Posted in On Air, Reviews

Universal Favorite: Noam Pikelny’s One Man Show

For Steve Martin, comedy and singing came first. Then he embarked on a career as an acclaimed banjoist. Though Noam Pikelny is very much still actively pursuing his interest in banjo playing, he’s also picking up on a few of Steve’s old tricks.

Early in Winter 2016, I had the pleasure of seeing Pikelny on his first solo tour on what had to be the coldest and windiest night in recent memory. At the very least it was the most brutal that I’ve attempted a walk from a train station to a theater. There in Bayshore, Pikelny filled the space between songs, including many on this album, with standup comedy. There were memories of senility at the Opry and an idea for using the slide guitar to prevent suicide. The crowd, including myself, thought he was consistently hilarious. When I spoke to him for the March 20 episode of Country Pocket on WUSB, Pikelny had a different theory.

“It’s possible that it was hypothermia that led you to enjoy my banter,” Pikelny said, deadpan. “Maybe that was all fueled by some sort of primal survival instinct that laughing would maybe keep you alive.”

While not touring and recording solo, Pikelny is the banjoist for Punch Brothers. The two roles have made him somewhat of a universal favorite in the world of progressive bluegrass, particularly since he released the incredibly titled Noam Pikelny Plays Kenny Baker Plays Bill Monroe. His latest album, which happens to be called Universal Favorite, finds him singing on one of his records for the first time. Pikelny admitted he doesn’t have the most natural bluegrass voice.

“So much of bluegrass vocals kind of hinges on the high and lonesome sound and singing at the top of people’s ranges,” Pikelny said. “Well, the top of my range is still in the subterranean zone. I found music that seemed to fit my voice that I felt comfortable singing that would also be a springboard for instrumental playing.”

Pikelny chose exceptionally well when it came to which cover songs he sang on. “Old Banjo” worked exceptionally well thanks to Pikelny’s exception ability to convey dry humor while singing. “My Tears Don’t Show” and “Sweet Sunny South” benefited from the deep, glum notes not many other bluegrass singers could hit. “Folk Bloodbath,” a Josh Ritter tune, used a little of both of those traits. It’s only “I’ve Been A Long Time Leavin’ (But I’ll Be A Long Time Gone)” where Pikelny runs into the limits of his voice on a few stretched out notes and some fast spoken words.

As to be expected, the best part of Universal Favorite is the banjo playing. Pikelny is pictured standing alone on a small island on the album’s cover, which is appropriate considering he’s the only musician on the album. It’s hard to tell on lush tracks like “Hen Of The Woods” and “Moretown Hop,” both of which blend twang and classical music the way one might expect progressive bluegrass. “The Great Falls” is a serene track played on a slide guitar and the attention-grabbing “Waveland” is almost unrecognizable as a banjo tune but just as graceful.

He described his approach to this album as wanting to provide an “intimate glimpse of the banjo.”

“There are a lot of things that the banjo can do that don’t necessarily happen when there’s a five piece band,” Pikelny said. “The banjo can actually be very warm and can sustain when just played solo. It was a chance to write music in a different fashion and come up with tunes that would stand up without interpretation from a band. It delivered me to a spot where I was making music that was very direct, and I wanted that to be encapsulated on the record.”

It’s Pikelny’s ability to showcase the lesser known qualities of the banjo that will likely make this album a favorite among new grass fans.

Pikelny will be playing Bowery Ballroom at a seated show on Friday, March 24. There will be sublime banjo playing and probably more than a few laughs, preferably without any hypothermia. And listen below to Pikelny explain his history with “Old Banjo” before the show airs.

Photo by Justin Camerer from Noam’s website. 

Posted in On Air, Reviews

Thoughtfulness and Fingerpicking: Cary Morin’s Cradle to the Grave.

“Please indulge me, I’m gonna cross that line,” Cary Morin sings on “Ghost Dog,” a track from his rich solo effort Cradle to the Grave. By that point in the album, seven tracks in, the line between storytelling and an exploration of the mind and reality had long since been crossed.

The combination of Morin’s heady, challenging lyrics and rich finger-picked guitar results in an album that somehow sounds like thinking feels. As the only performer on the album, Morin delivers an intensely personal experience that provokes thoughts almost as often as it deconstructs them.

On “Dawn’s Early Light,” in which Morin, who is a member of the Crow tribe, heavily references the protest at Standing Rock. He repeats the ‘if a tree falls in a forest’ thought experiment with the word ‘treaty’ in place of ‘tree’ and repurposes words from the Star Spangled Banner, both to devastating effect. In urging “no compromise,” Morin slams the United States for suppressing the ideals the nation was built on and repeatedly violating treaties with few repercussions. Yet, he feels an optimism, citing “the support that Native people are receiving for their efforts to protect clean water, not just for Native people but for everybody.”

“Another wonderful thing is the unification of all of the different Nations that have come together in support of that effort,” Morin said.

Morin does much more to explore the mind on tracks like the daydreaming “Laid Back” and his motivation on “Back on the Train.” “Mishawaka” delves into a vision or dream of the singer’s death. All are recorded live in a folk/blues fingerpicking style he calls Native Americana.

“The end result doesn’t really get edited that much,” Morin said. “I record without headphones. I basically sit in a room and play the songs. The recordings hopefully, and I believe they do, sound like my live shows.”

Just about any YouTube recording of his performances suggest this multiple Colorado Blues Challenge Solo Championship is right about that.

Morin also included a cover of “Nothing Compares 2 U” mostly courtesy of YouTube. He based his interpretation on a video of Prince performing his composition in Las Vegas and originally intended it to be released only on the video streaming service before placing it on his album. The Sinead O’Connor version of the track is the most well known, but its synth-heavy production has not aged well.

Much like the Prince video, Morin’s take on the song seems likely to sound as relevant years later. But while Prince delivers anguish and style, Morin goes with a more defeated sadness and simplicity. It’s an impressive achievement for Morin, and even more so a testament to Prince’s songwriting abilities that the power ballad sounds so good stripped down. For insight into Morin’s decision making here, listen below.

The album starts and ends with songs featuring the lyrics “watch over me/ for I’m only a child.” Though the first track, Cradle to the Grave, finds the speaker in significantly more distressed than the closing “Watch Over Me,” the idea of needing a higher power is the theme for both.

“I took that lyric from Cradle to the Grave and I tried a couple of different melodies and guitar lines,” Morin said. “I thought, ‘it’s an interesting take on the same set of lyrics, so why not use them as bookends?’”

It’s a wise choice for an album that spends so much time in Morin’s thoughts. Though he’s reaffirmed his desire to trust others and actively shape his life, it feels authentic that Morin still needs someone watching over him. It’s a believable and relatable place to be after deep thought: a bit more positive and resolute, but still needing the same things as before.

Cary Morin appears on the March 6, 2017, edition of Country Pocket on WUSB. In this clip from the show, he discusses his cover of “Nothing Compares 2 U.”

Posted in On Air

The Traveling Ones Meet Us There On Debut

Just a little more than two years ago, Emily Villareal and Justin Ahmanson met at an open mic in Austin and came away from the encounter with a relationship and a band.

On Meet Me There, the pair displays their songwriting talents as Americana duo The Traveling Ones on an album shaped by the harmony and emotions they’ve found in their new partnership. Villareal and Ahmanson build each of their songs on a character who is fleshed out not only by strong lyrics but by interpretive vocals that often add a new dimension to both the character and the song. It’s an impressive debut made all the more accessible by the warm piano playing that runs through most of the tracks.

I spoke with the duo for the March 6 edition of Country Pocket and discovered it’s not so unusual to find a capable songwriting partner at an open mic in Austin.

“There’s a lot of talent here because a lot of people move here for music,” Villareal said. “You’re average open mic isn’t people who don’t know how to perform. It’s a lot of talented musicians who are looking to network. From there it’s easy to say ‘we should meet sometime.’ Everybody’s looking for a new project.”

Villareal provided the vocals for the album’s lead track, “Wildfire Heart.” It’s a breakup song of sorts in which the singer wearily explains that she’s unable to suppress her dreams and emotions. It’s empowering, but it’s also as bittersweet as the fiddle playing that elevates the track.

Ahmanson explained the song was based on two ideas: the unpredictable wildfires of Villareal’s native California and their shared tendency to dive into bad relationships.

“In a lot of ways, that’s what drew us to each other,” Ahmanson said. “When we met each other it was really eye opening how easy it could be to be in a relationship. I think starting off the album with laying the groundwork of our past was a cool thing to do.”

Sweet harmonies highlight a few other tracks, including “You Only Have to Break My Heart” and the passionate “Yours Tonight.” But the pair still functions best on more intimate tracks, with one taking the lead and the other providing backing vocals.

“I’m a Woman” is a quality fiddle tune from the perspective of a woman finally ready to move on from a stagnating relationship. Villareal said she at first struggled to connect with the song before delivering a performance on the album that blends frustration and swagger.

Ahmanson closes the album with his strongest performance on “Ride with Me.” The lyrics come from the perspective of someone trying to convince a significant other to stick with him through the next chapter of their lives, but the vocals sound anything but sure about the promises the lyrics are making.

“I’m almost convincing myself as the song progresses,” Ahmanson said. “I think that’s a pretty cool recording we did.”

Fans of this album are in luck: Villareal and Ahmanson said they want to continue riding together and that they’ve already written a few songs for their next album as a duo.

For more on how Villareal came to connect with “I’m a Woman,” listen here. Or, tune into Country Pocket on WUSB Monday, March 6 from 6-8pm.

Posted in On Air

Whitney Rose Literally Goes Texas on Her New EP

by Trevor Christian

Texas seems to be working for Whitney Rose. Before writing and recording her latest EP, South Texas Suite, the Canadian country songstress moved from her native Canada to Austin, a city that seems more suited to her brand of music.

Her brand of music has moved closer to Austin, too. Her last album, which was produced by Raul Malo, leaned as heavily on vintage pop as it did traditional country. This time around, the pop is almost gone. Rose explained that her year and a half in Texas had more of an effect on her that just a chance to experience some warmer weather.

“It’s probably a reflection of living in Austin for the last little while,” Rose said of her sound during an interview for Country Pocket.

Rose’s lyrics have also been heavily influenced by her time in Texas. “Lookin’ Back on Luckenbach” plays on the name of a quirky town famous for its dance hall in order to wax nostalgic. “Three Minute Love Affair” is also based on something uniquely Texan.

“That was one of the first songs that I wrote after moving to Austin and that was because I fell in love very quickly with watching people two step,” Rose said. “It was just so nice to see. It was kind of like going back in time. I’m an unapologetic romantic so that really struck me away.”

Rose learned the dance from locals and came up with a unique way of describing the experience.

“If you go out anywhere in Texas and there’s a band playing, there’s a 99 percent chance you’re going to get asked to dance,” Rose said. “It occurred to me one night that the world stops when you’re this person’s partner and it kind of becomes this little love affair that’s completely innocent. It’s like a little moment in time.”

Rose also features Texas songwriting stalwart Brennen Leigh’s work in “Analog.” Rose is the first to record this tune and it fits remarkably well with the rest of the album’s songwriting structure. Rose agreed with the message, even if she doesn’t live a completely analog life.

“I’m just as guilty as the next person of checking my phone all the time,” Rose said, “but I do subscribe to a lot of things in the song. I much prefer to listen to music on vinyl. I like to read books. I like the smell of a book so I’ll always keep those in my life.”

The EP finds its high point when Rose shows both a feisty and humorous side on “My Boots,” easily the best song she has written to date. It’s written from the point of a girlfriend who refuses to put on a high society act for her boyfriend’s parents, instead preferring to wear boots and drink whiskey around them.

A song on this topic would have been weaker if it was too self-righteous, but Rose expertly balances the strong independent sentiment with an implicit acknowledgment that she’s ranting. The first few lines are delivered carefully, almost as if the speaker is taking a deep breath in, and then speeds up when she gets to the point. By the end, the music has sped up to an almost manic pace, though it doesn’t undermine Rose’s point. It mostly just adds color and character to her message.

“I’m aware of the silliness of it,” Rose said, “but I really wanted to write a song about how important it is to embrace yourself and not alter yourself when you’re in different crowds and different surroundings.”

Also included on the EP are “Blue Bonnets,” a song about a relationship with someone who travels for work, and a short instrumental to close things out.

This interview aired on Feb 20 on Country Pocket, which airs alternating Mondays from 6-8pm on WUSB.

Posted in On Air, Reviews

Darin and Brooke Aldridge Go “Faster & Farther” with New Grass Influences

Darin and Brooke Aldridge are enjoying a revival of sorts. Their latest album, Faster and Farther, was in part shaped by New Grass Revival’s John Cowan, who has been touring with the band.

Six albums into their bluegrass career, Darin and Brooke accomplished exactly what they needed to with Faster and Farther: they found a way to sound exciting and new without actually sounding different. It’s also noteworthy for contributions from musicians and songwriters like Cowan, Vince Gill, and Carl Jackson, as well as Pat Flynn, who wrote the standout track “Kingdom Come.”

“[Flynn] wrote that song and pitched it to us when we were playing a few dates when we were looking out for new material,” Darin told me during a recent interview for Country Pocket. “He said that was one of the songs he was saving if they’d ever done the next New Grass record.”

Cowan’s influenced Faster and Farther by writing “This River,” a ballad that feels equal parts tribute to earthly and spiritual guidance, and by updating New Grass Revival’s “Lila” with extensive harmonies.

“He said It was the first time he’d ever had a female in the band with a great voice like Brooke’s got for us to be able to do a lot of vocal harmonies in songs that he’d never got to experience in his career,” Darin said of Cowan. “Me and Brooke are just smiling ear to when we get to play with him.”

Even with Cowan’s involvement in the album and backing vocals from Gill on the fantastic lead single “Mountains in Mississippi,” the Aldridges’ vocals remain the driving force behind almost every song. Brooke powers through the energetic “Kingdom Come” and traditional “Sacred Lamb” with poise. Darin, meanwhile, delivers the tenderness “This River” needed to be as effective as it was. Most tracks on Faster and Farther benefit from harmonies between the couple. Their high and lonesome notes in “Highway of Heartache” are particularly strong.

“We’ve still got a good mix of Darin and Brooke music in there,” Darin said. “We still got our touch on everything.”

That’s particularly evident on the Carl Jackson tune “Fit For A King.” In it, Brooke delivers a stirring vocal about a homeless man who is redeemed through his faith.

“The Gospel is in there, and that’s something me and Brooke set out to do since we recorded our first record: to be true to who we are and to be a great couple who puts a positive message out there to the audiences,” Darin said.

To hear Darin talk about falling for Brooke and which classic country song they enjoyed singing together while they were first dating, listen here. Happy Valentine’s Day!

Posted in On Air, Reviews

Down In Texas There’s A Party Growing: Peace & Cornbread by The Buffalo Ruckus

For an album that’s equal parts compelling eclectic rock and Texas dancehall-filling roots, Peace & Cornbread seems like a natural title and a flaming image of soul food bathed in bright red seems the perfect image. Occasionally it’s entirely appropriate to judge an album by its cover.

In fact, the greatest strength of Peace & Cornbread is the band’s significantly improved ability to convey a mood in each song. Much like the title and cover art of the album matches up with the group’s overall sound, each set of well-crafted lyrics seems to have the perfect score and performances to match. That’s no insignificant feat for an album that also delivers the fun, catchy refrains expected of the best Texas music and the sing-along soulfulness of a gospel church that prefers an electric guitar alongside its organ.

That commitment to mood pays off most in lead single “Hills and Valleys,” where the attitude of a determined, caution to the wind romantic is paired with uplifting chords and keyboard riffs that capture persistence in the face of a struggle. Lead singer Jason Lovell’s vocals are confident yet somewhat understated, almost as if he means to say “I got this, and you do too” to anyone daunted by one of life’s hills.

Though neither Lovell nor lead guitarist Brad Haefner is a native Texan, they certainly benefit from having a lot in common with the Texas music scene.

“Fortunately, we have kept just enough of the Texas sound that appeals to the Texas music fans,” Haefner said during a recent appearance on Country Pocket, “But we still allow ourselves plenty of space just to experiment and to be creative musicians.”

Almost every track on Peace & Cornbread is written to play well live, something at which The Buffalo Ruckus is known for excelling. The group took home the top prize at the Texas Music Showdown and was named the Shiner Rising Star, both in 2014.

“They basically helped us get the attention of one of the local radio stations and we were able to get going,” Haefner said of the competitions. “Honestly I think we were all pretty surprised by our first real gig, which got really good reactions. It kind of ignited the whole project.”

Peace & Cornbread builds on that recognition with some of the band’s best vibes to date. “High In The Garden” is a master class in roots/funk guitar playing and “Carolina Calls” mixes an Appalachian breakdown with gospel-driven rock in a way that will make most any audience in Texas or on the East Coast “rattle and shake.”

But it’s tracks like “Troubled Southern Sky” and “Born To Die” that show the band’s evolution — Lovell’s in particular — most. It’s easy to imagine a more forceful delivery blunting the impact of either, but instead, Lovell cuts a bit of edge off his voice to go for a more triumphant and chill sound, respectively.  As “High in the Garden” points out, there’s a party growing down in Texas. Also growing: this young band’s credibility.

Click play below to hear Jason Lovell talk about the cornbread portion of Peace & Cornbread, as well as some other Texas eating. Image courtesy The Buffalo Ruckus.

Posted in On Air

Banjo Nickaru and Western Scooches on Musical Democracy

Banjo Nickaru and Western Scooches sounds about like what you’d expect a group composed of a jazz vocalist, a banjo player, a Broadway dancer, and a percussionist with a doctorate would sound like. Well, maybe with a little calypso thrown in.

Their combination of sounds isn’t likely to seem familiar to even roots music aficionados despite the fact their catalog is mostly made up of standards such as “You Are My Sunshine” and 20’s and 30’s tunes like “Sweet Georgia Brown.” I asked band members Nick Russo, Betina Hershey and Dr. David Pleasant just how they arrived at some of their takes on these songs.

“From Gullah-Geechee [we get] the whole idea of community culture and the idea of accompaniment and the whole idea of democracy even,” Pleasant, the percussionist, said. “Typically it’s set up top to bottom. The lyric and then the harmony and then the rhythm and that’s something that’s kind of set in a certain framework like a house, but in Gullah-Geechee culture, all those things always mix and collapse in on each other. One time a tree sways in the wind, one time a bird flies by, another time it rains, but that’s all part of something bigger.”

Hershey, the lead vocalist and newcomer to the group as a result of her marriage to Russo, explained her first reaction to the band’s style.

“Woah! What is happening? This is really strange” Hershey said, just as animated as if it were the first time she heard a jazz standard performed on a banjo while Pleasant banged out one of his show-stopping drum solos on the other side of the stage. She now feels much more at home in what she first saw as chaos.

“At first it was I’m just gonna do my thing, and you guys go crazy around me,” Hershey said. “I kind of still do that, but now I really enjoy it.”

Russo, the banjo player and leader of this version of the band, explained that their sound was not so much an intentional one but the organic result of personal relationships. Russo plays in both Pleasant’s and jazz vocalist Miles Griffith’s bands, and he and Griffith attended college together.

“We’re just brothers from mothers,” Russo said. “My kids call them uncle. I play with those gentlemen so often we just play the way we play.”

Pleasant agreed that their sound is a unique one, but at the same time said he considered it more traditional than a so-called ‘traditional’ interpretation of the songs.

“Over time, things kind of get straightened out to either be palatable or for consumers, but in the early days, that music was coming from exactly that kind of place,” Pleasant said, referencing the often experimental nature of jazz and its related genres. “You’re dealing with a music that has that kind of pressure and volatility on in every second, so to freeze it and act like it’s something other than that is to do something strange. So we just don’t do that.”

This interview Banjo Nickaru and Western Scooches was featured on the Feb. 6, 2017 episode of Country Pocket on WUSB. To read another article about the band, click here.

Posted in Album Ideas, On Air

The Committed Relationship as a Sexy Thrill: Ideas Behind The Songs

by Trevor Christian, photo courtesy Banjo Nickaru & Western Scooches

On Banjo Nickaru and Western ScoochesVery Next Thing, the closest thing to a lyrical theme to emerge from the collection of standards, old-time and originals presented is the thrill of being in a committed relationship. Not the excitement that comes from a new relationship or the comfort of an established one, but the renewable passion that extends through marriage and shows up in everyday interactions and activities.

Betina Hershey, the guitar player and almost always the lead singer for the group, more than touched on the sexual aspect of her relationship with her husband, multi-instrumentalist and band leader Nick Russo in her original tune “I Don’t Believe In Love.” The ironically named song jokes about how calling a relationship ‘love’ might bring with it all the bad experiences Hershey had come to associate with the word. It also suggested that though the relationship would be committed, it wouldn’t be conventional in label or practice. The lyrics encourage a suitor to “ring my bell every night” and contain a few phrases like “eat my honeydew” and “sprinkle me, you beautiful man” that at least seem designed to come across as suggestive. When talking with me for the February 6 episode of Country Pocket on WUSB, Hershey credited her parents with forming positive attitudes about relationships.

“I come from parents who were hippies and musicians and super loving and very expressive so they understood how to talk about anything,” she said. “I knew so many things about my parents that were really handy as a teenager going out into the world and figuring out how to live my own life and be bold and try things. I believe that life should be an exploration of love and joy as much as possible.”

The album’s other original, “I’m Gettin’ Married,” was a song Hershey and Russo co-wrote from the male point of view, though the same attitude about relationships still shined through. Marriage might mean less time out with friends and more time spent playing with baby toys, the song argues, but it’s still limitless: “Now my sin is perfectly legal/I do what I want every night/I stare in their eyes and wonder/how can this be so right?”

Though the majority of the covers on Very Next Thing address different topics, the two that   Even if she hadn’t used the word mischievous when introducing the song at the group’s performance Bay Shore’s Eclectic Cafe, Hershey’s facial expressions during “Ain’t Misbehavin’” conveyed that mood. She grinned and looked around the room out of the sides of her smiling eyes. For her, the tune isn’t a proud statement of fidelity despite temptation. It’s an exciting chance to celebrate how happy she is in her relationship while rejecting suitors from a place of total confidence.

“Nobody But My Baby Is Getting My Love” follows a similar theme. Hershey said her reason for selecting the old fashioned tune was its “gleeful” mood.

“I’m in my skin and I’m happy. It’s that kind of a song.”

Russo and Hershey do seem to be in a fantastic place. On a Saturday night, they were out playing the with friends their children call uncles while joking with each other between interview segments.

“We have so much fun playing these things together. It’s our play.” She also credited strong communication skills with keeping the couple happy.

To hear the characteristically quirky story of their courtship, listen in to part of our conversation on the topic here: 

Posted in On Air

Pharis and Jason Romero Talk With Country Pocket

I was lucky enough to have the chance to talk to Pharis and Jason Romero from the out on their tour of the Western parts of Canada and the United States via Skype yesterday. They’re supporting they’re incredible new album “A Wanderer I’ll Stay” and I’m supporting my show on WUSB 90.1 which happens to be called Country Pocket like this site. I’ll be broadcasting the full interview along with most of the album on Friday at 7 am in a full hour dedicated to this serene folk singing duo, but for those who can’t tune in or just aren’t awake yet at that hour, I thought I’d provide our pre-recorded conversation for you to listen to here. Below are both parts of the interview and the powerful title track from “Wanderer,” along with a link to buy the album on Bandcamp.

http://pharisjasonromero.bandcamp.com/album/a-wanderer-ill-stay

Posted in Blogs

Top 10 Aaron Watson Songs

Aaron Watson made Texas, traditional and indie country fans so proud this week by topping the charts with The Underdog an earnest album mostly absent of the cliches that have bogged down the genre in recent years. But Watson has been around since 2002 and has at times shown flashes of brilliance brighter than anything Nashville could produce. What’s consistent is that in his lyrics, family values trump party mantras and women are talked about as true lovers and heartaches but not as hookups or arm candy. Here’s my Top 10 Aaron Watson Songs, with a bit of emphasis put on the new stuff. It’s just his best album yet.

10. Reckless (2004)

Reckless both laments and celebrates an old teenage relationship, though it seems to lean more heavily in the direction of celebration. After all, Aaron says he’d take the ride again for the thrill of it.

9. That Look (2014)

Contemporary country, but for adults. That Look describes a committed relationship that’s good “but even better when she gets that look.” Sinatra and wine are used in seduction, though, and both people are involved in making the other happy, something that shouldn’t be as refreshing to hear as it is.

8. Barbed Wire Halo (2008)

Aaron pays tribute to heroes in other songs, but none are so richly realized as the character in Barbed Wire Halo. A widower, soldier and tattooed man who treated his congregation as family dies in this song infused with hymns.

7. Fast Cars Slow Kisses (2010)

A country song about two offbeat traditionalists who fall in love on the Internet of all places. The title, which is what the woman wrote on her dating profile as two of their favorite things, is a decent play on words. A relatable love song for those who feel different than those around them.

6. July in Cheyenne (Song For Lane’s Momma) (2012)

The best of Aaron’s rodeo songs. Most of the details surrounding a rodeo star’s death are left out in favor of the details of that rodeo star’s life and his family’s feelings. The ending, which reminds his mother that the next time she sees him he won’t be dying like the last time she did, is absolutely devastating in the best way possible.

5. The Road (2010)

Aaron singes as a road. Or is it life? Either way, it the song serves as a reminder not to blame circumstances for actions but to instead take some responsibility for them. Life certainly isn’t that cut and dry, but it’s nicely done and true in more instances than not.

4. Off The Record (2002)

A painful confession of love in the midst of a divorce. Aaron was in his 20s when he sang it, though he clearly appreciated the need for a song about more complicated relationships. He does a good job at capturing the frustration that comes along with lawyers and change.

3. The Prayer (2015)

This song evokes the image of Johnny Cash in the midst of a drug overdose praying for salvation. That’s about as bold as it gets in the country world. Luckily for fans, the payoff is huge, if a little heavy. Contains the excellent line: “Lord, I am just a man, I cannot be the king of me.”

2. Shut Up and Dance (2002)

A couple tries to reconnect after experiencing strife, with Aaron singing from the point of view of the one attempting to stoke the flame. There’s no clear end to the story, but I’d like to think the la-di-das at the end are what they’re dancing along to.

1. Bluebonnets (Julia’s Song) (2015)

To experience the loss of a child like Aaron did is almost unimaginable. That he was able to turn it all into a beautiful, almost uplifting song evoking his faith is unbelievable. Bluebonnets reminds us to cherish every moment and to appreciate something so transient as life by packing light and loving heavy. It’s also the best look at why AW is so lovable.