In her Netflix documentary Miss Americana, Taylor Swift admits to long viewing the Dixie Chicks as a cautionary tale. Referencing their anti-Bush comments from the height of the Iraq War, and their subsequent exile from country radio, Swift frames the once-unstoppable Texas trio as a public warning about what happens to outspoken women. Things come full-circle in 2020, with Swift simultaneously dominating the charts and ramping up her political advocacy, just as the now-Dixieless Chicks return to the spotlight with Gaslighter, their first album in 14 years. It just so happens to be produced by Swift’s longtime lieutenant Jack Antonoff, who ensures that it’s a thoroughly modern production through and through: The Chicks still know how to set fire with their insanely tight harmonies (“Gaslighter”), and there’s plenty of acoustic twang scattered throughout the album (“Sleep at Night,” “Hope It’s Something Good”), but the bluegrass pyrotechnics and old-time sway that marked their classic albums are mostly sidelined in favor of svelte, digital productions. This has the effect of making The Chicks sound less like a real band than ever, while a preponderance of ballads means Gaslighter never quite takes off like a pop album in the way that Swift’s Antonoff team-ups do.
Funnily enough, it’s also an album that mostly eschews politics; the stainless steel boom-bap of “March March” is a pointed example, referencing the courageous advocacy of the young, but the title song is less about life in the Trump/Kavanaugh era than its name might suggest, instead focusing its ire on a faithless lover. (Like so many classic diss tracks, its power comes from its specificity, e.g., “Boy, you know exactly what you did on my boat.”) Most of Gaslighter plays out like a divorce album, and in that sense, it almost sounds like a more seasoned and experienced follow-up to their classic Fly; while that album chronicled heartache with equal parts indignation and surrender, Gaslighter sounds more pugilistic, defiant, and uninhibited. In other words, The Chicks are still not ready to make nice — and what impresses most about Gaslighter is how it can sound so distinct from their previous albums while still sounding like a natural, even inevitable bend in their trajectory. Josh Hurst
Willie Nelson has always been prolific, but ever since he hit his mid-80s, he’s really been on a tear. Starting roughly with 2016’s For the Good Times, a warm tribute to the late Ray Price, Nelson has cranked out a string of strong albums that slyly intermingle country, folk, and blues while addressing Nelson’s own mortality with equal parts wistfulness and humor. These albums have ranged from very good to truly excellent, and 2020’s First Rose of Spring slots somewhere near the top of the list: If it never quite captures the sharp joke-telling or rollicking energy of Last Man Standing, neither does it suffer from the soft rock schmaltz that ever so slightly diluted Ride Me Back Home. Instead, it finds Nelson and longtime collaborator Buddy Cannon leaning into Willie’s wheelhouse, emphasizing his gifts as a purveyor of easygoing charm and his stature as an unparalleled interpretive singer and performer. (There are just two Nelson compositions in the bunch, but nearly all of them sound like they could have sprung from his pen.)
Most of the songs are laid-back and low-key, unhurried in their tempo but never lacking in grit or texture: the title track opens the album with high-and-lonesome harmonica and Nelson’s instantly-identifiable nylon string-picking, while “I’ll Break Out Again Tonight” ambles gracefully through weepy pedal steel. Nelson brings a little of the ol’ Stardust magic to the standard “Just Bummin’ Around,” a winking soft-shoe number; meanwhile, he kicks up a bit of a ruckus on Johnny Paycheck’s “I’m the Only Hell My Mama Ever Raised,” yet still manages to make the song sound rueful rather than ornery. It’s one of the album’s clearest testaments to Nelson’s knack for making cover songs scan like his own, but his take on Toby Keith might be more impressive still: A wistful version of “Don’t Let the Old Man In” stands proudly alongside Nelson’s recent songs about the inevitability of time. Speaking of which, check the album-closing “Yesterday When I Was Young,” which sounds haunted and cinematic. It’s another oldie, but the way Nelson sings it, you’d almost think he wrote it just this morning. Josh Hurst
Gillian Welch & David Rawlings
Many of us have turned to distraction to help weather the long days of quarantine. Maybe that was found in breadmaking. Maybe it was your neighbor’s Disney+ subscription. For Gillian Welch and David Rawlings, it was folk music. Holed up in their home studio, with touring life a distant dream, the two of them passed the time with staples and semi-obscurities from American singer/songwriter traditions, recording their rambles directly to reel-to-reel tape. Ten of their best home recordings appear on For the Good Times, surprise-released almost a decade after Welch’s The Harrow & the Harvest. It’s similar in sound yet feels different from the albums usually released under Welch’s name, perhaps the first of her albums that could rightly be labeled spontaneous or off-the-cuff. (Five of its songs are reported to be first takes.) The two usually-fastidious performers pick and harmonize in a loose, Nashville vérité style — you can even occasionally hear one of them bump into their microphone — and at least one song ends abruptly as the analog recording equipment runs out of road.
Compared to weighty, carefully-considered masterworks like Time (The Revelator), All the Good Times can’t help but feel like a bit of a lark, yet this shaggy, concept-free album may capture the heart of Welch/Rawlings as accurately as anything else they’ve done: It’s folk music for its own sake, rooted, ageless, and liberating. Pleasures stack up pretty quickly. Given the duo’s typical gravitas, it’s disarming to hear them lean into a feisty take on Johnny and June’s “Jackson.” And, at times, their excavations allow them to engage in a little cosplay, which has the uncanny effect of making them sound more than ever like themselves: Listen to how Rawlings perfectly conjures Bob Dylan’s venomous sneer on the cover of Biograph chestnut “Abandoned Love,” even as the jittery guitar work is undeniably on-brand. Not every song is as well-known, and Welch and Rawlings continue to earn their reputation as stalwart archivists of the folk tradition: Maybe you don’t know much about Elizabeth Cotton, for example, but All the Good Times will make you want to change that. And then there are the ones you probably do know about, such as the late John Prine’s “Hello in There” which gives Welch a chance to show off one of her greatest gifts: A surprise prowess for straight-ahead warmth and unfettered compassion. Josh Hurst
In the 1680s, a Puritan woman named Mary Webster was accused of witchcraft, then hung from a tree. Not only did she survive the lynching, but she lived for another 14 years thereafter, and she now shows up in the middle of the new Elizabeth Cook album, Aftermath. (“Not a witch before but sure one now,” Cook observes.) Here, she’s christened “Half Hanged Mary,” in reference to a Margaret Atwood poem of the same name, and serves as something of a patron saint for the album, which is populated with the stories of women who went through hell, lived to tell about it, and stand among us with zero fucks left to give. Surely Cook counts herself among that number; she wrote the songs on Aftermath following a season of deaths, divorce, and rehab, and the result is the sharpest, funniest, most visceral and unsentimental music she’s ever made. It’s also the furthest afield from the hard country on which Cook, a Grand Ole Opry regular and Sirius XM host, made her name; backed by her road band and produced by Butch Walker (Green Day, Taylor Swift), Cook has devised a raucous rock-and-country jamboree that leans hard into the sleaze of the Stones, the swagger of glam rock, and the gnarled roots of prime Tom Petty.
“Perfect Girls of Pop” captures the drive and jangle of R.E.M. in their college-rock heyday, while “Thick Georgia Woman” marries whip-smart lyrics with gloriously dumb power chords. Much of the album feels caked in sweat and reeking of cigarette smoke, and that’s as true of the quieter numbers as it is the rowdy ones: “Daddy, I Got Love for You” sounds wonderfully leathery and lived-in with its crying steel guitar and thick harmonies. Throughout the album, Cook tells her truth but tells it slant, favoring parables and tall tales over direct confession. In the rambling story-song “Stanley by God Terry,” she rattles off verses like she’s Leonard Cohen, capturing Southern tragedy at its comedic best. The jaunty “Bayonette” is about a woman who flees south of the border to escape a bad lover (“I don’t cry now because I know I survived/ But I’d like to shoot who said that love ain’t a crime”). And in the closing “Mary, the Submissing Years,” Cook venerates both John Prine and the Mother of Jesus in a tender, talking blues. Here, the holy virgin can’t help but wonder what will become of her baby son; she cries and she worries and she tries her best to trust God — another patron saint for women doing their damnedest to make the most of things. Josh Hurst
“Glenfern,” the opening song on Kathleen Edwards’ Total Freedom, chronicles a relationship that ended in collapse — though it might take you a couple of listens to realize it. Under its amiable gait, the song exposes a few raw nerves, but what stands out the most is the air of gratitude it exudes: A chapter of her life has closed, but Edwards cheerfully admits that she’ll “always be thankful for it.” Such serenity emanates from the album, her first following eight years of self-imposed hiatus. That’s not to say the album is absent tension; you only have to wait until the second song rolls around for Edwards to howl against a controlling lover (“Am I not the one you love? You’re so hard on everyone”).
But compared with Edwards’ earlier albums — sharply written, deftly produced country-rock platters that veered easily into raucous indignation, hurt, and rage — Total Freedom is marked by its measured tone and its sense of ease. The ballads move with unhurried grace, while the rockers downplay aggression in favor of self-assured swing; just listen to “Options Open,” which sounds as spry and effortless as anything Edwards has ever recorded. The easeful manner of these songs can almost obscure the darkness that lurks at their corners. “Who Rescued Who” is a warm ode to canine companionship, but note that it’s written as an elegy; and while “Birds on a Feeder” paints a picture of unencumbered, domestic bliss, the final verse hints that Edwards’ “total freedom” comes hand-in-hand with loneliness and isolation. Such emotional nuances allow these songs to sink their hooks in deep, even as the warmth of their delivery helps them go down smoothly on only a first listen. Total Freedom testifies to a singer/songwriter who’s been away too long but returns without missing a step; if it’s not the most immediately rousing of her albums, it may just yet offer the most long-term rewards. Josh Hurst