Gone Country: The most anticipated albums of 2017

Country fans had a lot to celebrate last year, but 2017 is shaping up to be just as good, if not better than 2016. Artists like Maren Morris and Eric Church are headed back on tour, and old legends like Marty Stuart and Reba McEntire are recording new material, and young up-and-comers like Luke Combs are poised to make 2017 their breakout year.

While there’s been a fair amount of speculation on who’s headed back into the studio, there are still a lot of confirmed release dates that are already on my calendar. Here’s a list of the albums I’m most excited for, divided up by month:

February

Alison Krauss, “Windy City,” Feb. 17

Jamey Johnson and Alison Krauss perform at the Willie Nelson Fourth of July Picnic at Austin360 Amphitheater on July 4, 2016. Photo by Erika Rich for American-Statesman
Jamey Johnson and Alison Krauss perform at the Willie Nelson Fourth of July Picnic at Austin360 Amphitheater on July 4, 2016. Photo by Erika Rich for American-Statesman
Krauss’ first album in 17 years is a collection of bluegrass and country rarities and standards by artists like Brenda Lee, Willie Nelson, Bill Monroe and the Osborne Brothers. Her take on Brenda Lee’s “Losing You” is heartbreaking and beautiful, replacing the trumpets on the original with lilting steel guitars.

Rhiannon Giddens, “Freedom Road,” Feb. 24

Rhiannon Giddens plays ACL Fest 2015. Suzanne Cordeiro for AMERICAN-STATESMAN
Rhiannon Giddens plays ACL Fest 2015. Suzanne Cordeiro for AMERICAN-STATESMAN
2016 saw Giddens’ profile rise after she became that year’s recipient of the Steve Martin Prize for Excellence in Banjo and Bluegrass and also sang the backup vocals on Eric Church’s election-year antidote “Kill a Word.” Oh, and she also played a killer set at her “Austin City Limits” taping. The Americana/roots artist is slated for a Feb. 24 release of “Freedom Road,” only her second album. The 12-track LP will feature nine originals plus a Staples Singers cover (the title track).

Aaron Watson, “Vaquero,” Feb. 24

Photo from Flickr user Amy Claxton.
Photo from Flickr user Amy Claxton.
Watson’s 2015 album “The Underdog” shot him to a wider audience in 2016 after it became the first album from a male artist to ever reach Number One on the country charts without a record deal. While the title may belie the fact, “The Underdog” was Watson’s 12th album. His next, “Vaquero,” seems to stick to his formula of traditionalist country with a little bit of modern flair.

March

Sunny Sweeney, “Trophy,” March 10

Sunny Sweeney.  JAY JANNER / AMERICAN-STATESMAN
Sunny Sweeney. JAY JANNER / AMERICAN-STATESMAN
Texas-born Sunny Sweeney’s latest album features four songs penned with Lori McKenna and guest spots from Trisha Yearwood, Ray Benson and Jack Ingram.

April

Willie Nelson, “God’s Problem Child”

Willie Nelson tapes a piece in the Pedernales Recording Studio for the US premiere of the Irish music series Other Voices on October 3, 2016. Suzanne Cordeiro for American-Statesman
Willie Nelson tapes a piece in the Pedernales Recording Studio for the US premiere of the Irish music series Other Voices on October 3, 2016. Suzanne Cordeiro for American-Statesman
Nelson’s latest album will feature “Delete and Fast-Forward,” his take on the 2016 election, as well as a song co-written by Jamey Johnson. The Red-Headed stranger’s age hasn’t slowed his creative output, and I’m hoping Austin’s favorite hippie finds a way to live forever.

May

Zac Brown Band, “Welcome Home,” May 12

The Zac Brown Band closes out the concert season at Circuit of the Americas. Photo courtesy Shore Fire Media
The Zac Brown Band closes out the concert season at Circuit of the Americas. Photo courtesy Shore Fire Media
After taking a detour with “Jekyll + Hyde” and Brown’s ill-advised side-project Sir Roosevelt, ZBB is going back to their stripped-down style, complete with a new tour to go along with it. The “Welcome Home” tour will kick off in Atlanta on the same day as the album’s release.

“The album will be straight back to our roots, ‘Foundation’-style,'” Brown told Rolling Stone Country.

To Be Announced

The following artists have all promised upcoming albums this year, but haven’t set dates yet:

Jason Isbell

Isbell tweeted on New Year’s eve that he was hard at work on a follow-up to “Something More Than Free.” Early reports say Isbell will again put Dave Cobb at the controls, and that the album has started tracking this month.

Marty Stuart, Early 2017

Stuart’s followup to 2014’s “Saturday Night/Sunday Morning” will focus on California, where the bulk of the album was recorded.

Shania Twain

Twain’s last album was the 2002 double-album “Up!” In the 15 years since, she’s performed a residency in Vegas, gotten divorced and written a book. Expect some personal material from the Canadian superstar.

Chris Stapleton

Stapleton’s sophomore album should be coming soon, and he’s already been trying some of the songs out on tour. It’s rumored to be coming out in the spring; a single should be released in the next couple of months.

Margo Price

One of the biggest travesties in country music last year was the lack of major awards recognition given to “Midwest Farmer’s Daughter,” Price’s debut. She tweeted on Dec. 21 that her new album was in the works. She told Rolling Stone Country in December that she’s “been writing a lot, because there is so much going on in the world and so much going on with me internally.” Her NPR Tiny Desk concert from November might point to some of the album’s subject matter.

Corey Smith

The Jefferson, Ga. wordsmith is famous in the southeast for three things: his rigorous touring schedule, his poignant songwriting and his N.W.A.-by-way-of-the-Mason-Dixon-Line anti-police screeds “F The Po-Po” and “Chattanooga.” He tweeted in November that he has new songs and is going out on tour again. In the meantime, his latest, “While The Gettin’ Is Good,” is available now.

Straight-Up Speculation

None of these have been formally announced, but I’m holding out for these dark horses for 2017:

A Jamey Johnson album

Johnson hasn’t released a full-length solo project full of original songs since 2010’s “The Guitar Song.” He’s been content to write songs for others for the most part, and those are all fantastic, but hearing other people sing his words just makes me want a new album even more.

A Cody Jinks album

The Fort Worth native just today announced a new song, presumably a cover of Pink Floyd’s “Wish You Were Here.” That might mean he’s following up the stellar “I’m Not The Devil” with something more experimental. Or it could just be a one-off.

A Josh Turner album

Turner’s been in the middle of album woes (presumably brought on by his record label) for five years. His last full-length album, “Punching Bag,” came out in 2012. “Lay Low” and “Hometown Girl” have been the only singles he’s released since then, and he’s told news outlets as recently as 2015 that he has an album ready to go, but it’s his record album that’s holding him back. Hopefully this will be the year his deep-based voice gets released from record label purgatory.

A Gary Allan album

Allan is in the same boat as Turner. “Set You Free,” Allan’s last album, was released in 2013 and he’s only put out some lackluster songs since then. He was supposed to have a new album out in 2015. Maybe this year will be his year.

A Dixie Chicks album (live or studio)

You don’t go on a world tour and NOT release a DVD, or an album, or something. Come on.

Gone Country aims to thoughtfully explore the country music genre and where it’s headed, with a focus on national trends and buzzworthy news of the week. For info about album releases and concerts, check out this week’s Country Music Roundup.

Questions, comments, suggestions? Let me know on Twitter @jakeharris4 or through email at jharris@statesman.com.

Country Music Roundup: Everyone has something to say about Sturgill Simpson

This Week’s News

By now, every country artist, DJ and their mother has sounded off with their own hot take on Sturgill Simpson’s recent comments about the Academy of Country Music Awards and its perceived disrespect towards late country music legend Merle Haggard.

2016 iHeartCountry Festival At The Frank Erwin Center - Show
AUSTIN, TX – APRIL 30: Bobby Bones had a thing or two to say about the recent Sturgill Simpson controversy. (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images for iHeartMedia)

After Simpson took the Academy to task for creating an award in Haggard’s name, claiming the Academy was merely trying to ride the coattails of a legend whom the institution hadn’t paid any attention to in the years before his death, Americana artist Jason Isbell rallied behind  Simpson:

After the dust settled, rebuttals were issued by country journalists, Triple crown ACM award-winner Jason Aldean and uber-DJ Bobby Bones.

“The Tennessean”‘s Nate Rau took issue with Simpson’s summation of Nashville, writing: “However, if Simpson is truly serious about leaving town, then he is throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Whatever his issues with commercial country music, there is a significant sector of the music industry here that has been supportive of Simpson’s career. I wonder if the guy whose pre-fame background includes time working on a railroad would have achieved his great success without Music City?”

Aldean took to “Rolling Stone Country” to express his views on the matter: “I don’t know Sturgill, never met the guy, but I know he’s a great artist. The flip side of [his argument] is I feel like everybody in this town – every artist, every writer, every producer – we all are very much aware of the contribution [Haggard] had to this business.”

Never one to shy away from offering his opinion, country DJ Bobby Bones remarked on his morning radio show Aug. 30:

“I like Sturgill Simpson. I respect him, because he’s been able to do it pretty much independently … I also love it when artists speak their mind. I love the fact that he’s speaking out, even if I disagree with him…There is no such thing as ‘actual country music.’ … That’s your definition of country music. Don’t put it on me. So I have a problem with that. If you hold on to your roots, you don’t grow.”

Man, country music hasn’t had a good feud in a while.

This Week’s Best New Song

Margo Price wasn’t nominated for anything at this year’s Country Music Association awards, which is a shame, because “Midwest Farmer’s Daughter” is one of the year’s best albums. Her latest single from that album, “Four Years of Chances,” is a scornful love ballad full of country, rhythm and blues. It’s one of the catchiest tunes she’s released yet. Hopefully it will catch on and she’ll get recognized at next year’s CMAs. Or at any country awards show, for that matter.

This Week’s Worst New Song

To call Colt Ford’s new sound “evolved” is to place more emphasis on his humble beginnings as a hick-hop rapper who burst onto the scene with the “can’t tell if serious or joking” single “Chicken and Biscuits.” His new song “4 Lane Gone,” comes  with a viral marketing campaign video that has everyone from Brantley Gilbert to Larry Fitzgerald wondering “Who sings that ‘4 Lane’ song?” in order to build up momentum.

It was available on YouTube earlier, but for now the only version I can find is on Spotify. The heartbreak and drinkin’ song is a step up from Ford’s earlier songs. There’s no rapping, at least. But it’s still not a great piece of country music. Plus, the dude in the song comes thiiiis close to driving drunk.

 

This Week’s Best Country Show in Austin

clintblackpressphoto
Clint Black. (Photo: Kevin Mazur)

Clint Black plays One World Theatre Sunday in West Austin. Tickets are starting at $140 a pop, but you’ll get to hear old gems like “Killin’ Time” and “Like the Rain,” as well as new songs from his 2015 album “On Purpose.” I’ll have a review Monday morning.

This is the Country Music Roundup, a weekly blog where we’ll give you the latest news in country music releases and local country shows. For a more in-depth analysis of the genre and where it’s headed, check back with our weekly Gone Country blog every week.

Questions, comments, suggestions? Let me know on Twitter @jakeharris4 or by email: jharris@statesman.com.

Country Music Roundup: Jason Isbell enters the Sturgill Simpson ACM fray

This Week’s News

Sturgill Simpson made news Monday when he took to Facebook to voice his  opinions on the Academy of Country Music’s new award meant to honor the legacy of the late Merle Haggard, who died April 6.

Spoiler alert: Simpson thought the award was meaningless posturing in order to ride on the coattails of a legend mere months after his death.

You can read what he wrote here in full, but the latest development involves none other than Americana artist Jason Isbell.

Jason_Isbell-16
A-list: Jason Isbell performs at ACL Live on Friday, Feb. 12, 2016. Suzanne Cordeiro For American-Statesman

“Yet, even though [Music Row] mostly go[es] out of [its] way to ignore artists like myself and Jason Isbell, I assure you they are more than aware of our existence. They are also well aware that we don’t need them,” Simpson wrote in a Monday night update to his Facebook post.

Indeed, both his and Isbell’s last records have sold more than 200,000 copies combined with almost no radio support, and both were at No. 1 on the charts shortly after their release.

Isbell was alerted to the commentary on Twitter, and at first backed up whatever Simpson had to say, sight unseen.

When he read the remarks, he doubled down:

Another part of Sturgill’s dispute involved “Garden & Gun Magazine”‘s decision to put Chris Stapleton on the cover in March instead of Merle Haggard, who was in the hospital at the time.

Stapleton cleared the issue up back in April in an interview with The Band Perry, and Simpson corroborates his story in his Facebook post.

According to Saving Country Music, Stapleton tells the story like this:

“‘You were just on the cover of Garden and Gun which is hands down my favorite magazine. So beautiful,’ Kimberly Perry says in the interview.

‘What was that like? I’m a photographer too and I love that side of things. So how was it shooting for the cover of that magazine?’ Neil Perry asks.

Chris Stapleton responds,

‘That’s a weird story. I’m not sure if I should tell it or not because their magazine’s supposed to be about manners and they don’t have any. They were literally supposed to put Merle Haggard and Sturgill Simpson on the cover, and they did a 30 minute interview with me and Will Smith for what was supposed to be the inside thing. And then they bought a photo off a guy that did a GQ shoot and put it on the cover. And I never knew anything about it. I never was told about it. And Merle was in the hospital when they did that. It wasn’t cool.'”

Stapleton is reportedly being heavily considered for nomination for Entertainer of the Year, Male Vocalist of the Year and Single of the Year for “Nobody to Blame” at this year’s CMAs, and Simpson is also being considered for nomination for Album of the Year, Male Vocalist of the Year, and New Artist of the Year.

Simpson has already stated he won’t be attending the ceremony because of an already scheduled, sold-out show in Des Moines.

This Week’s Best New Song

From her upcoming album “Country Songs,” the eponymous single from Karen Jonas is a reminder that some of the best country songs are about sad life events. Here’s hoping that this single is the one that breaks her through to a wider audience.

This Week’s Worst New Song

He’s been called the Justin Bieber of country music, because of his start as a YouTube star. But at least Justin Bieber has “Sorry.” And doesn’t label himself as “country.”

This Week’s Best Country Show in Austin

If you don’t have tickets to tonight’s Austin City Limits Live taping with Hayes Carll, then your next best bet is to head to the Nutty Brown Cafe  this Friday night to see a double-billing of Stoney LaRue and Cory Morrow.

This is the Country Music Roundup, a weekly blog where we’ll give you the latest news in country music releases and local country shows. For a more in-depth analysis of the genre and where it’s headed, check back with our weekly Gone Country blog every week.

Questions, comments, suggestions? Let me know on Twitter @jakeharris4 or by email: jharris@statesman.com.

360 First Spins: Pitbull, Jason Isbell, Future, Iron & Wine, Tame Impala, Wilco

Every Friday at noon, Austin360 music writers Deborah Sengupta Stith and Eric Webb hijack the Austin360 Periscope account to talk about the week’s new album and single releases. These aren’t full reviews, but first impressions. Here’s our take on a selection of albums that take you to the booty club, the back porch barbecue and (maybe?) a galaxy far, far away. Listen to music from this week’s show in our 360 First Spins: July 2015 Spotify playlist.

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Pitbull “Dale” – Listen on Spotify

daleDSS: Not a Pitbull fan, but I’m swayed by the fact that “El Taxi” samples one of my (and everyone else’s) favorite dancehall jams, but this is Pitbull doing what he does best, make dance party hits best experienced while sweating through a Zumba class or in the early hours of the morning after one too many fruity cocktails. Also, this is Pitbull’s second primarily Spanish-language album and Pitbull en español  > Pitbull in English.

EW: I’m not going to blame Pitbull for being Pitbull. Shine on, you worldwide diamond.

 

isbellJason Isbell “Something More Than Free” – Listen

EW: Continuing the trend of country music with fewer pickup trucks and bright lights and more working-class grit and sparks of social consciousness, Isbell goes straight for the populist heart on this one. It sounds like dirt-caked hands and tackles everything from hard livin’ to pondering the existence of God. Isbell said before its release that “Something More Than Free” was going to be more of a celebratory record, but all I know is that songs like “24 Frames” and the title track are honest and folk-minded. (Good folk. Not bad folk.)

DSS: One of 2015’s strongest additions to the “new sincerity” country cannon.

 

futureFuture “DS2” – Listen

DSS: The stumbly, mumbly, NSFW soundtrack for your next Percoset-laced trip to the strip club.

EW: Well, he’s certainly got a Southern flow.

 

ironIron & Wine, Ben Bridwell “Sing Into My Mouth” – Listen

EW: Sam Beam has been tending more country and less sparse-folk-in-an-echo-chamber for a little while now. With that in mind, this album of covers (recorded with Band of Horses dude Ben Bridwell) is sun-drenched pleasantry. Taking on tunes from Sade, Bonnie Raitt, Spiritualized and more, the standouts are a prettily languid, break-the-mold version of Talking Heads’ “This Must Be the Place” on the opener and an album-closing Peter LaFarge cover that’s dreamy and hallucinatory.

DSS: The soundtrack for summertime bonding with your hippie skirted sisters and your bushy-bearded bros.

 


tameTame Impala “Currents” – Listen

DSS: I like that the band’s branching out into a hazy, almost electropop sound at times. Not much on this album really jumps out as unforgettable, but I think they’re likely to play the sunset time slot at Austin City Limits Festival this year and these sounds in the golden light will be sublime.

EW: Dreamy, maybe snoozy, but I foresee many ACL Fest-ers inhaling various vapors quite contentedly to this album.

wilcoWilco “Star Wars” – Listen

EW: This album, a Beyonce-style surprise digital drop, has taught me a very important lesson about myself: I do understand early-millennium white guy guitar rock. This album leaves me blank, with its wavy guitars and indistinct, uninteresting vocals. I would not have someone turn this off if it was on the radio, but I would also ask if they had an aux-cord so I could put on Iron & Wine instead.

DSS: Which galaxy far, far away is run by the fluffy rose cats? #tellmetweedy

 

pePublic Enemy “Man Plans God Laughs” – Listen

DSS: In their mid-fifties, Chuck D and Flav are back to fight the power. Chuck D said sections of the album were inspired by ‘Ye, Run the Jewels and Kendrick Lamar, but most of the record sounds like straight up classic PE, timely and important as ever. But there are a few big misses, including “Honky Tonk Rules,” the PE country song no one ever asked for.

EW: That country song is … jarring. Aside from that, sounds sharp.

Ratatat “Magnifique” – Listen

EW: These Brooklyn bros always bring the rock into their electro-instrumentals, and I’ve been a fan in the past. (“Loud Pipes” was my ringtone in high school.) I was curious to hear how their newest material sounded in a post-Calvin Harris, post-Hudson Mohawke, post-Pretty Lights world of electronic popularity and diversity, and while it sounds like they’re trying to change it up a bit, it’s still distinctly Ratatat. Aside from the shreddy guitars chunks and metallic drones, there’s a lighter touch on songs like “Primetime,” which sounded a little like a Phoenix montage in a Sofia Coppola movie. (Sans lyrics, obvi.) Perhaps not as exciting as they meant it to be, but points for trying.

DSS: An interesting mix of sounds, worth a longer listen.

Quick spins: Singles and EPs

Carly Rae Jepsen “Run Away With Me” – Listen

EW: I love this song with my bones, and I am going to listen to it all summer. I’m a sucker for an “oooh-oooh-oooh” vocal flourish.

DSS: As my homie Eric Webb said during the broadcast, C-Jeps is no Jill Scott, but better than Demi Lovato.

Cee-Lo “Robin Williams” – Listen

DSS: In theory I’m pro-message music about mental health awareness, but this feels awkward, uncomfortable and off.

EW: Too soon, not his story to tell, feels cheap and exploitative. No sir.

Chvrches “Leave a Trace” – Listen

EW: Lauren Mayberry’s voice is at a (relative) full-on growl! Hot dang! This song has fire in its gut, and it’s very reflective of the band’s growth from the neon light show of “The Bones of What You Believe” and subsequent standalone tracks like “Dead Air” and “Get Away.” There’s a glint of darkness in those synths that match the lyrics now. Go get ’em, Chvrches. See ya at Fun Fun Fun.

DSS: While this definitely maintains the distinctive Chvrches sound, it feels like the band is pushing in new directions.

Icona Pop “Emergency” – Listen

DSS: I was all about the single”I Love It” then disappointed by the Swedish duo’s debut full-length which struck me as one-note and, frankly, boring. I’m cautiously excited again.

EW: I have heard this on a commercial. It was not a good commercial, because I did not purchase or remember that product. But if these ladies want to move away from a more traditional Swedish pop sound, I say bully for them. It ain’t bad.