The first half of 2016 has seen a number of major country releases — some stellar (Loretta Lynn, Brandy Clark), some not-so-stellar (Keith Urban, Blake Shelton) — but it’s emerging and under-the-radar artists who have made the biggest impact on the genre lately. Whether it’s through sonic innovation (Dave Cobb’s Southern Family, Robert Ellis’ Robert Ellis) or progressive messages (Parker Millsap’s The Very Last Day, Margo Price’s Midwest Farmer’s Daughter), the best country music being made today is pushing the genre farther away from the homogeneous mess of cutoff jeans and cold, cold beers currently clogging country radio. Here’s hoping Beyoncé cuts her whole next album in Memphis.
Robert Ellis, Robert Ellis (New West)
We’re used to hearing breakup albums from the perspective of the dumped, but Robert Ellis’ new self-titled effort proves it can be just as painful for the unfortunate soul doling out the bad news. Opener “Perfect Strangers,” buoyed by jovial strings and piano, sounds happy enough, but lines like “Perfect strangers manufacturing a thing that once came naturally” and “How I wish that I had never fallen in love with a perfect stranger” are harbingers for the regret to come as the album wears on.
Anchored by Ellis’ nimble tenor, virtuosic guitar playing, and knack for turning a phrase, Robert Ellis takes listeners on the entire painful journey of a relationship’s end, from the awkward purgatory before ties are fully severed (“Drivin'”) to the unfamiliar beginnings of a new courtship (“Couples Skate”). A masterful intersection of emotion and musicianship, Robert Ellis is one of 2016’s finest.
Margo Price, Midwest Farmer’s Daughter (Third Man)
Jack White’s Third Man Records has had a heavy presence in Nashville since setting up shop in 2009, but somehow the label made it six years without actually signing a country artist. Luckily the Tennessee-via-Illinois singer-songwriter Margo Price was well worth the wait. Crowned early on as the heir apparent to Loretta Lynn (whom, it should be noted, hasn’t abdicated her throne just yet), Price lives up to the hype by marrying hardscrabble traditionalism with modern narratives on her debut album, Midwest Farmer’s Daughter.
“This Town Gets Around” would be at home sonically on a 1970s outlaw-country jukebox, but lyrically it perfectly skewers the boys-club-on-a-conference-call atmosphere of today’s industry. Lead single “Hurtin’ (On the Bottle)” is honky-tonk heartache at its finest. After years of waiting tables and waiting on her big break, all that’s left for Price to wait for are the heaps of awards and acclaim to come.
Dave Cobb, Southern Family (Elektra)
You may not know Dave Cobb, but you know his handiwork. The producer behind such country/Americana landmarks as Chris Stapleton’s CMA-winning Traveller, Jason Isbell’s critical gem Southeastern (as well as its chart-topping follow-up, Something More Than Free), and Sturgill Simpson’s breakout Metamodern Sounds in Country Music, Cobb is a key player in bringing what diehards and holdouts call “real country” back to the forefront of a landscape crowded by party anthems and pick-up trucks.
The rogue’s gallery on Southern Family — which boasts Miranda Lambert, Brandy Clark, Isbell, and Stapleton, along with others — is in itself a testament to Cobb’s clout as a maestro, showcasing a reach that extends far beyond his Nashville home base. The actual songs, which center on a loose theme of Southern familial ties that can wax nostalgic (Zac Brown’s “Grandma’s Garden,” Anderson East’s “Learning”) or meditate on loss and mortality (John Paul White’s haunting “Simple Song”), are a testament to Cobb’s touch as a producer, a voice so strong that it can craft a spellbinding and cohesive narrative without uttering a single syllable.
Aubrie Sellers, New City Blues (Carnival Recording Company)
Women may not get the same country-radio representation as their gelled-and-tatted brethren, but if there’s a silver lining to that airplay inequity, it’s that women are consistently making some of the most interesting and demanding music on or off the radio. Aubrie Sellers, the 25-year-old daughter of fellow trailblazing country singer Lee Ann Womack, is doing just that on her debut album, New City Blues.
Lead single “Sit Here and Cry” is a fuzzed-out garage-rock tune that positions Sellers as country’s new tough girl, like Kacey Musgraves with sharper nails or Miranda Lambert raised on Kurt Cobain. Appropriately, New City Blues is a guitar-driven album, employing urgent riffs on “Paper Doll” and invoking an ominous twang on “Liar Liar.” Sellers is her own artist, for sure, though Womack’s influence does appear in the album’s quieter moments, as on “Like the Rain” when Sellers makes it clear as day that she inherited her mother’s agile lilt. New City Blues is the work of an artist who’s quickly found her own signature, radio be damned.
Maren Morris, Hero (Sony Music Nashville)
While many new women of country have mined the genre’s twangier roots (think Kacey Musgraves on “Dime Store Cowgirl,” or Margo Price on “Four Years of Chances”), Maren Morris makes the most of the genre’s poppier sensibilities. Her debut album, Hero, showcases her honeyed vocals and preternatural sense of melody, with early singles like “80s Mercedes” and “My Church” as hook-laden as anything in Top 40 rotation.
Morris’ latest single, “Rich” — with a bass hook that sounds lifted direct from Steve Miller Band’s “The Joker” — is certainly CMT’s bid for Song of the Summer, with plenty of crossover potential in its laid-back, breezy vocals and infectious singalong chorus. Expect to hear lots of Morris this summer, from Hero and beyond. She also makes an appearance on Dierks Bentley’s just-released Black, where she joins him on the single-worthy duet “I’ll Be the Moon,” which, largely to her credit, manages to portray the sweet side of a sticky subject: infidelity. Speaking of which…
Dierks Bentley, Black (Capitol Nashville)
The concept album is a milestone for many artists, an artistic statement as much as it is a declaration of independence from the constraints of a traditional full-length. For Bentley, it serves as both a meditation on relationships — failed and otherwise — and an acknowledgement that he’s entered a more mature chapter in his career. Now 40, he isn’t as convincing when he sings about partying on beaches as he was on his self-titled major-label debut from 2003, and the new Black takes that change to heart, eschewing (with the exception of, yep, the single “Somewhere on a Beach”) tailgates for tales of infidelity, loss, and redemption.
One track that’s sure to generate a lot of conversation is the Elle King duet “Different for Girls,” which attempts, well… a different take on the sometimes stark contrast between male and female experiences: “She don’t text her friends and say, ‘I gotta get laid tonight’ / She don’t say, ‘It’s okay, I never loved him anyway’” — uh, she don’t? “Girls” is well-intentioned and King adds a dose of needed complexity, but still treads clichéd, groan-worthy ground. The song, polarizing as it’s bound to be, does, however, fit into the rest of the record, which features a broader array of female voices — the aforementioned Morris on “I’ll Be the Moon,” Natalie Hemby and Hillary Lindsey serving as co-writers on “Mardi Gras” and “Can’t Be Replaced,” respectively — than possibly any other solo male country album in recent memory. No one can say Black isn’t ambitious, and it’s nuanced too; easily Bentley’s most personal, affecting release yet.
Parker Millsap, The Very Last Day (Okrahoma)
If you wouldn’t expect an album inspired by Pentecostal doomsday scenarios to also contain a sympathetic portrayal of a young man struggling with his homosexuality, you obviously aren’t familiar with Parker Millsap. The Oklahoma-born 23-year-old brings together those seemingly disparate storylines on his third album, The Very Last Day, in songs influenced by folk, blues, and — yeah — gospel. The album is a Southern gothic take on end times, those of the truly apocalyptic variety (“Tribulation Hymn”) and those, like on the lover’s lament “Morning Blues,” that simply feel like it.
Day’s centerpiece is “Heaven Sent,” which adopts the perspective of a preacher’s gay son who asks the heartbreaking question, “Did you love me when he was just my friend?” It’s the kind of soliloquy you won’t hear on country radio, as its topic is neither obliquely referenced nor tongue-in-cheek as on, say, Little Big Town’s “Girl Crush.” That its parent album is as fun to listen to — with its soaring harmonies, left-of-center biblical influences, and total abandonment of traditional genre restriction — as it is insightful is a credit to its author.
Robbie Fulks, Upland Stories (Bloodshot)
The 53-year-old Fulks has been a key, if quiet, fixture in the alt-country scene since he released his debut album, Country Love Songs, in 1996. Twenty years later, he returns with Upland Stories, and the prolific singer-songwriter has never sounded better. Stories places Fulks in the upland South, where, on songs like “Never Come Home” and “Alabama at Night,” his picking and playing find a natural setting in which to inhabit the minds and stories of characters far more likely to be found in the Appalachian foothills than the concrete jungle of his home city, Chicago. Produced by the ubiquitous Steve Albini, Upland Stories is traditional music with a modern bent, an album that bridges the gap between Fulks’ bluegrass forebears and the legions of No Depression stalwarts who consider him a forebear of their own.