1. James McMurtry: Stephen King says James is the best songwriter in America, and I wouldn’t argue with him. McMurtry writes about small towns, moving on, drawbridge mentalities, and some characters who are just plain mean. All are a little ‘off plumb’. I grew up in the suburbs, but everything about Levelland is familiar to me, from the marching band playing Three Dog Night’s “Joy to the World” to the changes central air and cable tv bring to a town and community, to the drive to get away. Personal favorites for your IPod: Levelland, Where’s Johnny, Childish Things, Just Us Kids, Out Here in the Middle (Live), We Can’t Make It Here Anymore, and No More Buffalo (live), But I could list 20 more songs as easily with no dropoff in quality. He’s never made a bad album, though Where’d You Hide the Body, Childish Things, and Live in ‘Aught Three particularly stand out to me.
2. Dave Alvin: Dave wrote songs for his brother Phil to sing in the Blasters, but on his own has developed his own sound that combines blues, rock, folk, country, and his voice has progressed into a warm, convincing vehicle for his hard luck stories. I probably like King of California best of his CDs, but they’re all good, including his latest, Eleven Eleven, which not only rocks harder, but contains a beautiful song for the late Amy Farris, who was the first person we recorded with in Austin. Personal favorites: California Snow, Ashgrove, From a Kitchen Table, Dry River, Bus Station, Black Rose of Texas. Also, X’s version of Dave’s 4th of July, as well as anything by the Blasters.
3. Paul Kelly is from Australia, has 20+ albums filled with great radio ready songs, and is so eclectic that a friend (say, Geoffrey Himes) and I might love the same album and have totally different songs as favorites. Listen to the songs Deeper Water, When I First Met Your Ma, and Dumb Things, and if you don’t think they’re three of the best songs ever written, well you’re definitely reading the wrong blog. Deeper Water, Under the Sun, and his bluegrass album Foggy Highway are the CDs I go to the most, but even my least favorites of his have three or four songs that are just great.
4. Elizabeth Cook: Her Rodney Crowell produced Balls (as in “it takes balls to be a woman”) album was Sherry’s and my most played CD of 2008 and sounds like a modern day Loretta or Dolly without the Countrypolitan excess. And she covers the Velvet Underground and makes it fit. Just a gorgeous record. But her next album, Welder, while a less immediately likable album, is an artistic step forward as a songwriter, especially the brilliant Heroin Addict Sister. Additional songs to download: Always Tomorrow (written by her husband Tim Carroll and our most played song of 2009), Balls, Down Girl, Gonna Be.
5. Sam Baker: Sam is a poet and all three of his albums are beautiful. Sam sings in a cracked voice, and plays lefthanded because of injuries suffered in the incident that is the basis for his first record, but every simple note is perfect. When I first played his first CD, Mercy (as in “everyone’s at the mercy of another one’s dream”), it took me an hour to get past the first song and onto song two. He writes about what happens when one half of a couple together for 50 years dies, about what happens when an accident tears your life apart, about a single Mom breaking down at a Wendy’s in Waco, about the inability to forget a loss 15 years later. I like Mercy best of his albums, but Pretty World runs a close second, and if Cotton was the only album I had of his, it would still be one of my favorite records. Except for the incredible Waves, I think of the albums as a piece (beautiful production from Tim Lorsch and Walt Wilkens) and rarely think of the songs individually, but check out Thursday, Pretty World, Sweetly Undone, or Broken Fingers if you want to hear what he sounds like. Not for everyone, but right up Jim & Sherry’s alley.