The past few years have brought about a resurgence of the Americana, bluegrass, folk and alt-country genres, and 2017 was a year in which fans saw the fruits of that labor. With newcomers such as Whitney Rose and the Texas Gentlemen readily embraced and established acts such as Jason Isbell and the Infamous Stringdusters releasing some of their best music yet, 2017 was the year to listen to the sub-genres that we call country music's close friends.
Below, The Boot counts down the 10 best Americana, alt-country, bluegrass and folk songs of 2017.
The Texas Gentlemen created TX Jelly in a one-day jam session, born out of some unexpected open studio time in Muscle Shoals, Ala. And no other song on the band's debut studio album represents that laid-back recording process better than "Bondurant Women." With its easygoing vibe and sprawling instrumentation, the song is funky and eclectic and even a bit irreverent -- a perfect mess, complemented by one of the most clever music videos of 2017.
Taking a cue from one of his biggest musical influences, Outlaw infused a good bit of Tom Petty into one this song. An anthem for enablers, "Trouble" tells the story of holding onto what is bad even though you know it's toxic, pairing punchy lyrics and thumping percussion with Outlaw's signature "SoCal country" sound. In more ways than one, it's a perfect picture of what to expect from Outlaw's sophomore album, Tenderheart, which focuses more on subtle softness than the brawny machismo that a name like "Outlaw" may imply. For the LA-based singer, it all goes back to Petty and his ability to make music that Outlaw says is "tough but has a softness to it."
"I always found more honesty in the tenderness than the toughness," he tells Rolling Stone Country. "I very much intentionally wanted to combat any expectation that I'm trying to be a tough guy country singer."
Lane's honky-tonkin' hit proves why the singer-songwriter has been called the "First Lady of Outlaw Country." A song that compares a winning streak at the casinos to finding true love, "Jackpot" is full of the wit, humor and edge that fans have come to love about Lane and her music. The rollicking, high-energy track is from the South Carolina performer's third album, Highway Queen, and is a perfect encapsulation of the album's fierce attitude and rock 'n' roll country sound. Lane's merging of traditional honky-tonk, classic country-Western themes and modern guitar-based rock is proudly displayed on "Jackpot."
Bluesy and funk-filled, "Can't Stop Shakin'" is just one of the gems on Rose's sophomore album, Rule 62. A song that Rose says started out "as something I would sing to calm myself down,” "Can't Stop Shakin'" boasts one heck of a backup band, with everything from steel guitars to organs to a vintage horn section. Jazzy pianos and saxophones perfectly complement the rock 'n' roll guitar riffs and Rose's sultry vocals, making for a country tune that's just as groovy as it is twangy. How she manages to master two very different sounds in one song is a mystery that will keep us listening for a while.
The Infamous Stringdusters released their eighth studio album, Laws of Gravity, back in January. The second single off the bluegrass outfit's latest offering, "Gravity" is a perfect love song: at once heartbreaking and hopeful as it illustrates the blissful feeling of falling in love and the urgent fight to keep it alive as time seems to pass all to quickly. With poignant lyrics such as "We thought the good times were yet to come / We didn't know we were in it" sung over spiraling banjos and a sweet violin melody, "Gravity" is victorious in its ability to make love real and beautiful even as it belies the truth that time never lets it last forever.
No one can buck tradition and make it sound beautiful quite like Angaleena Presley. "Wrangled" is the title track off of Presley's unapologetically fierce sophomore album, but while the name (not to mention the album's cover art) implies that this will be a track full of bluster and brawn, "Wrangled" is exactly the opposite, full of quiet poignancy and raw emotion. A subtle track about a woman finding her place outside of cultural norms, Presley's haunting vocals are in full force on "Wrangled," as is her unflinchingly honest lyricism: "Bible says a woman oughta know her place / Mine's out here in the middle of all of this / Wide open space" are fighting words packaged in stunning imagery.
While more than a few songs were released in reaction to the bitter presidential election of 2016, none seem to capture the darkness of politics while simultaneously making you want to dance (yes, dance!) quite like "The Perilous Night." Released on Nov. 7, when many U.S. citizens were heading to the polls for state and local elections, the song finds the Drive-By Truckers providing visceral commentary on the divisive politics, mass violence and general heartache that currently plague our world; however, they keep the message palatable, and even enjoyable, with rocking guitars and gospel choir-like backing vocals.
"It may be the darkest song I've ever written," says DBT member Patterson Hood, "But it's also a dance song -- turn it up!"
A rabble-rousing, hell-raising anthem for all the outcasts trying to live up to their own (sometimes, worst) expectations, Price's "Weakness" is a shining gem on a shining album, made even more epic by the singer's devil-may-care music video for the track. First released on Price's surprise EP of the same name in July, "Weakness" also shows up on her second studio album, All American Made, bringing the fiddle-fueled, steel-riffing tune to life for fans and new listeners alike. "Weakness" is an ode to all the wrong things and our inability to escape them ... or want to escape them. Because, after all, and as Price sings in the chorus, "Sometimes my weakness is stronger than me."
While the prevailing image when it comes to vampires and love is currently that of two overly hormonal teenagers (thanks a lot, Twilight!), Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit are out to change that. "If We Were Vampires" is a melancholy and haunting ballad of love and knowing that it can't last forever, but wondering what it would be like if it could. Showcasing Isbell's prowess as an acoustic performer, "If We Were Vampires" is even more heart-wrenching thanks to the backing vocals sung by Isbell's real-life wife (and uber-talented musician), Amanda Shires. While the entirety of Isbell's The Nashville Sound is stellar in its own right, "If We Were Vampires" is a highlight.
The Turnpike Troubadours have made a name for themselves across the U.S. with barn-burning, hell-raising songs (and live performances), but with the release of "Old Time Feeling (Like Before)," the band takes a decidedly quieter and more melancholy turn. Thanks to its simple melody and underscored banjo, organ and steel guitar, what shines brightest on "Old Time Feeling (Like Before)" are the lyrics. With lines such as "Miss you now but hey no sweat / I can get along alone alright" and "Well I don't mind you playing me / Just keep it in a major key," "Old Time Feeling (Like Before)" is full of equal parts longing and resignation and reveals the beautiful evolution of a band that has come into their own.