With the 26th annual Dallas Observer Music Awards finally upon us -- in fact, voting just closed last Friday and the music showcase convened in Deep Ellum over the weekend -- we've spent the past couple month highlighting some of the nominees for this year's awards. And when we say that these artists are the "Best," don't just take our word for it: We polled 150 local music experts to pull together the nominees this year, so they come on pretty good authority.
Tomorrow is the big day that we finally announce the winners at the awards ceremony, which takes place at Granada Theater. So we're the taking the chance to squeeze in one last category: Country. But Country music is a tough nut to crack. The "true country vs. crap country" debate is one that didn't begin with Florida Georgia Line; it's raged for decades. What isn't up for debate however, is that we in North Texas have an abundance of worthy bands that represent the themes, sounds and soul of Country music and it's diversity wonderfully.
In terms of straight-up, stone-cold honky tonk bands, the Matt Hillyer-led Eleven Hundred Springs has been the king of the north Texas dance floors for years. And deservedly so. Though it's been too long since the group's last album -- 2012's Midway, to be exact -- earlier this year, Hillyer released as fine of a country record as Dallas will hear in 2014 with If These Old Bones Could Talk. It's a true solo effort, in that some of the songs could easily be classic 1100 tunes, but many of the standouts show a different side of Hillyer as a country storyteller, not merely a country bandleader. But when the band he leads is one as exceptional as 1100, such is a fine distinction still.
Of all the acts in this year's group of country finalists, Somebody's Darling is the band that could likely fit into some of the non-country categories with ease thanks to the group's sonic evolution over the course of three full-length LPs. Indeed, a few years ago, as the Amber Farris and David Ponder-led group began gigging around town, roots-rock and country twang were highly obvious weapons in the group's arsenal. That's not so much the case now, but the songs from their albums, including this year's powerful Adult Roommates, deals in the painful and complex stories that the best country music has drawn on for decades.
We still think "Mercy Killing" from J. Charles and the Trainrobbers' 2012 album Upon Leaving is as gut-wrenching of a song as one will be able to find from the past few years of North Texas country songs. Of course, it's not as though the J. Charles Saenz-fronted outfit has been twiddling their drumsticks for the past couple of years; it's just the opposite, in fact. The Trainrobbers have been performing a ton lately, and are one of the few acts in our area that can capably share the stage with a diverse array of bands such as Deer Tick and JD McPherson as well as get their rocks off in last month's Denton Rock Lottery.
Madison King's Onward and Upward is a big-time step in the right direction from an artist that was already following a fantastic path. This album, released on the brand-new State Fair Records, boasts more polish than her 2012 debut, Darlin' Here's to You, which was an intended goal of King's. But the shine only enhanced the goodness here. "Raised By a Son of a Gun" can't be anything but a hell-raising, bottle-smashing country song, right? Indeed, this new, fresher album possesses some pop but holds tight onto the grit and charisma that King has showed us for years already.
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A band with talented vets of the Dallas music scene such as Chad Stockslager, Chris Carmichael and Keith Killoren could stand on a stage and sing the Taco Joint menu set to music and it would be worthwhile. Thanks to Stockslager's wit, a King Bucks show can feel like a vaudevillian event held in a modern-day flop-house saloon as much it can a country barn dance. We'd love to hear a new record from the group soon, though the roots-music gumbo that is 2011's Bar-B-Que Drugs is killer. The group has undergone some notable line-up changes in the past couple of years, but it's still a busy group that's worth catching whenever possible.
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