and The MG’s.
But darned if The City Champs come as close as any I’ve ever heard.
On their 2021 album, Luna ’68, the trio of guitarist Joe Restivo (who also plays with The Bo-Keys and soul man Don Bryant), organist Al Gamble (who plays with St. Paul and the Broken Bones among others) and drummer George Sluppick (who has played with the Chris Robinson Brotherhood and others) produce funky, strutting instrumentals with great melodies, delivered with a soulful rock ‘n roll edge.
There's also a little spaciness thrown in for good Memphis measure.
Booker T. Jones, Steve Cropper, and also the late Donald “Duck” Dunn and Al Jackson (whose beats could be sampled on every rap or hip-hop song from now to eternity) would be proud.