It's been a great year for new music releases in the roots realm. Folk, bluegrass, alt-country, and Americana music are dominating the popular music scene lately, with artists old and new releasing some of the best music around. Take a look at the best folk music albums of 2009.
Dave Rawlings has, for years, been one of the most respected instrumentalists in contemporary folk and roots music. As Gillian Welch's collaborative music partner, Rawlings has charmed and impressed audiences with his dexterity on guitar. Now with his own outfit, the Dave Rawlings Machine, he's released one of the finest "debut" albums of recent note.
Breaking from the theme album bent of 2006's Fox Confessor Brings the Flood, Neko Case's long-awaited follow-up Middle Cyclone saw her covering songs by Harry Nilsson and Sparks. Continuing her tendency to pack her albums with musicians from other bands, she brought in her New Pornographers collaborators, as well as members of Calexico, Visqueen, the Sadies, Los Lobos, and artists like M. Ward and others.
Steve Earle's tribute to his songwriting hero Townes Van Zandt, appropriately titled Townes, seems to have been a very long time coming, even though it's only been talked about for a little while. Considering Earle's reverence for Van Zandt's extraordinary body of work, it's hardly surprising that this tribute disc is one of the best of the year.
Todd Snider has, for nearly two decades, been one of the best mostly-under-the-radar singer-songwriters in contemporary folk music. His songs have ranged from hilarious, endearing narratives about workaday life to hard-biting protest songs. On his latest album, he tends more toward the former, but one thing is certain. Above all else, Todd Snider is an excellent storyteller, and The Excitement Plan is a tremendous example of this skill.
Sam Baker has been working on a trilogy of albums about mercy, and Cotton is the final remarkable entry in that project (his 2004 debut Mercy kicked it off, followed three years later by Pretty World). Indeed, it's an ambitious project for a songwriter to commit to one theme for three albums, but Baker delivers swimmingly yet again.
Sara Watkins may still be best known as the fiddling third of the prodigious trio Nickel Creek, but her solo album draws a solid line between what she has to offer as a solo artist and the work of her former band mates, although both Chris Thile and her brother Sean are all over this disc. (Read my interview with Sara Watkins about this album.)
Sometymes Why is an all-star trio of women from some of contemporary Americana's finest string bands: Crooked Still, the Mammals and Uncle Earle. Drawing from their incredible pool of songwriting talent, pushing the boundaries of contemporary folk music, Sometymes Why's sophomore release Your Heart Is a Glorious Machine highlights their inventive harmonies and instrumentation. It's almost as charming as their live shows.
Danny Schmidt has a knack for using the tools of traditional music in new and innovative ways. Pulling from classic-style country and the blues, he opens his second disc, Instead the Forest Rose to Sing, with one of the album's best tracks, the timely tune "Better Off Broke" (purchase/download). It's an easy entry point to what becomes a tour through stellar topical tunes and heartbreaking story-songs.
Justin Townes Earle's second album on Bloodshot Records, Midnight at the Movies, delivers more of the new rootsy goodness we saw from his last disc, The Good Life. Where Good Life saw Earle resurrecting and re-working songs from a classic country angle, Midnight sees him taking a decidedly more folk and alt-country direction, even singing of folk legends like the story of John Henry.