By Kevin Broughton
1. Jesse Daniel – Beyond These Walls
If FTM had a “follow-up album of the year” category, this one would win it unanimously. Stretching his legs from the Bakersfield love fest that was Rollin’ On, Daniel – by focusing on the simple things in life – has broadened his focus, showing a grateful audience just how great country music can be. He’s made a great leap forward with his vocals and songwriting, and those were already high bars. There’s not a weak cut on this album.
2. James McMurtry – The Horses And The Hounds
He’s just the Godfather.
I picture a room full of accomplished singer-songwriters trading shop talk when McMurtry walks in, and all of a sudden you can hear a pin drop. It’s been six years since his last album, and just like last time, there’s an effortless feel to this magnificent work of art. McMurtry combines imagery, geography and unrequited love better than Guy Clark, Lyle Lovett or Townes. I literally listened to “Canola Fields” seven times before moving on to the second cut. It’s on par with “Tangled Up In Blue.”
3. Mike & The Moonpies – One To Grow On
I’ll be shocked if this one doesn’t win the FTM overall prize. It’s merely flawless.
4. Charles Wesley Godwin – How The Mighty Fall
Speaking of great follow-ups, Geez. Seneca, Godwin’s stellar breakout record from 2019, was just a warmup, it seems, for his 2021 offering. There’s an intensity to his writing this time around that solidifies a rightful claim to be mentioned in the same breath as his Appalachian brethren: Simpson and Childers.
5. Jeremy Pinnell – Goodbye L.A.
One of the best pure country albums of the year. Ties of Blood and Affection in 2017 was a phenomenal record, but with a solid assist from quirky producer Jonathan Tyler, Pinnell has written his masterpiece. We should all give thanks that there’s a longer road in front of him than there is behind. And, who wants a monthly FTM Q & A with this jiu-jitsu practitioner on the intersection of mixed martial arts & country music?
6. Zach Schmidt – Raise A Banner
This was a record a long time in the making, but the Pittsburgh-born artist made the most of his time. Is it nice to walk into a studio with The 400 Unit for a backing band and Sadler Vaden producing? Sure. But this writing stands on its own, and even if You Don’t Know Zach Schmidt…you know the deal.
7. Blackberry Smoke – You Hear Georgia
Twenty years strong. Only a small handful of artists* can begin to make Southern rock like these guys. They’ve added some personnel to fill out the sound and become one of the darlings of the elite Yellowstone set-list crowd, but what you hear is what you get. “Hey Delilah,” one of many gems, is a love letter to Lowell George.
8. *Rob Leines – Blood, Sweat & Beers
This legit blue-collar rocker fronts a power trio turned up to ELEVEN, reminding the world and his Los Angeles environs of his proud Georgia roots. Skynyrd and CBD fans, step on up.
9. Tennessee Jet – South Dakota
A toned down follow-up to (my #1 in 2020) The Country gives the listener an even more intimate setting to sample this man of letters’ writing. “William Faulkner,” just like the author, indeed.
10. The High Hawks – The High Hawks
What started as a fun thing for a collection of jam/string band guys became a passion project – with tours to boot. Open, free and joyous, smart money says this ain’t a one-off.
11. Mac Leaphart – Music City Joke
Just outstanding writing that leaves folks wanting more.