BEST OF 2012 – Third Quarter Share
Drew Womack – Sunshine To Rain – Similar to Radney Foster in talent, approach, and versatility but too often overlooked, Drew Womack drew from a deep well of country, soul and classic pop to make a record of crisp, earnest odes to what modern radio country could be if they dialed down the pandering and amped up the originality. Whether he plays his heart-on-the-sleeve anthems straight (the title track, “Broken Angel”) or shakes them up with some New Orleans funk (“I Know One”), he’s got the chops of a pro and the conviction of an artist.
John Edward Baumann – West Texas Vernacular – Just a slim EP to get started, but perhaps a wise move: Baumann’s got a gift for lyrical detail reminiscent of Drew Kennedy or Houston Marchmann, delivered in a pleasantly unflashy regular-guy croon, and it’d be hard to unpack 10-12 songs as rich as “Potter County” or “Midland” all at once. Somewhere between an alt-country intellectual and a small-town realist, if you don’t see yourself in at least one of JEB’s songs you might wanna double-check that birth certificate. You might not be from around here.
Roger Cowan – Hickadelic Swampy Tonk – Longtime open-mic’er, small-tavern gigger and Radio Free Texas favorite Cowan finally got a chance to make a proper album this year, with modest means but a multi-talented musician/producer (“Slim Bawb” Bob Pearce) to bring some color and texture to the earnest, dark-edged drive of Cowan’s originals. With shades of Brandon Jenkins and Chris Knight in his voice and worldview, numbers like “Old Black Crow” and “Crown of Thorns” stand out from the pack.
Charlie Shafter – Charlie Shafter – Gifted with the ability to – sometimes simultaneously – sound like either a loser haunted by regret or a confident man who’s never had a bad day in his life, Charlie Shafter brings some authentic swagger as well as some fully relatable blues to the table on his self-titled latest. Endorsed by everyone from Ray Wylie Hubbard to Josh Abbott, his rootsy rock & roll sounds like something on the verge of a mainstream breakthrough. Not because of compromise, mind you … it’s just that songs like “Dear Diana” and “Drunk on Desire” are done so well they seem undeniable.
Radney Foster – Del Rio, Texas Revisited: Unplugged & Lonesome – Looking back to the record that gave him his only mainstream hits (as a singer … there’s been many more since then as a songwriter), Radney threw a rope around those radio-friendly nuggets and drug them back into the woodshed to sand a couple layers of polish off of them. If anything, he’s a better singer now than he was back then, and nowadays we need a reminder (more than ever) of how a personal, intelligent, original album can find traction in the mainstream country music world.
The Trishas – High, Wide, & Handsome – Anyone willing to shrug off the no-boys band called The Trishas as a gimmick missed out on one of the year’s best albums. It was possibly also one of the most anticipated, with only an EP under their belts previously, and it delivered with a sprawling batch of songs that never got too cutesy (the resourceful and vaguely feminist “Mother of Invention” is plenty catchy no matter who you are) and was often strikingly deep, with songs the caliber of “Looking At Me,” “Over Forgiving You” and “The Fool” making a solid claim for Wilson, Welch, Foster and Mickwee as a sublime talent collective along the lines of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young as opposed to (shudder) an Americana Spice Girls.
Uncle Lucius – Are You Me – Hill Country rockers Uncle Lucius aren’t really specific enough to be called “retro” but the heady, funky, headphone-friendly buzz of ‘70s classic rock pervades their sound: there’s echos of Neil Young’s urgency (“Keep The Wolves Away”), ELO’s harmony-rich pop rush (“Willing Wasted Time”), and the arena-sized riffs and wake-up-now breakdowns of everyone from Bachman-Turner-Overdrive to the Doobie Brothers to Grand Funk. It never feels like a ripoff, it just borrows wisely and well.
Bart Crow – Dandelion – Earnest, positive, meat-and-potatoes Texas country may be the default setting for most of the current Texas music scene headliners, but nobody attacked it with more verve and freshness this year than Bart Crow. Catching up after a semi-long break from releasing any new studio material, Crow asserted himself with songs both brawny (“Cold Heart,” “Busted”) and more subtly powerful (“If I Go, I’m Going” with Macy Maloy might be the year’s finest duet, and the Matt Powell-penned title track is splendid). It’s his best album yet and one of the year’s brightest, period.
Big Gus & Swampadelic – Parlangua – One of the rare Texas bands that owes more to Allan Toussaint and Dr. John than Willie & Waylon, the DFW combo formed by singer/songwriter/guitarist/radio personality Gus Samuelson doesn’t chase any trends, preferring to make the most of decades-old funk, classic country, roadhouse blues, and Creole dance music. It’s a bluesy, brassy love letter to New Orleans delivered with confident, down-to-earth enthusiasm on shakers like “I Don’t Know What It Is” and “Honest Lie”
Chris Knight – Little Victories – There’s always been more than a thread of desperation and hunger running through Knight’s songwriting – if anything, it’s his default setting and he’s great at articulating it – but things get even leaner and meaner on his latest. Granted, he can chill out enough to duet with John Prine on the title track, but elsewhere he makes good on those Steve Earle comparisons that have followed him through his career by serving up rough-hewn indictments of modern society while still sounding like a heartland rocker instead of a boring social studies teacher. The fact that his viewpoint is more hard-nosed libertarian than Earlesque socialist only makes him all the more unique.
Dirty River Boys – Science of Flight – Busting out of relative obscurity to become the go-to-guys for a modern Texas hoedown, the Dirty River Boys are possibly the most unconventional band to break through to the bigger audiences of the TXRD scene with their acoustic-only (for now anyway), cajon-rattling shotgun wedding of old-time string band, drunken sea chanties, dusty outlaw folk and edgy indie rock. Music that previously trickled out over the course of a couple of EP’s comes pouring out in a full-length-and-then-some celebration of a young band really finding their groove.
ZZ Top – La Futura – Almost consigned to the lucrative-if-uninteresting nostalgia circuit, ZZ Top got the Rick Rubin production treatment in 2012, getting back to basics with a student of diversely great music who knew how to help them honor their strengths, updating the band in a way that sounded bracing and raucous without overcompensating. “I Gotsta Get Paid” and “Chartreuse” grinded like the old days with just a touch of 21st century sheen, and “Over You” was an endearing stab at an Otis Redding-esque ballad, a far nobler aspiration than trying to kowtow to the Nickelback generation.
Ryan Bingham – Tomorrowland – Folks who came to Bingham through the career-changing classic “The Weary Kind” might be surprised just how coarse, propulsive, and grungy he can be when he puts on his rock & roll boots for an album like this one. The confrontational “Guess Who’s Knocking” might be the record’s mission statement, but a vein of optimism runs though numbers like “Heart of Rhythm” too. It’s not as deep as his best work, but it’s got a hell of a kick to it.
Various Artists – Deep In The Heart: Songs For Little Texans – It was impossible to rank this against “normal” albums but, as a first-time dad (as of June 7) I can’t really imagine the Texas music year without it. I don’t know if you need an actual child or even an inner child to enjoy numbers like Jason Boland singing “This Land Is Your Land” or Reckless Kelly rocking out on “I’ve Been Working On The Railroad” … these are folk songs, basically, and most of them were remarkably well-chosen by the singers. Cory Morrow’s “This Little Light of Mine” and Fred Andrews’ “Keep On The Sunny Side” are also among the highlights on a beautifully realized project.