Steve Earle, Transcendental Blues (E Squared) -- The spiritual godfather of Americana delivers another great collection of eclectic songs exploring the trials of middle age and finding oneself.
Jimmie Dale Gilmore, One Endless Night (Windcharger) -- Produced and recorded by Buddy Miller, Gilmore's first independent release finally captures the essence of his charm. This may be his best work ever.
Emmylou Harris, Red Dirt Girl (Nonesuch) -- Continuing with the revolutionary sound first heard on Wrecking Ball, Harris stretches her boundaries even further by writing the majority of songs on this release. She continues her reign as the Queen of Twang.
Shelby Lynne, I Am Shelby Lynne (Island) -- An amazing auditory experience that documents the re-emergence of Lynne from obscurity. Finally free of the Nashville prefab machine, she exposes her funky soulful Southern roots with style ... and substance.
Allison Moorer, The Hardest Part (MCA) -- A stunning semi-biographical song cycle about relationships on par with Willie Nelson's Phases And Stages. Moorer may be the most important new artist in mainstream country music, although she is virtually ignored by commercial radio. My choice for album of the year.
Willie Nelson and the Offenders, Me and the Drummer (Luck) -- Reunited with his first band, Nelson returns to what he does best: straight-ahead country with some of the most powerful and poetic lyrics he has ever written. He is truly the master of the genre, bar none.
Doug Sahm, The Return of Wayne Douglas (Tornado) -- A sentimental choice that stands on its own merits, Sahm's final work celebrates two of the things he loved the most: country music and his home state of Texas. It is so good you will smile and cry at the same time, happy to hear such great music and sad at the untimely loss of a real genius.
Dave Stuckey, Get a Load of This (HMG) -- The former member of the great Dave and Deke Combo puts out a fine album of western swing, boogie woogie and classic country tunes. Backed by the finest musicians in Austin, the sound is so authentic and energizing that you will be dancing around the room.
Dwight Yoakam, Tomorrow's Sounds Today (Reprise) -- Proving beyond a shadow of a doubt that he is one of the greatest artists in country music, Yoakam's newest release is one of his strongest efforts to date. Song for song, there is not a weak spot to be found, and the emphasis on the pedal steel makes it extra sweet.
NON-TWANG ALBUM OF THE YEAR
Chuck Prophet, The Hurting Business (Hightone) -- The former Green on Red frontman found his niche with a contemporary blend of existential angst, electric keyboards and sampling. His SXSW performance was a highlight of the festival, and the CD accurately captured the band's edgy groove.
WORST TREND IN MAINSTREAM COUNTRY MUSIC
The manufacturing of pop teen idol acts in the country mode: SheDaisy = Spice Girls, Alicia Elliot = Britney Spears and Rascal Flatts = 'N Sync. Kill 'em all, let Satan sort them out.
KEEP ON TICKIN' AWARDS
This year saw great new releases from AARP members Merle Haggard, Ray Price, Willie Nelson (two new albums!), Hank Thompson and Johnny Bush. In addition, legends such as Porter Wagoner, Loretta Lynn and Johnny Russell put out new music for the first time in years. And all of it was better than 95 percent of the new acts turned loose by Nashville this year. Gotta love it
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