Kentucky has produced a bumper crop of top shelf music this past year, and the world has taken notice. That’s a great thing because right now the soil is fertile. It’s the underground artists that are producing timeless classics and wowing audiences at live shows. It’s been so remarkable that the state tourism department has officially declared 2020 “The Year of Music” and will be looking to spread the gospel of Kentucky music to the far reaches of the globe.
When it comes to music releases, it feels like this year has given us some high-quality albums. In fact, there is no way to bring everything into a top 10 album releases of 2019. Instead, Jessica Bray and Jon Grace are going to share with you their top picks overall in country music of 2019. These are split up between Kentucky country music top releases of 2019 and those beyond the state line. These are not ranked in any order, but we will say that you should add these in your collection.
Below are the top Kentucky country music album releases of 2019:
Tiffany Williams – When You Go
Upon pressing play, Tiffany Williams releases a soulful Appalachian vocal that eases through the speakers playing “When You Go” EP officially released today. “When You Go” is one to be added to any music collection that seeks simplicity and authenticity of life in eastern Kentucky. If there is a true reflection overall of the beauty and soul of Appalachia, Tiffany Williams has showcased it with “When You Go.” Her vocals have a slight hint of Suzy Boguss and Holly Dunn, but she has made them her own.
Tyler Childers – Country Squire
Perhaps no artist in America had a better year than Tyler Childers. The redheaded ninja has catapulted himself into country music stardom and made himself a household name in just around a year, but this meteoric rise didn’t happen overnight. Childers has basically lived on the road for the better part of a decade. With each show that passes, he perfects his craft just a little bit more. He started 2019 with a sold out 3-night run at the Louisville Palace and will end it with a sold out 3-night run at Appalachian Wireless Arena in Pikeville. Tyler Childers released his sophomore album, “Country Squire,” that became one of the most highly anticipated of the year and did not disappoint. Childers showed that he was confident enough in his abilities to make the record he wanted to make, the way he wanted to make it. Some applauded the effort to give the songs a new identity and keep things fresh, others liked them the way they were. Recorded versions of “Bus Route” and “Peace of Mind” were better performed live, whereas “All Your’n” was one that was better recorded and set the pace to folks noticing Tyler outside the state line of Kentucky.
Sydney Adams – Always Home to Me
Sydney Adams’ release “Always Home to Me,” is a true reflection of what Kentucky music sounds like. You can hear the country, bluegrass, as well as soul and funk influences within the record. Her heritage is clearly on display through her songs. When it comes to songwriting, Sydney Adams has honed-in her craft. At the young age of 15, she wrong “Half Empty.” The song is the opening track of the 5 song EP release. The slow and sultry song speaks drinking away the memory of a heartache that keeps haunting someone.
Rye Davis – A Story to Tell
When you think of Rye Davis, you immediately think of his true gentleman southern charm as he greets you with a “how’s your momma and them?” His debut album shows off his songwriting and vocal talents with songs such as “They All Know My Name” and “Love You Til Morning.” Rye has been hitting the road all year and has proven to be an excellent performer to see real honest country music. We picked him to be one of our Kentucky musicians to watch in 2019 and Rye Davis is set to go to bigger heights come 2020.
The Local Honeys – The Gospel
With their album, “The Gospel,” The Local Honeys took us all back to the simplistic church services. You find yourself singing along with hymnals and other gospel songs such as, “Everybody Wants to Go to Heaven” and “Amazing Grace.” Those songs are nestled in an album of songs that make you yearn for a peaceful Sunday morning sitting on a wooden pew with cushioned seats learning the words of the Lord. The Local Honeys have gained momentum with their career expanding worldwide on their tours. “The Gospel” and their perfectly blended vocals showcase Kentucky in a brighter light in a world of darkness.
Eric Bolander – The Wind
Eric Bolander took a chance in revisiting his 2017 release, “The Wind,” and providing a new recording of several songs, along with adding a couple of new tracks to the album. Eric’s vocals blend perfectly along the instrumentation throughout the album. With the title track, the focus in on the lyrics in simplicity, but of impact. Midway through the album, Bolander takes on Prince’s “Purple Rain,” with an interesting arrangement filled in with his vocals to give it a more country version of the hit song. The laidback easy flow of the album is perfect to listen to while alone in a car or relaxing while at home.
Nicholas Jamerson – Floyd County All Stars
Nicholas Jamerson has one of those singing voices that you just cannot forget. With his solo project, “Floyd County All Stars,” Nicholas stands on his own with his lyrics and vocals. The album was released independently while the Appalachian native carved a name for himself on showbills on many music festivals in 2019. With the song “Hope for the Best,” Nicholas soars with his vocals singing about being accepted in the world today. The album overall makes you want to hear the songs arranged with a full band live in concert, but also in a quiet corner of a listening room.
Coby Langham & The Citizen Band – Years on the Road
Being a truck driver himself, Coby Langham knows how hard life can be out on the road. Starting off with the title track, Coby sets the pace for the rest of the album that is full of homegrown country music. You will hear that wail of a steel guitar that makes you feel like you are home in a honky tonk. One of the most haunting tracks on the album is “5×7” that talks about loss reflected in a photo.
Sean Whiting – High Expectations
Johnson County’s Sean Whiting has put out one of best rock albums of the year in “High Expectations.” Whiting, a former coal truck driver who was born in West Virginia but has spent most of his adult life in Kentucky, has one of the most powerful voices in all of Kentucky music. While some of his songs are tinged with country, his voice is undeniably rock n roll. There’s just too much volume for a soft-spoken country song, so Sean’s music is more akin to The Jompson Brothers than the Avett Brothers. Sean has mastered the bluesy riff and this album is thick with them (“Top of the World,” “Harvest the Moon,” and “Misery”) and delivered an album that’s greasy, smokey, and sounds like it’s straight out of the 70s. It also has its softer moments (“The Happy Song” and “Melody”) where Sean shows his incredible control to not overpower the track. ‘High Expectations’ met them and then some, one of the best rock albums of the year.
Sturgill Simpson – Sound and Fury
Sturgill’s latest opus, “Sound and Fury,” was as polarizing as any album released this year. It produced an outpouring of those saying it was his best work yet and pure genius, to others saying it was a cop out and a deliberate attempt to alienate his fans from the start. The truth is, it was neither of those. Was it Sturgill’s way of giving a huge middle finger to the entire music universe? Probably, judging by its lyrical content. It is an album that Sturgill felt he needed to make, and the one thing we do love about Sturgill is his willingness to do whatever he wants. Top tracks include “Sing Along” and “Remember to Breathe” that expand his musical expectations with the hint of Appalachia sound with his vocals. Even better – Sturgill worked with Japanese anime artists to create a whole film based off of the album.
Wayne Graham – Songs Only A Mother Could Love
People unfamiliar with our music scene often jump to the assumption that Wayne Graham’s album, “Songs Only a Mother Could Love,” is all outlaw country or bluegrass. However, nothing could be further from the truth. The Kentucky music scene is a gumbo, with festivals and tours showcasing a multitude of genres. Wayne Graham are an indie rock/folk/country fusion that helps add a very necessary flavor to our scene, and their latest album continues their unique sound of atmospheric layers woven into off-timed beats and soft-spoken, well-written songs. The Whitesburg band constructs songs that, even though soft-spoken and ultra-chill, are never dull. The album is incredible from a production standpoint as well, something that Kenny and Hayden Miles have begun making a name for themselves for. Standout tracks include the opener “Ashta Chamma,” “By and By,” and “Flower Store”.
Josh Nolan – Kind Heart to Follow
Following in the trend of genre-defying awesomeness comes Powell County native Josh Nolan’s latest album, “Kind Heart To Follow.” Known for being one of nicest guys in the Kentucky music scene, Josh is also a musical genius. His last album is raw, daring, and perfectly encapsulates the intensity of his live shows (which are some of the best you’ll ever witness). Josh has a bold and signature voice with incredible range and has been in music long enough to know exactly how to use it. The album bounces forth between rock, folk, blues, and country and feels like it has a home in each of those genres. While Josh’s 2014 debut, “East Kentucky Skyline” was a great first impression, “Kind Heart to Follow” surpasses it in every aspect. Each song seems like it fits perfectly with the others, even when the genres don’t necessarily line up. The tracks are well-structured and have plenty of catchy riffs and big choruses that harken back to a different era of music. Standout tracks include “Revelations,” “Kein Hirte,” and “Throw Me Under.”
Kelsey Waldon – White Noise/White Lines
Kelsey Waldon’s “White Noise/White Lines” showcases that her career is about to skyrocket her into superstardom. While Chris Stapleton, Sturgill Simpson, and Tyler Childers have all helped put Kentucky music on the map, the next in line very well could be the Monkey Eyebrow native. While her first two records were very solid, this is the album that has taken Kelsey to the next level. With a voice that is distinctly southern, Waldon’s songs speak to her rural upbringing in western Kentucky. While unequivocally a country record, the album is adventurous and full of ambition. Songs like her first single “Anyhow”, along with the title track showcase the depth of her songwriting prowess. Perhaps the most ambitious track is “Sundays Children,” where Kelsey points out that religion should be used to bring people together and not divide as it often does in rural America. Her undeniable talent caught everyone’s attention, including master songwriter John Prine. She was the first act to be signed to John Prine’s Oh Boy! Records in over 15 years.
Chris Knight – Almost Daylight
Kentucky is absolutely leading the way in the music scene, but also in the underground scene. Chris Knight was our generation’s great songsmith, crafting songs full of simple truths and relatable characters in ways that are reminiscent of early Steve Earle. That theme carries over in “Almost Daylight.” Chris admits that it took so long to write a record because he wanted it to be full of songs that he considered album worthy. He hit his mark. From the opening of “I’m William Callahan”, you know this is going to be one of Chris’ best works. He can tell stories plainly, yet still able to be thought-provoking and witty. Though his voice is weathered from over two decades on the road, his thick western Kentucky drawl still packs a punch. The imagery in this record is as powerful as any in Knight’s entire catalog with songs like “Crooked Mile” and “Send it on Down” (featuring Lee Ann Womack). They paint a picture of rural America’s past and present in stunning detail. Knight closes the album with an incredible cover of John Prine’s “Mexican Home” which features Prine himself. It’s a perfect ending to a statement album from one of Kentucky’s best songwriters, showcasing he’s still got plenty left in the tank.
Ian Noe – Between the Country
From the deepest, darkest corner of eastern Kentucky, Ian Noe has been a name floating around Kentucky’s music scene for several years. Ever since his 2017 EP “Off This Mountain,” Ian has been quietly amassing an arsenal of some of the best songs on the planet. The reserved Beattyville native has put the world on notice without even trying. His name seemed to come up in every conversation about who from Kentucky would be the next big thing. His gift was so obvious that acclaimed producer Dave Cobb, who was behind the helm of some of the decade’s best albums sought Ian out to produce his debut album, “Between the Country.” Ian Noe’s storytelling is a vivid and unapologetic glimpse into life in eastern Kentucky; a place as hard as any to carve out a living. The characters in his songs are ones that everyone from here will recognize in some form or fashion. The ability to craft incredibly unique songs but still make them feel like you can relate is the hallmark of a true wordsmith, and Ian does so with ease. Track’s like “Irene,” “Dead on the River,” and the title track showcase how far beyond his years Ian is as a songwriter. Ian has the talent that can take venues full of hundreds of people and make them as quiet as the deep woods in February. Everyone who has seen him live knows what we’re talking about – the entire crowd is completely fixated on the performance. That’s the stamp of true talent, and Ian has it in spades.
Jericho Woods – One Perfect Sound
For many that follow the Kentucky music scene, their ears tend to head east towards Appalachia. However, most do not realize that Kentucky has such rich potential with those beyond the mountain region. One of those musical talents is the band Jericho Woods. For many that try to describe the style of music of Jericho Woods, it would more of a rural living sound as compared to those living east of I-75. It’s regular farming folks that live in a small town and don’t have much going on. Throughout the album, “One Perfect Sound,” there is a unique blend of country, bluegrass, even blues, jazz, and coastal sounds. With “Firefly,” it is an upbeat tune that you can imagine driving in your truck down the highway. However, when you listen to “Ms. Divine,” you have a Latin American influence with the beauty of the lyrics in the song. A true musician can expand their musical boundaries, yet make the music sound like their own.
Below are the top country music album releases of 2019 outside of Kentucky:
Randy Houser – Magnolia
It feels so good to hear that Randy Houser went back to his traditional way of writing and performing songs. The last couple of albums you felt that Houser was moving to a direction that wasn’t him. He realized that too and started to record his latest album, “Magnolia.” Overall the album brings out the powerhouse vocals and songwriting strength that folks have come to love about Randy Houser. One of the strong points of the album is “I Know What Leaving Looks Like,” among others that stack up a collection of great soulful country songs to hear.
Erin Enderlin – Faulkner County
When it comes to Erin Enderlin, she knows how to lay the pure country sound out onto the table. Her latest release, “Faulkner County,” showcases her songwriting and singing talents from start to finish. She is no stranger to Kentucky, having performed here many times over the years. She even features Kentucky native, Dillon Carmichael on one of the impressive tracks.
The Steel Woods – Old News
The Steel Woods has quietly built a fan base one song and one show at a time. One of their very first interviews as a group was with Kentucky Country Music a few years ago. Fast forward to their second release, “Old News,” and they are planting their feet firm into the ground. The Steel Woods southern rock blended with soulful vocals and Appalachian swamp riffs make this album a must have purchase of 2019. Wes Bayliss brings all of his power into covering “Southern Accent” that would make Tom Petty proud.
Nic Allen and the Troubled Minds – On the Hilltop
It is crazy to think that Nic Allen and his bandmates are just a few years removed from high school. The West Virginia young blood came out swinging on his debut album, “On the Hilltop.” A potent mix of southern rock and throwback country, Nic has made an impression at such a young age. We had the privilege to debut this album on Kentucky Country Music, and were blown away by how good it was. With Nic and his bandmates still being as young as they are, it won’t surprise us for them to be a household name in this scene before long at all. Songs like “Killing You Slow” and “Nothing To Hold” are standouts, and immediately grip the listener with their intensity.
Benjamin Todd – A Heart of Gold is Hard to Find
Benjamin Todd’s second solo release, “A Heart of Gold Is Hard To Find,” is another album to pick up. It is a stripped-down effort of just guitar and heartfelt vocals. Benjamin has a voice that convey sorrow and truth like very few artists out there can. The album also has a much broader scope from a songwriting perspective. While this album is similar to Lost Dog in that it tends to focus on personal issues and shortcomings, it also has a more autobiographical feel with songs like “We Ain’t Even Kin,” a song penned about Benjamin’s grandfather, as well as historical accounts like “Cannon Fodder.” Being that the album is just Todd and his guitar throughout its entirety, the album can get a little monotonous as times…but that can be said of any acoustic album. Even with that in mind, this album is solid from start to finish and shows just how far Todd has come as a songwriter.
Buffalo Wabs and the Price Hill Hustle – Stranger In The Alps
Buffalo Wabs and the Price Hill Hustle, out of Cincinnati, are gaining a reputation as a barn burner of a live show that borders on a religious experience. You can tell when bands love playing live because whether there are 10 or 10,000 in the crowd, they give you all they have. They also have another trait that catapulted bands like Old Crow Medicine Show into the next stratosphere in that all four members have fantastic voices and take turns as band front man depending on the song. The band blends bluegrass, folk, and jam-band elements into a truly distinct sound. Their second album, “Stranger in the Alps” is a foot-stomping, hand-clapping audio revival that must be experienced live to be appreciated at its utmost. From the swinging sing-along nature of “Stewball” to the haunting cover of Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Four Walls of Raiford,” complete with a logging chain keeping time on the snare, Buffalo Wabs bring music to life in ways few bands can match.
Billy Strings – Home
Perhaps no one has made a bigger splash in 2019 than Michigan native Billy Strings. The virtuoso guitar player who grew up listening to heavy metal has taken the bluegrass world by storm, melting faces and blowing away every audience he encounters along the way. Billy’s latest offering, “Home” effortlessly blends bluegrass, jam band, and psychedelia into an absolute masterpiece. The fourteen-track record gives listeners a little of everything, and while it doesn’t fully showcase his incredible guitar playing skill like his previous release, it is a more well-rounded offering. Billy’s studio records are more of an introduction, but where he truly shines is playing live. Billy’s popularity has skyrocketed since the early part of 2019, going from playing in front of a few hundred people to selling out venues that seat thousands in every city he plays.
Mike and the Moonpies – Cheap Silver
We live in times when some of the best music being made blurs the edges between genres. However, Mike and the Moonpies have gone a decidedly different route. The Austin, TX based group put out one of the best records of the year, and it can only be described one way: country. This record is a throwback to how country music was made before all the bells and whistles. They don’t need to mash up genres to make dynamic music, which is a rare thing nowadays. The fact they make raw, unfiltered country music void of any outside influence is exactly what makes them one of the most unique bands of the past year. The title track harkens to the glory days of country music, both in sound and story, and captures a sound that has been missing from music for quite some time. With only eight tracks, the album is all killer, no filler. Stand out tracks include “Cheap Silver,” “You Look Good in Neon,” and “Danger.”
Lost Dog Street Band – Weight of a Trigger
Lost Dog Street Band with the duo of Benjamin Todd and Ashley Mae bring together elements of folk, country, and old-time music to create a sound that is as unique as their backstory. They began making music by busking in places like Nashville, then hopping trains from state to state. That lifestyle, along with Ben’s struggles with substance abuse, are themes found throughout Lost Dog’s entire catalog. The progression and improvement from one album to the next is remarkable. Whether it is the songwriting, the production, the composition, etc., they are steadily improving with each album and there’s no reason to think that won’t continue. While previous albums had been almost exclusively bluegrass/old time, this album opens with a haunting steel guitar on “From Heaven to Here” and is found on several other tracks on the album, giving it the feel of an old-school country album at times. Ben’s voice is pairs so well with the songs on this album, and his songwriting has markedly improved. Tracks like “Just to Say Goodbye” and “Terrible and True” don’t just tug at your heartstrings, they can absolutely wreck you in ways few songs today can. Maybe it’s the fact that you know Ben has lived through the heartbreak he sings about, and Ashley’s fiddle and additional vocals are the perfect companion. This album should be in everyone’s rotation, and Lost Dog is a band that will undoubtedly make a lot of noise in 2020.
Locust Honey – The Low and Low
Locust Honey is fronted in part by Chloe Edmonstone, who is also the fiddler extraordinaire playing alongside stand-up bass player, John R. Miller. The band also features Nashville native Meredith Wilson on guitar and Kentucky native John Clay on skins. Locust Honey quietly released one of the best albums of the year, and it’s a shame it’s not getting the recognition it deserves. Previously going by Locust Honey String Band, their second album “The Low and Low” marks a stark contrast in style from their debut album. That album’s style was adequately reflected in their previous name and consisted of old time, string band numbers. Their latest effort takes a sharp turn and is a diverse, expansive album with almost as many genres in it as there are tracks. Or at least it feels that way, because each track stands alone as its own, unique ingredient in a sonic gumbo that makes up one of 2019s best works. The album doesn’t have a weak point, with every facet being top shelf. With incredible production and sound, elegant vocals from both Chloe and Meredith, and exceptional songwriting underneath layers of masterful instrumentation, to me it all adds up to one of the best records of the year and the biggest surprise of the year by far. If you’ve not dove down this rabbit hole yet, I highly recommend it. Make sure to check out “Gold and Bones”, “Driver Boy” and “New Friend”, but honestly there isn’t a track on the album you should skip over.
Charles Wesley Godwin – Seneca
West Virginia based artist, Charles Wesley Godwin, completely took 2019 by storm behind his debut effort, “Seneca.” The debut album grabs you from the first note and doesn’t let go until the last. Without a single filler track, this album showcases some of the best folk-country that 2019 produced. One listen is all it takes to realize that Charles Wesley Godwin is on the precipice of doing some remarkable things with his career. Charles possesses an incredibly unique voice that reverberates throughout each song, giving each track an ethereal feel. The production is top notch, and each song has its own unique identity. His songwriting is also outstanding, with life and love being common topics. Each song is also rooted in his native Appalachia. Tracks like “Windmill,” “Here in Eden,” and “Coal Country” give folks an unparalleled glimpse into the place we call home. In a year that produced so many great music from Kentucky and West Virginia, the fact that two of the strongest albums were debuts (more on that to come) is remarkable.
Pistol Annies – Interstate Gospel
Hailing from the town of Beauty, Kentucky, Angaleena Presley helped create one third of the Pistol Annies. Many music fans were chomping at the bit for another album by the trio that also includes Miranda Lambert and Ashley Monroe. “Interstate Gospel” proved to burn down the highways that led to the honky tonks and churches with the production and songwriting. The album came at a time that the members matured even more in their professional, but also personal lives. Some of the top tracks include “Best Years of My Life,” “When I Was His Wife,” and “Leavers Lullaby” that would bring Tammy Wynette back alive and shout Amen. The roaring “Sugar Daddy” and “Got My Name Change Back” were a tongue in cheek play on heartache and moving on. Overall, the album itself was one that mature women needed to hear in country music and the Pistol Annies delivered the gospel.
Jessica Bray is the owner and founder of Kentucky Country Music website. The Berea College graduate has been a music journalist and historian for over 20 years. She enjoys providing concert photography, reviews, historical articles, red carpet event coverage, and exclusive interviews of your favorite musicians. Jessica is proud to be a Kentucky Colonel and alumni of the FFA and 4-H Clubs. In 2018, she was named one of Laurel County’s Ten Under 40 Award Recipients. In 2019, she was a member of the Inaugural class of BRIGHT Kentucky as part of Leadership Kentucky. She has been featured on the Kentucky Music Preview podcast, Overtones radio show, WFKY Nashville News Roundup, KET, and more. Beyond music, she enjoys traveling, helping her community, collecting gnomes, and Volkswagens.