The Bitter Southerner’s Fourth Annual, Highly Opinionated List of the South’s Best Music
The Bitter Southerner covers the music of the South so passionately because we hold a deep belief in its power. I could struggle for a paragraph or two, attempting to explain the depth of that belief. But it’s much easier to go to something a genuine authority told us a couple of years ago:
“I think music is a model of how reconciliation can happen. The history of Southern music is the history of the blending of cultures — Indian, African and European. Western European instruments played by black musicians and bent into new sounds. Nothing goes across racial barriers more easily than music.”
— Dr. William R. Ferris, Joel R. Williamson Eminent Professor of History and Senior Associate Director of the Center for the Study of the American South at the University of North Carolina
Music, like food, gives us common ground. Political forces drove many of us apart this year. They brought to the surface issues that were long overdue for discussion. They left many Southern families torn by unspoken tensions, even over the Thanksgiving table.
But when the needle drops onto a record, folks don’t care much about the color of the musician if the song shakes our asses or touches our hearts. Or, ideally, both.
So, if 2016 left you feeling crappy, you can turn to our music for solace and inspiration. We hope you find both inside this list, and we expect you will. We’ve never seen so much great Southern music in a single year. We listened to almost 200 albums in preparation for this, and at least 50 of them felt good enough to belong on this list. Alas, we have only 25 spots.
— The Bitter Southerner Crew
Roots and current home: Austin, Texas
Shearwater began as a side project for Jonathan Meiburg when he was playing in the Austin band Okkervil River, but he’s matured Shearwater into a remarkable American rock band. “Jet Plane and Oxbow,” their ninth album, recalls the ringing-guitar sound of the 1980s (think U2 in places, Joy Division in others). Meiburg’s lyrics dig grittily into modern problems, most notably on “Wildlife in America,” that tracks a friend’s journey through the wars in the middle east: “Billy's in position / He's rolling into town / Kicking in the door / That fucker's never coming down / He feels the slightest murmuration / A shiver in the heat / Skinny dogs and safety glass that's shattered in the street / It looks like diamonds.” A haunting and important album.
Roots: Asheville, North Carolina / Current home: Athens, Georgia
Bachmann first gained notice in Southern music circles as the leader of the 1990s Carolina punk band Archers of Loaf, and he has played under many guises since. Counting all the Archers’ records, this self-titled disk is Bachmann’s 19th. His work has never failed to be interesting, but this record feels like Bachmann is at his creative peak. He’s spent 25 years honing his chops, and he uses them all here. The record is highly and beautiful orchestrated, all lush arrangements and choirs of angels. The song “Mercy” is a highlight. It sounds like something off the Beach Boys’ “Pet Sounds,” but its lyrics are straight-up Southern truth: “Yes, I've got family, I've got friends / And I will love them till the end / Despite the batshit crazy things they often say.”
Roots: Gainesville, Florida / Current home: Brooklyn, New York
If you don’t already know Charles Bradley’s story, it’s far too big to sum up here. But this is the third album in a late-career redemption for the soul singer, who is now 67 years old. And it’s impossible not to love the man’s infectious faith and optimism. He opens “Changes” with a recitation delivered over the church-organ tones of “God Bless America”: “Hello, this is Charles Bradley / An old brother from the hard licks of life / That knows that America is my home / America, you've been real honest, hurt and sweet to me / But I wouldn't change it for the world.” Bradley was diagnosed just last month with stomach cancer and was forced to cancel upcoming tour dates. We wish him full recovery.
Roots and current home: Louisville, Kentucky
Few Southern musicians possess the musical and vocal flexibility of James, the leader of Louisville’s longstanding My Morning Jacket. James has a giant palette of sounds to work with and a decidedly psychedelic point of view. Here, he uses it to work out his angst over the year’s politics, especially on the album’s pointed second track, “Same Old Lie.” But by the end of the album, James has dug inside himself to find big hope: “I hope you're having a wonderful life / I hope you get everything that's coming to you / I got everything one's supposed to get / Nothing more and nothing less / Life's been completely fair / Eternally even.” This record documents a deeply personal trip for James, and it’s dressed up to sound appropriately trippy.
Roots: Memphis, Tennessee / Current home: Atlanta, Georgia
As far as we’re concerned, the soul-music story of the year was Stax legend William Bell’s triumphant return to his old label for this record of new songs at age 76. (If you missed it the first time, we highly recommend Wyatt Williams’ great story about William for us.) With an ace band led by producer John Leventhal, “This Is Where I Live” gives Bell a musical home that is absolutely true to this soul pioneer’s roots. And rare are the songwriters who produce work so vital so late in their careers. For us, the highlight here is “More Rooms,” as in, “There’s more rooms in the house than the bedroom.” Not since George Jones’ masterpiece “The Grand Tour” has a songwriter so masterfully used the simple structure of a house — and what’s not in it — to frame a heart-wrenching song of regret. “Let me take to you the empty kitchen / Where meals were never made / In the dining room, there’s a lonely table / Where silver was never laid / Take a look out this picture window at the withered yard outside / Or take a walk upstairs to the nursery, where the babies never cried.”
Roots: Stone Mountain, Georgia / Current home: Los Angeles, California
Donald Glover pretty much owns the entertainment world right now, with his TV series “Atlanta,” upcoming roles in both the “Spiderman” and “Star Wars” movie franchises, not to mention his writing and stand-up comedy careers. And then there’s this — Glover’s third album in his guise as a rapper, Childish Gambino. But is this a hip-hop album, an R&B album? Hell, occasionally, it even sounds like Parliament Funkadelic crossed with Frank Zappa, as in our fave song, “Boogieman.” Glover lays down the truth over a sea of sonically warped guitars and synthesizers: “Every boy and girl all around the world / Knows my niggas' words / But if he's scared of me / How can we be free?”
Roots: Butcher Hollow, Kentucky / Current home: Nashville, Tennessee
The country-music legend is now 84 years old. Of course, we hope this album is not her last, but we could hardly have hoped for a record that so appropriately sums up the coal miner’s daughter’s 60-year career in music. Recorded with co-producers John Carter Cash (son of Johnny) and Patsy Lynn Reynolds (daughter of Loretta), “Full Circle” kicks off with a new version of “Whispering Sea,” the very first song Lynn ever wrote, and from there meanders its way through folk chestnuts like “Black Jack David” and, occasionally, Lynn’s own songs, such as “Fist City.” The quality of her voice is still amazing, but you can hear the age in it. And that age allows her to fully inhabit the mournful, Appalachian tones of the Carter Family classic, “I Never Will Marry.” First time we heard it, it made us cry.
Roots and current home: Oxford, Mississippi
Seems like every year, a member of Mississippi’s Water Liars bowls us over with a solo album. Last year was Andrew Bryant’s “This Is the Life.” This year, it’s his bandmate, Justin Peter Kinkel-Schuster. JPKS plays every instrument and sings every voice on “Constant Stranger.” And his lyrics are touching throughout. A sample from “Half Broke,” our favorite tune on the record: “Don't forget your mother, heartsick on the phone / Don't forget the years that she spent half-broke and alone / And don't forget your sister on the Greyhound in the rain / Don't forget your brother and his awful growing pains / Because when you get it right / You're all together, having supper on a Friday night / And everything you've lost don't seem to matter / ’Cause everything you love will be all right.”
Cobb’s roots: Savannah, Georgia / Current home: Nashville, Tennessee
Dave Cobb has become one of the hottest record producers in Nashville after helming Jason Isbell’s “Something More Than Free” and Chris Stapleton’s “Traveller,” both huge hits. Here, Cobb challenged his songwriter friends to contribute one honest song about the South to a compilation. It’s an impressive lineup: John Paul White, Jason Isbell, Brent Cobb, Miranda Lambert, Morgane and Chris Stapleton, Zac Brown, Jamey Johnson, Anderson East, Holly Williams, Brandy Clark, Shooter Jennings and Rich Robinson. By the time the recordings were finished, Cobb told Taste of Country, “I got the soil of the South on the record. I think people went deeper than I thought was even possible, and I love that. I feel like you can really feel the landscape. You can really feel the South in this record. You can really feel family on this record.” That assessment feels true throughout. Isbell’s “God Is a Working Man” is a standout, but the record’s high point is its only cover song, Morgane and Chris Stapleton’s haunting version of “You Are My Sunshine.”
Roots and current home: Nashville, Tennessee
NPR’s Quil Lawrence recently summed up “War Surplus” this way: “a classic, whiskey-soaked, honky-tonk, girl-meets-boy story in 12 songs. Except this story is girl meets boy, boy deploys, boy comes home with PTSD, which, soaked in whiskey, tears apart their marriage, which is also something of a classic in the veterans community.” The boy is named Scott. His girlfriend’s name is June. Warren has structured the album as a conversation between the two, and the result is remarkable. As Scott descends into alcoholism, Warren has him sing: “There once was a girl who loved me best / But I won't bore you and anyway you know the rest / You won't see me cry 'bout the cards I’ve drawn / ’Cause by the grace of Wild Turkey, I go on.” By the album’s closer, “Anything That Lasts,” he’s concluding, “Heaven help me, I don't know what's wrong / I went away and came back gone.” A deadly accurate picture of a story that’s become all too familiar after more than a decade of a never-ending war.
Roots: St. Louis / Current home: Asheville, North Carolina
Olsen has one of most compelling, yet unconventional voices in the indie-rock world. When she sings, you feel her words more than you hear them. In a feature about Olsen earlier this year, Sleater-Kinney’s Carrie Brownstein told Spin, “There are so few voices that possess that effortless evocation. It has a sort of oozing, viscous quality: sexy, gritty, melancholy. She’s someone who can tell an entire story with the sound of her voice.” Then, when you dig into Olsen’s lyrics, you find an young woman at the peak of her creative powers. Her words are direct, powerful and assertive (best example: “Shut Up Kiss Me”). On her fourth album, this 29-year-old singer-songwriter delivers her best work yet.
Roots: Leesburg, Virginia / Current home: Seattle, Washington
If Car Seat Headrest leader Will Toledo had been born in the early 1960s — instead of the early 1990s — I would worship him the way I worshipped Paul Westerburg of the Replacements. It’s a fine thing for a music fan to find someone who can express the torments and depressions of a generation with a twisted sense of humor and music that shambles as recklessly as life itself. If the album’s opening line doesn’t connect with you, you can probably pass Car Seat Headrest by, but if it does, you’ll be a fan for life: “I’m so sick of (fill in the blank) / Accomplish more, accomplish nothing / If I were split in two I would just take my fists / So I could beat up the rest of me.”
Roots: Maywood, Illinois / Current home: Nashville, Tennessee
This is the master songwriter’s second collection of duets with female singers, released this fall just as Prine turned 70 years old. It would be easy to write “For Better, or Worse” off as a trifle, but in these times, trifles like this are necessary. In 2016, we needed a record that felt as comfortable as an old quilt, and Prine delivered an album we can wrap ourselves up in and just smile. As always, Prine’s best duet partner is Arkansan Iris Dement, and they open the record with a sprightly version of the old Loretta Lynn/Ernest Tubb tune, “Who’s Gonna Take Your Garbage Out?” This one is fun all the way through, but it digs deepest near the end, when Prine duets with his wife, Fiona, on the old Connie Francis hit, “My Happiness.” You can feel their love through the speakers.
Roots: Rockingham, North Carolina / Current home: Raleigh, North Carolina
B.J. Barham’s primary gig is as the leader of the great Raleigh country-rock band American Aquarium. On his first solo album, Barham goes home to Rockingham and walks in the shoes of his grandfather (“American Tobacco Company”) and his father (“Rockingham”), and winds up leaving us with a minor masterpiece about making big decisions and living with their consequences in small-town America. Barham has gained the remarkable gift that only a few great Southern songwriters (think John Prine or Guy Clark) possess: the ability to tell the story of a lifetime in three verses and a chorus. He does it best on “Unfortunate Kind,” which tells the story of a 40-year, small-town marriage: “Thirty-nine years, you've been putting up with me / Your folks said we'd never see our first anniversary / Do you remember that first week? When you burnt that pecan pie? / And I ate the whole damn thing. I couldn't stand to see you cry.”
Roots: Buffalo Prairie, Illinois / Current home: Nashville, Tennessee
When Margo Price busted out with “Hurtin’ (On the Bottle)” back in April on “Saturday Night Live,” it told the whole world: This woman is a badass, a real-deal, hard-country songstress. “Midwest Farmer’s Daughter” is her debut album. Typically, debut albums rarely deserve the press acclaim this record won for Price, but for the most part, the music suggests it was deserved. She deserves plenty of kudos just for opening her album with a six-minute pledge to buy back the farm for her daddy and “bring Mama home some wine, and turn back the clock on the cruel hands of time.”
Roots: Purcell, Oklahoma / Current home: Nashville, Tennessee
Parker Millsap gets big props from us for having the courage to pen a country song about something that makes the country-music establishment very nervous: sexual orientation. “Heaven Sent” is told through the eyes of a preacher’s gay son. “Tried my hardest not to be / I locked the door and I broke the key / Jesus died upon that tree / Daddy, do you think that covered me? / ‘Red and yellow, black and white, we are precious in His sight’ / Why can't I sleep through the night? / Daddy, do you think I turned out right?” The fact is that hundreds of young LGBTQ Southerners get turned out by their families every year, in stories just like that one. To hear that story told in the most conservative of musical forms is incredible. What’s more, the rest of “The Very Last Day” lives up to that standard, particularly the title cut, whose subject is, quite literally, the very, very, very last day. It’s heartening to hear a youngster have such biting fun at the expense of the Rapture.
Roots and current home: Austin, Texas
For a decade, we’ve been enchanted by the sweet, drawling voice and killer fiddle playing of Austin’s Carrie Rodriguez. But we never expected this album, a headlong dive into the Mexican roots of her family, sung sometimes in English and sometimes in Spanish. A mix of her beautifully constructed original songs and Mexican standards, Rodriguez delivers a record that is a huge stylistic leap. We’ve never heard anything quite like “Lola,” ever, from anyone. And when you listen to as much music as we do, that’s saying something.
Roots and current home: Anacortes, Washington
We might catch some shit for this pick, because there is nothing Southern about Karl Blau. There is plenty of South in this record, though. This project came about when the Nashville native record producer Tucker Martine, himself long decamped for the Pacific Northwest, recorded an instrumental version of Tom T. Hall’s “That’s How I Got to Memphis.” He asked Blau, who possesses a remarkably versatile voice, to sing on it. Many years after that first recording, the pair finished this album — a set of Nashville standards, reimagined in Martine’s lush soundscape and delivered by Blau’s haunting voice. It’s a hell of a thing to hear these country chestnuts approached from a completely original perspective. We particularly like it when Blau turns to tunes that have long since crossed the genre lines, like “To Love Somebody,” which began its life as a Bee Gees song, then became country in the hands of the Flying Burrito Brothers and soul music in the hands of James Carr. Blau’s version is just stunningly good. Your grandmother will love this record, without ever knowing how weird it really is.
Roots: Ashland, Virginia / Current home: Durham, North Carolina
We saw Skylar Gudasz for the first time back in August at Birmingham’s Secret Stages festival. After getting back home and listening to “Oleander,” produced with exceptional care by Carolina music legend Chris Stamey, we wrote that “Oleander” was full of “tunes about the weirdness of love (that) by turns whisper, then snarl, then make you wonder if Gudasz is the Joni Mitchell the South never had.” The more we’ve listened to this record, the more we believe the comparison is valid. Thanks for that must go in part to Stamey, whose orchestrations give Gudasz’s songs the kind of musical support that a young, independent songwriter can rarely find. But the record works so wonderfully because of Gudasz’s songs, which eschew typical song structures and have beautifully poetic lyrics: “Oh, but talk to me / About the rhododendrons on the trail / Even though I didn't know they weren't oleander, that poisonous flower / What is it men think it can get them? / What is it I think I wanna give them?” Hell of an impressive debut here.
Roots: Morton, Washington / Current home: Nashville, Tennessee
This Nashville songwriter landed in our list two years ago. Her clever songwriting bowled us over, but we never expected she had this record in her. If you were trying to explain to someone who grew up in a city what small-town life is really like, we’d prescribe this album. (Which, these days, feels like pretty important work.) Clark is a sharp observer and an even sharper wordsmith, and she delivers her conclusions without pretense: “We're broke, we're busted / Our Chevy truck is rusted / We're high and dry / Ain't enough apples for the apple pie / If we had a penny, we sure couldn't spare it / Sitting on the porch, drinking generic / Coke / We're broke.” Or, “She’s got three kids and no husband / And she’s two weeks late on last month’s rent.” If Brandy Clark is not one of Nashville’s best songwriters right now, we’ll kiss every cow’s butt from here to Texas.
Roots: Lake Charles, Louisiana / Current home: Los Angeles, California
The bitter truth is, we haven’t fallen head over heels in love with a Lucinda Williams record since “Essence,” 15 years ago. But “The Ghosts of Highway 20” is a revelation. It may not be at the top of our list, but is definitely the most Southern Southern album of the year. Williams turned to two ace guitarists — Greg Leisz and Bill Frisell — and she’s never had sidemen more sympathetic and attuned to her stories. She lets the songs take their time. They move as languorously as the region itself. The nine-minute masterpiece “Louisiana Story” begins this way: “In the Deep South when I was growing up / Looking back on the sweetness / Looking back on the rough / The sun going down, crickets at night / Lawnmower sounds and mosquito bites / Swatting at a fly, hearing the neighbors talk / So hot you could fry an egg on the sidewalk / Outside playing barefoot in the street / Tar would be sticking to the bottom of my feet / Running and chasing after the ice cream wagon/ ‘Mama, can I have a quarter so that I can get me one?’” Like Bob Dylan, Lucinda keeps coming back in different guises as she ages. Lucinda will turn 64 in January, and her music is in one of the best places it’s ever been.
Roots: Jackson, Kentucky / Current home: Nashville, Tennessee
In a normal year, “A Sailor’s Guide to Earth” would be at the top of our list. Sturgill Simpson has made his second masterpiece in a row, largely a set a love songs to his newborn son. But the most surprising thing about Sturgill Simpson lately is how musically strong he and his band have become. Simpson produced this album himself, and the result is a wondrous incorporation of countless strains of Southern music. Memphis-style horns meet Simpson’s typical twang head-on, and the result is a record that sounds like nothing you’ve ever heard and everything you’ve ever heard — all at the same time.
Roots: Houston, Texas / Current home: Wherever she damn well pleases
No other recording artist could pull off what Beyonce pulled off this year: Make a record about your cheating husband, then turn that record into a landmark film, and then make said cheating husband actually appear in that film. But Bey can do whatever she pleases; she rules the world right now. we’ll brook no challenge on whether “Lemonade” is a Southern album. If you’ve heard “Formation” — “My daddy Alabama, momma Louisiana / You mix that negro with that Creole, make a Texas bama” — you already know better. The whole record is an onslaught: Beyonce proclaiming her own strength and the strength of her community. This is one of the two records you should use this year to put down anybody who questions whether black lives matter.
Roots: Houston, Texas / Current home: New Orleans, Louisiana
And yes, the second of those two records is by Beyonce’s sister, Solange. If you have not heard “A Seat at the Table,” know this: Hearing it for the first time is a very special experience, particularly if you pay attention to the lyrics as you go. We could write for hours about the Solange’s artful but stunningly direct lyricism, and we expect scholars will for several years to come. But if you haven’t listened to this album yet, we think this one couplet from “Don’t You Wait” will help you get the picture: “Now, I don't want to bite the hand that'll show me the other side, no / But I didn't want to build the land that has fed you your whole life, no / Don't you find it funny?” Solange employs the little vocal interludes that are so common on hip-hop albums, but with greater purpose than we’ve ever heard. Her interludes are interviews with her parents and people like New Orleans hip-hop mogul Master P, who tell straightforward, honest stories about their lives that advance the record from song to song. The highest compliment we can pay: This record is a teaching tool. Every person in America should listen and learn.
Deep roots: Muscle Shoals, Alabama / Roots: Athens, Georgia / Current homes: Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi and Oregon
We know we’re homers for DBT, but we must point out that they’ve released two other albums since we began the BS in 2013, neither of which approached the top of this list. This time, though ... this time is different. Drive-By Truckers, in their 20th year as a band, made the best record of their lives and their boldest statement. While planning for The Bitter Southerner’s upcoming music column, I played “What It Means” for Dr. Joycelyn Wilson, an honest-to-god professor of hip-hop who will write that column periodically for us. She heard these lyrics: “If you say it wasn't racial when they shot him in his tracks / Well, I guess that means that you ain't black, it means that you ain't black / I mean, Barack Obama won and you can choose where to eat / But you don't see too many white kids lying bleeding on the street.” Joyce said, “I’m going to teach that in my class next semester.” I replied, “But it isn’t hip-hop.” She replied, “Yes, it is.” Ah, yes, I thought. Subject matter trumps musical style. So, there you have it, DBT. You officially recorded a hip-hop song. The heart of this record is two North Alabama boys — Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley — finally getting completely fed up with Southern kinsman who defend a racist flag. “American Band” gave those folks a very loud piece of their minds, and the band followed it up on tour by hanging a Black Lives Matter banner on the side of Jay Gonzalez’s Hammond organ. As Cooley puts it in “Surrender Under Protest,” the album’s most powerful song, “Does the color really matter on the face you blame for failure, on the shamin' for a battle's losing cause? / If the victims and aggressors just remain each other’s ‘others,’ and the instigators never fight their own?” This album is another teaching tool. It’s a record that many Southerners will hear and check themselves. And maybe, it’s a record that will reach those who feel like “others," and they will learn about the many other Southerners out there who stand with them.