It’s a common sentiment – the claim someone likes “everything except country and rap.” It seems that, to some degree, this reputation has been earned through tribalistic fanbases, cultural commercialization, and the subsequent, and regular, use of stereotypes and clichés. And as someone who grew up on mostly post-hardcore and emo music, and whose only idea of folk was The Lumineers, I had to some degree resigned myself to never moving beyond my point of comfort.
I’m not exactly sure how it happened – I think John Fullbright may have been part of the equation, as well as a little-known band called Lauderdale, but I realized that, all clichés aside, there’s a unique heart and storytelling to family of genres. And as someone who regularly writes 2000+ word reviews, you might argue I care about language. Chances are, if you’re reading this, you’ve got at least a decent interest in country already, but if you’re convinced you’ll never enjoy any country, I would encourage you to still check an artist or two on this list as I tend to find there’s crossover appeal for other genres.
Buying CDs is still my preferred way to get music outside of streaming services, and an artist has to impress me quite a bit (and, well, actually sell CDs) for me to make the purchase. Pony Bradshaw has been one of my more recent obsessions, with tracks like “Holler Rose” and “Safe in the Arms of Vernacular” off his latest record showing both a literary approach toward lyrics and an interesting mix of folk, country, southern rock, and soul. Older favorites include “Jehovah”, “10×10”, and “Hillbilly Possessed”. Bradshaw employs a wealth of personal storytelling, biblical imagery (and its inverse), and Southern cultural commentary presented carefully though glimpses of everyday lives.
Tennessee-by-way-of-West-Virginia songwriter John R. Miller manages to infuse his songs with both the comedy and tragedy of life. Take “Lookin’ Over My Shoulder”, a groove-heavy song about being nervous that a previous love interest might cross his path. “Shenandoah Shakedown” on the other hand paints images of brokeness, pain, and loss over haunting strings. Miller’s voice certainly deviates from the pop country standard, opting instead for a certain dark, deep roughness that is as powerful as it is enchanting.
Red Clay Strays
Combining the louder elements of Southern rock with elements of gospel, honky-tonk, and classic country, Red Clay Strays are definitely one of the higher-energy artists on this list. Their ambitious 49-minute debut album covers plenty of ground and primes the group for wider appeal. It seems they’ve already garnered a decent amount of national attention, finding their way into a number of large publications as of recent. Even though the band’s members are young, there’s a definitely an old soul present in their songs.
The band might label themselves as “rock”, but their use of slide guitar parts, 70s country ambience, and a fair bit of twang will not let this band escape the country-adjacent label. As far as independent goes, this band certainly fits the bill – the production value is high but there’s something here that never feels too egocentric. This is a good entry point for folks who might appreciate 90s rock.
Speaking of CDs, I plan to pick up on of Eric Bolander’s at some point. His latest album is instantly-refreshing, the sort of “I need to pick this up” level of material, and I do not exaggerate at all when I say that. The first song is a sort of intro that introduces the cello component of his band, and it’s easily one of the most distinguishing factors of these songs. “Window” follows and introduces the rest of the band at their best. This is easily the highlight of the album, though there are moments later on like the banjo-based “I Wonder” or the sentimental “Montgomery Hill” which give “Window” a run for its money. This is one of the braver, less traditional releases on the list.
It’s not often people recommend me artists that I actually like, let alone really find compelling, but Charles Wesley Godwin is definitely the most recent proof that sometimes my friends do actually have good taste. Godwin’s voice has a bit of quiver to it, topped off with just a bit of grit, practically spilling emotion. The rest of the band don’t reinvent the wheel, but the combination is a good mix between the world of modern production and classical sensibility. Godwin and crew understand how to play with dynamics, and even their ballads are layered enough to have plenty of momentum.
Great list. I listen to most of these artists quite often, especially Eric Bolander.