Ten Definitive Albums that Mark Lost Highway’s Past Decade
Stephen M. Deusner | March 14th, 2011
The song “Lost Highway” has a very special place in Hank Williams’ canon. Recorded shortly before his death in 1953, it remains one of his best and most worried songs, a bleak evocation of dark sin and bright redemption rendered in plainspoken poetry. That Williams died in the backseat of his car only makes the song more haunting, as if it captures the weight of humanity in its few short verses.
It’s not every record label that could live up to that legacy, but in 10 short years, Lost Highway has had an immeasurable impact on country music and beyond. Founded by Mercury Records chairman Luke Lewis in 2000, the label pretty much owned roots music in the 2000s, signing artists like Lucinda and Willie and Lyle who don’t fit any one genre or style too neatly.
Later in the decade, Lost Highway expanded to make a home for non-country artists like Elvis Costello and Morrissey, while fostering young talent like Hayes Carll and Black Joe Lewis & the Honeybears. To mark Lost Highway’s 10th anniversary, here are 10 definitive releases from its first decade—albums that helped shape the label in particular and popular music in general.
Right out of the gate, Lost Highway changed the pop culture landscape with one of its first releases, the soundtrack to the Coen Brothers’ O Brother Where Art Thou? The movie may have depicted the South as the province of dunces and ne’er-do-wells, but the soundtrack found inspiration in old-time music and gently updated decades-old tunes to the twenty-first century. It’s one of the few soundtracks to win an Album of the Year Grammy, introducing millions of listeners to the joys of “I Am a Man of Constant Sorrow” and effectively creating a niche for the fledgling label.
Whiskeytown always seemed like latecomers to the alt-country scene, aping their contemporaries rather than inhabiting older influences comfortably. But with their one album on Lost Highway (which was released after the band had broken up), the North Carolinians finally settled into themselves, with Ryan Adams in particular turning in some of his best and most diverse songs. It was just a hint of the solo career to come.
Robert Earl Keen opens his first Lost Highway album with a cover of J.D. Crowe & the New South’s “My Home Ain’t In the Hall of Fame,” and spends the next eleven tracks proving why he should be. Few artists can do dusty lamentations as poignantly; “Hello New Orleans” and “Not a Drop of Rain” sound like the desert wind is drying the tears off his cheeks, creating a rustic stoicism that colors this exceptional album. Even fewer artists could cap it off with a spoken-word number that depicts a four-hour sound check as a country-psych hallucination.
The Drive-By Truckers first released Southern Rock Opera on their own Soul Dump Records in September 2001, but a year later, Lost Highway gave the album a wider release. Perhaps the most ambitious record on the label’s roster, Southern Rock Opera is a heady examination of rock, racism, and what Patterson Hood calls “the duality of the Southern thing.” It’s also perhaps the most important treatise on Southern identity since The Mind of the South, but W.J. Cash never rocked so hard or so righteously.
Lucinda Williams can divide her career neatly into two phases: before Lost Highway and after Lost Highway. She’s released more albums for the label than she did in the previous twenty-plus years, and while her recent work can’t match the perfection of Lucinda Williams and Car Wheels on a Gravel Road, there are some stunning gems on this forlorn record, a near-concept album about moving away from her beloved South and out to California. But life’s just as tough near on the West Coast, as the bittersweet “Ventura” makes devastatingly clear.
Like so many on the Lost Highway roster, Lyle Lovett spent some time in Nashville but isn’t merely a country singer. His label debut is perhaps his best post-Julia synthesis of all the many ideas bouncing around underneath all that hair. Western swing ambles arm-in-arm with Texas blues, folk mingles with country and rock, and the driest wit in popular music perfects his brilliant deadpan delivery on “Cute As a Bug” and “Big Dog.”
There’s more to Nashville and Lost Highway than just country music, as this series proves. Over two discs that serve as a catalog to an exhibition at the Country Music Hall of Fame, the label explores the local R&B and soul scenes that flourished from the 1940s through the 1970s, highlighting such artists as Clyde McPhatter, Joe Tex, and Etta James. It’s not only thoughtfully and expertly curated, but the music remains as lively and exciting as ever.
Johnny Cash was too frail to play guitar on this album, and his voice sounds ragged and tired, but the penultimate release in his American Recordings series showcases an artist whose musical curiosity and intuitive engagement with well-written songs had not diminished at all. It’s almost heartbreaking to listen to the Man in Black so close to death, but to his considerable credit, Cash never indulges any self-pity or allows any gothic drama. Instead, he looks back at his life and forward to the afterlife with the same authority and dignity he had in healthier times.
Following up his disastrous reggae album the year before, Willie made another genre excursion—this time into Texas swing—on his trillionth full-length. Singing Cindy Walker’s hits like they’re American Songbook standards, he sounds jazzily spry, his voice thin but still agile as he relishes her playful lyrics and skipping rhythms. It’s a lovely, affectionate valentine to one of Willie’s biggest influences and one of popular music’s most underrated songwriters.
Signing Hayes Carll was a no-brainer for Lost Highway. With Lyle’s wit, Willie’s adventurousness, and Robert Earl’s attention to detail, the Houston native is the true heir to all the Texas troubadours on the label. On his latest album, he ventures well beyond the state line on his fourth full-length—to anonymous bars and hotels all over the country, as well as memorable stopover in Afghanistan—but Carll sees the world from a specifically Lone Star perspective, generously taking in all of America at this weird point in history.
Stephen M. Deusner is a contributor to The9513.com, Paste Magazine, and Pitchfork. He can be reached via email.