After hearing a trio of strong releases from Kentucky artists in the first few weeks of August, it occurred to me that Kentucky is really kicking some major ass this year. Still months away from ringing in 2018, I can think of ten LPs and one EP released by Kentucky artists in 2017 that I have enjoyed.
Bonnie “Prince” Billy – Best Troubadour
Drag City – released May 5, 2017
Louisville’s Will Oldham (aka Bonnie “Prince” Billy) takes a crack at the Merle Haggard songbook on this release. He drinks deep from that well, covering some of Hag’s deepest tracks, including 1996’s “No Time to Cry.” Oldham largely lets the songs speak for themselves; the arrangements are gentle and minimalist; and the woodwinds call to mind Van Morrison. In the capable hands of Oldham, these aren’t country outlaw tunes, but profound statements that traverse the entire range of human emotion.
Tyler Childers – Purgatory
Hickman Holler Records – released August 4, 2017
Here we have the crown jewel of 2017, an album that alternately kicks up backroad dust and gently floats amongst the tall pines. Largely produced by the King Turd of Shit Mountain himself, Sturgill Simpson, Purgatory is a song cycle about redemption and rebirth following a fall from grace. If anyone’s taking action, I’ll put good money on Lawrence County-native Childers playing some national TV spots in the coming months.
Frontier Folk Nebraska – Warpig EP
Old Flame Records – released March 24, 2017
If you’re not familiar with Northern Kentucky’s Frontier Folk Nebraska, do yourself a favor and check out their entire discography. Last year’s This One’s For the Kid in the Back: Live at the Southgate House Revival is a great jumping off point. After you’ve sampled their back catalogue, come check out the EP they released earlier this year. There are some absolute bangers on Warpig, including “Girls Like Wine.”
Sam Gleaves & Tyler Hughes – Sam Gleaves & Tyler Hughes
Community Music, Inc. – released June 16, 2017
Although these boys are from Southwest Virginia, Gleaves attended Berea College and is currently based in Berea, so we’ll claim this one, too. Largely a collection of standards, with some originals sprinkled in, this is an album of traditional folk and bluegrass with a forward-facing worldview.
Daniel Martin Moore – Turned Over to Dreams
SofaBurn Records – released July 7, 2017
Daniel Martin Moore wanted to compose a collection of lullabies–songs about sleep and dreams. It ain’t exactly driving music, but if you want to chill out after a tough day, I’m not sure you can do better than this record.
Jeremy Pinnell – Ties of Blood and Affection
SofaBurn Records – released August 11, 2017
Like Childers, Pinnell is poised to soar onto the national scene in the coming year, and though Pinnell and Childers also share a penchant for writing songs about living hard, Pinnell, with his sandpaper baritone and facial tattoos, looks like he’s actually put in the miles (not that Childers hasn’t). These are some hell-raising, shit-kicking jams.
NP Presley & The Ghost of Jesse Garon – Broken Fantasy
Uneven Cheese Records – released February 27, 2017
When I heard Nate Waters (aka Nasty Nate), the longtime frontman for Lexington punk legends The Infected, had rechristened himself NP Presley and was playing Elvis-meets-The-Replacements-style jams, my first thought was, yeah, I’ll absolutely listen to that. On Broken Fantasy, Waters’s third release under the NP Presley moniker, things are really starting to click. The band cooks, and although these songs are a far cry from Waters’s punk origins, they retain a real edge.
Joan Shelley – Joan Shelley
No Quarter Records – released May 5, 2017
Louisville-native Joan Shelley and her primary collaborator, Nathan Salsburg, do the Gillian Welch and Dave Rawlings thing, but there are also, at times, shades of Joni Mitchell and Sandy Denny in Shelley’s voice. On this release, Shelley and Salsburg headed to Chicago to record in Wilco’s famed Loft. Jeff Tweedy produced and played some bass and guitar and his son Spencer played drums on this record. Mixed by Tom Schick, this is a damn fine sounding record.
Ben Sollee – Ben Sollee and Kentucky Native
Soundly Music – released August 11, 2017
Cellist Ben Sollee has been one of Kentucky music’s true hidden gems for nearly a decade now. On this release, his strongest to date, Sollee refines his vision of Postmodern Kentucky Music: part folk; part bluegrass; part classical; musically and philosophically progressive; self-referential; pluralistic; and reflective of a pluralistic commonwealth that is both and neither Southern and/nor Midwestern, Confederate and/nor Union, mountain and/nor plains, urban and/nor rural, past and/nor present and/nor future–three skeletons dancing in unison. A miner of moon rocks gazes across space (and time) at his home in Kentucky while a miner of coal in Kentucky gazes across space (and time) at the moon. A place for everything and everything in its place.
Chris Stapleton – From a Room: Volume 1
Mercury Records – released May 5, 2017
Along with Sturgill Simpson, Stapleton is responsible for ushering Kentucky onto the national stage over the course of the previous three years. Recorded in Nashville’s RCA Studio A–hence the title–Stapleton’s sophomore album cuts deeper than his debut, but lacks the debut’s cinematic, sweeping scope. Bemoaning mainstream country music has become so commonplace, it’s cliched. But, make no mistake: Stapleton is a Nashville insider. Before launching his solo career, he penned songs for many Top 40 country stars. With that knowledge in mind, it’s refreshing to hear this record’s biting guitar tones.
Wheeler Walker – Ol’ Wheeler
Pepperhill Music – released June 2, 2017
Wheeler Walker Jr. is the king of country music. Period. End of sentence. Dave Cobb, who rose to prominence producing key releases by Jason Isbell, Sturgill Simpson, and Chris Stapleton, manned the boards for both this and Walker’s debut, last year’s Redneck Shit.