Over the course of a year, KUT features 260 songs of the day from a wide range of artists, each one catching our collective ear. For the next two weeks, we’ll be highlighting the best songs of the day from 2012, featuring big names, new discoveries, Studio 1A exclusives, and some tunes that might have gotten lost in the shuffle in the past twelve months.
Alt-country is something of a nebulous sub-genre: nobody can agree on which artists are included under the umbrella or who started it. But Chicago’s Freakwater might have a claim on at least lighting the initial alt-country spark. The group released its self-titled debut in 1989 a full year before Uncle Tupelo’s No Depression, an album historically credited with alternative country’s rise. Freakwater never attained the same level of notoriety, but it’s still a crucial puzzle-piece in the sub-genre’s story.
And the principal behind Freakwater is Catherine Irwin, another unheralded name–by critics, at least. She’s something of a musician’s musician, earning praise from Randy Newman, Neko Case, and M. Ward, and she’s quietly maintained a solo career across a decade. She stepped away from Freakwater for 2002′s Cut Yourself A Switch, and this year she finally followed up that solo debut with Little Heater. Produced and recorded by fellow folk artist Tara Jane O’Neil, it captures Irwin’s best gifts as a songwriter: stark honesty and a commitment to classic country, with a little bit of humor thrown in to boot.
Little Heater‘s standout track is “Mockingbird,” featuring Will Oldham on back-up vocals. Like Irwin, Oldham straddles the line between heartsick and playful in his own songs. “Mockingbird” is the perfect embodiment of this divide, sputtering forth at an unhurried, rambling pace. And for all the Texans in the crowd, Irwin includes a few nods: lyrics about the state bird, a Willie Nelson-inspired vocal, and even an appropriation of Steve Miller’s “Rock ‘N Me” as “keep on mocking me baby.” It all adds up to something that’s irreverent but soulful, as any country song should aspire to be.