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BOUDIN BARNDANCE FAVORITES OF 2021

Contrary to COVID, 2021 was another busy year for recorded music and here are some of the Boudin Barndance radio show favorite releases from the year. As usual, a common thread through almost all is they’re from indie labels which has been the primary focus of the Barndance since day one. Each had that little extra something that kept me returning time and again. I sure hope you can check some of them out. We also list our “Honorable Mention” selections which are equally worth seeking out. In no real order, here are the 2021 releases that most lit up the Boudin Barndance world this past year.

Alison Krauss & Robert Plant – Raise the Roof (Rounder Records) 

Whereas it has been 14 years since their last collaboration (2007’s Raising Sand), the stars are once again perfectly aligned for the uncharacteristic duo of Alison Krauss from the bluegrass world and Robert Plant of Led Zeppelin fame. From the eclectic song selections to the performances to the production, Raise the Roof is excellent in every way. ‘nuf said.

Allison Russell – Outside Child (Fantasy Records) 

Outside Child was the solo debut from Allison Russell of Po’ Girl, Birds of Chicago, and Our Native Daughters fame and is a riveting collection of songs that she just had to get out of her system to deal with her past, including the traumatic events of her youth growing up as a sexually abused adopted child in Montreal. The cycle of songs traverse a variety of styles from contemporary folk to soul to spiritual to flecks of country with each gracefully setting the stage for the song it surrounds and with Russell’s stunning voice setting the emotional tone.

Robert Finley – Sharecropper’s Son (Easy Eye Sound Records) 

Five years after making his first album at age 62, North Louisiana-based bluesman Robert Finley returned in 2021 with the most excellent Sharecropper’s Son. An autobiographical affair, put simply, it is an album on which Finley sure sounds like he’s feelin’ his mojo. For it, he joined forces with Dan Auerbach of The Black Keys and his Easy Eye Sound Studio team for a record knee-deep in Southern-style soul and blues and on which Finley’s gut-bucket performance is nothing short of riveting with an expressive yelp that moves from rasp to falsetto and rolls righteously commanding attention in every moment.

The Black Keys – Delta Kream (Nonesuch/Easy Eye Sound Records) 

Spontaneity can be the spice of life and that’s how Delta Kream from The Black Keys was birthed. Blame it all on some loose studio jamming between Black Keys co-leader Dan Auerbach and a couple of sideman at his place to play on the aforementioned Robert Finley album. Liking what he was feeling when the jams ensued, Auerbach made a call to his Black Keys bandmate Patrick Carney to grab his drumsticks and join them in the studio and Delta Kream was born. The common link for all the players was the music of Mississippi Hill Country blues legends R.L. Burnside and Junior Kimbrough to whom they pay homage. It is raw, butt-shakin’ stuff made for playing loud.

Gary Louris – Jump for Joy (Sham/Thirty Tigers Records) 

If you’re a fan of The Jayhawks, there’s no denying the gift for melody that founding member, front man, and lead singer Gary Louris has displayed over the three-plus decades the band has been making music. Louris put the pandemic lockdown to good use crafting a solo album of songs as shimmering as they are catchy with all the hallmarks of his finest Jayhawks moments. Jump for Joy it is!

Charlie Marie – Ramble On (Soundly Music) 

Rhode Island country sweetheart Charlie Marie delivered what to these ears was the best traditional country album of 2021. Filled with memorable songs that stick in your craw, she demonstrated a keen way with words and turn of phrase when it comes to songwriting, let alone country songwriting. And why an artist like a Kacey Musgraves isn’t beating down the doors to record Marie’s different twist of a love-gone-bad song like “El Paso” bewilders me. This gal’s got the goods with Ramble On proof positive of it.

James McMurtry – The Horses and the Hounds (New West Records) 

When it comes to Texas-based artists, from both the sonic and songwriter perspectives James McMurtry has always moved to the beat of his own drum. It’s a righteous beat. The Horses and the Hounds was McMurtry’s first studio album in seven years and from the songs and their literate and detail-oriented lyrics (a McMurtry trademark) to the melodies to the all-important groove he has laid down across all of his albums over the course of 30-plus years, it is top-shelf stuff.

Amythyst Kiah – Wary + Strange (Rounder Records) 

Simply put, Wary + Strange from Amythyst Kiah is a very personal album of songs of purpose that rock in too many ways to count. Kiah’s coming-out party as a singer and songwriter of significance was the song “Black Myself” from the 2019 album Songs of Our Native Daughters by the female foursome Rhiannon Giddens, Allison Russell, Leyla McCalla, and Kiah herself. Buoyed by her wall-shuddering voice, she reprises the confrontational song of purpose and empowerment in grunge fashion on this solo affair. It is one of multiple centerpieces on this highly recommended album that toes the line between folk and indie rock.

John R. Miller – Depreciated (Rounder Records) 

An under-the-radar artist for many years, songwriter John R. Miller’s big breakthrough came thanks to one of his biggest fans, roots music favorite Tyler Childers, covering his song “Coming Down” on a live album. It helped get Miller a deal with Rounder Records the result of which led to what to these ears is one of the best Americana releases of 2021. Depreciated is an album on which Miller in his understated way weaves his words into stories that draw the listener in as much as the music, the latter of which features plenty of electric and acoustic guitars, steel, and fiddle drawing from his Appalachian roots.

The Felice Brothers – From Dreams to Dust (Yep Roc Records) 

For The Felice Brothers, the joy of finally getting to play music together with each other after many long months of pandemic-related social distancing pays off in spades on From Dreams to Dust. It is trademark Felice Brothers moving between energized tunes and those of a somber hue with Ian Felice spinning his thoughts on whatever moves him attached to music that is loose and shambolic in all the right kinds of ways. 

Charley Crockett – Music City U.S.A. (Son of Davy/Thirty Tigers Records) 

A Barndance favorite year after year, the prolific traditionalist Charley Crockett on Music City U.S.A. diverts from his typical hard country ways for a deep dive into the Southern soul and R&B side of old school-styled country music. We’re talking the kind of vibe associated with the great country-tinged, Southern soul sounds of Excello Records and various Southeast Texas and Southern Louisiana labels of the 1960s. Crockett calls it “Gulf & Western” and he pulls it all off in high style.

Melissa Carper – Daddy’s Country Gold (self-released) 

Take a circa late-1940s (and also countrified) Billie Holiday backed by Hank Williams’ Drifting Cowboys Band or a same era Ella Fitzgerald western swinging to the accompaniment of Bob Wills’ Texas Playboys orchestra and it gives you a loose idea of what you’ll encounter on Daddy’s Country Gold from singer and songwriter Melissa Carper. Between Carper’s voice, the expert accompaniment in the old school country and swing style, and the sonic embodiment of it all thanks to producer/engineer Andrija Tokic (Alabama Shakes, Hurray for the Riff Raff) and co-producer/bassist Dennis Crouch, Daddy’s Country Gold is an album mired in a beautiful time warp.

Janet Simpson – Safe Distance (Cornelius Chapel Records) 

Nothing better than when an artist comes out of nowhere and blows your socks off which is exactly what Janet Simpson did on her formal solo debut Safe Distance. A singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist whose career goes back to the late 90s, Simpson has obviously learned her craft well. Safe Distance is as Americana as it is rock & roll and as contemporary in a folk sense as it is pop and all from a sharp-eyed songwriter with a solid voice who can also shred on the six-string when the call comes. It also contains one of the catchiest songs these ears heard in 2021 in “Nashville Girls.”

Tommy Womack – I Thought I Was Fine (Schoolkids Records)  

When it comes to rock & roll, Tommy Womack is a lifer who chronicled his defining days from the mid-1980s to mid-90s with bands like Government Cheese and The Bis-Quits in his fine (and hilarious) cult classic memoir “Cheese Chronicles.” In the time after Womack’s freewheeling music found its niche in the alt country and then Americana camps, however, once a rocker always a rocker and on I Thought I Was Fine he lets loose with a rollercoaster-ride collection of melodic rockers readymade to rattle walls.

Billy Strings – Renewal (Rounder Records) 

The next big thing in acoustic music and in particular, the bluegrass genre and its various spinoffs? Billy Strings sure made a case for it on his Grammy-winning 2019 album called Home. Renewal was Strings’ 2021 album and it continued that upward progression. Whereas the genre-crossing affair may push the bluegrass boundaries spinning in multiple directions, it is always with bluegrass at its core with the masterful guitarist Strings and his equally talented accompanists delivering the goods time and again.

Honorable Mention:

Hayes Carll – You Get It All (Dualtone Records); Rachel Baiman – Cycles (Signature Sounds Records); The Flatlanders – Treasure of Love (Rack ‘Em Records); Heartless Bastards – A Beautiful Life (Sweet Unknown Records); Margo Cilker – Pohorylle (Fluff & Gravy Records); Dinosaur Jr. – Sweep It Into Space (Jagjaguwar Records); McKinley James – Still Standing By; Matt the Electrician – We Imagined an Ending (self-released); Matt Sweeney & Bonnie Prince Billy – Superwolves (Drag City Records); Alexa Rose – Headwaters (Big Legal Mess Records); Elizabeth King – Living in the Last Days (Bible & Tire Records); Noel McKay – Blue Blue Blue (self-released).

 

by DAN FERGUSON

The Boudin Barndance