Ten years ago I spent too many weeks attempting to distill my roots music listening of the previous decade. It was painful work, but no small bit of fun. When I look back at that list, I am quite pleased at how well it holds up: a lot of great music that I continue to visit when time allows.
As the end of 2019 became tangible, I considered doing something similar, and started to put together a list. However, I decided to limit things to 50 titles this time out; while I could easily find another 100 titles to include on the list, there is something to be said for being concise.
When considering inclusion on this list, I weighed the album’s positioning on my annual lists, how frequently I continue to listen to the recording, its impact on me—has it influenced me down a path of listening— and how enjoyable I continue to find the music. The final element is most important: can I listen to the album today and enjoy it as much (even more?) as I did years ago?
Given the constraints of 50 titles, I limited myself to one album per artist; listing multiple albums by personal favourites would have pushed me to 100 without effort. I chose not to include The Monkees’ Good Times as a roots album although No Depression listed it during its year of release: as much as I love the album—and I was tickled to find a copy complete with the stickers during my October visit to Amoeba Records—it isn’t a roots album.
As always, these are my favourite roots albums based on what I encountered, not a list of the best released this decade. Anyone who claims they can name the best of anything is too arrogant for roots music.
50. Idyl Tea- Song That’s Not Finished Yet (2011) Infectious pop melodies with more than enough country overtones, especially in the album’s final third, to qualify as roots. Terrific songs, brilliant performances. My favourite band from 1986 returned sounding as strong as ever. Idyl Tea combines what I eventually grew to love about country and what I embraced about power pop in the early 80s—bright chords, sometimes devastatingly up-front confession through lyric, and a breezy ability to convey sadness that sounded so cheerful. Simply wonderful. The accompanying Unthology is just as solid.
49. The Earl Brothers- Outlaw Hillbilly (2012) Ivan Rosenberg, resonator guitar player of some renown, stated early this decade that, “bluegrass has gone the direction of sounding like disposable modern country music.” You can’t get further from crappy modern country music than Outlaw Hillbilly. Hardcore, The Earl Brothers remain one of the bluegrass groups I am most proud having encountered. There is no darker bluegrass than that found on Outlaw Hillbilly. Also recommended: The Earl Brothers
48. Various Artists- This One’s For Him: A Tribute to Guy Clark (2012) A remarkable set featuring 30 songs written (and co-written) by Clark and performed by some of the many performers and fellow writers whose lives he has touched. An incredible undertaking, this tribute to the living poet laureate of Texas songwriters has much to offer both the Clark devotee and the casual Americana appreciator.
47. Craig Moreau- The Daredevil Kid (2014) Calgary’s Craig Moreau offers original music, and whether categorized as country, folk, Americana, or simply slipping into the indefinable OMFUG, The Daredevil Kid is a strong, dynamic, and eminently listenable platter of fresh sounds. Also recommended: A Different Kind of Train
46. Pharis & Jason Romero- Sweet Old Religion (2018) Pharis’ voice is a wonder, Jason is no slouch, and together their old-timey harmonies and instrumentation are things of wonder, while their songs are contemporary slices of the world, past and present. Also recommended: A Wanderer I’ll Stay, Long Gone Out West Blues
45. Various Artists- I Love: Tom T. Hall’s Songs of Fox Hollow (2011) Conceived in respect and gratitude, I Love: Tom T. Hall’s Songs of Fox Hollow is another recording in which the team of Peter Cooper and Eric Brace can take great pride; someday they are bound to fail, but they haven’t so far. East Nashville’s finest are involved, and the album’s strongest track may be Jim Lauderdale’s interpretation of “I Like to Feel Pretty Inside.” His matter-of-fact recitation of Hall’s observations surrounding self-acceptance, kindness, and truth toward others captures the album’s intent in less than three minutes. It is a beautifully packaged, engaging album.
44. David Davis & the Warrior River Boys- Didn’t He Ramble: Songs of Charlie Poole (2018) This album allows the listener to travel back in time and witness bluegrass’ evolution from old-timey string band and blues foundations to the music we embrace today. More than academic exercise, Didn’t He Ramble: Songs of Charlie Poole is an exemplary example of modern, traditional bluegrass.
43. Northern Cree- It’s A Cree Thing (2016) North America’s original roots music, perhaps? Northern Cree are a drum group from Alberta, and It’s A Cree Thing was nominated for a Grammy, the seventh time this group from Saddle Lake had been recognized in this manner—they’ve since added another nomination. Maybe someday they’ll win! It’s A Cree Thing is a powerful collection of round dance songs full of energy, personality, and history. “Oh, That Smile” should have been a hit single! Gorgeous, uplifting, and so enjoyable. Also recommended: Mîyo Kekisepa, Make A Stand
42. Barnstar! Sit Down! Get Up! Get Out! (2015) Out of the NE of the US, and with their second album Barnstar! decided to write and interpret songs that will move you, shake you, and kick you out when they are done with you. Barnstar!’s harmonies are irregular when compared to better-known, international-touring bands and they add just a touch of the modern to their otherwise orthodox approach. They are certainly ‘in the pocket,’ but their favoured cadence is atypical of mainstream bluegrass and thus doesn’t feel constrained by expectation. Also recommended: C’mon
41. Mike Plume Band- Born By The Radio (2018) It has taken nearly thirty years, but Mike Plume has emerged as the next great Canadian songwriter, a man who comfortably stands shoulder-to-shoulder with those who influenced him. It has been a long ride, filled with songs memorable and albums impactful, but full realization is achieved with Born By The Radio. The songs are comprised of images universal and personal. A new album is coming in 2020. Also recommended: Red and White Blues, “So Long Stompin’ Tom”
I’ll be back with the next ten titles tomorrow. All albums mentioned have been featured at Fervor Coulee, in one way or another, this decade. Use the Search tool to locate the original reviews. —Donald Teplyske