For a country music fan, living in North Texas is akin to a six-year-old getting locked inside a room over night where the walls are made only of assorted Minecraft games. There's plenty of variety and more than enough offerings to keep one busy without ever having to look too far beyond their immediate surroundings for attention-grabbing fun.
The first half of 2014 has been solid in terms of artists stepping up to offer their strongest efforts to date. The best of the bunch so far this year features a mix of well-known names, young upstarts and vets re-entering the scene after a bit of an absence. Here are the five best such records from this year -- so far.
5. Van Darien Silent Sparrow
The Weatherford-reared, Hurst-based Darien has been a steady presence for a couple of years now, but with Silent Sparrow, she has delivered the perfect vehicle for her dusky vocals. All six tunes were written or co-written by Darien and feature killer guitar work from Steven Cooper. While in an acoustic setting, Darien's tunes feel as though they lean to the folkier side of country, but the vibe of Silent Sparrow is all sweaty, bluesy, slow-burning roadhouse jams. The only drawback is that there are only six of them.
4. Merrol Ray Eat at Weezy's
Southern rock with small-town hospitality and warm country flavor has been Ray's realm of expertise going back to the days when he led the fiery band Miles From Nowhere. With his first album since his solo debut, Stanley, five years ago, Ray serves up eight tight, imminently enjoyable tunes that he wrote and produced himself before recording them in Austin last March. There isn't a clunker in the bunch and it's more than safe to say that the record was worth the wait. We just don't want to have to wait another five years for another one if we don't have to. He's too good.
3. Justin Pickard A High Price for the Low Life
The king of the Saturday afternoon brewery tour show, Pickard, along with producer and fellow area artist Andrew Delaney prove they know their way around vintage recording methods and sounds. Recorded live to two-track reel-to-reel tape in Garland, Pickard proffers earthy-feeling honky-tonk, punk, singer-songwriter ballads, soul and even a sea-faring tune authentically. Pickard's warm vocal works well in so many ways, giving him chameleon-like flexibility. Offered primarily on colored vinyl, Pickard really commits to the vintage aesthetic this album embodies. Regardless of styles or equipment, though, this album is a satisfyingly complete record that never feels predictable.
2. Madison King Onward and Upward
It's been a good year for the energetic fireball known as Madison King. Not only has she released a stellar new album, she's been traversing the country as an opening act on the Old 97's national tour. For Onward and Upward, King purposely set out to make a more focused set of tunes in order to display her growth as an artist since the release of her fiery debut LP from a couple of years ago. The album's opening and closing tracks represent bookends that amply demonstrate that artistic ascendance. In "You and Me," a dobro and her beautifully robust voice gallop over a song of simple but profound desire. In "Saved by a Son of a Gun," King proceeds to raise hell with a romping tune that forces even the heaviest, most leaden foot to tap with a giddy bounce.
1. Matt Hillyer If These old Bones Could Talk
Some were surprised it took so long for Hillyer, the inked-up leader of Eleven Hundred Springs (this area's best honky-tonk band) to release a solo record. There are also some that are a bit surprised that he chose to not simply go all-acoustic or simply repeat the proven dancehall formula of his main band. What no one is shocked by, however, is that this is a hell of a country record. Indeed, there's some Elevend Hundred flavor on here for a dash of familiarity ("Home is Where the Heartbreak Is"), but there's ample evidence to suggest this isn't simply Hillyer doing the same thing with different players. The title track is a folk song that's about more than the title suggests, while Hillyer gets straight-up sexy with the whispery, country slow-jam of "Dancing with the Moon." After all of these years as the face of a fantastic group, it's awesome to see an older, wiser Hillyer shine as an individual.