This is it, the top ten. Thanks for visiting Fervor Coulee this year and the last…whatever it has been- fifteen years? 2019 saw more visitors to Fervor Coulee than ever before, increasing 25% over the previous year. Hopefully that means you are finding roots music opinions of value- we are far from the biggest roots music review site, but we attempt to be the most honest.
The top ten: 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. Previous components of this decade wrap-up are available here.
10. Mark Erelli- For A Song (2016) For a Song is a quiet album, yearnsome and blue in turn, reflective, observant, and above all honest; the album wove its way into my soul, making me appreciate what I understand and consider that which I don’t. Also recommended: Mixtape, “By Degrees,” Seven Curses- Mark Erelli and Jeffrey Foucault
9. Yola- Walk Through Fire (2019) A great album that ideally bridges country and soul. With a voice that doesn’t quit, Yola freshened both genres with songs that are ageless: with Walk Through Fire we get to experience the moment a new talent emerges within popular consciousness. Also recommended: Orphan Offering
8. Various Artists- Native North America (Vol. 1): Aboriginal Folk, Rock, and Country 1966-1985 (2014) An incredible undertaking, a triple-album of rare and out-of-print music created by Canadian and American Indigenous artists, some well-known in some circles (Willie Thrasher, Willie Dunn, Shingoose) while most are new to our ears. Absolutely amazing, a recording that was on my mobile device for years: I never tired of its sounds. Willie Thrasher- Spirit Child reissue,
7. Bobbie Gentry-The Girl From Chickasaw County (2018) I doubt I will ever purchase a better box set; this 8-disc beauty features all the Capitol tracks one knew existed, and a whole bunch we didn’t. Seventy-five—count ’em—75 unreleased demos, alternate and live versions of songs, along with her complete seven album Capitol album run, even more from the BBC, and the elusive “Love Took My Heart and Mashed That Sucker Flat.” Beautifully packaged with postcards that will never be mailed, a ton of photos, essays…and—most importantly—the music sounds wonderful. Only things missing is a deeper dive into recording session dates and details for us liner note fools. It is a lot; I just let it play and play.
6. Buffy Sainte-Marie- Power In The Blood/Medicine Songs (2015/2017) I am cheating by selecting two albums from Buffy Sainte-Marie. As I explained elsewhere, when I was tasked with picking my ‘ten best Canadian albums of the decade’ I had to choose between the two. Here, I don’t. I typically listen to Power In the Blood and Medicine Songs consecutively, and on the mobile device the songs play interchangeably: I am not certain which song is on which of the albums. They need to be played loud, and I do! Some new songs, many from Sainte-Marie’s earliest days as a recording artist. Incredible undertakings, both.
5. Mac Wiseman & Various Artists- I Sang the Song (2018) Peter Cooper and Thomm Jutz hit the longest of homeruns with this set. The majority of these songs are obviously bluegrass, a few clearly country, and others find that sweet, magical spot between the two. Cooper and Jutz had the inspiration and wisdom to listen to and converse with Mac Wiseman, finding in his stories threads to embroider the ten new songs created together to communicate a compelling narrative of anecdote. The singing of all the guests is stellar, and Justin Moses (fiddle, banjo, and Dobro) and Hull (mandolin) work with Jutz (guitar) and Mark Fain (bass) to serve as the house band, uniting to create a consistent instrumental environment. Cooper and Jutz harmonize on several tracks, providing further uniformity.
4. Dale Ann Bradley- Pocket Full of Keys (2015) While she has inexplicably been overlooked as IBMA Female Vocalist of the Year award the past seven years, there is no arguing the consistency and strength Dale Ann Bradley brings to both her live performances and recordings. As the finest country and bluegrass often does, Pocket Full of Keys’ songs reveal the hardships of others as a panacea to our challenges, either providing a path for enlightenment or a realization that one’s own issues are not completely overwhelming: it could always be worse. Dale Ann Bradley doesn’t churn out albums. Analyse her vast catalog and one doesn’t find many tracks that appear to have been recorded simply out of favour or as filler. She is a bluegrass vocalist and true artist of substance and vision, and mentions in the album’s notes that she has always wanted to do an album herself, her own way. She did it with Pocket Full of Keys, another in a string of significant recordings from bluegrass music’s finest voice. Also recommended: Dale Ann Bradley, Somewhere South of Crazy, The Hard Way, Sister Sadie, Sister Sadie II
3. Guy Clark- My Favorite Picture of You (2013) The elder statesman OF Texas and Nashville singer-songwriters did it one last time, producing another exceptional collection of songs, all but a cover of a Lyle Lovett song co-writes. Beautifully sung and played. Clark’s thirteenth album of new material, recorded at age 71, was head and shoulders 2013 finest roots music album. Rightfully won a Grammy for Best Folk Album, Clark was supported by an incredible cast of friends and colleagues including Shawn Camp, Bryn Davies, Verlon Thompson, and Morgane Stapleton. Also recommended: Songs & Stories, Live from Dixie’s Bar & Bus Stop, Vince Gill- “Nothin’ Like A Guy Clark Song”
2. Dave Alvin- Eleven Eleven (2011) From “Harlan Country Line” through to the closing “Two Lucky Bums,” a final duet with Chris Gaffney, Dave Alvin ensures everything works start to finish. It is a Springsteen-calibre Americana masterpiece. I can listen to it any time, anywhere. Listening to it again today, I better realize Eleven Eleven’s power. It is a timeless recording, and yet captures the time when I first listened perfectly. The Blasters were one of the first roots rock bands I heard, and all these years later Dave Alvin’s music is central to my definition of the genre. Also recommended: Downey to Lubbuck with Jimmie Dale Gilmore, “You’ll Never Leave Harlan Alive”
1. Josh Ritter- Sermon on the Rocks (2015) Before Sermon on the Rocks, owned a couple Josh Ritter albums, and even tried to review Golden Age of Radio upon release: I wasn’t up to the task, and shelved it. But I didn’t pay any attention to him between 2000 and a fateful day early in 2016 when my morning DJ played “Getting Ready to Get Down.” I was floored, completely gob-smacked. What a song! I downloaded the album—and eventually bought the record—and played it over and over for weeks. It is the only CD that is stored permanently in my car—it is seemingly always within reach when I need it. “Homecoming,” “Henrietta, Indiana,” “Cumberland,” “Birds of the Meadow,” “Getting Ready to Get Down” and “My Man on a Horse (Is Here)” are now considered classics (by me), and it is likely my most played album these last four years. I can’t believe I wasn’t a Josh Ritter fan for the previous sixteen years, but I am doing my best to catch up. Also recommended: Gathering, Fever Breaks