With only half a year gone, 2017 is already shaping up to be a memorable one on the Americana music scene. Established stars in the genre have released new albums that solidified their place atop the Americana world while talented youngsters have staked their claim to be the next generation's answer to John Prine or Emmylou Harris. These ten albums represent the best Americana has to offer in the first half of 2017.
By the time 2017 is over, Whitney Rose will likely have released the full-length follow up to her 2015 breakthrough Heartbreaker of the Year. But January's South Texas Suite was a nice palate cleanser until that album drops. A love poem to her new hometown of Austin, Rose brought in a host of that city's most fabled sidemen for an album that is all Whitney Rose, Texas-style.
For over two decades now, The Mavericks have lived up to their name, managing to stand out as unusual even in the experimental playground that is Americana. But the one thing they'd never done is go truly independent, until their new album Brand New Day. The inaugural release on their new Mono Mundo label, Brand New Day not only doesn't suffer from the lack of label support, but Raul Malo and his squad seem to thrive on having no one to answer to but themselves.
The Honeycutters have always been vocalist and primary songwriter Amanda Anne Platt's baby. This year, they made it official, adding Platt's name to the band's and making their new moniker Amanda Anne Platt and the Honeycutters, the title of their newest release on Organic Records. Platt's keen storyteller's eye is on display here with album standout tracks like “Learning How to Love Him” and the celebratory “Birthday Song.”
Fans could be forgiven for not knowing that Mockingbird Soul is Will Kimbrough and Brigitte DeMeyer's debut. The pair have collaborated on tour and guested on each other's solo albums for a decade. Taking full advantage of that long working relationship, Mockingbird Soul revels in that easy chemistry, stripping away everything but two voices, one guitar, and a lot of tight songwriting.
It's great for established masters to release noteworthy new albums, but the health of any genre depends on the quality of output from the next generation. Ireland's I Draw Slow is proof of a healthy Americana. Blending the easy harmonies of Gillian Welch and Dave Rawlings with the family-band closeness of The Carter Family, sibling duo Dave and Louise Holden display a maturity that belies their years on standout tracks like “Garage Flowers” and “Don't Wake the Children.”
If any musical genre was custom-made for troubled times, it's the blues, so Son Volt chose an appropriate muse for their newest release, Notes of Blue. Jay Farrar's world weary voice and his riffs on the unique guitar tunings of Mississippi Fred McDowell, Skip James, and Nick Drake make for an album made for 2017. Son Volt is one of Americana's most reliable innovators and Notes of Blue keeps that trend going.
John Moreland recently made news by responding to a Twitter follower with “I ain't country and I ain't sad.” Certainly Moreland has written enough cathartic ballads that the fan could be forgiven for the mistake. But on Big Bad Luv, the punk rocker turned acoustic troubadour rediscovers his rock and roll side, bringing an electric fire to tracks like “Amen, So Be It”, though the melancholy is far from missing, with songs like “Latchkey Kid” and “Lies I Chose to Believe” hewing closer to the material on Moreland's 2015 High on Tulsa Heat.
For most of her career, Rhiannon Giddens has made her name recreating the music of others, with her band Carolina Chocolate Drops dedicated to reviving the black string band tradition and her last solo album, Tomorrow is My Turn celebrating the women who influenced Giddens' career. Freedom Highway is mostly Giddens in her own words and, as has been glimpsed in her previous originals, those words are profound. Standout tracks like “At the Purchaser's Option” and “Better Get It Right the First Time” show that Rhiannon Giddens is anything but a covers artist.
Best known as the former frontman for '80s hitmakers Men at Work, Colin Hay has successfully forged his own solo career over the past decade and Fierce Mercy is his finest work as a solo artist. Hay's quirky sense of humor pervades. Who else could write a tender lite rock ballad about a UFO sighting (“Blue Bay Moon”)? But Hay can also be serious and delivers a serious gut punch with “I'm Walking Here”, using Dustin Hoffman's iconic movie line to express outrage at the shooting death of Trayvon Martin.
Jason Isbell may be lauded by many as the savior of true country music from its current pop leanings, but he nearly always refers to The 400 Unit as “my rock and roll band” and his first album since 2011 to contain the band's name, Nashville Sound, amps up that rock and roll side. Songs like “Cumberland Gap” have a distinct Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers vibe. After two highly introspective albums, Isbell finally finds himself ready to join the world, with the birth of his daughter making Isbell more concerned about the toxic political and social climate his little girl will grow up in. There's a half-year left for someone to de-throne Isbell from the top of the Americana 2017 mountain, but Nashville Sound is strong enough to make that seem unlikely.