In a year that thwarted plans for veteran artists and new bands alike, Dallas’ Americana scene is as strong as ever. Here are the nominees for the 2020 Dallas Observer Music Awards’ Best Americana category.
Perhaps one of the most prolific songwriters in Dallas, Nicholas Altobelli seems to be constantly putting out new music. His summer 2019 LP Vertigo, a true foray into the Americana genre, garnered several positive reviews across the country. The artist soon followed up with a single, “Ghost/Wonder,” in February of this year, then turned right around with a May pandemic release, a self-recorded acoustic EP called I Took My Hockey Stick and Smashed It Against An Old Tree, a title that captures Altobelli’s personality in a nutshell. His writing evokes at once an angst-ridden nostalgia and a resigned acceptance of a disappointing world, yet provides the listener with a level of comfort and reassurance that we are all as sad and as deep as the next poor sap. Barely in his mid-30s, Altobelli has already belt-buckled an impressive catalog that represents a cohesive yet evolving musical career that shows no signs of slowing down.
If there ever was a story of insurmountable resilience, Kristy Krüger is the face. The Dallas music veteran and State Fair Records artist emerged from a dark period of loss and personal struggle with her nationally acclaimed album The Fever of Unknown Origin. Speaking of fevers, Krüger — whose music spans several genres, including Americana, classic country, folk and jazz — has been spending her pandemic months delivering weekly virtual lullabies to soothe the anxious masses on Facebook. These days, the self-described musical historian seems to have more energy than ever, writing new songs, playing both live-streamed and in-person, socially distanced concerts and dreaming up new and creative ways to pay homage to her favorite legends, from Lucinda Williams to The Beatles. Krüger, who in the past has opened for folk heavyweight Patty Griffin at The Kessler, seems well on her way to becoming a legend in her own right, and at the very least, has more than earned that description locally.
New Ellum is a welcome addition to Dallas, bringing rootsy, straight-ahead folk-Americana to a relatively eclectic music scene. Formed during the process of putting songs to tape in 2019, the group was gearing up for a year of live shows only to be stopped in their tracks by the pandemic — a damn shame for the rest of us. Fortunately, they’ve been generously trickling out high-quality singles and music videos, building up to a larger work that’s sure to be a best album contender. Comprising well-seasoned musicians, including singer-songwriter and frontman Jason Michael and Canadian singer-songwriter Sabrina Taylor-Mesh, New Ellum plays timeless, Southern-flavored alt-country (which everyone knows tastes like sweet tea) that tells a decidedly Texan story dressed in lace and distressed cowboy boots. This is world-class songwriting, packaged with solid musicianship and topped off with the sun-drenched sounds of fiddle, pedal steel and mandolin for that extra tug on the heartstrings. New Ellum fills a void in the music scene Dallas didn’t know it had.
Garrett Owen had been a longtime favorite on the Dallas songwriter circuit, flying quietly under the radar for what must have been a decade before the national scene caught wind of his talent — then his flame finally spread into a wildfire. His wistful melodies and lilting vocal delivery immediately capture every audience, making them want to cry then melt then cry again. However, it’s his savant-level knack for lyrics and depth of subject matter that have Owen poised to take over as the next big American folk hero. His 2017 EP, Sad Eyed Son helped him earn four DOMAs, and in 2018, he cinched his fate as one of the nation’s top folk singer-songwriters by winning the Telluride Bluegrass Festival Troubadour Contest. Owen’s latest work, a full-production LP titled Quiet Lives, will likely go down in history as the springboard for an illustrious career that could span decades. It also helps that his multi-continental upbringing is fascinating enough to be written into a film. The world is ready.
Justin Pickard & the Thunderbird Winos
With influences encompassing classic rock n’ roll, blues, Americana, country, Southern rock and a drizzle of rockabilly blending seamlessly together into one decadent musical meal, Justin Pickard & the Thunderbird Winos is as quintessentially American as the 72oz. Steak Challenge at The Big Texan Ranch. The band's third record, Heavy on the Heart, released in March to a celebration of art, music and tattooing at Deep Ellum’s Sons of Herman Hall exactly a week before the world shut down. You might say “Talk about going out with a bang,” except the band is still going strong, playing regular shows. In fact, let’s try an exercise. Close your eyes, crack open a can of PBR and imagine yourself standing in The Double Wide’s outdoor patio. You just might detect the smell of cigarettes and feel a comforting sense of normalcy. That’s what Justin Pickard & the Thunderbird Winos’ music feels like. It’s reassuring to think that should normalcy ever return, they’ll be there to welcome us with open arms and great music (and maybe a squirt of hand sanitizer).
Texicana’s breakthrough moment came when they won 91.7 KXT's Tenth Anniversary Tiny Cake Contest, which led to an opening slot for Grace Potter and Devon Gilfillian at the radio station’s sold-out anniversary party at The Rustic toward the end of last year. Like nominee New Ellum, the East Dallas-born Americana-rock band was a relative newcomer, revving up for an explosive sophomore year to accompany the release of their debut EP when COVID shut down the music scene. Not to be deterred, Texicana delivered their five-song work, No Good Reason at a time when folks probably needed it most. The group, powered by the gritty, standout vocals of Dev Wulf, includes State Fair Record’s Chris J. Norwood, guitarist/producer/engineer Guillermo Murillo, bassist Kelly Huffman and drummer Chris Pitts. Texicana’s nostalgic Americana and bluesy rock is as good for the soul as a road trip out to the country for an isolation vacation, which everybody should probably take right about now. Soundtrack provided by these guys.