BEST OF 2012 – Second Quarter Share
Atwood-Childs – Trading Pains – Honky-tonker Mark Allan Atwood had a banner year by most standards, putting out one fine album with his band Brimstone and this winning collaboration with fellow unjustly obscure Central Texas songwriter Heath Childs on the side. It’s as simultaneously fraternal and heartbroken as its title, with Childs’ gritty straightforwardness sharing space with Atwood’s expansive, confessional hurt on songs like “Dead Man” and and “Grace & Whiskey”. Had a rough year? Your support group awaits, and is already at least two members strong.
Jason Eady – AM Country Heaven – A subtle shift of gears from pensive country-folk to the warmer purr of late-‘70s/early-‘80s country (think Don Williams, Keith Whitley, late-model Haggard, et al), Jason Eady seemed to reach across time on one of the year’s most justifiably talked-about albums. Opening with a brash title-track indictment of soulless Top 40 country would’ve backfired if Eady didn’t put his backwoodsy mojo where his mouth is, singing almost impossibly good tunes like “Wishful Drinking” and “Longer Walk In The Rain” with an unhurried, lonesome grace. Having Nashville vets like Kevin Welch, Redd Volkaert and Earl Poole Ball in the studio with him certainly didn’t hurt, and having cowriters like Drew Kennedy, Matt Powell, and Micky Braun on board amounted to a veritable avalanche of country cred.
Jerrod Medulla – Speak Easy – Perhaps a tightrope walker in a past life, Medulla strikes a lot of good balances in releasing his best work yet. Gravelly yet tuneful, wise-assed but sincere, and blessed with talent and professionalism that doesn’t snuff out his relatable regular-guy vibe, his music doesn’t so much cast a spell over you as it pulls up a seat next to you and shares some downhome soul. Radio-friendly pop like “Don’t Say You Don’t” sits comfortably alongside grittier personal work like “Good On The Inside.”
John Fullbright – From the Ground Up – Though he’s about as Oklahoma as it gets, Fullbright’s contribution to the Texas music conversation in 2012 can’t (and shouldn’t be) overlooked. Few songwriters in this genre or any have come barreling out of the gate quite so fully-formed, mashing up brainy poetics and swaggering attitude on earthy, grooving stream-of-consciousness tunes like “Gawd Above” and “All The Time In The World” before taking it down to just a piano and vocal to break your heart with earnest wisdom like “Song For A Child.” Shades of Willis Allan Ramsay, Todd Snider, and James McMurtry abounded, style-wise … productivity-wise, let’s hope he’s more like the latter two than the former.
Matt Harlan & The Sentimentals – Bow & Be Simple – Hitting a pensive yet warm and witty singer/songwriter groove along the lines of classic Steve Goodman or Chris Smither, Matt Harlan is well on his way to being the under-the-radar king of young Houston folkies. Improving on his debut album both because of some newly-found depth to his vocals and simpatico collaboration with Danish indie band The Sentimentals, Harlan wears his talent with an appealingly subtle and humble grace.
Pat Green – Songs We Wish We’d Written II – An album of covers with eclectic duet partners was an odd choice for Green’s post-mainstream comeback, but it really is an engaging and even revealing listen at the end of the day. For longtime fans, it brings to mind the early breakout years of his career when you never knew who the band was gonna cover next or who was going to swoop in for a guest spot. There’s room in Green’s world for Tom Petty, Lyle Lovett, Cory Morrow, Todd Snider, even ‘90s rockers Collective Soul … plenty of room for you, too, if you’re still up for it.
Rob Baird – I Swear It’s The Truth – As country-pop craftsmen go, Rob Baird sounds like he would rather sharpen the sword than re-invent the wheel, and his latest is sharp indeed with a radio-friendly shine but with the sort of emotional honesty and believable vulnerability that doesn’t crack the national Top 40 (or, lately, even the Texas Music Chart) nearly enough. Songs like “Don’t Cry For Me” and “Along The Way” sound at once up-to-the-minute fresh and like you’ve heard them all your life.
Turnpike Troubadours – Goodbye Normal Street – Once every few years the Texas music scene needs to import another headliner from Oklahoma to keep things fresh, and the Turnpike Troubadours – God bless ‘em – brought the artistic chops to match their snowballing popularity. Frontman Evan Felker remains the pithy but unpretentious honky-tonk storyteller who can split the difference between Tom T. Hall and Bob Dylan, and his bandmates can let it rip with abandon (“Before The Devil Knows We’re Dead,” “Gin, Smoke & Lies”) or back it down to soulful subtlety (“Gone Gone Gone,” “Empty As A Drum”). They find glorious room to move within the no-frills limitation of a five-piece country band.
Wade Bowen – The Given – Possibly the best-selling record on this list, Bowen held up his end of his enduring Texas headliner status with a tuneful, earnest installment of the sort of heartland rock-infused country he’s been perfecting alongside Randy Rogers, Pat Green, et al. Wide-open anthems like the title track and “Patch of Bad Weather” and sparer ballads like “Before These Walls Were Blue” show just how far Bowen has come as a vocalist, and a duet with his hero Guy Clark on “To Live Is To Fly” (the Townes Van Zandt classic) gives it a touching cross-generational feel.
Willie Nelson – Heroes – Well into his 70’s, Willie puts out records so often that it’s necessary to drop in a gimmick now and then (reggae record, blues record, swing record etc.) just to keep them differentiated. This time the gimmick may well have been “guest star cavalcade,” with more guest spots per song than a Kanye West mixtape. Whether the collaborators are peers (Merle Haggard, Kris Kristofferson), stylistic heirs (Jamey Johnson), literal heirs (his son Lukas is all over it) or left-fielders like Snoop Dogg and Sheryl Crow, Willie still manages to cut through the crowd and find the good-hearted nature at the center of every song.
Alejandro Escovedo – Big Station – Enjoying a late-career renaissance, Escovedo put out his third all-out winner in less than five years with this year’s release. Less anthemic than the recent Real Animal and Street Songs of Love, Big Station is flush with eclectic shades of everything from the Talking Heads’ artsy rattle to Doug Sahm’s Texas R&B to Escovedo’s own impressionistic but gut-level tales of personal history. It’s not an obvious crowd pleaser, but it’s singular, challenging, and well worth the active listener’s time even if (unlike myself) Alejandro isn’t one of their all-time favorites.
Corby Schaub – Handmade – Formerly of the Dead Horses and frequently of the Mystiqueros, multi-instrumentalist Schaub has the edge of Ryan Bingham and the soul of Walt Wilkins in his best moments on his more-than-welcome solo debut. Sturdy, tuneful, and relatable, he takes well to the sort of focus and personality that the spotlight demands; there’s Americana shouters, blues reveries, finger-picked ballads and a pervasive sense that Schaub is on the right track.
Josh Abbott – Small Town Family Dream – Sounding every bit like the big-ticket headliner that he’s become, Josh Abbott approached this one like it could be a mainstream breakthrough and really knocked it out of the park. His regular-guy twang honed into a voice of great range, urgency, and personality, Abbott and his band put 100% into swelling anthems like “She Will Be Free,” “Rain Finally Coming Down,” and the title track. Ample time given to the banjo and fiddle keep the smoothness from devolving into slickness, and give jams like “Flatland Farmer” (a Terry Allen cover) extra depth and range.
Slim Bawb – Pardon Me – Austin-area picker/singer/writer Bob Pearce puts out a lot of records (roughly one full-length a year for awhile now), plays a lot of instruments (anything with strings), and touches on a lot of styles (Cajun, several strains of blues, swamp rock, classic country). Sticking to lo-fi production because it matches the raspy mojo of his vocals without diminishing the fleet-fingered, funky grace of his picking, he’s not one to over-edit himself. Unfiltered Slim Bawb is like a hearty homebrew when the usual generic light beer doesn’t do the trick anymore.
Walt Wilkins – Plenty – Soulful, warm, and ironically mighty in its modesty, Walt Wilkins’ latest is also arguably his greatest. No small feat for a man often thought of by his fans and fellow songwriters (lot of overlap there) as among the best of his generation of Texas troubadours, and no small pleasure to bask in it a time or five every month since it came out. Keeping the lovelorn nature-boy vibe of B.W. Stevenson, Willis Allan Ramsey, Michael Murphy etc. alive is no easy task, making the laid-back sound urgent and the lonesome sound life-affirming on the likes of “Farm To Market Romance” and “Between Midnight & Day”. It’s the best Wilkins album yet to these ears, and if I get to pick an absolute favorite of the year this one’s it.