New Old Ways

15 Essential Neotraditionalist Country Albums

New Old Ways

The Class of ’86
Dwight Yoakam: Guitar, Cadillacs, Etc., Etc. Warner/Reprise. 1986. The husky-voiced James Dean lookalike had recorded the original six-song EP of Guitars, Cadillacs, Etc., Etc. in 1984, released the following year on a small indie label specializing in punk and metal. The EP included the potent Yoakam originals “It Won’t Hurt” and “South of Cincinnati,” along with a blistering cover of Johnny Cash’s classic “Ring of Fire.” Yoakam couldn’t afford to record the title track—he’d paid for the initial recording sessions with a $5000 credit-card advance from Tulsa drummer Richard Coffey. Few country fans took notice. Still, the EP led to Yoakam’s major-label deal with Warner, which reissued Guitars, Cadillacs, Etc., Etc. with four additional songs, including the twangy title track, a Telecaster-fueled homage to guitars, cars, and hillbilly music.

Steve Earle: Guitar Town. MCA. 1986. Inspired by the consistent storylines of Bruce Springsteen’s 1984 American epic Born in the U.S.A., Earle scrapped the songs he’d been shopping around Nashville and started from scratch. The resulting songs displayed an unhurried, blue-collar aesthetic with references to truck stops, blaring car radios, schemers, and cheap guitars. Those themes are spiked with a defiant, often yearning tone that serves as a backdrop for the small-town dreamer portrayed on the title track and such classic songs as “Hillbilly Highway,” “Fearless Heart,” and “Someday.”

K. D. Lang & the Reclines: Angel with a Lariat. Warner/Reprise. 1986. Lang already had her Patsy Cline chops down cold (“Three Cigarettes in an Ashtray”), but it is the rodeo-ready blast of “Turn Me Round” and the Cajun-inflected two-step “Got the Bull by the Horns” that made her so endearing, long before she would become a smooth-crooning ingénue.

Lyle Lovett: Lyle Lovett. MCA/MCA Nashville. 1986. Lovett shot right out of the chute fully formed on this debut. “Cowboy Man,” the opening track, set the standard for the Texas folk, Western swing, and country ballads to follow over the next two decades. This album includes his version of “This Front Porch,” co-written with Robert Earl Keen, a sentimental portrait of small-town life.

Randy Travis: Storms of Life. Warner Bros. 1986. Travis’ honeyed baritone is as comfortable as a well-worn pair of cowboy boots. And the ebullient honky-tonk piano and country-music themes of heartache and marital strife fit right in with such rockin’ roadhouse anthems as “There’ll Always Be a Honky Tonk Somewhere,” which personified the neotraditionalist movement.

The Progeny
Jason Isbell: Southeastern. Southeastern. 2013. Isbell’s struggles with substance abuse inform this emotional collection of folksy acoustic-oriented confessionals from the ex-Drive-By Truckers star. Isbell bares his soul on such heartfelt ballads as “Cover Me Up” and “Traveling Alone.” “Songs That She Sang in the Shower” recalls Rodney Crowell, and his character sketches are right up there with the best of Guy Clark.

Kacey Musgraves: Same Trailer Different Park. Atlantic. 2013. Vocally, Musgraves taps her inner Dolly Parton and teams up with a band of hipster musicians to stir Nashville’s conservative sensibilities with “Follow Your Arrow,” a catchy country-insurgent anthem that nods approvingly at same-sex relationships and gives a knowing wink to pot smokers. “Biscuits” is a foot-stomping hoedown that pooh-poohs uptight country values and suggests that gossips would be better off, you know, minding their own biscuits. Seems harmless enough, but Musgraves has rattled nerves in Nashville…and she has done it so fetchingly. An instant classic.

Sturgill Simpson: Metamodern Sounds in Country Music. High Top Mountain. 2014. Simpson contributes the raucous title track to HBO’s 2016 rock-trade drama Vinyl, and he’s added horns and a touch of R&B to his most recent release. But this gripping debut finds him channeling Waylon Jennings and other Outlaw Country legends (“Turtles All the Way Down,” “Life of Sin”).

Cale Tyson: Cheater’s Wine. Self-Released. 2014. The second coming of Gram Parsons with a little Hank Williams thrown in for good measure, Tyson spins songs awash in a deep longing, punctuated by the twinge of a yodel and a swooping pedal steel. This 2014 release, the follow-up to 2013’s stunning EP High on Lonesome, featuring “Honky Tonk Moan,” leaves you howling for more.

Margo Price: Midwest Farmer’s Daughter. Third Man. 2016. With lines like “You wouldn’t know class if it bit you in the ass” from the twangy battle cry “About to Find Out,” Price shows a knack for blending trad sounds and meditations on small-town values. She grew up on an Illinois farm and has struggled with booze and bad boyfriends. Her authenticity drew the attention of Jack White, who signed her to his Nashville-based Third Man label. Her folksy vocals and no-nonsense worldview make this one of the year’s strongest country debuts.

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