October 04, 2023
September was a busy month for country and country-ish releases on Bandcamp, with several albums worthy of inclusion on this list that couldn’t quite squeeze in. That’s a testament to the strength of the albums below, which range from traditional country to rollicking roots rock to classic bluegrass and beyond. Enjoy!
Valley of Heart’s Delight
To put it plainly: Margo Cilker is a stunning songwriting talent. On her new album Valley of Heart’s Delight, she sings evocatively of her deep roots in California’s Bay Area, her adopted homes in the rural Pacific Northwest, and the alluring freedom of a life spent wandering the wide open spaces in between (and beyond). Musically, she’s as wide-ranging as the Americana genre itself, capable of tender folk ballads, boisterous blues rock and bucolic country with equal aplomb. Cilker sounds like the future Lucinda Williams of the West—a high compliment, but one well within her reach.
Alongside folks like Sierra Ferrell, Colter Wall, and Melissa Carper, Nick Shoulders is part of a wave of relatively young artists making very old sounds. Based out of the roots-music hotspot of Northwest Arkansas, Shoulder’s take on country is grounded squarely in the early to mid-20th century, with heavy doses of jazz-y swing, Southern blues and gospel, early rockabilly and unabashed yodeling. With an extensive background in heavy music, Shoulders also imbues his unique style with an unmistakable punk spirit that has made him a standout, even among that aforementioned wave.
Jim Lauderdale and the Po’ Ramblin’ Boys
The Long and Lonesome Letting Go
What do you get when two Best of Country alumni come together and collaborate? In this case, you get one of the best bluegrass albums of the year. Jim Lauderdale and Po’ Ramblin’ Boys both made terrific records in 2022, and this year they’re back, side by side, with a set of 12 songs in the classic bluegrass style. Lauderdale is a proven roots-music chameleon, Po’ Ramblin’ are some of the best pickers in the business, and together, they’re a finely tuned high-lonesome sound machine with nothing but open road ahead.
It’s hard to imagine a more effective endorsement for an up-and-coming Americana musician than an effusive tweet from Jason Isbell, who shouted out Jobi Riccio in August: “she’s GOOD,” he wrote. And he’s right. Riccio’s debut album is packed wall to wall with rock-solid country and folk songs that gracefully combine their maker’s two main strengths, namely a natural knack for memorable melodies and a gift for infusing her stories with raw, recognizable emotion. The result is Whiplash, an album that somehow feels both precisely detailed and universally relatable at the same time.
Nashville veteran Scott Southworth wastes no time making a splash on his latest album. Its opening track is not only a pitch-perfect example of traditionally minded honky-tonk music, it also namechecks the genre’s rising (and risen) stars—Tyler Childers, Nikki Lane, Sturgill Simpson, Charley Crockett—within its first 90 seconds. From there, he infuses his muscular and melodic sound with oodles of humor, authentic twang and the five food groups of country music: fishin’, lovin’, leavin’, drinkin’, and brawlin’. Now that’s a well-rounded diet.
While so many current country artists lean into the genre’s truly foundational sounds, Logan Ledger has headed off in a different direction. On his new album Golden State, the Nashville-based singer-songwriter sets a course for the highly stylized sound of smooth California country-rock, and he doesn’t stop until he fully inhabits that scene. Ledger’s most useful tools in this pursuit are his soulful croon and a bunch of lush instrumental arrangements that’ll transport you back a few decades if you let ‘em. To join Ledger on this trip, check out the sublime second track, “There Goes My Mind,” one of the grooviest country songs of the year.
At their core, Vivian Leva and Riley Calcagno are a bare-bones string band—the former on guitar, the latter on fiddle, banjo, and so on, both of them singing—who play old-time folk music inspired by Leva’s roots in Appalachia. On their new album, however, they worked with producer Alex Bingham from Hiss Golden Messenger, who brings a lush and dreamy vibe to the proceedings, turning Viv & Riley into a kaleidoscopic roots-pop act with a whole new horizon of possibilities. Imaginary People sounds like if Gillian Welch and David Rawlings made their Golden Hour!
Will Johnson is an understated legend of the American indie folk rock scene, not only for his own bands (Centro-matic, South San Gabriel) but also for his collaborative nature and his ability to fit into ensembles such as Monsters of Folk, New Multitudes and, currently, Jason Isbell’s 400 Unit. He is, as they say, your favorite musician’s favorite musician. To understand why, dig into No Ordinary Crown, a typically consistent set of songs that walk the line between dimly lit folk hymns and dusky, reverberant rock. No matter his mode, Johnson makes music that is patient and self-assured—the sound of a man who has done it all.
John Surge is a veteran of the Los Angeles country scene, and he and his band are fluent in the gleaming, dance-floor-friendly brand of California twang-pop made famous by Buck Owens and Dwight Yoakam, among others. To make their new album, however, they traveled to Floresville, Texas and worked with a gang of heavy hitters (Brennen Leigh, Floyd Domino) to make an album that seems to jump out of the speakers and into your ears. Surge is a master of melodic country, and Almost Time is like a full dish of ear candy.
Bob Lefevre & the Already Gone
Their name left a bit to be desired, but 25 years later, Slobberbone—Denton, Texas band that made brawny, Replacements-inspired roots rock—feel like the giant of late ’90s alt-country that never quite got the due they deserved. Maybe it’s coming, though, because you can hear echoes of Slobberbone’s sound in Bob Lefevre & the Already Gone. On Two, the Laramie, Wyoming band unloads a truckload of guitars, amps, and crunchy riffs, yes, but also a whole tackle box of sharp, irresistible hooks. This is country rock with emphasis on the “rock.”