The stages have been dark for nine months, but it hasn’t stopped Kentucky musicians from getting to work in the studio, and they released some incredible albums in 2020. You probably spent a lot of the year burning through new records from Tyler Childers, Sturgill Simpson, and Chris Stapleton—the three-headed monster of today’s Kentucky country music. And you should! Those albums are very, very, very good!
But our state’s music scene has become one of the great envies of the rest of the country, and lots of other artists put out records this year that deserve your attention. Here are just a few; check back tomorrow for more.
Justin Wells, “The United State”
The second full album from Lexington songwriter Justin Wells should probably be taken as one cohesive piece—an exploration of the journey of life from birth through death. Wells’ big, growling voice forces you to cling to every word, and you won’t regret taking the ride.
Wayne Graham, “1% Juice”
Let me start by saying I’m crazy about this band. I’m always amused by the confusion that they cause by being so unabashedly Appalachian that people label them country music (they’re really not), and by naming their band after a person who doesn’t exist (it’s a combination of their grandfathers’ names). Whitesburg brothers Kenny and Hayden Miles have been making genre-defying music for over 10 years, and “1% Juice” fits beautifully into that canon while exhibiting some of their mellowest songs yet.
Devine Carama, “Worshiping in the Wilderness” and “Black Man in America”
It is an absolute travesty that Lexington rapper Devine Carama isn’t more well known (I’m including myself in that group that should be giving him way more space in my listening time). He’s an incredibly gifted writer, an advocate, and one of the most prolific artists in the region (Apple Music has him at 15 albums since 2008!). While 2020 will be remembered by many as the year of a global pandemic, Devine’s two releases from this year are more personal—responses to the death of his daughter, Kamaria, in April and the killing of Breonna Taylor and the Black Lives Matter uprisings that followed. Both albums are about struggle, but where “Wilderness” sees him maintaining his own hope in circumstances beyond his control, “Black Man” finds him very much in control, issuing a direct challenge to the complacent, the unaware, and the powers that be.
Jordan Allen & The Bellwethers, “Give My Love to Jenny”
This album is just so quintessentially Kentucky: It’s got a ton of groove, joyful songwriting, and melodies begging for you to sing along with. Plus it’s a love letter to Floyd County’s Jenny Wiley State Park. What’s not to like? Laurel County country/folk/rock artist Jordan Allen has one of the best male vocals around these parts, and he’s clearly having so much damn fun on this album. Do yourself a favor when our world reopens and find him on a stage in 2021.
Dark Moon Hollow, “Dark Moon Hollow”
This may be a debut project from the Lexington bluegrass group, but you can tell that they’ve been playing together for a long time, with tight instrumentation and envelope-pushing arrangements. This is what “newgrass” should be, acknowledging the genre’s history while searching for ways to bring it into a new age. Lead vocalists Trigger Trey and Brett Horton have such different singing styles, and it brings a fun dynamic to the songs, blending together beautifully into a really strong first release.
Arlo McKinley, “Die Midwestern”
Ok, so I’m cheating a bit here. Arlo’s technically from southern Ohio. But he’s become a legend around Kentucky, and he’s certainly logged his time playing here. Anyway, his first release on John Prine’s Oh Boy Records (Arlo was the last artist Prine signed before his passing) is my favorite album of the year and cements his place as one of true country music’s most important writers working today. His songs are brutally honest about his own struggles and fears. Let me be clear, this album is sad. But it’s also one you’re going to return to over and over again.