by Julian Spivey
10. "Highway 46" by Tom Russell
Tom Russell’s “Highway 46” is a tribute to the legendary Bakersfield Sound and the great musical heroes that came out of it like Merle Haggard and Buck Owens. Russell says on his website: “I heard Bob Dylan on the radio in 1962 the same night I heard Buck Owens. I thought it was all the same; hillbilly/folk music with voice that cut through the fog.” The song is essentially Russell driving down Highway 46 from the California coast to the San Joaquin Valley and remembering all these musical heroes and their songs. I particularly love the second verse paying tribute to my hero Merle Haggard.
9. "Cobra" by Rod Melancon
Rod Melancon’s “Cobra,” off his album Pinkville, is simply the most badass song of 2019. It’s a roadhouse roots-rocker of a story about two bank robbers and their downfall with Melancon’s gruff, gritty vocals highlighting the sung portions of the song with spoken word serving as the storyteller. There’s a bluesy, almost Doors-esque sound to the track that gives the entire thing an ominous feel to it.
8. "Seneca Creek" by Charles Wesley Godwin
Good lord Charles Wesley Godwin had an incredibly debut with Seneca this year. It’s an album full of terrific and realistically written stories about life in rural America and one of the very best is “Seneca Creek.” The song tells the entire story of a couple from beginning to end and really tugs on your heartstrings in doing so. Godwin is from West Virginia and you can just feel his home state in the sinew of these Appalachian tales like “Seneca Creek.”
7. "Nobody's Perfect" by Bruce Robison & Kelly Willis
For my money Bruce Robison and Kelly Willis are the most talented couple in country music, even if many who just listen to mainstream might not know either of them by name. The couple that has been married for more than 20 years released their third collaborative album this year and their voices meld together beautifully. The album’s best track is the Willis-led “Nobody’s Perfect,” about a jilted lover who swears off the dating life until she can find someone who’s worth the potential pain of another heartbreak. The song is brilliantly written by Adam Wright.
6. "William and Wanda" by Cody Jinks
If this song doesn’t make you tear up you might not be human. Cody Jinks co-wrote “William and Wanda” with his wife Rebecca shortly after the death of his grandfather that envisions him reuniting with Jinks’ grandmother in heaven to continue their love story. It’s a beautiful sentiment and performed in a raw acoustic style – I truly couldn’t imagine it performed any other way. It’s an absolutely stunning song and the way Jinks kinda wraps a mystery of what it’s about until the end makes it all the more interesting.
5. "Ground Don't Want Me" by Josh Ritter
Josh Ritter’s “Ground Don’t Want Me” is such an incredibly written song. It probably has the best chorus of any song this year with: “What is the body when the soul is flown?/Has it only been forgotten?/I want to lay down in a field of bone/But an angel guards the garden.” The song is a ballad of an outlaw who’s done so much killing and shed so much blood during his life and he’s frankly tired of it, but something just won’t let him die and get away from all this pain. Essentially the men he killed are better off than him in the end.
4. "American Dream" by Hayes Carll
“American Dream,” off singer-songwriter Hayes Carll’s 2019 release What It Is, is an incredibly written, picturesque song that mixes images of beautiful rural life with ones of more bleakness to truly capture the American image. Carll told Garden & Gun: “The American dream is different for different people, but there are some human emotions and traits that are, for better or worse, timeless. Greed is one of lose, and quests for glory and love are as well. They are engines that keep most people moving, and America personifies that.”
3. "Western Stars" by Bruce Springsteen
Bruce Springsteen had always loved the sound of Southern California pop music with a country influence like the kind Glen Campbell and Jimmy Webb collaborated on to great success in the ‘60s. His 2019 album Western Stars models itself after this sound and melds nicely with Springsteen’s specific, literary songwriting as The Boss has intricate characters living in a lonely West like the aging character actor in the album’s title cut who rides a familiar face from doing credit card commercials and once being shot on film by John Wayne into free drinks wherever he goes.
2. "Hardwood Floors" by Charles Wesley Godwin
This year has been an amazing one for upcoming singer-songwriters bursting onto the scene with terrific debut albums and Charles Wesley Godwin’s Seneca is one of the year’s best (overall, not just by new musicians). It’s hard to pick a best song from his album, but I’m going to go with the foot-stomper “Hardwood Floors,” with a fiddle solo that makes you want to take part in a hoedown. Godwin’s talent as a songwriter is something I hope more listeners start to take note of, as I believe he could be one of the finest to come out of the Americana/country music genres going into the next decade.
1. "Irene (Ravin' Bomb)" by Ian Noe
Ian Noe burst upon the scene this year with his debut release Between the Country and I was immediately flabbergasted when I heard the song “Irene (Ravin’ Bomb)” from this Kentuckian, who I hope will see as much success as his fellow statesmen like Sturgill Simpson and Tyler Childers have. Seemingly one of the many Americana singers who looked up to John Prine this is an immediate classic about a strung out, down-on-her-luck woman who’s barely scraping by in life with her rotgut wine and “M*A*S*H re-runs (I truly love that bit of pop culture referencing). The titular Irene is the kind of woman you can see right before you thanks to Noe’s realistic songwriting, but the kind of woman you’re thankful isn’t in your life. Noe is only 29-years old, but there’s a maturity and literariness about his work that’s well above his years.
What was your favorite Americana or Country song of 2019?