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  • By Alan Richard


Updated: Jan 15, 2023

Black women ruled American roots music in 2021. The beautiful, striking, courageous presence of singer-songwriters Allison Russell, Queen Esther, Mickey Guyton, Shemekia Copeland, Adia Victoria and others, represented the most important development in country, soul, blues music and beyond.

Indeed, Black women have become the creative leaders of genres that shunned them from the start.

Daring to expand the bounds of country music — especially since much of country is partly but directly derived from Black Americans’ influence and expression — many artists of color are pushing for change, despite the reluctance and outright hostility from some quarters of the industry.

What dawned on me in 2022 is that a surprising number of these artists in country music — and other performers with some of the best roots-music releases of the year — also identify as LGBTQ+ people or close allies.

By adding even more colors to the rainbow of roots music, these artists are challenging our notions about popular music and our society. This requires artistic courage of a special kind right about now, as our civil rights and freedom seems in question and even under threat.

“It’s really exciting to look around me… and see this critical mass of folks who are expressing identity, whether that’s queerness or sexual orientation or … disability or indigeneity,” said bluegrass singer-songwriter Justin Hiltner, whose remarkable new album 1992 is among my favorite records of the year.

Hiltner grew up in rural Ohio, playing the bluegrass festival circuit and attending evangelical churches as a child. While LGBTQ+ people live everywhere, of course, he says the movement in roots, country and adjacent genres feels more substantial than ever.

“Now it feels like queer folks are taking control of the narrative, writing ourselves into history … capitalizing on our agency and our autonomy,” Hiltner said in an interview this month. “For so long I felt like an island unto myself … I didn’t think I would ever meet queer people who did what I did — what I do.”

That's now changing in corners of music that have never seen this light before. .

Fresh off the road from a lengthy run playing banjo in the traveling, super-dark (but Tony-winning) revival ofOklahoma!, Hiltner is a co-founder and board member of Bluegrass Pride, an organization and festival for LGBT+ bluegrass artists and followers. He also was featured prominently on the NPR podcast Dolly Parton’s America.

Roots music has always been subversive in American culture, Hiltner notes, but the emergence of more LGBT+ artists across the genres who speak to their lives in new ways represents an important moment in popular music, seeping more into the mainstream.

“It feels more overt” these days, Hiltner said, “and very intentional and an extension of folks’ selfhoods.”

With that, check out some of my favorite music from 2022 by artists of color, LGBT+ performers, and other folks, too.

Justin Hiltner (photos by Laura E. Partain)

Justin Hiltner, 1992


Justin Hiltner & Jon Weisberger, Room at the Table

There’s no mistaking Hiltner for anything other than bluegrass. He plays the five-string banjo in the classic, punchy style of Earl Scruggs, but approaches many of his songs with the heart of singer-songwriter, telling stories of love and heartbreak and demanding social justice rarely heard in bluegrass — or any related category of music.

On the title track of his remarkable album, 1992, just released in December, Hiltner describes survivor’s guilt, which he feels every day after his battle with cancer, by pondering the year of his birth and the many AIDS-related deaths of LGBT+ people in the same era:

Maybe you had kind and loving care

Or maybe they gave judging sighs and stares

While safe below—or safe above

A newborn child was wrapped in love

A happy family, joyful, unaware

What Billy Strings is doing for bluegrass in attracting massive audiences of jam-band types and fraternity boys alike, Hiltner is fostering greater interest in the genre among LGBT+ voices, other serious roots musicians, and building bridges with more traditional followers of this music. He’s the first young man I’ve ever heard who brings his full life and experience into bluegrass songwriting and performing, except perhaps for the graceful-and-groundbreaking Sam Gleaves.

That, my friends, is something to behold.

Hiltner plays Benson Street on his banjo, but it sounds like a folk or alt-country song that could easily be picked on an acoustic guitar. Written with his close friend and musical hero Molly Tuttle, the song is a lost lover’s lament whose longing is matched only by the scent of crepe myrtles, chorus of cicadas and smothering heat of a Nashville summer night:

The silence between us keeps calling me back here If I knocked on your front door, what would I say?...

I long to see you, but it’s not what I need So I walk down Benson Street.

Hiltner is also candid when discussing his disability, brought on by intensive treatments for the colorectal cancer that robbed him of a year or more of movement and creativity. He’s building community among people with disabilities and sharing his newfound understanding of others’ situation. For instance, most stages in music clubs can’t accommodate a performer using a wheelchair, Hiltner points out.

I Cry Every Day Now is a cancer song, he said, but its theme resonates with everyone who lived through the pandemic, or felt most any kind of loss:

I cry every day now

Like I did over you

It doesn’t feel familiar

But I’m weary of it, too

I wish it were that temporary

This grief I’m walking through

I wish I had his problems

The kid you thought you knew

On Hannah, he recalls visiting his father’s fading hometown near the Canadian border in North Dakota, in which he describes a great loneliness and yearning for home:

Not even trains go back The elevator’s empty, forsaken by the rats There ain’t no hustle and no bustle City lights are hours and hours away I’d trade them in most any day

I never thought I’d find The place I ran away from, stuck inside my mind I dream of Hannah, North Dakota longing while I slave my days away In buildings tall and cold and gray

Go back to Hannah She will never do you wrong Her love will always span the Months and years that have come and gone Go back to Hannah

Oligarchs is a shouter in the tradition of legendary Ralph Stanley and other bluegrass players from southwest Virginia. When Hiltner sing-shouts, he directs tremendous anger at some of the evil forces in American society:

Come meet my fists, ye nationalists, come meet my fists

You’ll pay for this, ye capitalists, you’ll pay for this…

Come out the dark, ye oligarchs, come out the dark

A different direction: Lest you paint him into one musical corner, take a listen to one of the most stirring traditional bluegrass releases of the year: Hiltner’s six-song EP of classic gospel bluegrass and stunning originals, Room at the Table, recorded with his friend and longtime bluegrass compatriot Jon Weisberger on mandolin, bass, and harmony vocals.

Hiltner reclaims the classic Softly and Tenderly, while the duo’s own newer contemporary gospel-bluegrass numbers such as Send Me Lord, Send Me and its thrilling, layered harmony singing — fit perfectly into their musical tradition while also widening the circle.

For Hiltner, his two very distinct albums from 2022 simply show the complexity of his own journey in music, culture, and identity — a young man from the Appalachia, a leftist queer, culturally attached to the religion of his relatives and neighbors, respectful of tradition, and a boundary-breaker in bluegrass no different from Dolly Parton, Brenda Lee, Ray Charles, and Emmylou Harris and Gram Parsons in country music.

“For so long I felt like an island unto myself,” Hiltner said. “I’m still daily unlearning the internalized or subconscious beliefs that I had… (about) who could play this music,” he said.

On the title song to Room at the Table, he sets a place for himself and many others:

If you are broken, if you are broken

If you are broken in two

There’s room at the table for you

And with his two accomplished releases in 2022, Hiltner has found liberation in expressing the fullness of his life and music. “That’s the most true to myself that I could really be,” he said.

The Black Opry artists and Black Opry Revue

The emergence of the Black Opry’s stable of country and roots artists — and the community they’re building and expanding — could become one of popular music’s most important developments in many years.

Holly G. (as she prefers to be called) was a flight attendant living in Virginia when she started the Black Opry website and social media channel in 2021 as a virtual home for Black artists in country music and their fans.

“I literally just wanted to find other people to talk to about country music,” including “other queer people,” said Holly G., who has made the full-time move to Nashville since then. “We all thought we were the only one.”

Black Opry founder Holly G., second from left, and artists Aaron Vance, Nikki Morgan, Julie Williams and the Kentucky Gentlemen at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, with museum writer Ang Stefano at far left.

After the protests broke out nationwide after police officers took George Floyd’s life in Minneapolis, Holly G. began to give her favorite music a more critical eye. She saw virtually no people of color in country music videos or on awards shows.

She began to meet a surprising number of Black country and roots-music artists online. “Their talent is so wide and deep,” she said.

A place of their own: Many of the Black Opry artists didn’t live in Music City and lacked access to the city’s music scene or opportunities to network with music publishers, record labels and others. Even at the relatively progressive Americanafest music conference, many artists of color weren’t invited to parties or showcases.

So, Holly G. decided to give the Black Opry artists a place of their own.

For the past two festivals, she rented a house, giving musicians a place to gather, swap songs, hang out, and meet other artists and reputable folks on the business side of the industry. “We had this house full of a diverse group of people,” every night, all night, she said, where everyone could feel “safe and welcome and could connect with people.”

Seeing the community Black artists were building, some LGBT+ musicians began to join the club, too. While offering a spiritual home of sorts, the move’s literally paying off.

The gatherings led to a relationship with Virginia Prater, a respected booking agent, who has helped the Black Opry artists book at least 60 shows in 2022. Black Opry performers were called at the last minute to join Alicia Keys on stage during her most recent show in Nashville. Singer-songwriter Joy Clark has gone on tour opening for the brilliant Allison Russell.

“There’s no way it’s only been a year and a half” since the Black Opry began, Holly G. said during last fall’s Americanafest.

Come on over: At the Black Opry House last fall, I met many accomplished and developing artists worth following — Black and white and others, gay and straight and others. Young guys in blue jeans and baseball caps hanging out in the kitchen with gender-fluid artists and visitors. There were handshakes, big laughs, some heavy tears, and lots of warm hugs and support.

Singer-songwriter Leon Timbo sings to a roomful of friends at the Black Opry House during last fall's Americanafest. Jett Holden looks on, at right, in the black hat.

I spoke at the house with the freedom-folk singer Crys Mathews, a Washington, D.C., transplant finding community in her new home city; New England-based banjoist Jake Blount (check out his latest album, the ambitious The New Faith); and white singer-songwriter Jonathan Byrd from North Carolina, an excellent writer and performer who could mentor some of the younger artists.

New York-based singer-songwriter and actress Queen Esther and her husband Douglas, whom I first met after a Black Opry panel at the 2021 festival and later profiled, mingled with a roomful of the young artists. (Watch for Queen Esther’s fascinating forthcoming album exploring race and memory through the Gettysburg battlefield. The album could have the same depth, artistry and accessibility as Allison Russell’s Outside Child, one of 2021’s best.)

There was also singer Leon Timbo, strumming a guitar and singing his tender, folksy, confessional R&B; The Kentucky Gentlemen, twins Brandon and Derek Campbell with long hair, big voices and big hearts; and psychedelic country-rock singer Nicky Diamonds, who was stir-frying collards in a wok in the Black Opry House kitchen for some reason.

Adeem the Artist hung out on the porch (more on their album further down on this page), Florida roots-rocker Van Plating and her husband, and their friend Olivia Bolger, a great young singer who performs as liv.. (More on them in future stories.)

Tae Lewis, with a tremendous voice and joyful demeanor and writes and sings pop-country songs with the interesting and talented Chris Housman and Tylar Lewis (who sang his catchy single, Stay Wild), belted out Randy Houser’s Like a Cowboy like he was singing to an arena.

There’s a “crazy sense of community” in the Black Opry movement, Nicky Diamonds told me after the festival. Growing up playing old-timey music and country blues, he formerly played in the San Antonio-based rock duo Lonely Horse and mostly listens to death metal and world music.

Van Plating, at left, plays for friends at the Black Opry House.

“What I think is cool is that anybody’s talents and individuality are welcome,” he said, “lifting each other up.”

Breaking new ground: At last fall’s festival, some of the Black Opry’s cadre of performers knocked the mixed audience of musicians, tourists, and fraternity guys at the Station Inn slap across their tables.

Jett Holden introduced one of his songs by coming out to the audience, stunned the crowd with his modern lyrics on race and violence and his incredible vocal range, on songs like Taxadermy.

Nikki Morgan at the Station Inn

Nikki Morgan, a rockabilly-blues singer with a versatile voice that seems influenced by the likes of Tracy Chapman and Johnny Cash, emotion grew during her numbers.

“I’ve got 24 hours and not enough time to get it right,” she sang. (Her website says she plays real country—"think Dolly Parton and Tina Turner put into one Carolina Soul.”)

Nicky Diamonds played three songs with a style all his own, something like Lenny Kravitz meets Townes Van Zandt.

Meanwhile, a who’s-who of top Americana artists were abuzz in the corner — but quiet for the Black Opry performers’ songs and congratulatory when they stepped out of the spotlight — Allison Russell, Chris Pierce and others. David Rawlings came in as the show ended.

Black Opry Revue artists also appeared on a remarkable panel at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum for Americanafest in 2022. Museum writer Ang Stefano Zimmer expertly interviewed Holly G. and five of the movement’s young artists.

Then the artists performed: Aaron Vance, with his impressive guitar licks, strong voice, and especially thick Southern accent; The Kentucky Gentlemen with their affinity for pop-country that seems heavily influenced by 1980s and 90s R&B; singer-songwriter Nikki Morgan, back for more; and poignant young contemporary country-pop songwriter Julie Williams.

Vance, a native Mississippian who has released three albums, said he’ll never forget how he felt on his visit to the Black Opry House. “Not alone, not by myself,” he said. “Hallelujah!”

The Kentucky Gentlemen perform at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, as Julie Williams looks on.

“Set the tone by listening to your heart,” he sang in Set the Tone, which cites his father, a preacher, and his grandfather, a farmer. “It’s gonna be the right way every time.”

Williams, a Louisiana native and Duke University graduate released songs on Duke University label who writes both light and candid songs about young womanhood and sexual violence.

Her dream for herself and other Black Opry artists? “I want us to be writing some of our stories,” Williams said. “As we come into the light, so many people will see themselves.”

There’s so much more to share about the Black Opry movement and what it might become. I’m working on a full magazine-style feature on this important movement.

Adeem the Artist, White Trash Revelry

I spotted Adeem the Artist on the porch of the Black Opry House one night during AmericanaFest, but I didn’t know who they were at the time. On their 2021 album Cast Iron Pansexual, Adeem describes their self as a pansexual artist with Marxist views, “a stomach full of barbeque and existential dread” and a “connoisseur of cornbread.”

The cover of Adeem the Artist's new album

With their newest album, White Trash Revelry, released just weeks ago in December, Adeem has begun to light up the Americana and country-music world, and for good reason.

Recorded in Knoxville, Tennessee, with musical friends such as Joy Clark, Mya Byrne, Jake Blount, Lizzie No and Jett Holden, the record is a daring, groundbreaking set of songs about being a gender fluid storyteller from a Carolina mill town full of trailer parks, the Lord Jesus and queer love. Of all those identities, Adeem’s Southern-ness is the most vivid of all.

Their (Adeem’s preferred pronoun) type of deeply moving, clever, intelligent, and sometimes hilarious lyrics have rarely been sung in popular music, but Adeem’s words dance atop memorable melodies that fit snugly into the Americana/alt-country mainstream. I haven’t heard such a listenable alt-country album since some of Jason Isbell’s best, and the record may only show the beginning of Adeem's potential.

On Heritage of Arrogance, Adeem describes a complicated South with an ever-near presence of racial hostility boiling that threatens to spill into a street “lined with rebel flags,” an image not unfamiliar to some of us:

I saw the Klan once with a child's eyes

Down the street where I would play

And angry Black people on the other side of the road

with clenched fists raised…

I been learning our true history and I hate it

Two sides of a coin implies

there ain’t no better side

It says racism and justice are equally justified

And I know I didn’t ask to be born white…

But it’s on us to make it right…

I saw Rodney King on the TV screen

Turn slowly into Trayvon

I heard my parents make excuses

For the man who fired the gun

Adeem revels in Southern ethos and all its haunted beauty, terror and art. On Baptized in Well Spirits, they sing of watching the old Johnny Cash variety show, “bathing in the light of the TV glow/He sang, Walk the Line and he sang it slow/Like he knew what was on my mind.”

Make no mistake, dear reader: Adeem’s Middle of a Heart could be a major country hit. With its catchy musical hooks and direct narrative — like many in the Americana world, which Nashville once tapped much more regularly — the song’s narrative focuses on guns, war, and the violence back home:

Daddy’s gonna buy me a brand new gun Show me how to clean it in the yard

Papaw says he can’t wait

to see me fire with that steady arm

A couple hours of waiting and some heavy concentration,

Put a bullet through the middle of a heart…

But nights get longer & days get hard

It hits like a bullet through the middle of a heart

… I didn’t have a grudge to bear with any of the people there

But I still came home haunted

by the lives my duty cost

I felt the bullets tip against my rib

And put a bullet through the middle of a heart…

On Going to Hell, Adeem cleverly examines race, religion and myth:

I met the devil down at the crossroads

And I asked if we could make a deal

He seemed puzzled, so I told him the story

And he said, “None of that shit’s real.

It’s true I met Robert Johnson…

But white folk would rather give the devil praise

Than acknowledge a black man’s worth.”

And check out these lines from Redneck, Unread Hicks:

Everybody gather round,

we got another one here

It’s got the pronouns listed,

it’s a genuine queer

Singing “Black Lives Matter”

to a Jimmie Rodgers melody, y’all

Well, these rednecks & unread hicks

ain’t the same around here anymore

There’s a trans femme Trans Am mandolin riff

A firebird, registered socialist

But they’ll still outdrink you on a Tennessee Saturday night

from an old fruit jar

Yeah, these rednecks & unread hicks

organizing protest in the trailer park

Most remarkably, Adeem also shows moments of empathy for relatives and former neighbors who likely see the world very different from them — with a brand of politics wound up in white backlash, and a religion that attempts to grab onto while tumbling into society’s margins.

Adeem the Artist

The narrator is burdened by poverty and struggle on Books & Records, living in a world of creditors calling, the rising cost of rent, and grieving the loss of time to read, listen, think and learn. “The way it goes, I doubt we'll be here by December,” Adeem sings with a nod to Merle. “Oh, Lord, there's got to be a better way.”

On Run This Town, Adeem sings: “Yeah I been concocting a plan/that I reckon can change the social landscape/We’re gonna run this town into the goddamn ground/but we’re gonna run it.”

Painkillers & Magic weaves scenes of drug abuse and salvation together too well to be completely made up:

Peggy has a soft voice

Singing from the porch while I play with the boys…

Gentle and sad and rejoicing

Praise be the lord’s savage sorcery

This coalescing of holiness & horror,

Addiction, loss, & blessing

Then on My America, Adeem slips into a character asking legitimate questions while still marching toward danger and tyranny:

I am worried for my children,

though I don’t know how to tell them…

Do the places I found meaning still mean anything at all?

Do the values I’ve upheld hold any value now?

I am worried and afraid in a myriad of ways

And I want to see the future, but I don’t know how

Mary Bragg, Mary Bragg

Love Each Other, the lead track on Mary Bragg’s self-titled album released last year, is remarkable in its intelligence and simplicity.

With a few choice words, Bragg succinctly describes the fractures in American society that both endanger our country’s foundation and relationships such as Bragg’s family in south Georgia.

While the lead track written with Steve Seskin brims with hope, much of Bragg’s album is reflective of her divorce a few years back and the type of life changes many of us face.

Mary Bragg's self-titled album from 2022.

It’s my Americana-roots music and, hell, my pop-rock — single of the year:

My brother called me up last week, it'd been a while

I used to tell him everything...

I can’t forget how bad it got last Thanksgiving…

He said things that he knew would push every button in me and I couldn’t tell help but tell him how I feel…

Wish we could love each other, love each other

Instead of always getting into it…

Wish we could love each other through it

Bragg, a friend of mine, had become one of Nashville’s most respected singer-songwriters before she moved to New York for the Berklee College of Music’s graduate program in production and engineering. Bragg is also becoming an in-demand producer, working on Grace Pettis’ terrific roots-rock album Working Woman, one of our favorites of 2021.

Much of Bragg's new album is reflective of her divorce a few years back and the changes in life many of us face, but always with a thread of hope. It's her fourth thoroughly strong collection in a row, counting her 2021 EP of covers. Her production is tastefully restrained despite using vocal effects and sparkles with smart arrangements that make the music sound effortless and put Bragg’s expressive voice and powerful lyrics at the fore. No guitar solos are needed.

Hard Time, written and sung with the terrific Caroline Spence (I especially love her 2019 album Mint Condition), speaks to difficult days, whether in a pandemic or lawyer’s office.

On Same Kid, Bragg pleas to a parent or relative finding it difficult to accept someone’s sexuality. These days, it also holds meaning for people becoming more open about gender identity:

Mary Bragg, at right, sings with her singer-songwriter friend Kyshona, at last fall's Americanafest.

Same feelings that fit like a glove

I love like I always did

I’m still the same kid I ever was

I'm still the same kid

Bragg’s Panorama would be a strong mainstream country single if anyone would pay attention. Riding a ferris wheel giving her "a four-state view of the whole wide world," Bragg’s character, "a starry-eyed pollyanna," looks beyond the bounds of her hometown so she can see straight. The world is hers.

Colorblind, a stunner written and sung in nearly a whisper with Peter Groenwald, is about the seasons of love, rather than race or identity:

Blue, what is blue

when you keep it away from the light

what is light

when you circle the sun

but you can’t tell the day from the night

Did you know it

that we were holding on too long?

I should have owned it

when I knew we were wrong

you showed your colors to me

I pretended to be colorblind

Another year, another Miko Marks album on my favorites list. It’s because the woman is great. Having been chewed up by the Nashville labels two decades ago, she’s back with only her third album since reentering the music business.

While her 2021 album, Race Records, was one of my favorites from that year, included cover of songs by Willie Nelson, Patti Page and even Stephen Foster. Marks’ settles into more of her own sound on her latest, blurring the lines of country, rock and soul on a collection of mostly originals. (Read more about Marks in our story on one of her 2022 performances.)

Marks plans to tour this year with Rissi Palmer, another country music pioneer now set to follow her own creative muse and the host of Color Me Country, a show highlighting roots artists of color, on Apple Country.

William Bell, One Day Closer to Home (single)

The latest single from R&B legend William Bell is nearly a straight-up blues, an offering from his forthcoming full album set for release in 2023.

A bit more gritty than Mr. Bell’s outstanding This Is Where I Live, his 2016 album that won a Grammy Award, produced by John Leventhal, I was excited to interview the former Stax Records artist and songwriter last fall. Check out my feature on Mr. Bell.

Herman Hitson, Let the Gods Sing

I’ve been blessed to visit several times with Herman (or Hermon) Hitson in 2022, listening to his stories for hours at a time. Best known for his association with Jimi Hendrix — so much so that Hitson’s own recordings have been released under Hendrix’s name.

His 2022 “comeback” album, Let the Gods Sing — his first for a major label under his own name—is a grooving, rockin’ good time. Hitson released the record on Big Legal Mess Records through a partnership of Memphis producer Bruce Watson, formerly of Fat Possum Records and now his own Bible and Tire Recording Co. imprint, and the Music Makers Relief Foundation in North Carolina.

The backing band is stellar: guitarist Will Sexton is the co-producer, leading a group of talented young white musicians in Memphis, including guitarist Matt Ross-Spang, Will McCarley on drums, and Mark Stuart on bass. Art Edmaiston arranges the horns, and Hitson is joined by indy-rock hero Jack Oblivian and singer Marcella Simien on one track.

Watch for my in-depth feature on Hitson coming soon. To say he’s a cool cat with a stories to tell is quite the understatement.

Kelsey Waldon, No Regular Dog

Kelsey Waldon returns with her second excellent album on the John Prine family’s Oh Boy Records label, investing in this wonderful songwriter’s journey.

Produced by Shooter Jennings, she sings and writes on her new album with authority and grace about her Kentucky roots and the state of life in rural America. She also continues to spread her musical wings, and this album sticks with you on repeated, with subtle, understated melodic and lyrical gems throughout.

I first got into Waldon’s music through her stunning pandemic-era EP of freedom songs, on which she drafts friends Kyshona, Adia Victoria, Devon Gilfillian and others to sing covers of protest classics by Nina Simone, Kris Kristofferson, Hazel Dickens, Neil Young, and one of her mentors, John Prine. It was one of my favorites of 2021.

Shemekia Copeland, Done Come Too Far

For a queen of the blues, Shemekia Copeland continues to make records that challenge herself and her listeners with songs that both reflect traditional blues and the Southern soul-blues scene’s sense of humor with poignant statements about race and equality in our society.

On her latest, again produced by Nashville guitarist-songwriter Will Kimbrough, she heads to Memphis and records some tracks with members of the legendary Hi Rhythm Section at Scott Bomar’s Electraphonic Studios.

Tommy Womack, 30 Years Shot Straight to Hell: A Tommy Womack Anthology

One of Nashville’s smartest and most versatile rock ‘n rollers and singer-songwriters, Womack gathers his greatest hits. It’s as much worth exploring as the catalogues of Todd Snider and other troubadours. (Read our feature on Womack’s show with Marshall Chapman and Will Kimbrough from 2022.)

Lee Fields, Sentimental Fool

I’m still getting into this one, but veteran soul man Fields soundseven better than his younger years. His songs are more memorable and powerful, too.

St. Paul & the Broken Bones, Alien Coast

The band from Birmingham, Alabama, whose stuff is creative but weird at times—like Otis Redding performing in an avant garde musical or something—gets extra funky on its latest album, produced by the gifted and lovely Matt Ross-Spang.

Lyle Lovett, 12th of June

The tall-haired Texas troubadour returns with his first studio album in years, singing and writing of the meaning — and silliness — of parenthood. A father for the first time, I'll have more soon from Lovett's interview and performance with Elizabeth Cook during Americanafest at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum.

Jon Byrd, Golden Colorado (single)

A gorgeous, lonesome country-throwback track from one of Nashville's best hard-country singers and gut-strong guitar players — and surely the only one who worked on his Ph.D. and studied the papers of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (See my in-depth profile of Byrd from last year.)

Jon Byrd sings and plays guitar with Paul Niehaus

Elizabeth King, I Got a Love

I’m not sure what Elizabeth King, the sacred soul queen of Memphis now in her golden years, thinks about gay people or anything like that. My guess is she’ll still love on you. Mrs. King surely loves people through song, setting the stage afire with holy flames on her second solo album, I Got a Love.

Elizabeth King performs in Memphis.

Backed again by guitarist-bandleader Will Sexton and some Memphis all-stars, and produced by Bruce Watson at his Delta Sonic Studios, Mrs. King moves her sound forward on her second album since returning to regular recording after a 40-year break.

Mrs. King returned after a decades-long hiatus after Pastor Juan Shipp’s small gospel record labels were rediscovered by collectors. Catch Pastor Shipp every Saturday morning on WYXR radio in Memphis and online, for some funky gospel and good conversation.

In 2021, I wrote about Mrs. King and the Sacred Soul movement in Memphis for No Depression magazine.

Todd Snider, Live: Return of the Storyteller

Snider's latest includes great stories about his old friend and mentor John Prine, whom Snider opened for countless times.

Eli “Paperboy” Reed, Down Every Road

A blue eyed-soul singer from Brooklyn performing soul-shouting versions of Merle Haggard songs? Yes, please.


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