With July 4 in sight, it’s a a good time to crank some country music. Country is indisputably American, and it’s been going through a bit of a popularity boon these last few years. The thing is, a lot of big-time country coming out of Nashville isn’t that great; it all sounds pretty damn similar. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t great country out there. Even if you think country isn’t your thing, or even if it is, check out the artists below to help put together a great soundtrack for the whole holiday weekend.
From their 1998 debut Gangstabilly to this year’s English Oceans, Alabama natives Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley have crafted countless drawling country-rock masterpieces. Hood is a true storyteller, recounting the lives of lost souls and burnouts over tight riffs and wailing slide guitar. Cooley plays the wiser cowboy poet, penning memorable lyrics like “Sin City still shines brighter than creations dark.” Their celebration and heartbreak will keep you singing along.
Essential listening: “A Ghost to Most”
Although the band only released four albums in the early 1990s before disbanding, it was enough to cement their legacy as alt-country pioneers. Their 1990 debut No Depression fused the feel of traditional country with the electric urgency of punk-rock guitar, creating a genre in and of itself. On all their releases, future Wilco frontman Jeff Tweedy shares singing and songwriting duties with Jay Farrar, whose powerful baritone pairs perfectly with Tweedy’s nasally earnestness. The band’s final record, Anodyne, is a masterpiece filled with twangy choruses perfect for relaxing on a summer day.
Essential listening: “New Madrid”
After the demise of Uncle Tupelo, Jay Farrar founded this quartet and proceeded to release many excellent albums over nearly two decades. On the band’s 1995 debut, Trace, Farrar’s songwriting balances between electric guitar driven country-rock songs like “Drown” and finger picked traditional numbers like “Tear Stained Eye,” producing a nearly perfect album. His voice, always high in the mix, drives assertively through the melodies, but contains a hint of deeper sorrow.
Essential listening: “Windfall”
Photo: Suzanne Davis
Another Alabama native, Isbell began releasing solo records in 2007 with help from his backing band The 400 Unit. Always praised for his excellent musicianship and melodies, Isbell took a giant leap forward in songwriting on 2013’s Southeastern, his most recent effort. Drawing from personal experiences, he details his struggles with alcoholism and family, ultimately finding redemption and love. Whether on sparse heartbreakers like “Elephant” or the thunderous “Flying Over Water,” Isbell has become a master of his craft.
Essential listening: “Flying Over Water”
Townes Van Zandt
No list of excellent country is complete without the mythical Townes Van Zandt. A lanky charismatic Texan, Townes was a personal favorite of country legends Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard (who had a hit in the ’70s covering his song “Pancho and Lefty”). His lyrics are plainly spoken and cut disarmingly deep as he croons over finger picked acoustic guitar.
Essential listening: “Pancho and Lefty,” “Colorado Girl,” “Why’s She Acting this Way,” “Tower Song,” “Only Him or Me”