Year-end lists can be so problematic – pitting distinct sounds and music against each other, peddling absolutes, attempting objectivity in a demonstrably subjective field. Each year, as we consider the music that impacted us over the course of twelve months, we try to challenge ourselves and each other, as BGS contributors, to think outside the year-end round up “box.”
For the BGS Class of 2023, our intention is to highlight music, songs, albums, and performances that have stuck with us, or that we know will continue to stick with us into the future. We wanted to deliberately look beyond the music and creators that merely have the resources, networks, and access to reach us; we wanted to utilize genre as a checkpoint or touchstone, but never as a blanket criterion; we wanted to broaden what forms of media or formats are included; and overall, we wanted to attempt a holistic look at what a year of listening, learning, watching, and hearing can look like to this particular group of people.
You’ll find ravishing and large indie folk, earnest and literary – and raucous and silly – bluegrass, legendary legacy artists and brand new lineups, soundtracks and live shows, and more. Ultimately, whatever the year, we always want our retrospective lists to be a starting point, a springboard, for our readers, followers, and for roots music fans. This is not the end-all, be-all “Best of 2023” list. Instead, it’s a reminder of the music that scored a year absolutely filled to bursting with excellent, exemplary, ecstatic roots songs, albums, and shows.
boygenius in Pittsburgh, June 2023
When I saw boygenius this summer, I was milktoast about the whole thing going into it. As soon as I arrived, I realized I was surrounded by young people – and not just any young people: All the beautiful freaks were out for Lucy, Julien, and Phoebe. The energy was palpable and something that I have not experienced in over 20 years. Everyone knew every word. They were FaceTiming friends who cried and sang along remotely with these heroes on stage. It was inspiring!
boygenius feels like an important band. I so wish they had been around when I was an outcast teenager feeling such confusing, wild emotions. Music has a way of helping the world make sense. boygenius radiates communion and it felt like an honor to be a part of their world. – Cindy Howes
Caitlin Canty, Quiet Flame
My favorite bluegrass album of the year is often an album that, through no fault of its own, ends up receiving little to no bluegrass radio airplay or IBMA Awards recognition, and as I listened to Caitlin Canty’s Quiet Flame over and over this year, I couldn’t help but expect it would end up criminally underrated by the general bluegrass community. It’s made by bluegrass pickers – Canty assembled Chris Eldridge (who also was the project’s producer), her husband Noam Pikelny, Brittany Haas, Paul Kowert, Sarah Jarosz, and Andrew Marlin for her band – and as a result Quiet Flame, more often than not, is just an unencumbered string band album that’s as much bluegrass as it is Americana and singer-songwriter folk. But while Mighty Poplar, with a similar lineup of folks, takes off in bluegrass circles, it raises an eyebrow that this impeccable, heartfelt, and complicated set of songs hasn’t seen the same trajectory. Not that that was Canty’s goal – it’s obvious her priorities in music making are grounded and community-minded, part of why this album is such a stunner. “Odds of Getting Even,” co-written with another BGS favorite, Maya de Vitry, is one of the year’s best songs, bar none. – Justin Hiltner
A Homeplace Pilgrimage to Earl Scruggs Music Festival, August 2023
BGS once again co-presented the Earl Scruggs Revue tribute set hosted by Tony Trischka at Earl Scruggs Music Festival, held just outside of Shelby, North Carolina at the Tryon International Equestrian Center in August. On my drive to the festival grounds, I made stops in Tryon proper, to visit Nina Simone’s childhood home, and also in Shelby, to visit the Earl Scruggs Center and to drive by both of the Scruggs homeplaces just outside of Boiling Springs, North Carolina. It was stunning to visit both homes on the same day, to realize the interconnectedness of so much of American popular music. Simone grew up with a view of the Blue Ridge Mountains from her front porch nestled in one of their hollers, yet we place Scruggs as an Appalachian musician and not Simone?
The festival and Scruggs Center, for their parts, did an excellent job of demonstrating how broad, varied, and intricate American roots music is, even while focusing closely on bluegrass, string band, and Americana music. Listeners of our podcast, Carolina Calling, will know how much BGS loves North Carolina music history – the show features episodes on both Scruggs and Simone. Seeing that history in person, while heading to a first-class, banjo-heavy festival was a favorite musical moment of this year, for sure. – Justin Hiltner
East Nash Grass, Last Chance to Win
East Nash Grass seems to be all the buzz on the bluegrass circuit these days and those who have ventured to Dee’s Country Cocktail Lounge on any Monday night since 2017 can certainly understand why. The band’s long-standing residency at the Madison, Tennessee dive bar has taken them from a weekly pick-up band to performing at the Grand Ole Opry, the Ryman Auditorium, and at bluegrass festivals across the U.S. Their sophomore album, Last Chance to Win, captures the band at their very best (albeit, without their lovable stage antics). Following a 2023 IBMA nomination for Best New Artist, it won’t be a surprise if we see this record, and these musicians, sweeping awards in 2024 and beyond. – Thomas Cassell
Alejandro Escovedo at Cat’s Cradle Backroom, Carrboro, NC, November 2023
There are countless good reasons why you should make a point of seeing the Texas punk/soul godfather if he’s ever playing anywhere near you. But what might be the best reason of all is it’s a lead-pipe cinch that everyone in your town worth hanging out with will be there, too – onstage as well as in the crowd. Escovedo was among a dozen stars drawn to the North Carolina Triangle for an all-star “Nuggets” tribute show overseen by Lenny Kaye in November. So, he came a night early and played a solo show, too, ably supported by local luminaries Lynn Blakey and Pinetops/The Right Profile guitarist Jeffrey Dean Foster. The love in the room was palpable on deeply moving originals like “Sister Lost Soul” and “Wave Goodbye.” And when Kaye and R.E.M.’s Peter Buck came on for a closing Velvet Underground cameo of “Pale Blue Eyes” and “Sweet Jane,” the circle was complete. – David Menconi
Ben Garnett, “Open Your Books” (featuring Brittany Haas and Paul Kowert)
Before I’d listened to the complete #BGSClassof2023 Spotify playlist and realized this track was one of our first additions, the app kept recommending “Open Your Books” to me – and it’s not hard to see why. From guitarist and composer Ben Garnett’s debut album, Imitation Fields, the track features bassist Paul Kowert and fiddler Brittnay Haas and is an example of what bluegrass music can be, and what traditionally bluegrass instruments can do.
The tune opens slowly, with guitar and mandola – provided by Molly Tuttle & Golden Highway’s own Dominick Leslie. Fiddle swells, orchestral arrangements, and dreamy acoustic production make for a piece that feels distinctly intellectual. It’s chambergrass, but it’s also highly listen-able. While there’s a strong melodic thread throughout, the surrounding instruments and their players are allowed to wander off up the guitar neck, throwing in trill-y banjo licks, and detouring outside traditional fills and solo styles. The record was produced by Chris Eldridge and also features Matthew Davis on banjo and additional guitar from Billy Contreras. I’d recommend this tune to low-fi lovers, roots music fans, and anyone looking for a chilled out moment. It’s perfect for an introspective drive or a rainy winter day spent drinking hot tea at the window. – Lonnie Lee Hood
Alice Gerrard, Sun to Sun
Never, over the course of her lifelong career in music, has Alice Gerrard stopped, having reached her musical destination. She has challenged herself, time and time again, not simply for reinvention’s sake, but because she is a consummate old-time and bluegrass musician, someone so solidly bitten by the string band bug that making music requires that constant movement, that aspirational looking into the future, girded by songs of the past. But Sun to Sun, her latest – and perhaps final – album, features songs decidedly of the present. A synthesizer of traditional art forms, Gerrard takes textures and colors we relate to “authenticity” and leverages them to serve the messages in these tracks. Aging, mortality, justice, apartheid, gun violence, community are all woven into this collection. Alice is their nexus point, around which the entire project revolves and reflects the cosmic light she continues to shine on all of us – and on roots music subjects too often hidden in the shadows. – Justin Hiltner
A Good Year for Soundtracks – Asteroid City, The Holdovers, and More
Between the Writers Guild and Screen Actors’ strikes, 2023 was a weird year for the entertainment industry. But for those releases that did make it to the screen, it was a great year for movie soundtracks, especially for roots music fans.
First up, Wes Anderson’s western sci-fi Asteroid City. In addition to the usual cadre of Anderson’s cast, the film was peppered with classic country and bluegrass recordings from the likes of Tex Ritter, Slim Whitman, Bill Monroe, and Johnny Duncan & the Blue Grass Boys (you read that right). That’s to say nothing of the incredibly catchy original ear worm, “Dear Alien (Who Art In Heaven)” which felt as classic as those twentieth century tunes of the frontier written decades ago.
Capping off the year was Alexander Payne’s The Holdovers, a beautiful ode to a particular style of 1970s filmmaking that stars Paul Giamatti. Set in snowy western Massachusetts over a lonely winter break in 1970, the soundtrack plays like an old, soft blanket – familiar and warming. Newer tracks from Damian Jurado and Khruangbin weave seamlessly alongside ‘70s AM gold and Mark Orton’s pensive, folksy score. But the real standout of this soundtrack is a rediscovery of British folk artist Labi Siffre. His music has been shamefully overlooked in U.S. folk canon. Hopefully this movie can help start to rectify that.
Finally, it would be criminal if I didn’t mention the key placement of Indigo Girls’ “Closer to Fine” in the biggest hit of the year, Barbie. Here’s to another generation of young women finding themselves in Amy and Emily’s music. Thanks, Greta Gerwig. – Amy Reitnouer Jacobs
Kristen Grainger & True North, “Extraordinary Grace”
Take the anvil from my chest…
I am gasping for breath at this opening line. In her extraordinary, intimate voice, Kristen Grainger is pleading, letting us know she has lost hope. And we are right there with her. Whether we believed salvation came from the church or the Voting Rights Act, we believe no more. We are a fractured world, and it seems there is no bringing us together. Kristen’s melodies pull you in as much as her words, and I sometimes wake with this haunting song emerging from my dreams. Her bandmates’ graceful harmonies and instrumental accompaniment support the stunning words.
I once believed in extraordinary grace
I put my faith in saints and saviors
In the mirror, I can’t bear to see my heroine
Killing time until time returns the favor.
Still, there is cause for hope: the promise of more music from True North. – Claire Levine
Angélique Kidjo at New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, April 2023
“We can’t hear! We can’t hear!” Not what a performer wants to hear an audience chanting – though Angélique Kidjo didn’t hear it for a couple of songs at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival in April. She was giving it all, singing and dancing with vigor and verve, as she does. But the Benin-born star’s voice and all but the drums and percussion from her band were not reaching the crowd, that had already waited out a 45-minute rain delay. Finally, the stage crew got the message, but it still took some time to get things working. When they did, Kidjo betrayed no frustration – just pure, joyful release as she packed a full set’s worth of spirit into the handful of songs she could squeeze in the remaining time slot, including a few highlights from her re-infusion of Talking Heads’ Remain in Light album. Closing with her idol/mentor Mariam Makeba’s signature “Pata Pata,” she was radiant, as was everyone who stuck around to see and hear her. – Steve Hochman
The Lemon Twigs, Everything Harmony
This album is, without reservation or exaggeration, one of the most beautiful records I have heard in my entire life. Building on inspiration from ‘60s/’70s pop-rock (think the Byrds,Todd Rundgren, the Beach Boys, the Flamin’ Groovies), the Lemon Twigs achieve a layered delicacy of nostalgia and innovation. Their creative impulses are so detailed, articulate, and inspired that the entire album feels unfathomable; how could music reach such timelessness that it tickles at the preterhuman? Brothers Michael and Brian D’addario share the songwriting credits for pieces that feel distinctly matured from much of their earlier work. They’ve pared down the theatrics, tightened the sprawling lyrics, and created from a place that strikes a quintessential balance of self and influence. Their result is something oceanic – music that calls upon its ancestry in a way that is pervasive, striking, and sublimates the query of eternity. – Oriana Mack
Ronnie Milsap’s Final Nashville Concert, October 2023
Ronnie Milsap’s final Nashville concert will resonate with me for many years to come, both because of the multiple memorable performances and because it represented the best of country music from the standpoint of diversity and inclusion. Various performers from across the musical spectrum covered Milsap hits, with songs from every arena – honky-tonk and straight country tearjerkers, reworked doo-wop, R&B, and pop classics, love songs, and slice of life retrospectives. The roster of artists who displayed their love and affection for Milsap’s music crossed racial, gender, and sexual orientation lines, and it was also great to see the legend himself conclude the proceedings. While the Nashville audience and community will miss Milsap’s performances, this last outing provided plenty of wonderful moments and lots of great music that will never be forgotten. – Ron Wynn
New Dangerfield’s Debut at IBMA Bluegrass Live!, September 2023
For years a growing number of Black musicians have entered the trad scene and reclaimed Black traditions key to its development and evolution. Their work has run the gamut from preservation to experimentation. Audiences at this year’s IBMA Bluegrass Live! were introduced to a new Black string band that does it all: New Dangerfield. Made up of powerhouses Tray Wellington, Kaïa Kater, Jake Blount, and Nelson Williams, New Dangerfield has, in their own words, “risen to carry the torch.” In their premiere performance the band delivered an eclectic set of early jazz, early blues — and even a cover of R&B musician H.E.R’s “Hard Place,” led by Kater’s deliciously lush vocals. Each member, proficient instrumentalists in their own right, also showed off their technical chops and drew whoops from the crowd. Their set was something historic, and I’m excited to see what comes next from New Dangerfield. – Brandi Waller-Pace
Railbird Festival, June 2023
Set in the heart of Lexington, Kentucky, under a deep-red Strawberry Moon, the 2023 Railbird Festival was an under-the-radar masterstroke, highlighting the confluence of roots music and the mainstream. Held June 3 and 4 on the spacious lawn of The Infield at Red Mile, a sold-out crowd of 40,000+ enjoyed a non-stop lineup of performers from across the “Americana” pantheon, expertly curated and spread out over three stages. With 32 acts in total, country, rock, folk, bluegrass and more were all represented, as headliners Tyler Childers and Zach Bryan topped a bill including Charley Crockett, Whiskey Myers, Morgan Wade, Nickel Creek, Molly Tuttle & Golden Highway – even Weezer and Sheryl Crow. Combine all that with a well-thought out fan experience and an off-the-beaten path vibe, and the weekend was an ideal kickoff to festival season. – Chris Parton
Sam Shackleton at the Horseshoe Tavern, October 2023
Country fandom has always been ideological, but in the last few years the genre’s politics have felt plainer – clear villains and clear heroes, but also messy interior politics. Through this time, I’ve mostly been listening to folk music far away from the fighting at home, from musicians like Sam Shackleton, a genius singer and banjo player from Scotland. He was supporting the Mary Wallopers, the radical Irish party band, in Toronto in October. Shackleton was great, working the audience, singing his songs, and classic folk tracks. The crowd was restless, the beer he was offered on stage seemed pro forma, but he tried. There was a version of “All You Fascists (Are Bound To Lose)” that gave me hope for a few minutes. We step out for a smoke, and Shackelton is on the patio, nursing a lager. I tell him I loved the show and that I wanted vinyl. He hugs me and thanks me. Walking back in, the room is filled with Irish expats who are singing along to the Wallopers in ways that feel a little hostile. I leave early, going for Chinese food. These couple of hours were country/folk in 2023 for me – inclusive, exclusive, hand shakes, hugs, and isolation – plus enough physical/emotional distance from the world that I didn’t ask exactly how the fascists would lose. – Steacy Easton
Sleeping in the Woods Festival, May 2023
At a time when money in the music industry is at an all time low, and expenses are at an all time high, I have immense gratitude for anyone starting new community projects to showcase and uplift musicians and songwriters. I was lucky enough to get to be a part of Nicholas Jamerson’s Sleeping in the Woods Festival in Cumberland, Kentucky in May of 2023, and this event makes my best-of list. The festival bills itself as songwriter specific and showcases many lesser known Kentucky songwriters and bands. The strategy is to create a listening environment and bring together a Southern audience hungry for more straight-shooting roots music and hard hitting lyrics after becoming fans of Tyler Childers, Sturgill Simpson, and of course, Jamerson himself. After a successful first year, the festival is poised to grow exponentially and become a beloved annual event for all of those involved. – Rachel Baiman
Billy Strings at Bourbon and Beyond, September 2023
After five years of programming the BGS stage at Bourbon & Beyond, the Louisville-based festival has become something of a homecoming for our whole team. But nothing was more special than this year, when we got to see Billy Strings headline the main stage in front of over 50,000 people. It seems like just yesterday (in reality it was more like 2018) that Billy played our own stage inside the Bourbon Tent, a memory made all the sweeter by his surprise appearance this year on our stage during Michael Cleveland’s set. Hopefully it’s one of many happy returns to B&B for Billy, his fans, and BGS for years to come. – Amy Reitnouer Jacobs
Sunny War, Anarchist Gospel
Nobody sounds like Sunny War. As her profile has risen over the past decade, Sunny has held onto her punk rock politics and direct lyricism, grounding her artistry in the blues. Listening to one of her songs is like looking at a diorama of a nearby planet, similar to our own, but with none of human society’s bullshit. 2023’s Anarchist Gospel features Americana heavyweights David Rawlings, Jim James, Allison Russell, and Chris Pierce, but always sounds exactly like Sunny. Her hypnotic guitar work and precise songcraft shine. Her vocals walk a fine line between eerie and inviting. And at the end of a year when riot grrl aesthetics have gone mainstream, Sunny War is a rare reminder of what the real thing sounds like. – Lizzie No
Photo Credit: Angélique Kidjo by Fabrice Mabillot; Billy Strings by Christopher Morley; boygenius by Matt Grubb.