Another calendar year is upon us, which means a whole new crop of American folk music is on the way. There have already been some excellent releases in 2014, including new stuff from Rosanne Cash and the first disc on this list - James Vincent McMorrow's Post Tropical. But as the winter winds down and the weather makes way for spring, there will be even more, better, and perhaps even surprising, unforgettable music on the way.
This list only covers the first quarter of the year, as release dates have not been announced for later in 2014. As the year marches on, we're likely to also see new albums from bigger name artists like the Carolina Chocolate Drops and Brandi Carlile this year. But, before the onslaught of summer music gets announced, these five remarkable new folk music releases will keep your ears busy for the next couple of months. From old, reliable favorites like John Gorka to brand-newcomers like Parker Millsap and Leyla McCalla, the music represented here covers all areas of contemporary and traditional American folk music. (And, there's even one Irishman to keep things real.) So, without further ado, I give you five essential folk and Americana albums you won't want to miss in the first quarter of 2014:
Release date: Jan. 14
James Vincent McMorrow's stunning Stateside debut Early in the Morning was one of the most emotionally arresting singer-songwriter albums of 2011. So, it is with great anticipation that his full-length follow-up (he released a lovely teaser of an EP in 2012) releases this month. McMorrow's music may be of interest to fans of Ray LaMontagne and Bon Iver, though his songwriting delves quite a bit deeper than both of those artists, exposing something far more raw and delicate.
Release date: Feb. 4
Parker Millsap is one of the best young songwriters on the scene. That may sound slightly hyperbolic, but Millsap was turning heads with a "whoosh" pretty much the minute he graduated high school. Like fellow Oklahomans Samantha Crain and John Fullbright, his spirited vocal attack and ahead-of-his-time lyrical insight make him one of the most promising singer-songwriters of his generation. Needless to say, this self-titled full-length debut is likely to bring Millsap's remarkable talent to a much wider audience beyond his Oklahoma hometown.
Release date: Feb. 4
Some folks may be familiar with New Orleans native Leyla McCalla for her time spent sitting in with the Carolina Chocolate Drops on cello. But this stunning debut - her tribute to the great writer Langston Hughes - is likely to amplify McCalla's incredible talent to a much wider audience. The songs themselves are stunning, placing Langston Hughes' poetry against banjo, cello, and other instruments, and McCalla's strong, direct alto will hang over you like a dreamy fog.
Another artist coming out of New Orleans with a great amount of gusto lately is Alynda Lee Segarra, whose band Hurray for the Riff Raff has made some serious waves in recent years. Their 2012 release Look Out Mama landed them everywhere from the Newport Folk Festival to the Americana Music Association Festival, and beyond. They're easily one of the best live bands on the folk circuit, but no matter how you receive their music, Segarra's songwriting is the centerpiece. This disc is likely to find its way onto some Best of 2014 lists (it's already been spotlighted by NPR's "Heavy Rotation," a month before its release).
Release date: Mar. 4
John Gorka is one of the most thoughtful contemporary songwriters in the fold of American folk music. His classic, frequently covered songs tackle everything from lost love ("I Saw a Stranger with Your Hair") to the development of rural areas ("Houses in the Fields"). And, it's been four years since he's released a recording. So, his 2014 disc Bright Side of Down is likely to be embraced by the folk world when it drops in March.