For a solid year, I’ve been on a country music kick. 2022 was rough, pocked with frustrating almosts and rejections. Since I believe the core of country is a tragicomic mix of heartache and wordplay, it makes sense that in a particularly sad year — self-managed with my usual sad clowning and puns — I kept moseying toward tracks with weeping steel guitar and fiddle.
It’s not like the genre’s new to me. Growing up in rural Yakima County, I learned to drive a tractor and avoid rattlesnakes. I still say “reckon” and “yonder” with sincerity. My elementary school shared a property line with rodeo grounds; swirling around the drains of my high school’s drinking fountains were heaps of used chewing tobacco. At the roller rink, my pals and I skated to Alan Jackson’s “Chattahoochee” music video. I enjoyed some cowboy-hat-clad artists as a kid. But from junior high on, I mostly sought out punk and rock.
My recent country kick kicked off in December 2021 when I clicked on a BuzzFeed News article, titled “Jason Isbell Is Tired Of Country’s Love Affair With White Nostalgia,” about singer-songwriter Isbell’s criticism of racism and sexism in country and his choice to invite Black women musicians to open for him on seven of the eight nights of his sold-out residency at Nashville’s famed Ryman Auditorium.
Intrigued, I queued up songs from his current project, Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit, and sniffed around his Twitter account. I learned Alabama-born Isbell is not only vocally critical of mainstream country’s “good old days” distortion of history (good for whom, exactly?) and denial of its bigoted present, but he’s also an ultra sharp songwriter. His Elliott Smith-level lyrics crush hearts with their precision. In 2013’s “Flying Over Water,” Isbell pumps both lyrical muscles with the no-bull line “Daddy’s little empire built by hand and built by slaves,” and a tender airplane moment where one lover says, “Take my hand, baby, we’re over land / I know flying over water makes you cry.”
Galloping through Jason Isbell’s poetic discography led me to discover other non-MAGA country artists. Finding these fresh voices reminded me that country music isn’t a monolith; the genre is more like a set of nesting dolls.
On hot country playlists, there’s no shortage of “I want everyone to know I consume alcohol and a lot of it” songs with fake twang and hokey production. It’s easy to find xenophobic, jingoistic country crooners (*coughTobyKeithcough*) and fan bases with racist bumper stickers. Anti-maskers and anti-vaxxers? Country’s got plenty!
But country is also Johnny Cash’s protest songs, Willie’s braids and bud, Garth’s anti-homophobia campaign way back in the 1990s. It’s Darius Rucker crossing over from poppier Hootie & the Blowfish years. Country is Patsy, Dolly, Tanya, Linda, Wynonna, and the Chicks. It’s Loretta Lynn singing “The Pill” — an ode to birth control — in 1975, and Mary Chapin Carpenter rallying against women’s underpaid and unpaid labor with 1992’s “He Thinks He’ll Keep Her.”
These days, country is lesbian Western rocker Brandi Carlile thanking Maren Morris for pushing back against a transphobic tweet by Jason Aldean’s wife, Brittany, whom Morris dubbed “Insurrection Barbie.” Some might write off the exchange as “drama” or “infighting,” but honestly? It made me grateful to know that, in the big cafeteria of country music, there are tables where I want to sit.
Maybe you’re already familiar with evolved country’s spotlit names such as Chris Stapleton, Kasey Musgraves or Sturgill Simpson. Now if you’re ready to dip a boot into lesser-known country waters, you’re in luck, partner. I’ve rounded up my favorite y’allternative musicians to share with you…
CHARLEY CROCKETT brought his Texan “Gulf Coast boogie woogie” band to the Knitting Factory last April and wowed the crowd with his electric stage presence, causing a few young fans to remove their cowboy hats and thrust them in his direction as a sign of appreciation. Charismatic Crockett (yes, he’s related to Davy) started out busking on streets, so he knows how to hold an audience’s attention. Joking about his constantly touring lifestyle in some on-stage banter, the prolific musician claimed that to get by in this world you can either punch a time clock “or you can join the circus. Either way, you’re workin’.” It seems “the circus” life is working for him. Since 2020, Crockett’s success has erupted in much-deserved ways. Check out “Black Sedan” and “Just Like Honey” from Crockett’s 2022 album The Man From Waco. His 2020 LP Welcome to Hard Times has a killer title track and a gorgeous cover of Tom T. Hall’s “How I Got to Memphis.”
JAIME WYATT‘s songs have bite. You can hear pain and rage in the queer outlaw country artist’s delightfully husky vocals. With ’70s-inspired stage outfits and a sly sense of humor, Wyatt balances polish and grit. Like Charley Crockett, Wyatt also spent time in jail, infusing her 2017 album Felony Blues with honest toughness. Last fall she toured with the Dropkick Murphys, with whom she also collaborated on their track “Never Git Drunk No More.” Shooter Jennings produced Wyatt’s 2020 album Neon Cross, whose anthemic, shout-along title track distills misery — “So sad, goddamn, I’m wearing some pitiful perfume” — with a wink, as country does best.
Nashville-based singer-songwriter MADELINE EDWARDS also delivers full, gravel-road vocals on her debut 2022 LP Crashlanded. The glam-country track “Mama, Dolly, Jesus” shimmers with Depeche-Mode undertones. Her kaleidoscopic music video for “Mirror” is emotionally powerful and visually captivating. In “The Wolves,” Edwards belts out, “I ain’t scared of nothin’… I’m seein’ red, I’m in control,” making it an ideal track for building up your confidence right before a bold move. Though Edwards has been compared to a “country Amy Winehouse,” her sound and style are all her own.
EMILY NENNI’s taffy-sweet voice floats like airborne cotton candy above a field of buttercups. Nenni’s vibe — soft cotton blouses, an album titled On the Ranch — is more down-home than big-city, though she is based in Nashville now. Nenni says her cheekily titled “Can Chaser” is a feminist ode to women barrel racers in the rodeo. The honky-tonk artist’s track “Long Game” — my favorite song of hers — is a lyrical balm for anyone facing setbacks to success but still determined to blossom somehow, eventually.
DOUGIE POOLE seems like the sort of kind-hearted stoner who might be working in a prep kitchen if he weren’t touring from his home base of Brooklyn(?!). Poole’s 2020 album The Freelancer’s Blues has a synth-assisted haunted highway sound. Think goth cowboy, or if Roy Orbison sang about “Vaping on the Job.”
“I know what you’re thinking when you hear the way I talk,” declares queer country folk artist S.G. GOODMAN on “The Way I Talk,” challenging stereotypes about the South and busting myths about rural political homogeneity. Raised in Kentucky — where she still resides — the farmer’s daughter doesn’t shy away from intense topics like poverty, grief and opioid overdoses. (Hey, she has love songs too!) Backed by a full band, Goodman’s feedback-heavy sound isn’t afraid to stretch out and get loud.
Check out MEG McREE if you’re a fan of bluesy Bonnie Raitt guitar. The singer-songwriter’s track “Saying Goodbye” is a sultry scorcher with guitar tones like caramelized onion. Not only has McRee been touring with Lainey Wilson, but she has also penned songs cut by Elle King, Grace Potter and Ben Chapman (who happens to be her romantic partner). McRee’s debut album Is It Just Me? comes out March 3.
OK, MIKE AND THE MOONPIES is kind of a silly name. But this Austin-based band pushes all the right stone-washed ’90s country buttons for me. Melodically, their song “Hour on the Hour” reminds me of Clint Black’s “A Better Man” and also fulfills the very meta country tradition of singing songs about songs on the radio. “Steak Night at the Prairie Rose,” the narrative title track off their 2018 album, is a heartfelt — yet not cheesy — song about post-divorce dads. But by far my favorite from these Moonpies is “You Look Good in Neon,” a celebration of last-call bar hookups reminiscent of “Neon Moon.”
VINCENT NEIL EMERSON has a mournful-yet-soothing vocal quality reminiscent of Jeff Buckley or Townes Van Zandt. When he hits the warbling line “True love is all that I long for” in his track “Son of a Bitch,” the earnestness of feeling creates goosebumps. Emerson wrote “The Ballad of the Choctaw-Apache” about his grandmother’s tribe in Northwest Louisiana to shine a light on a 1960s reservoir project that affected “180,000 acres of ancestral land” and gave those uprooted a raw deal. “Only 25 bucks an acre they were paid,” he sings. “Well you take away their home then you claim what you don’t own / Well I guess it’s still the American way.” ♦