Juke Joint Jumpin’ is a recurring feature in which I loosely go through some of what has been in my listening rotation lately, with the primary purposes being to discuss various eras in country music history, offer recommendations, and to talk anecdotally about why these songs connect with me.
This edition of Juke Joint Jumpin’ is our first themed one, framed more around my listening habits than a conscious choice. You see, I don’t know if it’s just something that stems from my six years as a music writer or what, but I tend to revisit and view certain albums from recent years within the context of the year itself. In other words, instead of revisiting other works by the act I’m listening to, I’ll remember other releases that came out around the time and revisit them instead, and all of a sudden I’ve built my very own time machine.
Yes, it’s nostalgia bait, and I’ve always been an easy sucker for it, so I won’t deny it. It’s part of why I tend to lean more on subjective discussions surrounding simply why I do or don’t like something, because timing and one’s own physical and mental setting can greatly affect how we take in releases. There’s nothing objective about music criticism, and that cliché about music acting as a soundtrack to life is true. It’s so true. So for something different, I dug out a bunch of releases from 2015 – you’ll hear what prompted it later – a year that’s split down the middle for me. I tend to view it as a critical one for me. I took a deep dive into independent country music that’s fueled a passion still going today, and I also left high school and started college; music helped ease that crazy transition more than I can really say.
The following batch of songs aren’t necessarily my favorites from the year or are from my absolute top favorites of the year (though many are, and longtime readers may actually be surprised by a certain omission from this batch), but they’re ones I had a fond time revisiting, and I invite you, as always, to share any favorites you have from this year. I may have to do more year-specific editions, because this was a blast. Anyway, onward!
Brandi Carlile, “Blood Muscle Skin & Bone” (written by Phil Hanseroth)
Yeah, the lack of commas in the title kind of bothers me too. But other than that, The Firewatcher’s Daughter was my introduction to Brandi Carlile and, to this day, remains my favorite album of hers, next to By the Way, I Forgive You. In some ways, I do miss the ragged, rougher edges of her earlier work, because while I wouldn’t say “Blood Muscle Skin & Bone” is my top pick from the project over, say, “The Things I Regret,” “The Stranger At My Door” and especially “The Eye,” it is absolutely Carlile at her most frenetic. In hindsight, it makes sense. Both she as well as her prominent bandmates, brothers Tim and Phil Hanseroth, were all starting their own families at the time of its release, so the wild passion, lively tone, and pure infectiousness of the entire project is something I’ve only developed a deeper appreciation for over the years.
Is it country? Is it rock? Who knows? It’s Americana, and that’s a term I only learned to appreciate after reading Carlile’s memoir, Broken Horses, in which she throws shade at a certain country artist for outright dismissing the term. But when it comes to the featured track here, it’s purely unhinged fun asking for a serious commitment from someone in a lighthearted way. It’s like one last hurrah before stepping toward maturity. Couple that with one of Carlile’s hugest and best-ever hooks, and you have a track that was easily on repeat for me upon my revisit to it.
Jason Isbell, “The Life You Chose” (written by Jason Isbell)
There are certain things I remember fondly about Jason Isbell’s Something More Than Free project. It was the much-anticipated follow-up to 2013’s critically acclaimed Southeastern, and I’m nerdy enough to remember that it was the first album I bought on a Friday instead of a Tuesday alongside Alan Jackson’s Angels and Alcohol. And over time the project has come to be seen by many as Isbell’s magnum opus, even above the aforementioned Southeastern. I won’t really debate that, but it’s an album I’ve only been able to comfortably revisit over the past year or so. I think it was the general anxiety I felt that summer as, again, I transitioned into college and said goodbye to friends I haven’t seen again to this day. More than the Jackson album – and perhaps because of the subject matter – it’s an album I could never revisit because it made me too sad (and given my tolerance for that kind of thing, that’s saying something).
How fitting, then, that I’m spotlighting a track about reminiscing times of yesterday and questioning if it was all worth it in the end. It’s the type of relatable conversation between himself and an old flame Isbell gets at surprisingly well, from pointed questions of how things are now to humble bragging that feels all for naught, to a fantastic melodic hook that leaves more questions than it does answers. I’m glad I can listen to it now. I still think Southeastern is the king, though. 🙂
Allison Moorer, “Back of My Mind” (written by Allison Moorer, Skip Black, and Neil Medley)
The recent batch of divorce albums to come out inspired me to revisit an underrated classic, and another album I should have written about for my “favorite albums of the decade” series. Like with pretty much every artist here, Down to Believing was my introduction to Allison Moorer, and yet it took me until just last year to explore her discography further. I wish I had done it sooner, because between Crows and Alabama Song … man, I was missing out big time.
Even with that said, I still think Down to Believing is her strongest collection yet, and I say it as someone who is also a huge fan of Steve Earle. The featured track is my unlikely favorite from the collection, a late-album track that acts as something of a redemption and catharsis for Moorer. What I love specifically is the framing, and how she knows she won’t ever be able to erase her old significant other’s presence from her memory even though she should, so she settles for putting him in the back of her mind and living life knowing it can’t weigh her down even in spite of that. It truly captures that feeling of moving on in a way that’s not only real but healthy, too. Old ghosts will surface, but they won’t be around to haunt anything or anyone. But if there’s anything else that puts this over the top for me, it’s that fantastically bright and melodic interplay between the mandolin and guitar melody that supports the track and gives this track its wave of relief. Always a pure joy to revisit this one.
Kacey Musgraves, “Fine” (written by Kacey Musgraves, Ashley Arrison, and Shane McAnally)
This will sound harsh, but what sent me down my 2015 rabbit hole was listening to star-crossed and making me realize how much I miss this side of Kacey Musgraves, even coming from someone who would gladly defend Golden Hour. The weird comparison I’d make regarding her earlier style is to Reba McEntire, especially with Musgraves’ knack for blending theatricality with material that had real dramatic stakes attached to it. “Fine” is one of those songs that doesn’t belong in a lonely bar so much as it does a stage on Broadway, especially with that waltz cadence against the gentle brushes of pedal steel. It also reminds me of those songs from the ‘90s that would frame their concepts around plausible deniability before snapping back into self-aware reality for the hook. Ergo, she knows this significant other isn’t returning to her, but she’s going to hold out hope for as long as she can, and if anyone asks, she’s doing fine. Simple, but effectively one of her saddest numbers. And the fact that there’s a hidden cover track with Willie Nelson at the end of it that acts as a pretty great sequel? Yeah, I really do miss this side of her.
Randy Rogers & Wade Bowen, “El Dorado” (written by Wade Bowen and Bruce Robison)
We finally got Vol. 2 of this buddy team-up last year, but the best song recorded by Wade Bowen and Randy Rogers arguably remains “El Dorado” from the first Hold My Beer collection. Yes, “Standards” is still timely and holds up well today, but I think “El Dorado” is the one that transcends qualifiers. It’s just a beautifully simple story song of the lonesome observer in search of something, be it gold, a new road to travel down or just himself again, and it’s a song for the forgotten underdogs past their prime left to blaze new roads ahead fearlessly. Kind of perfect for two Texans who tried Nashville and didn’t so much fail as they did lose themselves in the process. This is the next step that just captures it all, and comes with several excellent ending fiddle solos, to boot! By far the most fun I had revisiting a collection, it’s just such a great album.
The Turnpike Troubadours, “Ringing in the Year” (written by Evan Felker)
We’re not done with fiddle-led country music, either! And yes, I know “The Bird Hunters” is the track I’m supposed to highlight from the Turnpike Troubadours’ self-titled album, but I want to discuss one that also deserves attention (which is arguably any other song from this collection, even if it’s my least favorite album by them). And as far as heartache tracks go, “Ringing in the Year” is an underrated contender. When it comes to describing what made this band one of the most captivating of the 2010s, what else is there to say? They’ve always had a knack for great tonal balance in the production and melodies, and just listen to any song on a pure compositional level and chances are it’s going to be excellent. Like here, how the hardscrabbed electric guitars have a purely rich tone against the always excellent fiddle work and gives a ragged edge to a character reminiscing on an old explosive relationship that probably imploded for the best … even if he can’t help but still indulge in its toxicity from time to time. Just because it wasn’t for the best doesn’t mean it didn’t have its good moments. I’m not one of those people bellyaching that this band is dead; they’ll return when they’re ready, and country music will be all the better for it.
Other 2015 favorites:
- Gretchen Peters – Blackbirds (My favorite album of the decade)
- James McMurtry – Complicated Game
- Eric Church – Mr. Misunderstood
- Jamie Lin Wilson – Holidays and Wedding Rings
- Courtney Patton – So This is Life
- Whitey Morgan – Sonic Ranch
- Kip Moore – Wild Ones
- Chris Stapleton – Traveller
- William Clark Green – Ringling Road
- Blackberry Smoke – Holding All the Roses