The country music world fractured in 2023 in ways not seen since Willie and Waylon abandoned Nashville for Austin back in the early 1970s. You could see it coming from a mile off, and this split in country, like in the country writ large, is going to take a longer time to heal. But as Americana expands beyond the traditional country and folk, blending into rock and funk and hip hop and world music in unprecedented ways, it is actually a great time for the artistry involved. If country music has taught us anything, it’s that troubled times lead to some great music.
“CAST IRON SKILLET” by JASON ISBELL AND THE 400 UNIT
I wasn’t as big a fan of Weathervanes as some were, but this is one magnificent song. It contains everything Isbell does best, taking a sweet and simple melody, throwing in some detailed observation of regular life, and somehow transforming those elements into a statement that goes far beyond its parts.
“GOIN’ DOWN TO SING IN TEXAS” by IRIS DEMENT
…”where anyone can carry a gun.” That’s how Dement opens this track from her first album of wholly original material in more than a decade. At 62, her voice has lost none of its youthful twang, and her lyrics remain both combative and world-weary. Dement has always been an outspoken advocate of liberal POVs, and in this bouncy little number, she takes on conservative politicians, the Catholic church, George Bush and Jeff Bezos, while simultaneously speaking up for the Chicks, the Squad, and Muslims. Dement was never afraid to put her views out there.
“COUNTY ROAD” by MARGO PRICE
The piano that opens Price tragic “County Road” could be from a Joni Mitchell song circa 1974. But the song itself could have been one of Springsteen’s Nebraska stories of shattered hopes and bitter memory. It is one of her most ambitious compositions, and one of the most affecting songs of the year.
“SUN AIN’T EVEN GONE DOWN YET” by BROTHERS OSBORNE
John and T.J. have built a solid following over their first three albums. However, 2023 proved to be a bit of a breakthrough. Their self-titled album was full of great tracks, including this Little Feat-inspired funky tribute to the joys of having a hell of a night.
“LOSING MY RELIGION” by VOLUME FIVE
Volume Five has been a major player in modern bluegrass for more than ten years. Chris Wade’s banjo tells you right off the bat that this song is going to some dark territory. Then Glen Harrell tells the story of a devout man losing his son and consequently losing his faith. It was nominated for an independent Josie Award for best bluegrass song, losing to the Goodwin Brothers’ more optimistic “Everyday Thing.” I would have voted the other way.
“EAT PRAY DRUGS” by PILLBOX PATTI
Nicolette Hayford (Stage name: Pillbox Patti) is among the best songwriters we have today. Just consider the opening words of this dead-end-town shuffle: “Jesus – Reese’s Pieces – And a big brown bag of none of your business.” If that doesn’t capture a certain Ozark-like warning in a few words, I don’t know what does. Hayford, who along with one of her collaborators Aaron Raitiere, contributed mightily to Ashley McBryde’s magnificent Lindeville album last year, grabs the spotlight for herself on her album Florida, originally released in 2022, but re-released in a deluxe edition in late ’23. This track manages to be both simple and apocalyptic at the same time.
”FORD ECONOLINE” by TODD SNIDER
I get one more song to get to 25 so I’m taking my favorite from the outstanding Nanci Griffth album released this past year. Snider has recorded a lot of covers, but given that he doesn’t have country’s best voice, he isn’t known as an interpreter of other people’s works. He really nails this uplifting paean to getting out of a bad situation and carving your own path. For what it’s worth, several of the other singers mentioned above (Molly Tuttle, Iris Dement) as well as Americana titans (John Prine, Lyle Lovett, Steve Earle, Emmylou Harris, Billy Strings) – all appear on this album. So it’s got that going for it.
That’s about it. Plenty of other great tunes from 2023 didn’t make this list, but I’m OK riding with this one. What’s on your list?