Last week, I was listening to NPR's All Songs Considered year-in-review podcast when the conversation turned to country music and Sturgill Simpson.
Addressing the Jackson native's Metamodern Sounds in Country Music, the hosts said they enjoyed the 36-year-old's anti-Nashville establishment profile and deceptively simple songs.
"Like a lot of fans and music reviewers who dissected this record, I was always searching for meanings," co-host Robin Hilton said. "Some of these songs seem very metaphysical, right, and very high concept. He said during his Tiny Desk Concert (a regular feature at NPRmusic.org) they're all really just about doing drugs and drinkin', but he's enjoyed reading all the reviews."
From that, co-host Ann Powers said, "Angaleena Presley was, for me, the other outstanding hard country album this year," adding the Beauty native to the discussion.
Apparently I wasn't the only one who noticed, although All Songs didn't explicitly say it, that it has been a very, very good year for country music from the Bluegrass State.
This should not be shocking. We do, after all, have the Country Music Highway and superstar Loretta Lynn in the Commonwealth, and our southern border is just a short hop from Nashville. Still, it has been a while since we have seen the burst of creative energy provided by the likes of Simpson, Presley, Kelsey Waldon of Monkey's Eyebrow and Prestonsburg-via-Lexington's Sundy Best.
If this is all bewildering to you, it might be because you have had your focus on country radio and the country charts, where party boys like Luke Bryan and Florida Georgia Line dominate. Meanwhile, this group of artists has been gaining respect and influential ears, in part for an authenticity that doesn't always come with a bullet up the charts.
Rolling Stone country's list of 10 artists we needed to know last summer cited Waldon, writing that she sounded like "Tammy Wynette on a trip to Whiskeytown, as unafraid of heavy twang and spitfire pedal steel as coffeehouse confessionals."
Indeed, songs such as High in Heels and Town Clown are pretty raw, emotionally spent numbers devoted to the subjects of a lack of money and faith. It is no surprise to read that she draws on Wynette and Loretta Lynn as influences, and that she isn't too worried about how she stacks up to Jason Aldean's airplay.
"I hate when people say there is no more real country music anymore," Waldon said last summer to the Herald-Leader's Sam Osborne, "because there is. Just because it's not on mainstream radio, who cares?
"I'm gonna do what I want to do, no matter what. I feel really inspired to make the kind of music that I do, and I don't feel scared about it ... I think, though, that there are lot of listeners that want to hear that, and I think they will find it."
Waldon is taking a road-warrior approach to getting her music out, as is Sundy Best, which didn't spend much of 2014 in Lexington after releasing its early-2014 album Bring Up the Sun, followed by their late-2014 release this month, Salvation City.
The albums showed a growth beyond singing about Kentucky — although I will never again drive on the Mountain Parkway without humming the band's song about the road — to more universal fare and a sound reflecting 1970s country and western.
That is certainly something that leaps to mind with Simpson's album, whose outlaw-ish side is exemplified in the track Life of Sin. A common theme running through all the Kentucky artists' 2014 offerings is an affinity for rural life that is not necessarily affection.
Presley's American Middle Class painted stark pictures of hard work with few rewards.
"This album gave me the gift of confrontation," NPR's Powers wrote. She put it on her list of top-15 albums. "The confrontation comes in Presley's clear-eyed assessments of the small-town home she still loves but has to leave; of the Nashville scene that sometimes leaves her feeling empty and of the self she's made traveling between those two points of origin."
Among the sober assessments on Middle Class was Pain Pills, the first country song I can remember that addresses prescription drug abuse in Appalachia. It stands apart from mid-American fantasy to hip-hop beats that country fans are buying into so much these days.
Another Kentuckian was part of what seems to be a subtle turn toward a more honest, authentic profile. Virgie's Josh Osborne was part of the trio that picked up the 2014 Grammy for best country song for penning Kacey Musgraves' hit Merry Go Round.
Maybe what we saw this year was Kentucky musicians getting ahead of the curve. Loretta has to be proud.