There were a number of albums that were deserving of more attention than they received in 2008. I could claim Hal Ketchum’s Father Time didn’t garner the praise it was due or that Randy Rogers Band was overlooked despite placing an album in the top ten. Amber Digby could certainly qualify for this list, but Passion, Pride and What Might Have Been appeared in the top ten on three of The 9513′s writer’s lists for the best country albums of 2008, which ought to be enough of an incentive to check it out. So, instead, I’ll focus on the albums that, for whatever reason, flew under the radar and are worth going back and giving a listen if you didn’t check them out when they were released. So before we move on with the new year, here’s one last look back.
10. Arizona Motel, Hacienda Brothers
After five years and three albums, the Hacienda Brothers’ fourth album is their last. A month after finishing recording for the album, lead singer/accordion player/guitarist Chris Gaffney was diagnosed with cancer and he passed away a month later. Dave Gonzales, Gaffney’s musical “brother,” released the album in June. You’ll find the Hacienda brothers blending country, rockabilly, blues, and soul on Arizona Motel, an album that should have had a larger impact than it did.
Recommended: “Used To the Pain,” “Ordinary Fool,” “Break Free”
9. Between the Whiskey and the Wine, Miss Leslie
There is steel guitar and fiddle aplenty on Between the Whiskey and the Wine–the fiddle provided by Miss Leslie herself and the steel by Ricky Davis who has spent time in bands fronted by Gary P. Nunn and Dale Watson. If you haven’t guessed by now, Miss Leslie’s music leans a little traditional…ok, maybe it’s hardcore traditional. And while she’s garnered local accolades and built a loyal fan base, she’s still largely unknown. That should change, so if you haven’t heard her music, she’s currently got an offer to send anyone in the US a free autographed CD.
Recommended: “Honky Tonk Hangover,” “Between the Whiskey and the Wine”
8. Radio Skies, Kelleigh Bannen
Kelleigh Bannen is a Nashville native, but she doesn’t exactly fit the young blonde archetype served up on an assembly line that’s coming out of the major labels these days. She had a hand in writing every song on her debut album and wrote most of them herself, she owns her masters and publishing, she’s not on a major label, and she’s not exactly blonde. Her music fits somewhere between the commercial sensibilities of the Nashville product and something more organic, but it balances the two extremes well without sounding conflicted.
Recommended: “Say It In A County Song,” “Whisky Rain,” “Done”
7. Chameleon, Tim O’Brien
Tim O’Brien is a highly regarded musician that made appearances on many of the year’s releases, including Kathy Mattea’s Coal. O’Brien’s own record from 2008, Chameleon, is a collection of songs that features himself is just about every capacity, from vocals to songwriting to playing every audible instrument on the album. It’s a veritable melting pot of sixteen songs ranging from silly to poignant to slightly political, all of them well crafted. They draw from a myriad of musical styles that make it hard to peg the album to one genre, so folksy acoustic country is as good as any.
Recommended: “The Garden,” “Chameleon,” “The Only Way To Never Hurt,” “Where’s Love Come From”
6. The Last Country Album, Heybale
Consisting of Earle Poole Ball, Gary Claxton, Tom Lewis, Kevin Smith, and Redd Volkaert, Heybale released their first studio album last year. They are an accomplished group of musicians by any standard who have toured with the likes of Merle Haggard, Johnny Cash, Connie Smith, Buck Owens, and Dale Watson. They throw in covers of “Mr. Record Man” and “That’s How I Got To Memphis,” but mostly offer up comparable originals. As Brody said when I asked him how he’d describe Heybale, they’re just “badass country music.”
Recommended: “California Wine,” “Guess Where I’ll Be This Morning,” “That’s How I Got To Memphis”
5. Ripe, The Dixie Bee-Liners
Unless you follow bluegrass closely, The Dixie Bee-Liners might not be a familiar name, but they’re a group worth checking out. Mostly fronted by Brandi Hart, the group plays what sounds like fairly straightforward music, but they add bits of polish and character to various songs on Ripe to give them their own unique spin. They also place a little more focus on the lyrics than the average contemporary bluegrass group, which, combined with Hart’s vocal, creates a pleasing listen. Be sure to check out “Dixie Grey to Black,” a song about a mother who lost her only son in the Civil War.
Recommended: “Dixie Grey to Black,” “Down On the Crooked Road”
4. Indianola, Steve Azar Indianola wasn’t high on my list of favorite albums, but in retrospect, it’s a better than average record, especially by mainstream standards, and was certainly deserving of much more attention than it garnered in 2008. Azar left Midas in 2006 after the lead single, “You Don’t Know A Thing,” failed to reach the Top 40, then self-released the album last year to little fanfare. The first single, a co-write with Walt Wilkins titled “I Won’t Let You Lead Me Down,” on his own label didn’t chart.
Recommended: “I Won’t Let You Lead Me Down,” “The River’s Workin’,” “Prelude”
3. Adrienna Valentine, Trent Wagler & Jay Lapp
Ben Cisneros gave these guys a brief mention in March, saying “In a world of good singers, good musicians, and good songs, Trent Wagler is an exceptional singer, Jay Lapp is an exceptional musician/producer, and Adrienna Valentine is an exceptional album.” And despite all that, there isn’t really any arguing that these guys were overlooked in 2008. Wagler and Lapp play an old timey country/roots based flavor of music and there are some great songs here that rank amongst the best of the year. Give them a listen if you liked the albums by Old Crow Medicine Show and Kasey Chambers & Shane Nicholson.
2. Highway Prayer, Twilight Hotel
It might be hard to claim that any album or group that got The Malec Treatment was overlooked in 2008, but if anyone qualifies, it’d have to be this Candian roots duo. Highway Prayer isn’t strictly a country record, but at times, it has more in touch with country’s roots than anything being released to radio. For instance, the music of the poor and downtrodden has forgotten it’s audience, instead, focusing on teenage girls and suburbanites, but take a song like “The Ballad of Salvador and Isabelle,” an epic story song following the lives of immigrants who “headed north in the night for America/Left his town and his kin for a life in the shadow of a lie,” and you get back to the heart of what country music used to be.
Recommended: “Impatient Love,” “Ballad of Salvador and Isabelle”
1. Still Your Fool, The Dixons
We often get the pitch that a country band from New York would make for a good story, but despite perceptions, it’s not that unique, and often times, it’s not that good. The Dixons, however, have released an extremely pleasing record that manages to replicate the Bakersfield/honky tonk sound without sounding trite or dated. Aside from three covers, including a slowed down redition of “Thanks A Lot,” everything else was written by Jeff Mowery, who serves as lead singer and co-producer as well. The album doesn’t push any boundaries, but it’s simplicity, both musically and lyrically, and universal themes of heartache makes for great music. Good stuff.
Recommended: “Please Don’t Stop Loving Me,” “Talk of the Town,” “Please Baby Don’t Go”