This month, we reached the anniversary of COVID–19 officially being declared a pandemic by the World Health Organization. In the intervening year, music helped us cope with physical confinement and limited social interaction. Some turned to club bangers, while others embraced the softer sounds of ambient tunes. For me, there was no genre that provided greater escape from the quarantine doldrums than Americana. Left–of–center country music proved to be the perfect soundtrack for my 2020, especially with much of my early quarantine spent learning how to drive. The sentiments expressed by these artists—a yearning for escape and a desire for companionship—have felt more resonant than ever this year. Here are six songs that have felt like mirrors to my own emotions during the pandemic, and that may do the same for you.
Songs: Ohia–“Farewell Transmission”
The Magnolia Electric Co. remains the best record released under any moniker by alt–country icon Jason Molina, and its opening track, “Farewell Transmission,” is the enduring centerpiece of his entire oeuvre. This searching epic exceeds the seven–minute mark, a necessary duration to make room for the expansive journey that Molina undertakes over Steve Albini–produced gothic Americana. “Farewell Transmission” commences with a power outage, highlighting the fragility of the modern human world—which has, without a doubt, been highlighted by the ongoing pandemic. At the same time, Molina reckons with his own self–inquiry. Emerging from his endless psychological desert, the song manages to glean something resonant and widely applicable: “Real truth about it is, no one gets it right / Real truth about it is, we're all supposed to try.”
Miranda Lambert–“Highway Vagabond”
Miranda Lambert may not come to mind right away when we think of country music auteurs, but her 2016 record The Weight of These Wings is a rough–hewn diamond in her discography. That album stripped away the radio gloss of her earlier hits to deconstruct her high–profile divorce, but it still managed to keep Lambert’s gift for catchy hooks intact. “Highway Vagabond” captures one form of coping by escape. It's not about going somewhere so much as just going, as “the wheels go round and round and round.” Socially distanced travel proved for many—my family included—to be the antidote to our first (and hopefully last) summer spent in lockdown. “Highway Vagabond” manages to encapsulate and perfectly soundtrack at once the rhythm of “moving right along to the next big city.”
John Prine–“Angel from Montgomery”
The narrator of “Angel from Montgomery” is trapped and incapacitated, a condition more understood now than one year ago. John Prine’s lyricism, even on his 1971 debut, masterfully toes the line between poetic and direct. Right from the song’s outset, he strikes a universal chord: “If dreams were lightning, thunder were desire / This old house would have burnt down a long time ago.” Later, he laments that “I ain't done nothing since I woke up today,” a lament that, in this era, needs no explaining. “Angel from Montgomery” is an outlier on this list, since it reckons with stagnation, not motion. That said, there is a value in seeing our emotions reflected in the music we consume. The deliverance Prine seeks is an escape all its own.
Lucinda Williams–“Car Wheels On A Gravel Road”
The title track from Lucinda Williams’ 1998 breakthrough, Car Wheels On A Gravel Road, wrings her own poetry out of the quotidian. The song’s lyrics depict the sensations of Williams’ childhood: “Loretta's singing on the radio / Smell of coffee, eggs, and bacon.” They recapture a rhythm of the everyday that has often felt unattainable as of late. The momentum in Williams’ words is insuppressible as she sings about “the telephone poles, trees, and wires [flying] on by.” The entire record serves as a roadmap of the American South, from “Lake Charles” to “Greenville.” During last summer’s road trip, I experienced inordinate excitement passing through some of the album’s name–checked locales. Williams’ empathetic portrait of her region feels essential as COVID–19 solidifies partisan boundaries across the United States.
Jason Isbell–“Traveling Alone”
Jason Isbell would probably have some choice words for anyone who has taken up drinking as a COVID–19 pastime. His heartbreaking Southeastern was recorded in the wake of his struggles with alcoholism. It’s appropriate that “Traveling Alone,” from that album, opens with the somber creak of his wife Amanda Shires’ fiddle. After all, it was Shires who led the charge on Isbell’s intervention. She also appears to be the clear subject of this song. As the chorus’ lyrics make evident, this is no ode to solo life. Rather, the country singer is “tired of traveling alone.” This instrumental palette is sparse enough to draw out the harrowed quality of Isbell’s voice. When we are drawn to reclusion, he reminds us to reach out for human contact and support, because “what good does knowing do / with no one to show it to?”
Talking about Waxahatchee’s Saint Cloud requires that I speak personally, because no album, either released during the pandemic or otherwise, has meant more to me over the course of this past year. Fiona Apple’s Fetch The Bolt Cutters topped album of the year lists left and right in 2020, but in my eyes there was no better record released last year, nor a more liberated one, than Katie Crutchfield’s fifth studio album. These songs hold a cleansing quality, perhaps because they were written after Crutchfield got sober for the first time in years. Or it could be the record’s production, which feels airy, spacious, and awash in light, not unlike the album cover. Saint Cloud invites a gentle kind of a catharsis, and nowhere is this more apparent than on “Fire.”
In keeping with the rest of this list, “Fire” takes place in a car. In an interview with Pitchfork, referring to the song’s opening non sequitur, Crutchfield said that “It’s about getting to a more grounded, centered, self–assured place.” This is an act of self–reflection that has been forced by the coronavirus, but songs like “Fire” can take that trip with you in moments of change, and even lead the way. Listening to music released during the pandemic has often been difficult, as so much of it has felt hampered by context. This has never been a problem for Waxahatchee. That’s because the lyrics and melodies of “Fire” feel timeless, like they could be pulled from the catalogs of Prine, Williams, or even Dylan. Despite its recent release, I am confident that “Fire” will have an impact just as long–lasting as any other great Americana song.