2015 In Review

If It Ain’t Bro, Don’t Fix It: The Year In Country Music

At the CMAs this year, the music industry made itself make history. After years of bro country dominance, with prized trophies going to dudes with perfectly trimmed beards and more respected artists relegated to minor categories if not altogether forgotten, the biggest awards ceremony in Nashville issued a major statement about the future of country music by giving three of its top awards to a guy most viewers couldn’t pick out of a line-up. November third was Chris Stapleton’s night. In addition to Male Vocalist Of The Year and New Artist Of The Year, the Kentucky native also took home Album Of The Year for his debut, Traveller, beating out Kacey Musgraves, Jason Aldean, Little Big Town, and Kenny Chesney—who had all outsold him several times over.

But Stapleton’s greatest coup wasn’t any one trophy, but his performance with Justin Timberlake. The long-time friends played a medley of Stapleton’s single “Tennessee Whiskey” and JT’s own “Drink You Away,” from 2013’s The 20/20 Experience. It was a mash-up that on paper at least would contrast polished pop with hardscrabble country, clean-cut and tailored with hirsute and unkempt, “the Nashville sound” and the “the soul of Memphis,” to use presenter Brad Paisley’s words. In execution, however, the pairing highlighted the overlap between those seemingly disparate elements. “Tennessee Whiskey” may be a George Jones cover but it sounded more like an R&B ballad, and Stapleton sounds more like a soul singer than a country crooner, especially with those Stax-style horns behind him. And the great feat of “Drink You Away” is that it borrows the conventions of old-school Nashville songwriting and rearranges them into a kind of crossover avant pop song. Rumor has it that Timberlake might follow it up by recording a country album.

It was an event designed to go viral, appealing to country fans who think pop is too polished and pop fans who think country is too redneck. But it was a boon most of all to the CMAs, which looked like it had found a way to matter by challenging an industry that many felt had grown beholden to commercially reliable bro country at the expense of — so the argument goes — good music. Sure enough, Traveller shot to #1 on the Billboard album charts the very next week, selling more in the days after the CMAs than it had sold since its release back in May. And it’s already placing high on year-end lists, beating out the presumptive Americana AOTY by Jason Isbell.

And yet, if 2015 represents a changing of the guards, then the change may not be quite as dramatic as it first appeared. Stapleton may look and sound different than his male peers, but he’s no Nashville outsider. He’s been gigging around town for nearly 15 years, fronting a bluegrass band (the Steeldrivers) and a Southern rock band (the Jompson Brothers) and releasing a dud debut single back in 2013. In the last 10 years he’s co-written hits for Luke Bryan, Kenny Chesney, Thomas Rhett, Trace Adkins, Darius “Hootie” Rucker — the very same people he’s supposed to be deposing. Scruffier and rougher around the edges than his peers, Stapleton is no more or less traditional. It’s just that he’s drawing from a different pool of traditions — namely, ’70s country rock. Think Leon Russell, Hank Jr., or even Jamey Johnson. While Traveller is a supremely confident debut, it’s not so great that you can’t imagine him topping it in a few years when he’s not using whiskey metaphors the way Leonard Cohen uses Biblical allusions.

In other words, this isn’t the Nashville equivalent of Kurt Cobain obliterating hair metal. And that’s okay, because Stapleton doesn’t need to be anything other than a compelling artist. Moreover, bro country doesn’t need to be eradicated, just corralled a bit. That subgenre may in fact be pop music’s greatest strawman, a useful effigy derided by those who want country to remain dryly homogenous and traditionally pure. Sure, Old Dominion is horrible and LoCash imminently slappable; Chris Janson writes music for truck commercials, and Blake Shelton remains indistinguishable from cardboard standups of Blake Shelton.

But 2015 had its share of fine singles by artists who qualify as bro. Chris Young’s “I’m Comin’ Over” is a barnstormer about sexual thrall, and his vocals split the difference between desperate and dignified. On “She Don’t Love You,” Eric Paslay adds sympathetic nuance to that tired country staple — the woman who steals then breaks your heart — and emerges with a power ballad that turned out to be too understated and gentle for radio. More MOR than country, Luke Bryan’s late-year single “Strip It Down” is about hitting reset on a relationship, replacing distracting cell phones and demanding jobs with candlelit dinners and lots of getting it on. His idea of romance may be a bit threadbare, but the sentiment is strong and the song is a lush bouquet of gently looped beats and old-fashioned strings.

One of the most interesting debuts of the year is by a Georgia native named Sam Hunt, who taught himself to play guitar while recovering from football injuries. His first full-length, Montevallo, marries urban songwriting techniques and rural subject matter to create one of the most distinctive sounds on the radio. His use of AutoTune and “soundscapes” may rankle traditionalists, but that spoken-word delivery bridges the gap between R&B testifying and barnyard slam poetry. He sounds like Luke The Drifter in the studio with Drake, and “Break Up In A Small Town” understands its milieu well, not only the politics of small-town life but also the fact that small-town denizens are more likely to blast “Hotline Bling” than anything off Carrie Underwood’s unimaginative Storyteller.

What makes country bro, anyway? Does Eric Church qualify? By the sound of his new album, Mr. Misunderstood, he probably has more rock LPs in his record collection than country classics. In particular, he probably has Wilco’s entire discography. Not only did he follow the Tweedy model of record releasing — not free, but out of nowhere, bucking the traditional promotional cycle in a town where that might actually be illegal — but the opening track rewrites Wilco’s “Misunderstood,” which itself rewrote a song by Peter Laughner. That’s as close to Pere Ubu and Rocket From The Tombs as Nashville ever gets. “Mr. Misunderstood” is a damned opus: one of those things that shouldn’t work but somehow sounds better for taking so many risks. That song seems to have rejuvenated Church, who views bro country as a springboard into something like the avant-garde and his record collection as a sacred text. “Chattanooga Lucy” proves he sprung for those two Country Funk reissues at Grimey’s, and “Record Year” is one of the most insightful songs about music as a healing force. “Your good-and-gone keeps me up all night, along with Songs in the Key of Life,” he sings. “I’m either gonna get over you or I’m gonna blow out my ears.”

On one hand, this new generation of bros is stretching the definition of country, marrying that twang to hip-hop beats, pop production techniques, and rock power-chords to see how far the genre can bend before it breaks. And yet, what often sounds innovative can occasionally come across as too desperate to please, a lowest-common-denominator conception of some imagined radio listener who can’t decide between rural and urban formats. Perhaps that’s why Jason Isbell’s fourth-best solo album became such a cause célèbre earlier in the year: His depiction of small Southern towns on Something More Than Free is full of big- and broken-hearted people who have other things to worry about than how country they are and you aren’t.

For many, innovation in country music means looking backwards, not forwards. Tradition is always the avant-garde. That’s not a new development; it’s been the governing law of the genre since the Carters waxed nostalgic about their old mountain home. No one proves that better than Dave Rawlings, best known as the guy up on stage with Gillian Welch. He’s a triple threat: a fine songwriter, a resourceful guitar player, and a producer with such a keen ear that he can’t bring himself to press any of his or Welch’s records on vinyl. His second solo album under the name Dave Rawlings Machine — a de facto supergroup featuring Welch, Willie Watson of Old Crow Medicine Show, and Paul Kowert of the Punch Brothers — plumbs the depths of American folk history to create one of the weirdest roots album of 2015: a woozy picaresque through a country that’s part Dylan mythscape, part rustic fantasia. He owes as great a debt to Tom Franklin and Flannery O’Connor as he does to Robert Johnson or Dock Boggs.

One of his most ambitious songs is a 10-minute train ramble called “The Trip,” which not only evokes the various transients aboard a railcar but ponders their reasons for traveling: “So take a trip wherever your conscious has to roam, it’s much too hard to try to live a lie at home.” There’s something intriguing about that line, something both reassuring and unsettling: America is a place where you can reinvent yourself endlessly, where you can be a different person from one train stop to the next, although for some the endless possibilities are more daunting than freeing. Rawlings and Welch both understand that music, in particular country music, offers similar opportunities for transformation. Each song allows them to play new roles and speak in new voices, and they’re too busy perfecting the antiquated language and the homegrown melodies to bother with contemporary notions of authenticity. Their music is traditional and not traditional at all.

On the other hand, what does traditional even mean anymore? Increasingly it seems to refer not to what something is but to what something isn’t. Tradition doesn’t mean old; it means not new. It’s a hair-splitting distinction, but a telling one in a genre that prizes at least some display of rootedness. That implies a cloistered genre, but in 2015 country sounds more expansive and far-reaching than just about any other genre. It reasonably covers everything from alt-country OGs the Bottle Rockets, who sound just as feisty and funny on South Broadway Athletic Club as they did touring with Uncle Tupelo 25 years ago, to the Mekons, a group of graying Brits who kidnapped Robbie Fulks to record the maritime-themed Jura on a remote Scottish isle. Country is a blob that absorbs everything and everyone, from Pokey LaFarge, who dresses up to play old-timey hayseed swing, to Juan Cirerol, a Mexican singer-songwriter inspired by old-school American country artists as well as contemporary Mexicali musicians. Cirerol may have developed a reputation as one of the country’s most reckless performers, but his latest, Todo Fine, is carefully crafted and performed with a kind of slurred, sloshed panache. It won’t end up on many year-end country lists, but it should. It’s just as country as anything else out there.

Shovels & Rope, a husband-wife duo from Charleston, SC, reach out in every direction on their surprise covers album, each songs chosen and recorded with their roots-rock peers. They do Neil Young’s “Unknown Legend” with Shakey Graves and Allen Toussaint’s “Nothing Takes The Place Of You” with JD McPherson, but Busted Jukebox Volume 1 is the most invigorating when the song choices are ridiculous. Because why not turn “(What’s So Funny About) Peace, Love & Understanding?” into a rustic gospel number? Why not invite the Preservation Hall Jazz Band to pump some life into Lou Reed’s “Perfect Day”? And why not retrofit Nine Inch Nails’ exaggerated sado-macho anthem “Last” with a revving rockabilly beat and two distorted female voices? Somehow that last song conjures the sweaty get-a-room intensity and intimacy of their live shows, where Cary Ann Hearst and Michael Trent channel all their energy at each other instead of the audience. The album feeds off that audacity, which will hopefully carry over onto Volume 2. Perhaps they might be persuaded to cover the Courteeners’ “Not Nineteen Forever” with Jason Isbell?

The Mavericks are country only by association. A Nashville institution since the early 1990s, they actually broke up in 2004, took a decade off, and reconvened for a comeback album in 2013. In Time was a fine effort, but their follow-up, Mono, is even better. Its title refers to the means of recording these songs, which reinforces the daredevil dynamism of the band. In mono those horns sound even more vertiginous, that accordion even more mischievous, the keyboard glissandos even sparklier, and Raul Malo’s vocals even more powerful. Most of these songs, in particular “All Night Long” and “Do You Want Me To,” sound like lush, desperate seductions, emboldened by those Afro-Cuban horn lines and shot through with a life-is-short melancholy.

Rhiannon Giddens’ solo album, Tomorrow Is My Turn, her first away from the Carolina Chocolate Drops, is an ambitious concept album that collects covers of old blues and folk songs by women: “Last Kind Word Blues” by Geeshie Wiley, Dolly Parton’s “Don’t Let It Trouble Your Mind,” and “Shake Sugaree” by Elizabeth Cotten. It’s sequenced as a journey of feminist self-discovery, culminating in the Giddens-penned “Angel City.” While T Bone Burnett’s blah production threatens to render the proceedings purely academic, Giddens uses her operatic folk delivery to imbue every song with life and humanity.

That project is similar to Iris DeMent’s The Trackless Woods, which is one of those albums that sounds better on paper than it does on your stereo. DeMent based this new batch of songs on the works of Russian modernist poet Anna Akhmatova, perhaps best known for challenging the Stalinist regime in verse. It’s clear that the Arkansas-born DeMent appreciates the Odessa-born Akhmatova’s vivid imagery and meditations on memory, and these songs turn those poems into sweetly rustic front-porch hymns. Woods is overlong at 18 tracks, and once the novelty of this unlikely translation wears off, it leaves the impression that something essential is missing — namely, DeMent’s own words.

Despite its no-fucks-given album cover, Shelby Lynne’s latest, I Can’t Explain, reasserts her mastery of a country-soul sound so breezy that it’s easy to dismiss the craft of it. But these are sturdy songs full of eloquent turns of lyrical and melodic phrase: country music as a daydream reverie. It’s what Adele might sound like if 47 turns out to be a roots record. I Can’t Explain may have been overshadowed by the recent reissue of her career-making 1999 album I Am… (which famously won her a Best New Artist Grammy despite having been in the business for a decade), but Lynne is still doing her own thing on her own label far from the industry that tried to round out her eccentricities.

Patty Griffin, on the other hand, continues to do anything but sound like her last album. Following a Southern blues record made with members of the North Mississippi All Stars, Servant of Love is full of shimmery folk tunes, weightless guitar strums held to the ground by her robust vocals. These songs were reportedly written about her recent break-up with Robert Plant, a bit of Americana soap opera that neither side has discussed at length in interviews or in songs. What’s remarkable about Servant is its stoicisms and generosity: Rather than entertain the usual recriminations, Griffin is more concerned with moving on, nursing a broken but not a bitter heart. In other words, these might be break-up songs, but they’re not breakdown songs.

Perhaps more than any other genre, country music is full of veterans who simply keep on keepin’ on, which makes their albums all too easy to take for granted. And yet, that stratum of artists shows how each generation of artists defines tradition slightly differently. Steve Earle finally made good on his promise/threat to make a Texas blues album — a project he’s been talking about for years now — and Terraplane Blues sounds well researched, with a scope as broad as the Lone Star State itself. He ranges from acoustic blues (think Robert Johnson) to electric (think Stevie Ray Vaughan), and Earle displays a goody, randy sense of humor on “Baby Baby Baby (Baby)” and “Go Go Boots Are Back.” Elsewhere he sounds like he’s trying way too hard to settle into role of wizened bluesman, tossing out references to Bob Johnson, Paganini, Faust, and the devil himself on “The Tennessee Kid.”

Ray Wylie Hubbard drops better names. The redneck mystic offers shoutouts to Big Joe Williams and Little White on “Mr. Musselwhite’s Blues,” from his latest The Ruffian’s Misfortune, and he doesn’t give one measly shit if you know who any of those folks are. He expects you to be curious enough to look them up. Hubbard plays a much more comfortable version of country blues than Earle does, but then again, he’s had nearly fifty years of practice. He wears those years well, embracing the wisdom of experience over the foolhardiness of youth but penning a mash note to a frontwoman who sports ripped fishnet and reminds him of a “drunk Chrissie Hynde.” That song may be called “Chick Singer, Badass Rockin’,” but he’s not ogling her. Instead, he sounds relieved that the future of music is in such good hands.

Like Hubbard, Dale Watson has little time for themed albums. Part of his appeal is the astounding breadth of his so-called “Ameripolitan” music, which incorporates what he calls the “four main branches” of country: western swing, honkytonk, rockabilly, and outlaw. With possibly the best album cover of the year, Call Me Insane is indeed crazy in its sprawl, finding the exact midpoint between Bob Wills, Buck Owens, Elvis Presley, and Doug Sahm, and that’s exactly what makes the album so rewarding: You never know what the next song will sound like. He even throws in a Latin polka called “Tienes Cabeza De Palo,” and I can’t think of another artist who could get away with it.

Okay, maybe Willie Nelson could do Latin polka, but only because it’s maybe the only thing he hasn’t done. It was a slow year for the Red-Headed Stranger, in that he only released one album in 2015. But Django & Jimmie is a doozie: a sweet-sad collaboration with Merle Haggard, who if that album cover is correct lost his arms recently. These two legends have legendary chemistry, laid back and affable and inviting, and they get a good laugh out of their legacies. They can’t carouse like they once did, the music biz has less and less room for them, and they’re left wondering if the world has gone to pot. How has Willie not used that joke before? And can “Missing Ol’ Johnny Cash” (which features Bobby Bare) actually be a new song when it sounds like Hag’s been kicking it around for decades?

Dale and Willie and Hag and Steve and Shelby are all fine examples of how to age gracefully in this unforgiving industry, yet their secret is simple: Just keep going. It’s a lesson that echoes throughout solid album by aging stars like Alan Jackson, Reba McEntire, and Toby Keith. Cold Beer Conversation may not rank among George Strait’s best or most popular albums, but it’s still a strong entry in his immense catalog. There’s a certain barstool zen quality to songs like “Let It Go” and “Goin’ Goin’ Gone,” as though he’s no longer trying to remain relevant to country radio, but there’s still a spark to his vocals, a sly wink that lets you know that this codger knows more than he’s telling.

Dwight Yoakam likewise took a circuitous route, coming up in the L.A. punk scene (he’s shared stages with X and Los Lobos), updating the Bakersfield sound in the 1980s, and being branded a Neotraditionalist despite emphasizing very different traditions from others like Ricky Skaggs and Keith Whitley. His particular brand of revivalism hasn’t changed significantly over nineteen albums, and that’s okay when Second Hand Heart sounds so raw and so irreverent toward its influences. Yoakam isn’t afraid to rough up “Man of Constant Sorrow,” which has been a live staple for a few years now.

Some of the freshest and most exciting artists of 2015 are engaging with the past to find the new. On his breakout album, High On Tulsa Heat, John Moreland paid tribute to his home state of Oklahoma — the Tulsa County stars, the Indian Nation sky — in much the same way ’70s singer-songwriters extolled the virtues of the Colorado Rockies, and in doing so he made the Sooner State sound like the perfect salve for a broken heart. Similarly, on one of the year’s finest debuts, the Deslondes mined the local lore of certified not-country-capital New Orleans for inspiration, as though the Louisiana Hayride was actually broadcasting from about 300 miles southeast of Shreveport. They sound like they’ve learned their licks from Professor Longhair and Fats Domino, pickpocketed their melodies from Randy Newman, and borrowed their energy from an army of unrecorded street musicians, all of which gave The Deslondes the force of a mission statement and — with Hurray For The Riff Raff, the Long Time Goners, and Luke Winslow King — are turning the Big Easy into one of the most compelling country scenes in America.

And then there’s Ashley Monroe, who’s been in the business nearly a decade yet still seems like an up-and-coming new artist. She has a clear, strong voice that gets compared to Dolly Parton and a fashion sense that suggests Barbara Mandrell by way of Jeannie C. Riley, yet she never comes across like she was playing dress-up in borrowed clothes. Her latest album, The Blade, sounded devastatingly real, alternating between heart-rending break-up ballads and gentle anthems of consolation that gained sad relevance as 2015 grew more horrifying. There was no pop metaphor more devastating this year than the chorus of the title track: “You caught it by the handle, baby, and I caught it by the blade.” And there was no chorus more reassuring than that of “From Time To Time”, one of the loveliest anthems of the year: “Someday, you’ll be fine/ Sweet as wine. Neither line looks like much on paper, but that’s the power of Monroe’s voice and Vince Gill’s luxuriant production.

Monroe, however, is still just breaking out. Kacey Musgraves, on the other hand, is actually crossing over with her second album, the bright and ballsy Pageant Material. Rather than go full pop like Taylor Swift — as Stereogum’s own Caitlin White hoped she might — Musgraves doubled down on her small-town sensibilities, presenting herself with a bit of Heehaw chic but generally nailing that flyover milieu. She has a knack for cheerily upending country conventions, whether telling you to mind your own biscuits or deciding that she doesn’t care for that tiara after all. “I’m always higher than my hair,” she admits, then adds, “It’s not that I don’t care about world peace, but I don’t see how I can fix it in a swimsuit on a stage.” The song is sassily defiant and incredibly clever, not to mention weirdly prophetic in a year when an actual nurse who saves actual lives created controversy by talking about her job during the Miss America pageant.

And that’s what’s so bracing about Monroe and Musgraves. Country is never such a serious undertaking that they can’t poke a little fun at the world and at themselves, and even then there’s something powerfully subversive in their humor. They wear country comfortably rather than project their barnyard bona fides in every verse, and it’s a trait they share with a few of their contemporaries. Aubrie Sellers’ greatest innovation is marrying country songwriting with indie-rock guitars, but Lilly Hiatt does her one better on Royal Blue, soundtracking her witty songs about angst and alienation with post-punk synths and surf-rock drums. Inspirational song title: “Jesus Would Have Let Me Pick The Restaurant.”

A Canadian singer-songwriter who looks goth but sounds twang, Lindi Ortega is so far removed from the machinery of Nashville that she hold forth bittersweetly on bad neighborhoods and junkie lovers. Faded Gloryville imagines her best days are behind her, which is a bit fatalistic for a fourth album and downright delusional for her best. She’s a born storyteller, with a knack for creating complex characters and conveying the bitter vagaries of love in eloquently economic language. By contrast, Carrie Underwood may be one of the biggest names in Nashville, but her latest, Storyteller, proves she can’t spin a yarn to save her life.

Maddie & Tae belong in that category as well, although they’re definitely attacking from inside the castle. Last year their debut single, “Girl In A Country Song,” slyly and incisively dissected bro country tropes, and the video turned the tables by dressing dudes up in Daisy Dukes. “Shut Up And Fish” was even better, about a city slicker trying to put the moves on a woman who just wants to cast her line.

If they keep writing songs that funny and incisive, Maddie & Tae could be the future of country music: the music that tomorrow’s artists consider traditional. The same goes for Untamed, the adventurous debut by a California native who goes by the name Cam. Like many of her peers, she came to Nashville as a songwriter, and she has penned tunes for Maggie Rose and, yep, Miley Cyrus. She’s already notched two surprise hits, including one of the best singles of the year, “Burning House.”

Untamed is the last great album of 2015, released on 12/11 by Arista/RCA Nashville. The weeks before Christmas are a graveyard for new releases, a period when labels release a big holiday box set or an afterthought hip-hop album. It’s certainly not the month to break a new artist or a fine album. Cam’s rough treatment suggests the industry may not have its head out of its ass just yet after all.