By Sarah Lemon
. . . even if you don’t like country
“I listen to everything,” we say as people who have traveled to at least one foreign country and read more than a book a year. “Except country,” we finish with a shudder.
But if your knowledge of country music is only the red-dixie-cup, daisy-dukes variety, you’re missing out on a diverse and sonically profound genre. It’s true, you won’t hear these artists much on your local country music radio, but if you’re at all plugged into the music scene these are the artists shaping the craft of folk and country music.
It’s surprisingly hard to exactly pin down the music made by Sturgill Simpson--some of his records have been straightforward country or bluegrass. Some of them have been psychedelic rock with accompanying Netflix anime. His sound is described by Indiewire as "a mesmerizing and sometimes bewildering mix of traditional country sounds, contemporary philosophy, and psychedelic recording-studio wizardry.” He’s even done a beautiful, classic country cover of Nirvana’s “In Bloom”. Born and raised in Kentucky, Sturgill has a classic artist conflict with the music industry, “It’s all horseshit,” he says over and over. The industry might be, but his music is most definitely not.
Listen to: Make Art Not Friends
Sam (make sure you have tissues nearby)
Lyrics: Having one way conversations / With the darkness in my mind / He does all the talking / 'Cause I'm the quiet kind (Remember to Breathe)
Another Kentucky artist (whose albums are produced by the aforementioned Sturgill), Childers is a neo-traditional folk and bluegrass artist, pairing the familiar mountain strings with modern ballads of drugs, Jesus and economic struggle. The son of a coal miner, he grew up surrounded by the rooted legacy of country music (where Dwight Yoakem and Loretta Lynn both came from, among others) and has made the kind of music that extends the genre in that deeply rooted tradition. He says to GQ, “I’m doing what I’m doing and it just so happens that it speaks to the people from my area. That’s where I still live. That’s where I get my inspiration from. The goal of a writer in any situation, be it songs or novels, is to speak to the people in the setting they write about. It means a lot that people take to my music and are touched by it. . .”
Listen to: Nose on The Grindstone
Lyrics: In all my born days as a white boy from Hickman / Based on the way that the world's been to mе / It's called me belligеrent, it's took me for ignorant / But it ain't never once made me scared just to be (Long Violent History)
Not much is actually known about this enigmatic figure who sings his lulling melodies in a classically country voice from behind a fringed mask. He doesn’t talk much about the mask or himself, preferring to let the music speak for itself. And it does. Peck’s beautiful baritone croons against introspective sounds and dark lyrics, detailing a nomadic life, tumultuous relationships with outlaw men and stories of country drag queens. There is no glory in the west, indeed. But Peck’s work is some of the best. “True country music is not about instrumentation, it’s not about the color of your skin, and it’s not about your sexual orientation,” says Peck to Sub-Pop. “It’s about the crossroads of drama, storytelling, and sincerity.”
Listen to: No Glory in the West
Lyric highlight: Queen of the rodeo / You rode on in with nowhere else to go / You know the tune so the words don't matter / Beyond this town lies a life much sadder / Babe, I know (Queen of the Rodeo)
Arguably the most famous on this list, Kacey has had a long career in country music--influential and celebrated, Peck, for example, has listed her as an influence--without ever getting the country music radio play she deserves. In some ways, this has only allowed her creativity to foster and she led the trend of “psychedelic country” with her 2018 album Golden Hour. She’s back with a new album, Justified, coming out of a divorce from her Nashville famous ex. But, as she explains to NPR, “You can easily say it is a post-divorce album, which yes, it is factually on paper. But this album is full of a lot of love and gratitude for that person, for Ruston, for my life and my ability to explore all the emotions as a songwriter.”
Listen to: Good Wife
Lyrics: Moving backwards, hurt comes after / Healing doesn't happen in a straight line
Finishing out our list is the up-and-coming country rock artist Koe Wetzel, who just recently played Postyfest and signed in 2020 with Columbia Records (releasing an album entitled, Sellout, as a result). Koe is pure country brawl with a 90’s grunge inflection--he captures the playful spirit of country that comes with just as deep a melancholy, all laid over that grunge guitar. His lyrics are raw and real-life, and he’s already experienced push-back from mainstream country audiences (who always seem to forget there has to be some outlaw in outlaw country). As to whether he’s a sellout, "We've been doing our thing for going on nine years now. I think that, just, there's only so many things you can do as an independent artist. And, you know, there's only so many people that you can meet and to put out your music in the different areas," Wetzel explains to The Boot, of his decision to work with Columbia. "We had an opportunity for them to do that for us. So we just thought it was time …”
Listen to: Good Die Young
Lyrics: You owe me more / Than just packing up and leaving / Out here in the dark, seems like a fun place to be / I'm sure in the morning when I'm coming down / I'll be alone and scared, no doubt / But I'm too high to cry right now
If you find yourself enjoying this music, there is a world of country and folk that these folks are leading. But be warned, you’re going to have to revise your statement-- “I listen to everything.” End of story.