Ten Definitive Albums that Mark Lost Highway’s Past Decade

Stephen Deusner | March 14th, 2011

The song “Lost Highway” has a very special place in Hank Williams’ canon. Recorded shortly before his death in 1953, it remains one of his best and most worried songs, a bleak evocation of dark sin and bright redemption rendered in plainspoken poetry. That Williams died in the backseat of his car only makes the song more haunting, as if it captures the weight of humanity in its few short verses.

It’s not every record label that could live up to that legacy, but in 10 short years, Lost Highway has had an immeasurable impact on country music and beyond. Founded by Mercury Records chairman Luke Lewis in 2000, the label pretty much owned roots music in the 2000s, signing artists like Lucinda and Willie and Lyle who don’t fit any one genre or style too neatly.

Later in the decade, Lost Highway expanded to make a home for non-country artists like Elvis Costello and Morrissey, while fostering young talent like Hayes Carll and Black Joe Lewis & the Honeybears. To mark Lost Highway’s 10th anniversary, here are 10 definitive releases from its first decade—albums that helped shape the label in particular and popular music in general.

  • O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000)O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000) – Various Artists

    Right out of the gate, Lost Highway changed the pop culture landscape with one of its first releases, the soundtrack to the Coen Brothers’ O Brother Where Art Thou? The movie may have depicted the South as the province of dunces and ne’er-do-wells, but the soundtrack found inspiration in old-time music and gently updated decades-old tunes to the twenty-first century. It’s one of the few soundtracks to win an Album of the Year Grammy, introducing millions of listeners to the joys of “I Am a Man of Constant Sorrow” and effectively creating a niche for the fledgling label.

  • Pneumonia (2001)Pneumonia (2001) – Whiskeytown

    Whiskeytown always seemed like latecomers to the alt-country scene, aping their contemporaries rather than inhabiting older influences comfortably. But with their one album on Lost Highway (which was released after the band had broken up), the North Carolinians finally settled into themselves, with Ryan Adams in particular turning in some of his best and most diverse songs. It was just a hint of the solo career to come.

  • Gravitational Forces (2001)Gravitational Forces (2001) – Robert Earl Keen

    Robert Earl Keen opens his first Lost Highway album with a cover of J.D. Crowe & the New South’s “My Home Ain’t In the Hall of Fame,” and spends the next eleven tracks proving why he should be. Few artists can do dusty lamentations as poignantly; “Hello New Orleans” and “Not a Drop of Rain” sound like the desert wind is drying the tears off his cheeks, creating a rustic stoicism that colors this exceptional album. Even fewer artists could cap it off with a spoken-word number that depicts a four-hour sound check as a country-psych hallucination.

  • Southern Rock Opera (2002)Southern Rock Opera (2002) – Drive-By Truckers

    The Drive-By Truckers first released Southern Rock Opera on their own Soul Dump Records in September 2001, but a year later, Lost Highway gave the album a wider release. Perhaps the most ambitious record on the label’s roster, Southern Rock Opera is a heady examination of rock, racism, and what Patterson Hood calls “the duality of the Southern thing.” It’s also perhaps the most important treatise on Southern identity since The Mind of the South, but W.J. Cash never rocked so hard or so righteously.

  • World Without Tears (2003)World Without Tears (2003) – Lucinda Williams

    Lucinda Williams can divide her career neatly into two phases: before Lost Highway and after Lost Highway. She’s released more albums for the label than she did in the previous twenty-plus years, and while her recent work can’t match the perfection of Lucinda Williams and Car Wheels on a Gravel Road, there are some stunning gems on this forlorn record, a near-concept album about moving away from her beloved South and out to California. But life’s just as tough near on the West Coast, as the bittersweet “Ventura” makes devastatingly clear.

  • My Baby Don't Tolerate (2003)My Baby Don’t Tolerate (2003) – Lyle Lovett

    Like so many on the Lost Highway roster, Lyle Lovett spent some time in Nashville but isn’t merely a country singer. His label debut is perhaps his best post-Julia synthesis of all the many ideas bouncing around underneath all that hair. Western swing ambles arm-in-arm with Texas blues, folk mingles with country and rock, and the driest wit in popular music perfects his brilliant deadpan delivery on “Cute As a Bug” and “Big Dog.”

  • Night Train to Nashville, Vols. 1 & 2 (2004-05)Night Train to Nashville, Vols. 1 & 2 (2004-05) – Various Artists

    There’s more to Nashville and Lost Highway than just country music, as this series proves. Over two discs that serve as a catalog to an exhibition at the Country Music Hall of Fame, the label explores the local R&B and soul scenes that flourished from the 1940s through the 1970s, highlighting such artists as Clyde McPhatter, Joe Tex, and Etta James. It’s not only thoughtfully and expertly curated, but the music remains as lively and exciting as ever.

  • American Recordings V: A Hundred Highways (2006)American Recordings V: A Hundred Highways (2006) – Johnny Cash

    Johnny Cash was too frail to play guitar on this album, and his voice sounds ragged and tired, but the penultimate release in his American Recordings series showcases an artist whose musical curiosity and intuitive engagement with well-written songs had not diminished at all. It’s almost heartbreaking to listen to the Man in Black so close to death, but to his considerable credit, Cash never indulges any self-pity or allows any gothic drama. Instead, he looks back at his life and forward to the afterlife with the same authority and dignity he had in healthier times.

  • You Don't Know Me: The Songs of Cindy Walker (2006)You Don’t Know Me: The Songs of Cindy Walker (2006) – Willie Nelson

    Following up his disastrous reggae album the year before, Willie made another genre excursion—this time into Texas swing—on his trillionth full-length. Singing Cindy Walker’s hits like they’re American Songbook standards, he sounds jazzily spry, his voice thin but still agile as he relishes her playful lyrics and skipping rhythms. It’s a lovely, affectionate valentine to one of Willie’s biggest influences and one of popular music’s most underrated songwriters.

  • KMAG YOYO (& Other American Stories) (2011)KMAG YOYO (& Other American Stories) (2011) – Hayes Carll

    Signing Hayes Carll was a no-brainer for Lost Highway. With Lyle’s wit, Willie’s adventurousness, and Robert Earl’s attention to detail, the Houston native is the true heir to all the Texas troubadours on the label. On his latest album, he ventures well beyond the state line on his fourth full-length—to anonymous bars and hotels all over the country, as well as memorable stopover in Afghanistan—but Carll sees the world from a specifically Lone Star perspective, generously taking in all of America at this weird point in history.

  1. Jon
    March 14, 2011 at 10:37 am

    If it was me writing that, I would have wanted to point out that the O Brother soundtrack was actually a starting gift to Lost Highway, as it was originally released – and sold its first million or so – on the Mercury Record Company label. “Effectively creating a niche for the fledgling label” indeed.

  2. Jon
    March 14, 2011 at 10:41 am

    I might also have found room somewhere in my opening paragraph on the song “Lost Highway” to have mentioned the guy who wrote it, which was not (N-O-T) Hank Williams. And I certainly would have avoided a potentially and needlessly controversial claim about any one label “pretty much own[ing] roots music in the 2000s.”

  3. idlewildsouth
    March 14, 2011 at 10:49 am

    I was pretty certain he died somewhere between West Virginia and Ohio, not Alabama.

  4. Brady Vercher
    March 14, 2011 at 10:57 am

    Thanks for bringing that up, idlewildsouth. I made a mental note about it, but it slipped my mind before publishing.

  5. Matt B
    March 14, 2011 at 11:54 am

    i’d have figured the “American IV would’ve been the one on this list (it features many of the same things V did) but it’s hard to argue with what’s here.

  6. Ollie
    March 14, 2011 at 12:09 pm

    I might have added Ryan Adams’ “Gold” to this list. Or not….

  7. Benny
    March 14, 2011 at 12:20 pm

    Hank recorded ‘Lost Highway’ in 1949, hardly “shortly before his death” and yeah Leon Payne wrote it..

  8. TXmusicjim
    March 14, 2011 at 2:20 pm

    none the less lost highway has rleased some amazing product over the last decade and certianly had a large hand in the careers of a lot of well respected artists I suspect their 10th aniversary showcase at SXSW in Austin should be nothing short of amazing.

  9. Jon
    March 14, 2011 at 2:54 pm

    I’d love to know why anyone would think that any of these albums other than O Brother can reasonably be seen as having shaped popular music in general; just saying it don’t make it so.

  10. Jeremy Dylan
    March 14, 2011 at 3:47 pm

    I like the Willie Nelson reggae album!

  11. Rick
    March 14, 2011 at 6:22 pm

    I have the Cindy Walker tribute album and Willie’s free form phrasing on some of the songs borders on being an unmitigated disaster. Fortunately Willie doesn’t muck up all of those great old songs. Phew!

    I think I would find “Night Train To Nashville” interesting, but shouldn’t it have been a night train to Memphis instead? Hmm…

    Can’t say I care much for the other Americana/Texas type artists featured apart from Lyle Lovett’s better material, Hayes Carll live in concert, and some Robert Earl Keen songs now and again.

  12. Jon
    March 14, 2011 at 7:21 pm

    I think I would find “Night Train To Nashville” interesting, but shouldn’t it have been a night train to Memphis instead?

    *facepalm*

  13. idlewildsouth
    March 14, 2011 at 11:42 pm

    Honestly, I typically really get into the “genre” that Lost Highway loosely represents, but I really have to cherry pick a lot of their output. The only album out of these ten I really dig is the Willie Album. The rest of them I can take or leave.

  14. TXmusicjim
    March 15, 2011 at 9:41 am

    I think it depends on what type of music you identify with the most, these albums, every one of them, represent some of my favorite music and favorite artists. Comercial success not withstanding. I am admiting a bias towards Roots music that is left of center and out of the mainstream. I have not listened to mainstream country radio since the 90′s it just doesn’t speak to me anymore and thats why there is a albeit, small minority out there that loves the kind of stuff lost highway has released over the years. The mainstream of country music just doesn’t do anything for us anymore.

  15. Donald
    March 15, 2011 at 2:58 pm

    I don’t get the Night Train to Nashville/Memphis thing. Do you have to be from the south to understand the quip? BTW, Vol. 1 is simply a brilliant listen; I bought it while (almost) missing my (first and maybe only) flight out of Nashville. The display at the museum was a highlight of the trip, for me.

  16. Jon
    March 15, 2011 at 3:19 pm

    “Night Train To Memphis” is the name of a wildly popular song that was recorded by lots of country artists, but also by some r&b, jazz & rock folks. CMHOF decided to call the exhibit “Night Train To Nashville” as a kind of play off that, which Rick seems to have completely missed.

  17. Paul W Dennis
    March 15, 2011 at 10:36 pm

    I have severeal of these albums but I’d regard YOU DON’t KNOW ME and NIGHT TRAIN TO NASHVILLE as being the standouts

  18. Jeremy Dylan
    March 16, 2011 at 12:00 am

    Looking through their website, I remember that Lost Highway released some of my favourite albums of the past 10 years, including THE DELIVERY MAN (my favourite Elvis Costello album).

  19. the pistolero
    March 16, 2011 at 1:29 am

    Night Train To Memphis” is the name of a wildly popular song that was recorded by lots of country artists, but also by some r&b, jazz & rock folks. CMHOF decided to call the exhibit “Night Train To Nashville”

    You could have said that right after Rick posted his comment, instead of being a jerk about it.

  20. John Waugh
    March 28, 2011 at 2:17 pm

    I was saddened that you apparently delisted Hank Williams ‘Health and Happiness Shows’. Although somewhat swamped of late by another labels ‘Mother’s Best’, the ‘Health and Happiness’ shows still stand up very well and should continue to be available for historic reasons.

    John

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