In a typical year, labels tend to put out anything they're going to release by early November at the latest to make the Christmas buying spree. That meant the last major country releases pretty much until March were Sugarland's "Enjoy the Ride" and Keith Urban's "Love, Pain & the Whole Crazy Thing" in November 2006.
The major labels may have the radio stations to themselves, but the independent labels never stop putting out music of quality. In fact, there were many high quality releases from the independent labels and artists, including Tony Trischka, Peter Rowan and Tony Rice, Bill Kirchen, John Starling & Carolina Star, Johnny Bush and more during a time when the majors were all but dormant.
Finally in late March, a few key big label discs hit the street, including Tim McGraw's "Let It Go" Jack Ingram's "This Is It" and Martina McBride's "Waking Up Laughing."
One of the more intriguing albums in recent months was the Merle Haggard, Willie Nelson and Ray Price effort, "Last of the New Breed," which stands up well and certainly doesn't sound like an album from stars whose creative and artistic peak passed a few decades ago. The three country legends toured a bit around the March release of the disc by Lost Highway Records (home of Lucinda Williams, who put out the excellent "West" in February) and fortunately will hit the road again this summer.
In May, there was a definite up tick including excellent discs from Miranda Lambert and Gretchen Wilson, the return of John Anderson and a good sophomore album from Jason Aldean.
June sees very high profile albums from Big & Rich, Toby Keith and Brad Paisley. Bon Jovi, too, although that's not exactly honky tonk music.
What seems to be missing from the release schedule are albums from new artists. In fact, the only ones released so far this year were those of Jason Michael Carroll on Arista and Texas honky tonker Sunny Sweeney on Big Machine, which, unfortunately, as of yet has not been high on the radar screen. A few more new artists are currently on the release schedule for this summer - Cole Deggs & The Lonesome and Luke Bryan in July and August respectively, but without a hit single, those dates also could change.
One gets the sense that is a function of the most difficult marketplace where labels are facing diminishing sales and profit margins. With the cost of making an album, promotion and various other costs amounting to big bucks, labels are extremely careful and selective with new artists.
Until then, country and bluegrass fans will have to live with mainly tried and true artists or go the indie label/artist route. At least there's enough worthwhile music coming from mainstream to edgier country to satisfy for now.