Chris Hillman is the kind of free only earned by having nothing left to prove. “It was a passion,” Hillman says, reflecting on his early years with a guitar, mandolin, and bass. “I had this passion to embrace the music and learn it, never really thinking, ‘I’m going to be a huge star.’ I didn’t think that way at all.”
Almost two decades into a prolific career, Dave Simonett still leans into a microphone like he’s counting on a stranger. Guitar slung at the ready, he’s comfortable but bemused. He’s fine with the set-up––grateful, even. It’s just that the mics and the lights have never been the point.
Over the last half a dozen years or so, John Moreland’s honesty has stunned us––and stung. As he put hurts we didn’t even realize we had or shared into his songs, we sang along. And we felt better. But there has always been far more to Moreland than sad songs. Today, his earthbound poetry remains potent, but in addition to his world-weary candor, Moreland’s music smolders with gentle wisdom, flashes of wit and joy, and compassion. And once again, as we listen, we feel better.
"I want it to bring comfort," The Lone Bellow guitarist Brian Elmquist says. "But it's not all hard conversations. There's a lot of light and some dancing that needs to happen." Brian is reflecting on Half Moon Light, the band's highly anticipated new album. Half Moon Light is an artistic triumph worked toward for years, earned not by individual posturing, but by collective determination and natural growth. With earthy three-part harmonies and songwriting as provocative as it is honest, the trio made up of Brian, lead vocalist Zach Williams, and multi-instrumentalist Kanene Donehey Pipkin creates sparks that make a stranger's life matter or bring our sense of childlike wonder roaring back.
Pony Bradshaw didn’t know he could sing because he’d never tried. His dad was a military man turned Elvis impersonator whom a young Pony helped keep stocked with scarves on stage for admirers. Pony had always listened to music, but he’d never made it. He played baseball. He joined––and got kicked out of––the Air Force. It was about five years ago when Pony discovered not only that he could make music, but that he should.
Waylon Payne hasn’t felt this good in a long time “I’m working again,” Payne says. “It’s good for a man to work. I’m a singer and a songwriter––and an actor, I guess. I don’t know what else to do with my life.”
Andy Roddick was nine years old when he realized what he was born to do. These days, he’s devoted his life to recreating that moment, over and over again––but not for himself. It turns out that one of the greatest tennis players of all time was born not just to pursue his own passion, but to help others discover theirs.
Travis Meadows spent years trying to escape himself. He’s anything but selfish, so he’d find a way to get away––a bottle, a bag, a sermon––and he’d share it with everyone. That was then. Now, Meadows isn’t trying to get anybody lost or high. Instead, he’s trying to get every single one of us to settle in deeply to ourselves––and love what’s there.
There is power in telling your story. The power doesn’t lie in the story itself, but rather, in the possessive––often defiant––act of voicing it: I am here. This life is mine. But to speak and claim what’s yours, you must first find your voice––a process tortuous to pursue and a wonder to witness, especially when the one sharing that journey is an artist like Galen Ayers.
“In the last few years, I’ve grown so much,” Elaina Kay says. She’s home in Dallas, reflecting on the relentless touring, writing, singing, and gypsy living that has culminated in her anticipated new album. “I’m not that small town ranch girl anymore,” she says, then with a smirk, she adds, “I run with the boys.”
The pop/folk trio Castro is a breath of fresh air. Self-aware but never self-conscious, fun but never trivial, Jason, Michael, and Jackie Castro’s free-range pop soars thanks to a funny little twist for a trio of siblings: It is not how the brothers and sister are alike that creates their undeniable chemistry, but how they are different.
If joy were a person, he’d bring both peace and frenzy. He’d be full of music, light, and energy that soothes even as it stirs us up. Eyes closed, wire-rim glasses in place, mandolin pressed against his ribs, joy would be Sam Bush on a stage. “I feel fortunate that when it’s time to play, no matter how I feel physically or mentally, once the downbeat starts, my mind goes to a place that’s all music,” says Bush. “The joy of the music comes to me and overtakes me sometimes––I just become part of the music.
Molly Tuttle speaks softly. Her voice is both lilting and lucid, and when she says that she wants to create music that is truly original and unmistakably hers, her quietness shifts into a steely audacity that’s charming and almost funny––she’s only 25, after all. But then, you remember her songs. And it hits you: brash, beautiful originality is exactly what Molly is doing.
The first thing you notice about Justin Foster is his kindness. It isn’t meek or people pleasing or subtle. His goodness is bold, open, and a bit wild, capped off by acute opinions and raw belief in the potential of people. “It doesn't matter that you're the smartest person in the room anymore. It matters that you're the kindest person in the room,” he says, before smiling as he shrugs.
“I spend a lot of my time waiting,” Derik Hultquist says. “Waiting on life, waiting on a word, waiting on women. Waiting on myself. There is something I want to access. I’m trying to find poetry, and the only way I know how to do it is to just be as honest and patient as possible.” He pauses, then adds dryly, “And tell a couple of jokes.”
In a world where absolutes seem to be slipping away, you can count on this: Mike Green won’t ask you to do anything he wouldn’t do. That’s the good news. The bad news––or superb news, depending on your current frame of mind––is this is a guy who hitchhiked from New York to Alaska just to prove a point.
Rebellion doesn’t have to be loud. Smarter won’t always get in your face. A revolution can be an awfully nice guy with a small Bose p.a. and head full of songs in a Prius, passing 15-passenger vans and tour buses on his way to his next gig.
Wild Child doesn’t want a place to hide. Song after song, town after town, they’ll wear their hearts on their sleeves, addicted to the rush that only comes when thousands of strangers know all your secrets and sing them back to you, because they’re their secrets, too.
Taj Mahal doesn’t wait for permission. If a sound intrigues him, he sets out to make it. If origins mystify him, he moves to trace them. If rules get in his way, he unapologetically breaks them. To Taj, convention means nothing, but traditions are holy. He has pushed music and culture forward, all while looking lovingly back.
“I love people's stories about their families...I love the way families tic, and the ways we're all crazy and love each other. There's so much your family gives to you that you don't even realize it's giving," says Lori McKenna. McKenna is home in Stoughton, Massachusetts, just outside of Boston. Holed up in her basement writing room, the Grammy-winning singer-songwriter is reflecting on The Tree, her much-anticipated new collection of the smart roots music that has become her hallmark. The Tree takes one of McKenna’s signature themes––family––and builds a tapestry of experiences she has lived and overheard, been told and dreamed up, to create a stunning ode to life’s defining relationships.
Jedd Hughes describes life with transcendental precision: a sleepless night in Modesto; a childhood on the edge of the sprawling Australian desert; an old friend whose wit is still razor-sharp, finally at peace. Listening to Hughes, you don’t just picture a place or a person. You experience them. It makes sense, then, that Hughes’s technicolor world has often felt too formidable for three verses and a chorus. He couldn’t settle for making music that was anything but all of him, and so we waited––waited on the kid legends befriended and believed in––to find a way to capture the smoky stories and sounds that danced and beckoned to him, just out of focus.
Avi Kaplan lives deep in the forest near the Tennessee run of the ancient Natchez Trace trail. His rural cabin is worlds away from Los Angeles, his hub for six years as he toured the world with Pentatonix. Now, surrounded by farms and forests just a stone’s throw from Nashville, the kid who grew up listening to folk music among the California Sequoias is content. “I’m finally writing the music that is in my heart,” Avi says. “It’s actually the music I’ve always written. I’ve just never had a chance to show people.”
Michael and Tanya Trotter took distinctly different paths to becoming The War and Treaty. After winning a talent show when she was 13, Tanya knew singing would be her life. Michael started writing later, and for different reasons.
Molly Tuttle speaks softly. Her voice is both lilting and lucid, and when she says that she wants to create music that is truly original and unmistakably hers, her quietness shifts into a steely audacity that’s charming and almost funny––she’s only 24, after all. But then, you remember her songs. And it hits you: brash, beautiful originality is exactly what Molly is doing.
The best art often challenges widely held preconceptions about performance and beauty. We’re moved when we find the sublime in the gross, entranced when crassness collides with grace. It makes poetic sense that one of this practice’s finest current purveyors is named after a blood-sucking survivor. Deer Tick: undercutting expectations since 2004.
Sunny Sweeney is the party and the morning after. She’s the quip that makes you laugh and the truth that makes you cry, the devil that’s egging you on and the angel whispering that you aren’t alone. But those compelling contradictions aren’t what’s most interesting about Sweeney: it’s the depth and brazen authenticity she brings to all her roles that grabs you and won’t let go.
Paul Cauthen remembers sitting alone in an Austin house after a weekend-long bender. A life making music seemed to be slipping away. Wide awake with nothing to lose, he fell on his hands and knees right there, bowed his head, and threw down a divine gauntlet.
Roughly 3,300 people live in Okemah, Oklahoma, a town with vintage redbrick storefronts, a dive bar called the Rocky Road Tavern, a name that means “things up high” in Kickapoo, and a strange track record of birthing great American songwriters: Woody Guthrie is from Okemah. Grammy-nominee John Fullbright is, too. Evan Felker belongs on that list.
In music, one of the most transformative experiences a woman can have is also an unspoken artistic taboo: Have a baby if you must. But for goodness’ sake, don’t write songs about it. Critically acclaimed singer-songwriter Alela Diane has a problem with that.
“To do this job, you have to be an extraordinarily self-centered person,” Drew Kennedy says. “That’s just what it requires. I don’t want to be self-centered, but I was made to do this. A lot of artists say art comes from conflict––they talk about relationships ending or trying to overcome serious habits. Well, my conflict is this: how do I be so self-centered while being as selfless as I can?”
Listening to Liz Longley is like diving into a vivid dream, moody and somehow both familiar and strange. At first, the dream belongs exclusively to Longley. But as she sings what she’s trying to know––her lovers, her place, herself––her fierce candor shatters any walls that may have separated us, and the dream we’re swimming in becomes more than just Longley’s. It becomes ours.
Lori McKenna puts a magnifying glass on unchampioned lives. She doesn’t just notice the quiet and ordinary, she delights in it – effortlessly transforming the average to extraordinary. The result is over a decade worth of songs filled with honest stories and melodic depth, and her latest release is no exception.
The Earls of Leicester have discovered a kind of magic that, when harnessed, allows moments once relegated to memories to roar back to life. Old sounds rattle loose chains of space and time that have kept us from forgotten joys and who we once were. Suddenly, as we listen to and watch the Earls pick, saw, and croon, instead of contemplating once upon a time, we are living it.
Parker Millsap didn’t know not to sing like this. Listening to old albums as a kid alone in his room, he didn’t realize howling like a Delta blues ghost readying the world for rock-and-roll isn’t a how skinny white boy from Purcell, Oklahoma usually sounds.
Music is having a moment. Listeners are crying out for something true––some meaty songs that’ll give us some comfort, even as they cut closer to the bone. Everyone is finally ready for the gritty, thundering country Jason Boland & The Stragglers have sharpened over almost 20 years’ worth of selling out roomy venues, playing festivals and commanding stages across the nation.
Happiness has always come naturally to Cory Morrow. With his rollicking, soulful, feel-good Texas country, he has made thousands jump on tabletops, shimmy, scream, and suspend worries for almost two decades, like a honky-tonk pied piper.