Americana, alt-country, bluegrass and folk are the difficult-to-categorize cousins of country music. The year's best songs in these genres (so far) tackle topics common to country -- heartbreak, nostalgia, love and politics -- but they do it from a slightly different angle and with a slightly different sound.
The results, whether stripped down and mournful, or loud and rocking, are always something special. Below, The Boot counts down 2017's best Americana, alt-country, bluegrass and folk songs ... at least, so far.
“My best friend lived in this house / And we played ball in the street after school / And I notice how he’s living now / I heard his mom lost his house and had to move," Earle sings in "Kids in the Street." "And sure, it’s looking better these days / Well, it’s hard to believe / And this ain’t the way it was in 1993.”
“Kids in the Street” is a somber, stripped-down, acoustic song steeped in nostalgia: Earle is mourning for his old neighborhood, his childhood haunts, but the singer-songwriter captures a universal feeling -- the longing for a home that’s gone or changed.
Outlaw’s wistful lead single from his sophomore album, Tenderheart, is achingly personal -- “This is essentially a song to myself,” the singer tells Fader -- and the accompanying music video underscores this fact. The clip uses Outlaw’s iPhone footage to show the two homes in his life -- his touring home and his performing home -- and the life he leaves behind with his wife and young son to do it.
"And I recall a man who won’t wait for pleasure / In a garden that won’t grow," Outlaw sings in "Everyone's Looking for Home." "So if your journey ends, but the road seems endless / It’s ‘cause everyone’s looking for home.”
“Jackpot,” Nikki Lane’s kinetic foot-stomper, is a lot of fun. She uses Vegas imagery as a metaphor for taking a chance and getting lucky in love: “Didn’t have to say another word / No, that was all it took / I said, ‘Let’s go all in’ / Put a quarter in the slot / There it is: jackpot.” It’s a perfect representation of the rock-tinged honky-tonk that Lane does so well.
“All I’m Asking” is a song made for windows-rolled-down driving: Driven by handclaps and Black Keys-esque guitar riffs, the song is somehow stripped-down yet full at the same time.
“To make my way back to this / First time I saw your face / The taste when we kissed," the lyrics of "All I'm Asking" say. "Let’s start over, I’ll do better / Maybe next time, we’ll be together.”
When the wistful background vocals come in during the latter half of the song, it underscores the tune's central plea: one more chance.
Simultaneously deeply personal and far-reaching, "Hope the High Road" finds Isbell signaling a change in direction: “I’ve heard enough of the white man’s blues," he proclaims. "I’ve sang enough about myself.”
“I know you’re tired / And you ain’t sleeping well / Uninspired and likely mad as hell," Isbell continues in the chorus of "Hope the High Road." "But wherever you are / I hope the high road leads you home again / To a world you want to live in.”
"Hope the High Road" is global and political and hopeful and catchy.