State of the Union: Americana in 2014

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Classic Rock 203 features four of the shining lights of American roots music in 2014: Lucinda Williams, Cory Branan, Justin Townes Earle and Chuck Ragan. Here, Rob Hughes digs a little deeper to expand the selection.

**Cory Branan **Cory Branan’s self-styled “mutt music” is a mongrel hybrid of the country, blues and gospel that informed his upbringing in the American South. Chuck Ragan calls him “the greatest songwriter of our generation”. Now based in Nashville, latest album The No-Hit Wonder salutes the underdogs of this world, particularly the struggling troubadour, “living blood to string/hand to mouth.”

**Hiss Golden Messanger **MC Taylor and Scott Hirsch are both graduates of the Californian hardcore scene. After winding up alt.country band The Court & Spark in the mid ‘Noughties, the duo moved to North Carolina and formed Hiss Golden Messenger. Lateness Of Dancers, their fifth LP, is a gorgeous assimilation of country, folk and simmering soul.

**Lucinda Williams **Adored by Bob Dylan, Emmylou Harris and Ryan Adams, Lucinda Williams has been twisting country-blues into striking new forms for over 35 years. Down Where The Spirit Meets The Bone, released on her own Highway 20 label, is an ambitious double album with a guestlist that includes Tony Joe White, Ian McLagan and Dylan’s son, Jakob.

Justin Townes Earle Living in the shade of his famous father Steve hasn’t always been easy for Justin Townes Earle, with his formative years blighted by drug and alcohol addiction. The cleaned-up Earle has now emerged as one of America’s most eloquent songwriters, wringing country-soul truths from a voice that never sounds less than commanding.

**Shovels And Rope **South Carolina husband-and-wife Michael Trent and Cary Ann Hearst make gloriously untutored country-punk from a pair of beat-up old guitars, a kick drum, snare and some of the blowsiest harmonies this side of the Everlys. Taking their name from an album of murder ballads they once cut together, their new opus is the damnably great Swimmin’ Time.

Hard Working Americans You could call it a supergroup, but the Nashville-based quintet of Todd Snider, Dave Schools, Neal Casal, Duane Trucks and Chad Staehly – aka Hard Working Americans – were formed as a covers project to whisk their favourite songs into jam band territory. This year’s self-titled debut did just that, with new live album and documentary, The First Waltz, also due soon.

Sturgill Simpson Raised in a Kentucky mining community, Simpson combines the raw feel of classic country with the new sensibility of East Nashville. This year’s stunning Metamodern Sounds In Country Music (“a concept album disguised as a country record”, says he) was informed by a fascination with theology, cosmology and modern physics. Boxcar Willie he most certainly isn’t.

Chuck Ragan Florida’s Chuck Ragan may have made his reputation with indie-punks Hot Water Music, but he now seems to have found his true metier as a rootsy troubadour with a carpetbag of tough-living tales. Aside from his blossoming solo career, he’s also the guiding force being the Revival Tour, a highly successful acoustic revue of like-minded souls.

Lydia Loveless Raised on an Ohio farm and weaned on Hank Williams and The Clash, Loveless is a honky-tonk princess with a rebel heart. Somewhere Else is her fifth album, marked by killer tunes, poisonous lyrics and the kind of voice that recalls Loretta Lynn in her prime. The title track, she explains, tries to make sense of “discontent and restlessness.”

Willie Watson Fans of US bluegrass types Old Crow Medicine Show will already be familiar with Watson, their founder member and singer-guitarist. Having quit the band to go solo in 2011, this year saw the release of Folk Singer Vol. 1, an auspicious debut produced by Gillian Welch’s other half, David Rawlings.

Jason Isbell Isbell cut his teeth in Drive-By Truckers before going it alone in 2007. His most recent opus, Southeastern, is the crowning glory of his career thus far. Judges at September’s Americana Music Awards in Nashville clearly thought so too, with Isbell making off with gongs for Artist Of The Year and Song Of The Year.

Issue 203 of Classic Rock features our exclusive feature on Lucinda Williams, Cory Branan, Justin Townes Earle and Chuck Ragan. It’s available online from MyFavouriteMagazines.

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