Open your ears to Trail Mix, our monthly playlist of new music, mainly focusing on independent artists from the South. In September we’re highlighting new tunes from Brandi Carlile and Jose Gonzalez; plus the long-awaited new bluegrass album from Bela Fleck.
“Charm School” — When banjomeister Bela Fleck says he is releasing his first bluegrass album in two decades, you can only sorta believe him. Fleck has bent banjo strings around more musical genres than any player in the instrument’s history, and “Charm,” the first single from his new album, “My Bluegrass Heart,” is bluegrass at its core, but it wanders, exactly as you expect a Fleck composition should. Billy Strings, a rising star on guitar, and mandolin titan Chris Thile trade prodigious licks with Fleck on this eight-minute bluegrass-y acoustic opus. —D.S.
“John Deere Green” — American Aquarium pay tribute to the late Joe Diffie, the country star who passed away from Covid-19 last year, with a rollicking cover of his mainstay hit. The track comes from the North Carolina band’s fun compilation of 90s country covers called “Slappers, Bangers & Certified Twangers, Vol. 1,” the first release on AA front man B.J. Barham’s new independent label Losing Side Records. —J.F.
“Panicked and Paralyzed” — Fans of witty tunesmiths like John Prine and Todd Snider should give a listen to the songs of Chris Acker. In late August, the New Orleans-based folk singer released the new album, “Odd, Ordinary, & Otherwise,” which opens with “Panicked and Paralyzed,” a wry lament of modern times anxiety that’s delivered through a vintage cosmic country groove. —J.F.
“Right on Time”— Following her Grammy-winning album, “By the Way I Forgive You,” Brandi Carlile will release her highly anticipated next effort, “In These Silent Days,” on October 1. The record once again finds Carlile working with producers Dave Cobb and Shooter Jennings, who helped her channel the emotional depth of idols like Elton John and Joni Mitchell. The influences are evident in lead single “Right on Time,” which swells from a moody piano backdrop to a dramatic rock crescendo as Carlile’s soaring voice makes a raw and honest plea for genuine understanding. —J.F.
Christopher Paul Stelling
“WWYLLYD” — The notion of universal suffering might be a bit of a buzzkill, but when you are down and out, and it seems like the world is dumping on you alone, it can serve as a helpful reminder that life’s burdens are meant to be shared. Christopher Paul Stelling extends that very message on “WWYLLYD,” a Dylan-esque ode to the weary and downtrodden that calls us all to look outward, not inward, during times of crisis, because we are muddling through this thing called life together. —D.S.
“How Low”— Heartless Bastards are returning with their first album in five years, releasing “A Beautiful Life” on September 10. The lead single, “How Low,” has an easy-going soulful groove, but dig into the lyrics and you’ll hear front woman Erika Wennerstrom calling for an end to self-centered societal discord. It’s an airy, love-thy-neighbor anthem—a new direction for a band known for gritty, roots-influenced garage rock —J.F.
“Stars” — Finally, the Connells have returned with new music. With the release of “Steadman’s Wake” later this month, the North Carolina college rockers, who rose to stardom in the mid-90s, drop their first album of new tunes in over 20 years. “Stars” has the band at the height of its game. The understated acoustic intro and Doug MacMillan’s somber vocals build to a crescendo of guitar, trumpet, and keys, juxtaposing the song’s decidedly contemplative nature with an expressive, optimistic tempo. —D.S.
“Head On” — Singer-songwriter Jose Gonzalez is nothing if not subtle. On “Head On,” the recent single from his new release, “Local Valley,” Gonzalez implores listeners to approach life’s challenges, as the title suggests, head on. Over dreamy Spanish guitar, Gonzalez issues a call to arms, singing of meeting adversity with firmness, to doubt less, and trust and act more. Gonzalez’s lyrics resonate on multiple levels, especially as we weather a modernity where technological advances and societal fractures have us living together alone. —D.S.
Cover photo by Neil Krug