Happy New Year and welcome to 2011! Have you gotten used to writing 2011 on your checks yet? No? Yeah, we're with you on that. A week into the new year and our heads might not be screwed on right yet, but we do know one thing: there are some killer country music releases on the horizon.
We've combed new release schedules from a number of sources and have come up with a pretty impressive list of albums to anticipate most of which are due to hit during the first quarter of 2010. Oops. We mean 2011.
Sara Evans, Stronger (March 8)
Sara Evans has had a rough ride the past few years. After a very public divorce while starring in the hit television show Dancing with the Stars, Evans seemed to lose her footing both literally and figuratively. While she soldiered on with the show, she hasn't put out an album since 2005 (2007's Greatest Hits hardly counts). For someone such as Evans and those like her with a traditional slant to her sound, the infiltration of younger, poppier sirens into the halls of country music certainly creates a bind: do they ride the rails to popdom, or do they dig their heels in and stick to their sound? If her new single is any indication, Evans is splitting the difference. "A Little Bit Stronger" tells the tale of a woman dealing with the aftermath of a breakup and seems to reflect the singer's own life. It's a powerful ballad that makes the most of Evans' wondrous vocals, while nudging the singer into modern, mainstream country. Destined to become a classic breakup song, "A Little Bit Stronger" certainly whets the appetite for more from Sara Evans.
Alison Krauss, TBD (April 12)
Who doesn't love Alison Krauss? Judging by the number of Grammys she's earned over the years, the answer is no one! It's hard to believe it's been three years since her award-winning effort with Robert Plant, Raising Sand, was released. Time does fly, but the fact that Raising Sand is still as potent as it was three years ago proves just how virile their time-defying collaboration was. Krauss' new effort, which is still untitled, was originally scheduled to come out February 8 but has recently been bumped to April 12. There is no hint as to whether this will be a Union Station effort, but we hear it definitely features Krauss going back to a more traditional bluegrass sound.
Brad Paisley, TBD (April 19)
It seems like Brad Paisley released American Saturday Night just a few months ago, partly because that album housed single after single after single -- which sharply illustrates not only the quality of the songs as individual singles, but also the collective depth of the entire album. Paisley uses humor to draw people into his circle, and once there, he dazzles them with deft guitar playing and reduces them to tears with the occasional heartbreaker. Paisley is one of country music's most consistent and reliable hitmakers, and his upcoming release already includes his newest hit, "This Is Country Music," which the singer debuted at the CMA Awards in November. The song is an ode to country music and small-town life; Paisley refers to it as "a love song to my fans, who live all our songs every day." And his fans respond in kind: "This Is Country Music" is already in the Top 10 of Billboard's country music charts. With such a promising start, world domination seems imminent.
Lucinda Williams, Blessed (March 1)
It's fair to say you either "get" Lucinda Williams or you don't. For many, the singer-songwriter's unconventional vocal style doesn't always work. Williams is the sort of free-spirited artist who isn't hemmed into one particular way of doing things, and she fearlessly takes on various musical styles -- sometimes with mixed results. Blessed marks her tenth studio full-length album, and it features a clutch of from-the-heart songs, including "Copenhagen," which marks the passing of her longtime manager; "Seeing Black" pays respect to Vic Chesnutt, who killed himself on Christmas day in 2009. In her typical maverick fashion, Williams contributed "Kiss Like Your Kiss" to the soundtrack of the vampire soap True Blood, and got thanked by way of a Grammy nod. A duet with Elvis Costello, "Kiss Like Your Kiss" is a sparsely decorated, cinematic beauty adorned with the kind of over-modulating, bending guitar sounds that put the icing on the cake of so many David Lynch movies. Delicious!
Hayes Carll, KMAG YOYO (February 15)
With his smoky twang and wisecracking sense of humor, Hayes Carll has been winning over fans with each release. Along with mentors Guy Clark, Townes Van Zandt and Bob Dylan, Carll knows the way to win fans and influence critics is through words -- specifically, a killer turn of phrase. In keeping, his 2008 effort, Trouble in Mind, earned the Texas troubadour an underground hit with the sarcastic gem, "She Left Me for Jesus," which is littered with clever lines. A regular on the Red Dirt scene, Carll and company keep a hectic touring pace. In fact, when the new album, KMAG YOYO ("Kiss my ass guys; you're on your own") is released on February 15, many of its songs -- including "Hard Out Here" and "Another Like You" -- will already be familiar to his hard-earned fans in Texas.
Bret Michaels, Once a Cowboy, Always a Cowboy (March 8)
Looks like Poison frontman Bret Michaels is officially going country. Normally, rockers crossing over to country wouldn't land them on any list -- except maybe a Most Painful Release of the Year list. But Michaels, who has seen his stock go up after numerous seasons starring in MTV's Rock of Love franchise and, most recently, with his spectacular win on Celebrity Apprentice, actually could pull this off. One of Poison's biggest hits, "Every Rose Has Its Thorn," is a country song dressed up in power-ballad Spandex and has been covered by quite a few country stars -- as well as Miley Cyrus and those darn Glee kids. Michaels has had some very public health issues, including a brain hemorrhage, a hole in his heart, an appendectomy and diabetes, all of which is putting him in a self-confessed "Live Like You Were Dying" mode. With all that going against him, he must have a few "tear in my beer" songs in him, right? It makes Once a Cowboy, Always a Cowboy one of the most anticipated releases of 2011 -- even if it's anticipation of a train wreck.
Drive-By Truckers, Go Go Boots (February 15)
It's been a scant 11 months since the Truckers released distortion-fuelled effort The Big To-Do, but Patterson Hood and company already have Go-Go Boots waiting in the wings. It seems that while the band was in the studio recording the songs for The Big To-Do they hit a creative groove and recorded far too many songs for one album. Once the songs were divvied up, the rest was easy. Two songs from Go-Go Boots were released in late November, prompting Go-Go Boots to be tagged as an "R&B murder album." Hmmm. Hood has called the album their "most different and most Muscle Shoals-sounding record." In keeping, the album features two songs originally done by Eddie Hinton of the Muscle Shoals Sound rhythm section.
The JaneDear Girls, The JaneDear Girls (February 1)
This duo's "Wildflower" single is already in the Top 20 on the country singles chart, so right out of the gate Susie Brown and Danielle Leverett have a hit on their hands. "Wildflower," produced by a man who knows a thing or two about hits (John Rich), highlights the girls' rich harmonies and ringing guitars. Brown and Leverett admit they like their "guitars loud, our fiddles rippin' and a steady beat," so if you lean toward soft, floaty tales about love, you might want to give this one a pass. For those who like some sassy rock in their twang, The JaneDear girls are right up your alley. Between the two, they play eight instruments (including fiddle, banjo, harp and mandolin), so their chops are down! More importantly, these girls have written all 11 songs on their debut, making The JaneDear Girls one of the most anticipated releases of 2011.
Ashton Shepherd, TBD (TBA)
When Ashton Shepherd's debut, Sounds So Good, was released in 2008, it offered a striking alternative to the country-pop fluff blasting across the airwaves. Shepherd, a native of Coffeeville, Ala., was unabashedly proud of her small-town roots and used her thick Southern twang to stellar effect. Steeped in pedal steel guitars, her traditional sound put her on a "zig" trajectory while the country music machine was in full-on "zag" mode. Her new single, "Look It Up," is a sassy kick-him-out-the-door song with clever lyrics punctuated by that trademark twang. Slightly glossier than her debut effort, "Look It Up" overflows with wit and charm delivered by her heavenly voice. This month Shepherd goes back into the studio to finish up her still untitled sophomore album. If the rest of it sounds half as good as "Look It Up," country music will have a new star on its hands.