JOHN COWAN, The Massenburg Sessions Having made many an outstanding record in his time, John Cowan has topped himself by delivering a classic, and George Massenburg earns a salute too for giving the music an empathetic sonic framework designed to enhance not only the bold strokes but the discreet, subtle ones as well. This is one for the ages.

DANGERMUFFIN, MoonscapesA tight, eclectic trio coming out of Folly Beach, SC, Dangermuffin may not be unique among roots bands in tapping various strains of bluegrass, '60s rock, folk, pop, reggae and blues, then mixing and matching those styles at times, but the fellows do stand apart on the strength of their musicianship, writing and vision. I'm trying to avoid saying "jam band" because of the term's radioactive effect on some, but Dangermuffin may be the jam band with a difference many did not believe existed. On Moonscapes, the band's third album, all its strengths coalesce into an impressive whole.

THE FAREWELL DRIFTERS, Yellow Tag MondaysReminiscent of a mellower Giving Tree Band, the fine young roots outfit from up near Chicago, the Nashville-based Farewell Drifters have picked up high-profile endorsements from Peter Rowan and Jim Lauderdale, and after a few years of honing their sound live the quintet is making its national debut with Yellow Tag Mondays, an impressive sophomore album that positions the group firmly in the line of Nickel Creek and W.P.A.—largely acoustic, roots-oriented aggregates whose original material betrays multiple and varied influences in the realms of ‘60s rock ‘n’ roll and country-rock, as well contemporary pop-influenced bluegrass a la Alison Krauss + Union Station.

HORSE OPERA, Sounds Of The DesertOn its first studio album, Sounds of the Desert, Horse Opera has come up with nothing less than superb long player that fairly reeks of sweat, beer and sawdust-covered hardwood floors, but also has a lot going for it as narrative. Like its Austin compatriots Heybale, Horse Opera plays so fiercely and with such commitment to hard country music that you want to be wherever their music is playing.

LAINIE MARSH, The Hills Will Cradle Thee Herein Lainie Marsh speaks of life as one who has traveled far from her point of origin, soaked up experiences she might not have had otherwise, as well as musical influences perhaps less accessible had she remained cloistered in the hills. Thus the grist for this album.

BECKY SCHLEGEL, DandelionThese aren't songs about love newly fled, but about the contrast between feelings years, maybe decades, old, and the weight of those on the present day. Sadness permeates the baker's dozen tunes here, but Dandelion refuses to buckle under to despair-there's a resilience in Schlegel's tender, winsome voice, a searching, Alison Krauss-like quality, even a pentimento of hope under the ache, because there was a point in time when hearts engaged on a positive, spiritually elevated plane and forever seemed within the realm of possibility, so close at hand as to be palpable.

JUNIOR SISK AND RAMBLERS CHOICE, Heartaches And Dreams Junior Sisk and Ramblers Choice got it together beautifully on Heartaches And Dreams. The songs share a common narrative thread, but no two are alike otherwise, either in vocal interpretation or musical attack; the arrangements hew to traditional approaches but in that framework allow these gifted musicians to show what they're made of; and, always, you can't fake the feeling, so the conviction Junior Sisk and company always bring to their work, as well as the love for it, is the icing on quite a tasty cake.

KEVIN WELCH, A Patch of Blue SkyHere he is in 2010, timeless as ever, writing exquisite, insightful memos to us from the bloodstream of life experience. A Patch of Blue Sky is a wondrous thing, marked by impeccable songcraft, beautifully restrained and deeply evocative musicianship, heartfelt singing and meaningful stories abounding.

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