Country music is big business right now, or at least as big as it gets in the current musical climate. Hence why you keep seeing rock artists proclaiming their undying love for the genre and making a dreadful ‘Nashville’ album (Steven Tyler, I’m looking at you).
It’s a genre that’s easy to dismiss, so much of today’s country is just corporate pop wrapped up in the faintest of honky tonk veils. But like any big genre if you dig deeper you can find gold in them thar hills.
It was basically this premise that gave birth to the whole alt-country scene back in the 90’s, Son Volt are seasoned veterans of the genre, having been formed from the ashes of pioneers Uncle Tupelo. And even this deep into their career they’re still making albums as strong as Notes of Blue. Lo-fi country songs that dabble (as all the best country songs do) in the more melancholy aspects of life but these are no dirges. Each song bristles with energy and is carried along by a guitar sound that is both timeless and fresh. The sort of sound that six strings were meant to play. It’s what you imagine mainstream country would sound like if Nashville had paid any attention to Townes Van Zandt when he was alive.
That’s not to say the album is perfect, many of the songs are a little unobtrusive, not really embedding themselves in your brain the way great songs do. That said the album rewards repeat listens, with previously forgotten songs often charming you unexpectedly. It is an unfailingly pleasant listen and that may be its greatest strength and it’s biggest weakness.
On the other side of the country coin is Nikki Lane’s Highway Queen. Not for her the subtle intricacies and low key melancholia of Son Volt, she’s bold, she’s outspoken and she’s a capital c Country gal. This will put many off, and on occasions the schtick does seem contrived to please the Nashville crowd, but Lane shouldn’t be so readily dismissed. At the heart of this album are a lot of very good songs, the titular Highway Queen, Big Mouth and Jackpot among them. She has a harder, rockier edge than many of her contemporaries and this helps to make her stand out in a crowded marketplace and promises even better things to come.
Neither album is perfect but both are strong if wildly different offerings from a genre that constantly manages to enthrall, almost in spite of itself sometimes.