2013 Albums of the Year (Part 1)

In a departure from our usual format, today we are going to recap some of the records we particularly enjoyed this year, many of which contain not a single train song. This makes no claim to be a definitive list – we listen to an assortment of music that in no way is comprehensive or systematic in its approach. This is the first in a series of year-end posts grouped roughly by genre. Today let’s cover some choice selections from the alt.country/americana side of the spectrum.

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Jason Isbell – Southeastern
We’ve been fans of Isbell’s work for a long time – indeed many of our favorite Drive-By Truckers songs (“The Day John Henry Died,” “Decoration Day,” “Outfit,” etc…) were Isbell creations. Southeastern is a powerful step forward for him, full of songs that hit the listener straight in the gut. As a testament to his songwriting skills, he shifts effortlessly between characters as diverse as a friend of a cancer patient, a 19th century brigand, and semi-autobiographical tales dealing with his newfound sobriety.

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Futurebirds – Baba Yaga
Few bands evoke the sense of murkiness of the South, and the weirdness at the margins of this seemingly straight-laced region, than this group out of Athens, Georgia. A proper heir to the southern gothic-laced sounds of early R.E.M., or perhaps an example of what My Morning Jacket would have sounded like if they soldiered on in the vein of their early records, and kept the reverb dial turned up to 11. This one is more of a slow boil, and more of a grower than their impressive first record. So come for the immediately striking atmosphere, and stay for revelations of stunning moments like the second half of “Dig.”

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Mount Moriah – Miracle Temple
Boasting what is probably our favorite album cover of the year, this North Carolina group’s sophomore record builds on the successes of their 2011 self-titled debut. Twisting and turning guitar lines from the mastermind behind one of our favorite metal groups Horseback, merge with melodic bass work, and the compelling vocals of front-woman Heather McIntyre, who first cut her teeth in the punk scene. The flaming barn on the front is a perfect encapsulation of band’s musical and lyrical tension between Old and New Souths. Perhaps this group resonates so strongly with us because the members have walked a similar path of musical growth – from metal/punk/heaviness to rural-inflected americana. Or maybe its just our move – “Swannanoa” in particular has been on repeat since our relocation to the Blue Ridge Mountains.

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Austin Lucas – Stay Reckless
Yet another punk-Americana hybrid, Lucas has made a smooth shift from hardcore to acoustic bluegrass, and on the new record he turns up the electric guitars (with the help of backing band Glossary). Great stuff and a nice step forward in Lucas’s sound.

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Doc Feldman & the LD50s – Sundowning at the Station
The buzz on this one by some bloggers I follow, was so heavy I had to check it out, and the hype is well-deserved. Utter bleakness translated into acoustic musical misery. Its not for the faint of heart, but its hard to find a better soundtrack to

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Divided & United: Songs of the Civil War
We realize that as a music-obsessed 19th century historian we fall squarely within the target demographic for this one. But the care that went into curating this collection and the skillful execution should give this resonance outside the historical profession. Its a diverse set of songs, encompassing multiple viewpoints of the war, and performed by a variety of artists, including some real heavy hitters. Put this on and spend an hour or two in the 1860s. Sam Amidon’s “Wildwood Flower” and Old Crow Medicine Show’s rousing rendition of “Marching through Georgia” are immediate standouts, but the whole collection is even more powerful in one full run-through.

Steve Earle & the Del McCoury Band – Texas Eagle

Steve Earle’s son has been on here twice, but it seemed about time to write up the legend himself. We’ve been perhaps a little remiss in our attention to his sprawling discography, but a road trip spin of The Mountain brought this excellent train song to mind. The album came out in 1999 and its a collaboration between Earle and the bluegrass outfit the DelMcCoury Band. Its a great record, by the way, blending rousing bluegrass instrumentation with powerful lyrics and Earle’s unmatchable vocals, and it also happens to includes one of our favorite Civil War songs, Dixieland, based on a character from the Gettysburg novel, Killer Angels. If there’s one thing we love as much as train songs, its Civil War songs, but that’s definitely a topic for another blog…

In this tune, Earle reminisces about the Texas Eagle, an old train that since has been shut down and sold to Mexico. His grandfather was a “railroad man” who took Earle for a ride on the Texas Eagle “‘fore its gone.” The blue and silver train eventually did bite the dust, as the line went under and the train was sold to Mexico. Earle laments that “nowaday’s they don’t make no trains,” a common lament in backwards-looking train songs like this. But even though the train is gone, the memory of the whistle lingers as a haunting reminder of past glories.

The Texas Eagle route historically ran from 1948 to 1970 was under control of the Missouri Pacific Railroad and the Texas & Pacific Railway. Like many of the beloved passenger rail routes of yore, like the Southern Crescent, City of New Orleans, and Southern Pacific, Amtrak revived the Texas Eagle name and stuck it on the passenger route from Chicago through Texas and on to the West Coast. But in Earle’s mind (and in the opinion of many others), these don’t match up to the old glamour lines – Earle derisively refers to the reincarnated routes as “them Amtrak things.”

Texas Eagle

So Texas Eagle fits right into the grand tradition of train songs that invoke trains for nostalgic purposes. The personalized story gives this one a little more power and lest anyone doubt Earle’s sincerity here, in a song-by-song writeup of the album Earle unequivocally declared, “every single word of this song is true.”