New voices from Nashville offer alternatives to the Music City mainstream

Elizabeth Cook
Rick Diamond/Getty Images for SiriusXM
Elizabeth Cook

Nashville is a city with a long-established, seemingly inextricable link to commercial country music. But it’s no secret that you don’t have to look hard to find plenty of listening choices beyond what’s offered by Music Row these days; witness the attention that artists such as Sturgill Simpson and Nikki Lane have received lately. Three records from the rootsy side of the alley, all released on the same day in June, further attest to an abundance of approaches and perspectives.

Luke Bell is a recent arrival in Nashville, finding his way to the city after ranch-handing in his native Wyoming, with brief stops in New Orleans and Austin, Texas. The music on his new, self-titled record combines where he came from and where he’s ended up — or rather, what once was where he ended up. The album is shot through with the sounds of classic honky-tonk, from the Roger Miller playfulness of “Glory and the Grace” to the Waylon backbeat underpinning the wordplay of “Where Ya Been” and the early Dwight Yoakam electric-hillbilly vibe of “Hold Me.”

Bell leavens that with yodels, mouth harp, and other cowboy-music strains — as the old saw puts it, he plays both kinds of music, country and western. His album kicks off with “Sometimes,” a song so hooky-good, it sets a bar that’s difficult for what follows to reach. Nothing else quite does, but it all testifies to Bell’s troubadour facility for telling a story, and to an exuberant joie de vivre that pervades his music.


Derik Hultquist ended up in Nashville, with no geographic diversions, shortly after college graduation. He’s been there for a little while, biding his time and honing his craft, working as a staff writer and recording three EPs at Carnival Music before releasing his debut full-length, “Southern Iron.” The record’s title, taken from the name of a gym his father owned, sets the tone for what’s within, according to Hultquist’s note to the listener: “Southern Iron . . . is for me, the triumph of will that have given me strength in the face of unanswerable questions,” in his case raised by recent visitations of family illness and death.

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Hultquist’s writing style and his eliding, slurry singing make precise meanings elusive, but words and music — guitars that shimmer and slash, echoing vocals, eerie ambient noises, sweeping strings — combine to create an album of gritty, moody roots music that manifests a beautiful bleakness and a sort of exhilarating melancholy.

Elizabeth Cook has been a Nashvillian for years; she moved there to be an accountant, but jumped ship to pursue a career that involved notes instead of figures. Since then, she’s released a string of unalloyed country records (including one flirtation with a major label) and become a regular on the Grand Ole Opry. But she leaves those sounds behind on “Exodus of Venus.” It’s her first full-length record since 2010’s “Welder,” and what came in between — a series of jarring life events that included family deaths, divorce, and a stint in rehab — has by Cook’s own account made its mark on her music.

There’s still some twang on the record, notably “Straightjacket Love,” which features a guest turn from Patty Loveless. But it’s largely been replaced by muscular roots- and swamp-rock, funky R&B, and other sounds. So has the sometimes wry, sometimes hilarious hillbilly perspective, rooted in what she came from, that Cook worked on her earlier records. In its place are what seem to be artistic negotiations of and reckonings with hard times via dark and impressionistic songs. The results are a striking change.

Stuart Munro can be reached at