L.A. has numerous, active purveyors of Americana — more than enough to fill the multiband bills at long-running seasonal hipster hoedown the Grand Ole Echo. But most tend toward an objectified, genre-centric approach that leans heavily on the ’70s Laurel-Topanga landfill and merely pays lip service to Los Angeles’ immeasurably rich country music heritage.
Since respected country music prophet Mike Stinson defected from L.A. to Houston, Dwight Yoakam remains our nominal figurehead. But this list is all about street-level action, where we find a strong sect of creative, original talent whose dedication and involvement are consistently impressive. Some have national reps, some you may never have heard of, but all are legit. Here are L.A.’s 10 best country and Americana artists.
10. Groovy Rednecks
Hollywood’s top guns of hell-raising honky tonk, the Rednecks' sudsed-up brand of reckless folk tale–telling has kept them a local mainstay for more than 25 years. The demented brainchild of terminally rowdy singer-songwriter Tex Troester, who specializes in reality-based numbers like “My Girlfriend’s Got a Boyfriend” and “Punch Yer Neighbor’s Lights Out,” the band manages to balance a rabid stage presentation, satirical bite and genuine emotion with admirable, ragged grace. Significantly, Mike Stinson played many a gig as the Rednecks' drummer and was always quick to uphold their honor, drawling, “You think it’s easy writing all those drinking songs? It’s not.”
9. Lisa Finnie
Americana enchanteuse Finnie, who has released only one album over her long, somewhat sporadic career, is an absolutely mesmerizing torch-country stylist. Her skills as an arranger and interpreter are spine-tingling and her vocals are delivered with artful, atmospheric deliberation. Usually working at a subdued level that creates profound intimacy, Finnie never sounds like anything but herself and always like nothing you’ve ever heard before. Her combination of world-weary balladeer smolder and ego-free, gentle self-deprecation creates an unusual, individualized charm that’s downright addictive.
8. Gethen Jenkins & The Freightshakers
Hardcore outlaw traditionalists The Freightshakers began life as a straight-ahead, beer-joint cover band but soon blossomed into an all-original country music force to be reckoned with. Fronted by beefy, bearded Iraq War vet Jenkins, and greatly enhanced by the superb playing of veteran pedal-steel pro Gary Brandin, the band has an incredible overall tone, a presence that permeates the room with an impossible-to-ignore, neon-lit appeal (Jenkins calls it “that deep pedal steel and Telecaster sound”). Driven by a collective, almost fetishistic zeal, the band’s involvement and passion have taken them far beyond the OC tavern circuits to the dance halls of Texas, where they picked up the 2015 Ameripolitan Music Award for best outlaw group — not too shabby for a California act.
7. Rick Shea
Low-key, high-quality singer-songwriter Shea cut his teeth as a teen in the very rough Inland Empire honky tonks of San Berdoo and Fontucky, back when such not-long-for-this-world giants as Wynn Stewart and Lefty Frizzell were still lurching onto local stages. Shea parlayed those experiences into his own deceptively gentle modus operandi, an approach that combines respect for tradition, a very strong sense of place, and a great gift for storytelling. Shea’s songs are characterized by disarming subtlety and a lush combination of influences — corridos, rock & roll, old-time hillbilly — that’s served him well over the course of 10 solid albums.
6. Tony Gilkyson
Filling Billy Zoom’s formidable punk-rockabilly boots is no easy task — but after Zoom walked out on X, guitarist supreme Tony Gilkyson held the job for a decade. Punk bona fides aside, Gilkyson is at heart a world-class country picker who works a marvelous blend of Southwestern folk philosophy and dazzling, Roy Nichols–/James Burton–inspired fretwork. As his ambitious, moody 2006 album Goodbye Guitar made clear, he's an adept singer-songwriter in his own right, even as he remains an in-demand studio player, doing session work for everyone from Kris Kristofferson to Alice Cooper (he also has a close, ongoing alliance with the ubiquitous Mike Stinson). Gilkyson’s early start in the joints of New Mexico imbued his music with a dreamy Land of Enchantment atmosphere, and any chance to catch a performance by this man is not to be passed up.
5. Tracy Dawn Thompson
Kansas-born singer-songwriter Thompson got her teenage start at North Hollywood country shrine the Palomino back in the early ’90s and quickly gained serious traction, only to lapse into a contemporary Christian career so successful that she held simultaneous contracts with Warner Bros. and Atlantic Records. After an near two-decade absence from the honky tonks, she has resurfaced sounding better than ever, and is on an aggressive campaign to fulfill that long-lost promise. Currently recording with producer and six-string kingpin Pete Anderson, Thompson’s sensational, oft-upbeat approach to California country is resolutely contemporary but also displays an abiding reverence and regard for tradition. Thompson’s not digging up dried-out roots — she’s mining untold treasures.
4. Austin Hanks
After losing his fabled, long-standing Sunday afternoon gig at Hollywood’s late, lamented Piano Bar last year, Alabama-born singer-guitarist Austin Hanks wound up having a pretty decent 2017. His current, kicking Alabastard album made him a Sirius Outlaw Radio staple and he has been opening U.S. tour dates, off and on, all year for that little old band from Texas, ZZ Top. Hanks has a soulful, Muscle Shoals–infused defiance to his songs, with a stone country foundation and a twist of deep blues that rounds it out into a wholly marvelous presentation. Hanks is both tremendously gifted and a damn nice guy — he was working as a bartender when Billy Gibbons wandered in, beginning a friendly collaboration that, yeah, seems to have worked out OK.
3. Susie Glaze
Susie Glaze is a flat-out superb vocalist who specializes in what she calls “Americana folk fusion.” Growing up in Nashville, Glaze was a theater student and folk fan who found Music City’s slick, Vegas-style presentation decidedly unappealing. But after being cast in the original Broadway production of Big River and working with its creator, legendary Country Music Hall of Famer Roger Miller, well, she saw the light. Relocating to the San Fernando Valley with her bluegrass-picking spouse, Glaze abandoned acting in favor of music and the results have been spectacular. As leader of her New Folk Ensemble, Glaze delivers warm, amber-toned vocals that explore the psychic depth of a lyric with deft acuity and technical perfection.
2. Cary Park
Few represent authentic California country as unassailably as Cary Park. A monster guitarist known as “the Weapon,” Park’s lethal abilities and authoritative, straight-ahead vocal style uphold the Coast Country legacy with natural, wise-blooded elegance. He is the son of the late, great Ray Park, who got his start on Stockton’s KGDM in ’52, went on to cut the Tommy Collins cult classic “You’re Gonna Have to Ball” at Capitol, and enjoyed a long, distinguished career as a bluegrass fiddler second to none. Park exploits this rare DNA with effortless aplomb and is one of a very few working scions of the Golden State who continues to enhance and extend the form. As such, he is a highly significant artist but also one almost impossible to keep track of — the cat is always out there somewhere, playing one-nighters, across the nation.
1. Brian Whelan
Whelan, the youthful, brilliant, outspoken ex–Dwight Yoakam guitarist, is the guy. Unbeholden to anything except his own taste and instinct, both of which seem nigh on infallible, Whelan takes a free-thinking, hard-hitting, ideally realized approach to his music. It rocks hard, it digs deep, it's redolent with that nearly lost, shimmering, Southwestern desert rapture common to Buckaroos guitarist Don Rich and West Texas paragon Buddy Holly. Whelan gives a damn and doesn’t hold back; he mixes it all up with an honest dynamism that’s his alone. His marvelous 2016 “Americana” went in for the kill: “You industry kids with your college wit/You're a pretty nice guy but you sound like shit/You could change it if you really wanna/There is nothing wrong with Americana.” It’s a playful throwdown that represents not just a challenge but also, far more important, encouragement for his peers to take it further. And we all need a lot more of that.
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