Photo and text by Melanie Stangl
Every new year calls for reflection, but entering a new decade is more significant. Ten years tend to have personalities, distinct character traits that can be tough to distinguish in any one year alone. But for the music industry, almost the opposite was true. If anything, the slow decline of platforms like iTunes and the stratospheric rise of streaming services like Spotify, SoundCloud, and Bandcamp have softened the distinctions between genres, producing art and artists that defy categorization (or at least make it more difficult.) Finding, making, producing, and listening to music has never been more accessible. So perhaps this gradient is inevitable—the more styles you’re able to hear, the more you can pull from. And it’s an upward spiral. Seeing someone draw from diverse influences and make it work helps aspiring artists believe they can give it a shot too. Whatever else you can say about this decade, it’s never been easier to discover interesting musicians if you know where to look.
And you can start looking right here in Pittsburgh. For our city’s scene, this decade was a turning point. The support for, interest in, and diversity of local music has absolutely exploded since 2010. In almost every genre you can think of (as blurred as those lines tend to be now), there are multiple talent-packed local acts making and performing great music. The exponential growth of the Deutschtown Music Festival since its inception in 2012 is one of the most obvious examples of this evolution. The arrival of new showcases such as Millvale Music Festival and Vine Rewind; breakout acts like Benji. and The Commonheart, who are gaining national attention; and the fact that local venues are by and large thriving, further drive the point home. People care about the music, artists care about each other, and this sense of community is one of our greatest strengths.
Not to say that the decade was without its challenges and tragedies for the scene. Or that there aren’t still obstacles to overcome and improvements to be made. But as someone who moved to Pittsburgh in 2013, and only really got into local music two years after that, I can tell you that even the growth since then has been incredible to see.
So as the 2010’s wind to a close, I think it’s fitting to take a look back at some of the highlights. I had the idea for a decade retrospective of Pittsburgh music in November. It’s one of those ideas you wish you’d had a few months earlier—I wanted to get more of this out before the year was over. But my day job had other plans.
The plan is to put out a list for each genre once every week or two after the holidays are over, staggered out throughout the beginning of 2020. (Metal will not be included, only because I don’t listen to it and couldn’t speak about it with any authority.) The lists will likely be capped at ten acts, which means I will inevitably have to leave some great acts off. Think of this more as a celebration, a jumping off point, a collection of Pittsburgh artists and albums that made an impact, and that exemplify the undeniable talent and work ethic that have rocketed the scene to where it is today.
All right, enough disclaimers. Here’s a taste of what’s to come—the first part of the list for local country/folk/Americana acts. Look out for part two in January.
Best Country/Folk/Americana (Part 1)
Many singer/songwriters could also fall into these categories, but I opted to list them separately. In no particular order:
Molly Alphabet – Traces (2017)
Start With: “Traces”
Want More?: “This Is Not a Test,” “Lickin’ the Windows”
Country artist Molly Alphabet has been part of the Pittsburgh music scene for quite some time now—her first, self-titled release dropped in 2012. However, 2017’s Traces marked her recorded songwriting debut. (Husband and musical collaborator Chet Vincent had taken the writing lead five years previously.)
And what a debut it was. This EP is consistently charming, intimate, and thoughtful. Easy-to-listen-to instrumentals, which ebb and flow so seamlessly, tend to accompany uncomfortable or heavy lyrical subject matter. It’s as if she’s cleverly wrapped her problems, or things she might have trouble saying, in the warmest, most timeless packaging. (Such as this rumination on resigned nostalgia: “Though my heart’s moved on twice over, memory sometimes falls behind.”) Her lovely voice, through which her lifelong Pittsburgh residency shines, is a key component of this as well.
Traces somehow manages to be a comforting listen while repeatedly surprising you. There’s a silliness and sass that occasionally takes center stage, like with the line “He loves me, he loves me not/He can kiss my you-know-what/I’m not counting flower petals anymore,” from the EP’s third track. It’s one of her trademarks that sets her apart, and that I adore.
Simply put, this is old-fashioned done very, very right. “Country” as a music descriptor can make some listeners hesitate. But Traces is a reminder of all its best qualities. Storytelling; having new, interesting things to say; classic instruments that come together in smart, thoughtful ways; and a little bit of twang—this is what good country is really about. Luke Bryan, Florida Georgia Line, and their insincere ilk can have a seat.
Molly Alphabet also released a fantastic full-length this year, Broken Record. But Traces will always have a special place in my heart.
Buffalo Rose – The Soil and the Seed (2018)
Start With: “The Last One”
Want More?: “Poison Oak,” “Natural Disaster”
Musical talent and songwriting talent are two related but different skills, and they don’t always co-exist. In Buffalo Rose, however, the presence of both is absolutely undeniable, and their debut full-length The Soil and the Seed is passionate, beautiful living proof. With three vocalists and four stringed instruments (guitar, mandolin, upright bass, and dobro), the band creates gorgeous musical textures, blending elements of folk, soul, and bluegrass. They also explore a wide range of emotional territory—silliness, determination, heartbreak, and wanderlust, to name a few. And they do so with poetic vulnerability.
Throughout the record, stunning vocal harmonies shine over dynamic, engrossing layers of those stringed instruments. Occasional touches such as light percussion, keys, harmonica, electronic delay/distortion, and reverb vocal effects add striking dimension. A sharp sense of rhythmic experimentation and evocative, storytelling lyricism complete the package. From the old-school spiritual vibe of the jaunty opener, “God Willing,” to the lush, immersive closing track “Simone,” there’s a warm authenticity that emanates from this group. You can tell that they mean what they say, and that they feel it deeply.
The album’s title, though accurate, is incomplete. The Soil and the Seed is also warm and sunny, and it flows as intuitively and smoothly as the ‘river’ that’s sung about more than once. With all these elements combined, the results are no surprise: songs with deep roots, that grow organically and unapologetically. To adapt a line from “Simone,” they keep on pointin’ towards the sun.
This isn’t just one of the best local country/folk/Americana albums of the decade—it’s one of the best local albums of the decade, period.
Nik & The Central Plains – Nik & The Central Plains (2010)
Start With: “You’re the Blues”
Want More?: ““Isn’t it Unfair?”, “First Breath”
As this self-titled debut record begins, multiple layers of gentle fingerpicked guitar, a warm, subtle undercurrent of upright bass, delicate percussion, and gorgeous, cozy key riffs coexist so sweetly with Nik Westman’s charming voice, welcoming you in. Album opener “You’re the Blues” sounds like a peaceful sun-soaked living room on a Sunday afternoon. And the group proves adept at creating similar sonic warmth over and over again.
The energy does veer more into foot-tapping territory as the record progresses. Faster, more prominent percussion and electric bass and guitar come to the forefront. But their keen ear for production, structure, and layering of classic instruments remains consistent, and makes Nik & the Central Plains something special.
Lyrically, the group splits the difference between down-to-earth and imaginative. They draw from everyday emotions and frustrations, but true to folk form, they also use fictional characters and narratives (such as the “King of the Bridge” and “Paperman Soldiers,” the album’s third and fifth tracks) to get at what it is they want to say.
Whatever their inspiration, the words themselves combine sharp bite and insight with a storyteller’s flair for description. “First Breath” tackles the difficulties of carrying on in a survival-of-the-fittest society: “On your first breath, you’re taken care of/On your fifth breath, you’re on your own.” “Red Eyed Vultures,” meanwhile, ruminates on the fleeting nature of our lives in the context of history and nature itself: “I woke up in a strange field…Thoughts of what existed/a time before I was even here/Anthropologists told me all I needed to know.”
The album ticks all the boxes of an interesting, well-crafted folk album: pleasant listening on the surface, with substance, character, and something to say deeper down.
In “Isn’t it Unfair?” Westman sings, “Too many appointments, spreading ourselves too thin.” Almost ten years later, that rings more true now than ever. (And he might have had some of the answer too. “Paperman Soldiers” starts by asking: “Stop tryin’ to figure things out/For a moment please/Can’t you let your heart beat?”)
The group released a follow-up, Walk on Beaches, the following year, before the Pittsburgh version disbanded. Nik moved to New York City and continues to perform, both with a new NYC-based Central Plains lineup and on his own. A third album, Commuter, was released in 2015. He occasionally returns to Pittsburgh for a one-off show; most recently, he opened for Meeting of Important People at Thunderbird Music Hall in October.
Bindley Hardware Company – Ever Satisfactory (2017)
Start With: “Alright, All Ready!”
Want More?: “The Good Ones,” “Queen of the Upper Middle Class”
Bindley Hardware Company, a self-described “Rust Belt Americana” group, was among the first local bands that caught my attention back in 2015. Their particular combination of country, rock n’roll, and folk has consistently delivered with high, rollicking onstage energy. And at its core lies some of the city’s best songwriting: straightforward yet thoughtful, far-reaching yet familiar, catchy yet substantial. Their 2017 album Ever Satisfactory captures all of these qualities and then some.
There’s a warmth and authenticity in band leader Jon Bindley’s voice that compels you to trust him. He articulates sharp, brutally honest observations (like an entire song about settling romantically because “all the good ones are taken”) in a conversational way. He comes off as a close friend with quite a bit of wisdom to share. It takes a solid songwriter to achieve this level of insight and intimacy.
The band’s overall sense of song structure and their frequent use of repetition strongly draw from the standard folk style. But they also know just when to lean into a harder guitar riff to amp up the power; pause, extend a phrase, or dip melodically to provide tension and emotional depth; or bring in a new vocal line or instrument to add dimension. The shrewd, smoothly-integrated use of touches like these helps bring the record to the next level.
The lyrical subject matter shows impressive range. That universal muse, heartache, is touched upon—most blatantly in the opening track, the otherwise mellow-sounding “Honey, Baby:” “Since you left me I’ve been downright reckless/Since you robbed me of my peace of mind/You know you really left me high and lonesome/’cause you’re a gypsy and a Gemini.” But that’s just one facet of many emotions and messages Bindley explores, which he does with a refreshing and often hard-hitting honesty. The foolishness of trying to interfere with things that are out of your depth (“Down the Run” and “Left Well Alone”); the effects of both economic privilege and economic struggle (“Queen of the Upper Middle Class,” and the minimum-wage-referencing “Seven & a Quarter”); and the peculiar combination of recklessness and anxiety that accompanies growing up in these troubled times (“Jaywalking,” particularly with its recurring line, “Go ahead and hit me/I don’t wanna see it comin’.”)
If this album were food, it would be a hearty bowl of homemade soup: nuanced, but satisfying on a fundamental level. Do yourself a favor and take a listen if you haven’t yet. (You can also catch Bindley playing with a rotating cast of stellar Pittsburgh musicians at the Honky Tonk Jukebox, his monthly dance/concert performance at the Allegheny Elks Lodge on Pittsburgh’s North Side.)
Look out for Part 2 of this list in January 2020.