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.
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. Parts 1 and 2 of this list can be found here.
30. John Reischman & the Jaybirds- Vintage & Unique (2011) On Vintage and Unique, Canada’s finest bluegrass quintet takes Bill Monroe’s “The First Whippoorwill” for a spin and reinvents “Shady Grove” and “Last Chance.” Trisha Gagnon and Jim Nunally’s voices- who always sounded wonderful together- are especially beautiful throughout this recording. The band delivers new songs alongside their reimagining of classic and long-forgotten tunes. “The Cypress Hills” and “Consider Me Gone” are just waiting to be discovered, while “Cold Mountain (Cam Saan)” examines the Canadian railway experience of Chinese labourers. Every track, each break and harmonic moment are highlights within a flawless album. Also recommended: On That Other Green Shore and Reischman’s solo release Walk Along John, Nick Hornbuckle’s albums 12X2 (+/- 1) and 13 or So as well as Trisha Gagnon’s A Story About You and Me
29. James Reams & the Barnstormers- One Foot In The Honky Tonk (2011) As he has consistently done, James Reams’ life experiences and those of his ancestors permeate these songs-—whether he wrote them or not—ensuring the performance of each is authentic. When listening to James Reams, one is on a bridge connecting the present to the past, where the waters below blend the relationships and lamentations of today with those who birthed and shaped them. There are few bluegrass singers who match the lithe and masculine timbre Reams brings to the songs he is called to perform. With One Foot in the Honky Tonk, James Reams further defined his bluegrass, blending the varied elements of the roadhouse with sounds from the hills of Kentucky and her neighbors. Also recommended: Rhyme & Season
28. The Gibson Brothers- In the Ground (2017) The group’s finest album yet, and that is saying a lot. That it contained an entirely original set of songs makes the feat even more impressive. In the Ground isn’t like anything they had before accomplished. Still bluegrass, of course, but taking things to yet another level. Also recommended: They Called It Music, Mockingbird, Help My Brother, Brotherhood
27. Mary Gauthier- The Foundling/The Foundling Alone (2010/2011) One album, two treatments. The Foundling is a full-fledged album of discovery, The Foundling Alone a companion disc of demos. An impressive writer with a distinctive delivery, Mary Gauthier has established herself as one of the foremost songwriters of her generation, crafting lyrical paintings that become vivid, living testimonials in four minutes. Gauthier’s song-cycle explores the lack of family attachment she has felt- the missing connection experienced by many children of adoption- while never becoming disconnected from the importance of creating stand-alone songs that flow through a sustained narrative. Both formats work. The more one listens, the stronger the bond one feels with Gauthier and her experiences, the more one absorbs; one never feels more than about five seconds from tears. To Mary Gauthier’s credit, the tears are of admiration, not pity. Also recommended: Trouble and Love, Rifles & Rosary Beads
26. Rodney Crowell- Close Ties (2017) Somewhere along the line, Rodney Crowell went from a compelling Americana singer and damn terrific songwriter to a walking legend: it may have happened with Close Ties, an album that saw him dig even deeper to find the heart of ten masterfully crafted songs that are more than enough for him to assume Guy Clark’s abandoned mantle. It goes beyond “It Ain’t Over Yet” and “Life Without Susanna,” as masterful as those tracks are. Every moment resonates, especially live, and the anguish with which he sings is genuine. Also recommended: Tarpaper Sky, Acoustic Classics
25. Rosanne Cash- She Remembers Everything (2018) From first listen, and as she has since Seven Year Ache and Somewhere In The Stars hit the turntable of an impressionable teenager a few decades ago, Cash draws us into her current state of mind. As she has long done, Cash is reflecting on current circumstances- politics, division, gender inequality, complexity of relationships- encouraging engagement at higher levels while ensuring her songs are listenable, intriguing, and nuanced. Beautiful, as ever. That she addresses weighty topics without sounding didactic is a given. Also recommended: The River & the Thread
24. Kacy & Clayton- The Siren’s Song (2017) Canadian cousins Kacy Anderson and Clayton Linthicum build upon the success and artistic latitude of Strange Country brought them and teamed with Jeff Tweedy to craft a positively astonishing folk-rock explosion. Building on the trad. arr folk tradition, crafting sweeping originals that build on British and North American folk traditions, The Siren’s Song is a too-brief album of grace and beauty. An original creation rooted in traditions, The Siren’s Song is an amalgam of breezy Laurel Canyon sounds of the ‘70s, ‘60s mountain-folk revivalists, and modern, free-thinking trance-folk. Beautiful. Also recommended: Strange Country, Carrying On
23. Laurie Lewis & the Right Hands- The Hazel & Alice Sessions (2016) A powerful album exploring the many shades of love, devotion, loss, faith, and heartbreak one would expect from a classic bluegrass set. Hazel Dickens is quoted once saying, “My relationship was always with the words and the story.” The songs Laurie Lewis has chosen give truth to the statement. Perhaps Dickens’ greatest achievement, is there a finer song capturing the truth that is the “Working Girl Blues”? Lewis’ rendition is stellar, mournful yet spirited with Lewis’ fiddle conveying equal parts pride and misery. That Alice Gerrard offers up the harmony here makes the experience that much more fulfilling; not surprisingly, it is this song that best captures the spirit of the original recordings. The further treat here is a previously unheard third verse that Dickens once recited to Lewis. The album’s vocal showpiece is “Let That Liar Alone,” a song featured on the 1975 Rounder album Hazel Dickens and Alice Gerrard. With Tom Rozum driving the bus, this four-part vocal gospel song will leave listeners mesmerized; avoid the devil, folks. Laurie Lewis is a bluegrass legend, and her band are no slouches. Great tribute project; great album, period. Also recommended: Laurie & Kathy Sing the Songs of Vern & Ray– Laurie Lewis & Kathy Kallick, Skippin’ & Flyin’
22. Otis Gibbs- Mount Renraw (2017) Gruff-voiced at best, no one is going to mistake Otis Gibbs for a Nashville hit-maker. Still, the guy can sing the hell out of a song and simultaneously makes the listener give a damn about his chosen characters and circumstances. His eighth album was recorded as a celebration of his 50th birthday, and with these songs Gibbs continues to explore and uncover hidden corners of Americana unadorned from his living room. Also recommended: Joe Hill’s Ashes, Souvenirs of a Misspent Youth, Harder Than Hammered Hell
21. Various Artists- Winter’s Bone (2010) Winter’s Bone is a brutal movie and deserves a soundtrack just as sparse, organic and honest. It has been noted that the Ozarks are a tough place to live, and the music of the area reflects that through sad ballads, songs that have been ‘tinkered’ with by singers such as Marideth Sisco over centuries. Blackberry Winter turn in brilliant performances, as does Sisco throughout, including the opening “Missouri Waltz.” Traditional songs including “Rain and Snow” and “Fair and Tender Ladies” are revised to fit the plot of the movie, allowing the soundtrack recording to delve into places that the movie doesn’t fully explore. Billy Ward’s “Man on the Run” and John Hawkes’ “Bred and Buttered” provide additional narrative through song. White River Music Co.’s “Out of Sight” provides a timely honky-tonk interlude that stands on its own as a darn good trucking song. A must-have roots album, and a brilliant soundtrack that adds to the memory of film it accompanies. Empty Doors- Marideth Sisco & Accomplices, Still Standing- Blackberry Winter Band
I’ll be back with the rest of the titles tomorrow. Most albums mentioned have been featured at Fervor Coulee, in one way or another, this decade. Use the Search tool to locate the original reviews.