2023 Singer/Songwriters You Need to Know

What does the term “singer/songwriter” really mean at this juncture in music history? If you want to take it literally, it could be a pan-genre term applying to anybody stitching their own tunes together, whether it’s Post Malone or Pete Seeger. But by this point, “singer/songwriter” is pretty much an idiom unto itself, a big umbrella that can cover comfortably cover rootsy acoustic strummers or rockers with a storytelling bent. For our purposes here, as we navigate some of the finest singer/songwriter statements that you might have missed this year, let’s adopt a definition somewhere in between—one that can encompass Americana and chamber-pop practitioners and still leave room for more experimentally inclined artistes. Some of the names below may be new to you, while others are already beloved, but maybe operating on more of an under-the-radar level than ever. Either way, dig into this delicious list.

Long Haul Paul – Legends of the Lost Highway

“Long Haul” Paul Marhoefer didn’t get his nickname by accident. He’s spent a lot more of his life driving trucks across America than recording music. But all those years of rolling down the highways have given him tons of stories about life on the road and the people who live it. And fortunately for the rest of us, he’s got a hell of a gift for telling tales that feel not just real but relevant, even to people who’ve never come closer to a big rig than listening to “Convoy.” Framed by a raw-but-righteous mix of folk, country, and rock ‘n’ roll, that gift makes Long Haul Paul one of 2023’s most resonant troubadours—the kind of real-deal working-class hero Springsteen can only dream of being.

Paul Simon – Seven Psalms

Paul Simon has always been one of those rare artists who becomes increasingly adventurous the more time passes. So, it makes perfect sense that his first album as an octogenarian is arguably the most ambitious and unconventional project of his career. The construction of the continuous, 33-minute suite automatically precludes the possibility of singles, promo videos, or significant radio play, but art is Simon’s master, not commerce. And this elegant but organic acoustic-based meditation on faith and mortality just might be one of his greatest artistic achievements.


Django Haskins – Lost World

With his band The Old Ceremony, Django Haskins has established himself as a local hero in North Carolina. But his light shines just as bright when he’s working on his own. His latest release differs from his earlier solo albums mostly in his choice of piano as his primary musical tool. But anybody who’s been keeping even an occasional eye on his output over the years will immediately recognize the signature combination of adventurous harmonic moves and unfettered lyrical imagination.


Chris Stamey – The Great Escape

Besides being an indie-rock cult legend as co-founder of The dB’s, Chris Stamey has been one of North Carolina’s most gifted songsmiths for even longer than Django Haskins, with a discography that goes back to the ‘70s. (Unsurprisingly, Stamey and Haskins have also collaborated). After some intriguingly outside-the-box releases over the last few years, Stamey revisits his guitar-based pop/rock roots on his latest outing, with pedal steel and a country rock tinge as attractive added ingredients, and his off-the-charts level of melodic invention as impressive as ever. Power-pop aficionados will want to catch “She Might Look My Way,” penned by late, great songwriters Alex Chilton and Tommy Hoehn.

Bob Hillman – Downtown in the Rain

Over the last several years, Bay Area songwriter Bob Hillman has dipped into everything from collaborations with ambient/experimental guitarist Gerry Leonard to chamber-folk arrangements with wind and strings. But this drum-less, acoustic-led EP is one of his most haunting and emotionally arresting releases. Significantly colored by the pedal steel mastery of Greg Leisz, the tracks bear a distinctively West Coast vibe, with Hillman’s sharp-shooting lyricism and hook-heavy melodic gift showing up as strongly as ever.


Joanna Sternberg – I’ve Got Me

Native New Yorker Joanna Sternberg is a young songwriter with an old soul. Echoes of close-to-the-bone artists like Elliott Smith and Daniel Johnston and craft-conscious masters like Randy Newman and Carole King come across on tunes that encompass the trials of a life spent identifying as “other.” But there’s a hopefulness at the core that merges with Sternberg’s inherent tunefulness to make this an emotionally balanced (and unfailingly tasty) meal.

Lane Steinberg – Headspace

Lane Steinberg is the kind of crazily prolific pop genius who seems to turn out a stunningly built batch of new tunes every time you turn around. When he’s not teaming up with the similarly blessed Dave Foster as The Gershwin Brothers, he’s busy tearing it up on his own. On his latest in a long line of ultra-hooky meisterwerks, Steinberg gives us an idea of what it might sound like if Brian Wilson were an indie bedroom-pop polymath turning out one-man marvels of melodic architecture.


Rachel Garlin – The Ballad of Madelyne & Therese

At this point in time, if you’re going to release a concept album, the concept had better be a pretty damn good one. San Franciscan Rachel Garlin has got it covered. This “album that hopes to become a musical one day” tells the story of two women carrying on a clandestine romantic relationship in 1940s New York City. Like all truly successful concept albums, it works whether you follow the storyline or not, with nuanced folk-rock arrangements rolling out the welcome mat. But the narrative feels as fresh and compelling as the tunes, and as you make your way across the album, that aforementioned musical version becomes increasingly easy to imagine.


Robbie Fulks – Bluegrass Vacation

Over time, veteran alt-country auteur Robbie Fulks has assembled a titanic catalog of sharply written Americana gems that range from outrageous satire to gut-punching poignancy. But this is the first time he’s ever made his way around to a full album-length exploration of bluegrass. The sound suits him right down to the ground, and appearances by bluegrass legends including Sam Bush and Jerry Douglas don’t hurt either.


Margo Cilker – Valley of Heart’s Delight

Your humble correspondent was getting set to finalize this list when a last-minute recommendation by his journalistic hero Allan Jones resulted in this dark horse entry. On her second album, Cilker taps into an eminently attractive blend of folk, country, and roots rock somewhere between Wildflowers-era Tom Petty and vintage Lucinda Williams. The sparkling production by fellow songwriter and onetime Band of Horses drummer Sera Cahoone deserves special mention, but Cilker’s penetrating vocals and plainspoken poetry carry the day.


Jerry David DeCicca – New Shadows

Remember when Neil Young threw the folk-rock faithful for a loop by taking some moves from the synth-pop playbook for his album Trans? There’s a bit of that happening here, but on a subtler level, as acoustic Texas troubadour Jerry DeCicca onboards some electronic accouterments. But there are still plenty of organic arrangements to be found amid the fresh sounds. And guests like Los Lobos’s David Hidalgo and Steve Berlin help usher New Shadows into a realm all its own.


Mya Byrne – Rhinestone Tomboy

Where is alt-country headed next? Here’s one potential direction, and New York-based Byrne makes the possibility sound pretty attractive. Whether she’s slamming through a smoldering rocker or unfurling a shimmering ballad, the emotions are upfront and authentic, and Aaron Lee Tasjan’s production helps keep up the momentum no matter the mode.

-Jim Allen

Photo: Long Haul Paul (fair use image)

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1 comment on “2023 Singer/Songwriters You Need to Know

  1. Adabelle Rodriguez

    Long Haul Paul (Marhoefer) is a living legend! I have all of his albums.

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