Well, it certainly looked like the CMAs got political this year after all.
Prior to Nashville’s biggest and splashiest event of the year, the Country Music Association issued new guidelines to media outlets covering the red carpet arrivals of the genre’s biggest celebrities, requesting they pose no questions about “the Las Vegas tragedy, gun rights, political affiliations or topics of the like.” The Nashville Scene was among the first to point out these new rules, even citing what sounded like a veiled threat: “If you are reported as straying from these guidelines, your credential will be reviewed and potentially revoked via security escort.” Ostensibly, the CMAs were reluctant to alienate its core audience, which was long been identified as rural, conservative, religious, and uniformly against gun control. But the unintended effect of the decree was to underscore the growing rift between country artists and their fans.
The artists weren’t having it. Brad Paisley, who was set to co-host the awards ceremony with Carrie Underwood, tweeted his disappointment: “I’m sure the CMA will do the right thing and rescind these ridiculous and unfair press guidelines. In 3…2….1…..” And sure enough, two hours later, the CMAs officially rescinded the guidelines, freeing members of the press to ask any questions they wanted. Of course, the red carpet coverage tended more toward designers and dresses than gun control and Trump.
All that hubbub seemed especially odd considering how political the ceremony itself was. “Now Brad,” Underwood joked at the beginning of the show, “I don’t know if you’ve heard about this, but the CMA has given us some guidelines with specific topics to avoid, so we can’t be doing any of our silly little songs, because this year’s show is ‘a politics-free zone'” (air quotes hers). They took weak jabs at Hillary and Bernie and Scaramucci (thus extending his notoriety well past its 15 minutes); by comparison, they savaged our Commander-In-Chief, rewriting Underwood’s 2005 hit “Before He Cheats” as “Before He Tweets.”
Right now, he’s probably in his PJs watching cable news
reaching for his cell phone in the middle of the night.
From the privacy of a gold-plated white toilet seat,
he’s writing Liddle Bob Corker, NFL and covfefe.
They didn’t sound angry or outraged or even particularly activist; rather, the pair struck a tone of chagrin and astonishment. A much more serious moment occurred later in the program, when Underwood teared up singing a version of “Softly And Tenderly” that was anything but soft and tender. It wasn’t the song that made her emotional, but the memoriam to the country fans killed at the Route 91 Festival in Las Vegas. This was the CMA’s idea of a sensitive and appropriate acknowledgement, but after the dust-up over the press guidelines—and after so many shots of celebrities who had not suffered violent deaths—the clip, paired with Underwood choking back tears, played like something much more powerful and pointed, as if to ask: Why are these names up there?
It was very careful, very controlled, some might say timid, especially for an industry that had no hesitation selling its very conservative politics after 9/11. This year there were cries for unity, an old canard that’s grown as meaningless as “thoughts and prayers,” but the CMAs pushed for a different kind of unity: an industrial unity, as though every artist, every executive, every publicist, every member of the press must toe the line when it comes to any issue. Props to Eric Church for making his opening version of “Amazing Grace” sound like a protest sound (and let’s take those props right back for ending his performance with Hootie & The Blowfish’s “Hold My Hand”). And let’s have some applause for Keith Urban for his performance of what seems like a genuine if ham-fisted ode to respecting women called “Female.” Which only shows how far the culture of country music has changed over the past decade, an artist-led migration toward the left—or, perhaps more accurately, at least toward a center of decency and tolerance. Of course, Urban can enjoy more radio airplay for “Female” than most female artists.
As hokey as they are, the CMAs are a bellwether for country music. They’re more representative of their industry than the Oscars are for filmmaking or the Grammys are for music. And this year more than any other year in recent memory, the CMAs showed an industry looking very carefully at itself and trying to reconcile certain contradictions—political, musical, and cultural. It’s a messy process, haphazard and possibly leading to no particular satisfying epiphany. But it’s an important start, especially in a year when the biggest event in country music wasn’t an awards show or an album release or a tour announcement, but a massacre. The mass shooting on October 1 left 58 people dead and 546 more injured, most of them country fans.
The horrifying event brought the debate about gun control right to the industry that has a lot to glorify and normalize gun culture. It made proud gun owners like Caleb Keeter draw a line. “I’ve been a proponent of the 2nd amendment my entire life,” the Josh Abbott Band guitarist wrote on Twitter. “Until the events of last night. I cannot express how wrong I was. We actually have members of our crew with CHL licenses, and legal firearms on the bus. They were useless… A small group (or one man) laid waste to a city with dedicated, fearless police officers desperately trying to help, because of access to an insane amount of fire power.”
He wasn’t alone. In November, Tim McGraw spoke to Billboard about his The Time Of Our Life, his new duets album with wife Faith Hill. The topic soon turned to guns. “Look, I’m a bird hunter — I love to wing-shoot… However, there is some common sense that’s necessary when it comes to gun control. They want to make it about the Second Amendment every time it’s brought up. It’s not about the Second Amendment.” Said Hill, “In reference to the tragedy in Las Vegas, we knew a lot of people there. The doctors that [treated] the wounded, they saw wounds like you’d see in war. That’s not right. Military weapons should not be in the hands of civilians. It’s everyone’s responsibility, including the government and the National Rifle Association, to tell the truth. We all want a safe country.”
Are two of the biggest country stars in the world trying to take your guns away? Or is this actually a well-considered and compassionate cry for a “well regulated Militia” (italics mine), as the Second Amendment attests? That puts McGraw, Hill, and Keeter in line with folks like Johnny Cash and Steve Earle, who recorded songs like “Don’t Take Your Guns To Town” and “Devil’s Right Hand” with very gray-area takes on guns. So far none of these centrist viewpoints has tricked down into the music these artists are making, but it’s early. And it still seems unlikely that a label would release to radio — and radio would actually play — a song calling for common sense regarding gun control, but who knows? Perhaps we are seeing the first wave of a greater cultural change, and certainly country musicians can affect the debate about one of the most important issues facing us at the moment more than Lady Gaga or Wilco. They can do more than preach to the choir.
For the most part, however, mainstream country stayed mum on politics. Far and away the most popular country song of the year was Sam Hunt’s “Body Like A Back Road,” a little nothing of a song about a woman with no shoulders. It’s the success story of the year, if not the decade: a record-breaking 34 weeks at the top of the Billboard Hot Country Songs chart and the highest-charting country song on the Hot 100 singles chart in four years. Not bad, especially for a song that had no physical release whatsoever, yet its success is literally the only remarkable thing about it.
Hunt is perhaps the most popular in a new trend of male country artists who reject the cowboy trappings of the traditionalists and the hat acts alike. It’s slightly different from bro country, slightly younger. Sneakers replace boots; backwards baseball caps replace 10-gallon hats. Tattoos instead of cattle brands, hip-hop beats and cadences instead of live drummers and twang. Kane Brown looks more like an aspiring rapper than a successful country singer, and “What Ifs” (the song that ended Hunt’s reign) has more to do with Justin Beiber than Jason Isbell. Devin Dawson was a YouTube star best known for mashing up Taylor Swift songs before he released his breakout single, “All On Me,” which previews a promising debut album in early 2018. Luke Combs at least has a big, twangy voice, but “Hurricane” suggests he doesn’t know what to do with it. And Walker Hayes exists. I’m told.
There’s a lot to criticize about these tat acts, but the least convincing complaint is that they veer too far from their roots. That’s an argument almost as old as country music itself, which has always flirted with pop and which has always entertained ambitions beyond the hollers and hayrides many consider to be its true home. Every generation has introduced new innovations to scoffs and finger wags from traditionalists, but there’s a lot to like about country radio in 2017. “In Case You Didn’t Know,” the double-platinum second single by Brett Young, is a solid piece of understated country soul, and Midland recall the great hat acts of the ’90s with their widely praised debut On The Rocks, as though we’ve finally reached a moment when we can be nostalgic for Garth Brooks’ heyday. And forget Urban’s awkward “Female.” His best single of 2017 was “Blue Ain’t Your Color,” which is ostensibly about a sad woman at a bar. But really it’s about how easy it is to meld contemporary country to 70s smooth pop and soul.
None of that is “real” country music, according to many listeners who prefer their twang with a bit more knowledge of its roots. And yet, the Nashville fringes had its share of duds this year. I’ll take the polished postmillennial countrypolitan of Kelsea Ballerini over Angaleena Presley’s awkward and overpraised Wrangled, which actually featured a cameo by Yelawolf. And I’ll take the ambitious pop country of Lady Antebellum and Little Big Town over the wiseacre debut of songwriter Charlie Worsham, who is more clever than soulful.
But what even constitutes the country fringes anymore? And what even constitutes country? Is Rhiannon Giddens country? Or is country simply one genre among many in her incredible arsenal? (She released one of the most powerful albums of the year, but I’m not including it below to do her the favor of not pigeonholing her.) Hurray For The Riff Raff jettisoned the country-folk of their previous albums so that Alynda Lee Segarra could evoke the Bronx of the 1970s on their sci-fi concept album The Navigator, one of the best albums of the year. Is Becca Mancari country? Is Valerie June? Maybe it sounds like splitting hairs, but the fact that we can have this conversation about these artists suggests that the boundaries between what gets marketed as “country” and what gets thought of as “roots” or “Americana” or more blandly as “singer-songwriter” might be breaking down. Or at least becoming more and more permeable and permissive, allowing a lot more perspectives, a lot more sounds, a lot more different kinds of artists. However, you define “country,” it has rarely seemed quite as diverse as it has recently.
Maybe that’s why Sturgill Simpson was busking outside the CMAs last month. He may have made the news for a clip of him strumming a guitar with handmade signs that read, “I don’t take requests but I take questions about anything you want to talk about … because fascism sucks,” and, “Struggling country singer … anything helps, (all donations go to the ACLU). God bless America.” He wasn’t actually protesting gun control or Trump or any other serious issue. His man gripe had to do with music control: who decides what gets recognized on radio and at award shows. It was easy to dismiss his stunt as sour grapes, as he received a Grammy for his remarkable A Sailor’s Guide To Earth but not a single CMA nomination. But his aim isn’t to fill his own coffers but to smash the system, to seize the means not of production but of dissemination. He made the difference between the country mainstream and the country margins seem inherently political, which is very important.
And perhaps that seemed redundant when the Album Of The Year was announced and Chris Stapleton accepted the trophy for From A Room Vol. 1. Two years ago the hirsute singer-songwriter had stunned Nashville when he won the same award for his solo debut, Traveller. It signaled a seismic shift in country music, the triumph of “real” country over bro country or whatever strawman people assign to Nashville. And yet, what seemed like a revolution might actually be a cult of personality. From A Room Vol. 1 is a fine album (see our list below), but in the scope of Stapleton’s very young recording career it already seems like a minor entry. This year he beat out excellent new records by Lady Antebellum, Little Big Town, Jason Isbell, and especially Miranda Lambert.
Perhaps it’s all due to Stapleton’s politics. Or his very practiced lack thereof. As revolutionaries go, the man avoids any kind of social commentary in favor of highly confessional songwriting that reinvents and updates country conventions. His death row song has nothing to say about capital punishment; his weed song has nothing to say about legalization. When he covers the Staple Singers, it’s not “Freedom Highway” or even “Respect Yourself,” but the less politicized “Friendship.” He’s a fine singer and songwriter with a raw, live sound, but at a time when country needs to address certain aspects of its culture, he’s already in danger of sounding like the same ol’ same ol’.
Stapleton may not have deserved that Album Of The Year trophy, but the two volumes of From A Room, one released in May and the other in December, managed to find a place on the top ten albums of the year. So without further ado, here they are.
10 RaeLynn – WildHorse (Warner Nashville)
Some of Nashville’s biggest artists are alumni of voice shows. Joining Miranda Lambert (third-place finish on Nashville Star) and Carrie Underwood (season-four winner on American Idol) is Racheal Lynn Woodward, who was a quarter-finalist on the second season of The Voice in 2014. Afterwards, she was shuffled around Nashville, signing with three labels before she released her debut. That experience must have given her some confidence to develop her voice, because WildHorse presents a fully formed artist. With a bit of Texas drawl still in her voice, she proves a careful and imaginative interpreter, adding a steely defiance to the title track and boundless compassion to “Love Triangle.” That may be her finest moment: It’s a divorce saga told from the point of view of a kid enduring her parents’ divorce, which means it could have been saccharine or hackneyed. But RaeLynn finds the humanity in the details of the story—the matinee movies and the bowling alley burgers—and finds the sad wisdom of that chorus.
9 Jason Isbell & The 400 Unit – The Nashville Sound (Southeastern)
Amanda Shires got him sober, and their daughter got him woke. On his sixth album since leaving the Drive-By Truckers, Isbell confronts his own privilege on “White Man’s World,” where he admits he can only imagine the oppression women (like his wife and daughter) and non-whites face. That sense of injustice bleeds into every song here, whether it’s the class anthem “Cumberland Gap” or the truly devastating “If We Were Vampires,” about how he hopes he dies before Shires does. It’s not his best album (that’s still Southeastern), but it’s his riskiest album, his boldest, but also his most open-ended, as though he knows he’ll still be wrestling with these songs for years to come.
08 Natalie Hemby – Puxico (GetWrucke)
Like Stapleton, this Missouri native has been working hard in Nashville for years, co-writing hits for Brett Eldredge, Toby Keith, Little Big Town, and Miranda Lambert. Unlike Stapleton, her solo debut was not met with universal acclaim and all the awards. Which is a shame, because Puxico, named for Hemby’s hometown, has such a warm country sound that ranges from the two-step beat of opener “Time Honored Tradition” to the weepy pedal steel of “Ferris Wheel.” These songs sound like something you might hear at a Nashville bar in 2017 or in a deleted scene from Robert Altman’s Nashville. Few artists straddle the country mainstream and the margins as gracefully as Hemby.
7 Willie Nelson – God’s Problem Child (Legacy)
How does Willie keep doing it? Into his ninth decade on this planet he’s still adding essential new installments to his catalog. God’s Problem Child is a mix of new originals and covers that finds his wit and rhythm intact. Willie penned seven of these songs texting back and forth with his friend and producer Buddy Cannon, so they have a crackling humor and a friendly charm, especially “Still Not Dead.” “Well, I woke up still not dead again today,” he (ahem) deadpans. “The internet said I had passed away.” Mortality is on his mind, on his lovely version of Donnie Fritts’ “Old Timer” as well as on “He Won’t Ever Be Gone,” but 83 and still touring as hard as ever, he’s facing death with a joint in his hand and a smile on his face.
6 Chris Stapleton – From A Room Vol. 1 and Vol. 2 (Mercury Nashville)
Stapleton may not be the most outspoken country artist in Nashville; in fact, he’s studiously apolitical, even on songs about death row, lost farms, and weed. But he compensates with his insights into the inner livers of fuck-ups and castabouts. These two mini-albums present new recordings of songs Stapleton wrote or co-wrote in the fifteen years between moving to Nashville and releasing his solo debut, along with a handful of covers. When he hews closely to country’s standard narratives of hearts broken and yearning, Stapleton can wring an entire life out of a few lines, as he does on “Nobody’s Lonely Tonight.” Sketching out two people talking at a bar, Stapleton proposes a hook-up more pragmatic than romantic, along with some of the saddest role-playing imaginable: “You be her and I’ll be him. For a while we’ll pretend nobody’s lonely tonight.” He excels at deftly twisting country conventions, making them seem new and newly heartbreaking.
5 Colter Wall – Colter Wall (Young Mary’s/Thirty Tigers)
Hailing from the wilds of Saskatchewan but at least temporarily based in Kentucky, this young country singer has a voice that reaches out and shakes you. Big and booming, it sounds like some sort of natural landmark, like Castle Butte if it could talk. And Wall matches it to a songwriting voice that is vivid and economical as he pens scofflaws’ laments that make old country ideas sound new. On “Thirteen Silver Dollars” he drunkenly sings a Jimmie Rodgers tune to an unimpressed Mountie. On “Me And Big Dave” he locates an otherworldly source for his own recklessness and self-destruction. On “Motorcycle” he takes a couple bottles of thunderbird down to Music Row and “pour it on the pavement like you would a tombstone.” It sounds like a threat from someone who might actually be able to back it up.
4 Valerie June – The Order Of Time (Concord)
Ten years ago Valerie June recorded two albums at Memphis’ famed Ardent Studios, but couldn’t find a label to release them. Since then she’s recorded what became her debut with the Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach, played the White House (when that meant something), and got a shout-out from none other than Bob Dylan. But her latest album is her greatest accomplishment, a stirring and wholly original take on American music. Aside from the groove-based “Shakedown” and “Man Done Wrong,” she specializes in a weightless country blues. Songs like “The Front Door” and “Two Hearts” just hover in front you, held aloft by the soft twang in her voice and the eccentric cadence of her phrasing. She’s seen enough to know that it isn’t really even country music in the end. “I could sing you a country tune an carry the name Sweet Valerie June,” she sings, “but I got soul… sweet, sweet soul.”
3 David Rawlings – Poor David’s Almanack (Acony)
I don’t know how he does it. David Rawlings, the musical and romantic partner of Gillian Welch, opens his third solo album with a song about a train and a lover who cries when you leave on that train. That’s the subject of countless folk and blues tunes throughout the last century and beyond, and still Rawlings makes it sound fresh and meaningful and necessary. As ever, he plumbs the dark corners of American music and makes old sounds mean new things, with a deft picking style and a playful sense of structure and repetition. “Lindsey Button” follows a young woman who does nothing more than come down the mountain and carve two names in a sapling. It’s not the story that’s important, but the fact that Rawlings has written about it: “Now all are gone but this song remembers.” That’s the power of this modest album: Rawlings understands that music grants a kind of immortality.
2 Margo Price – All American Made (Third Man)
The subject of Margo Price’s solo debut was Margo Price herself, a resilient artist who made art from her tribulations. On her follow-up she gets to the roots of some of those tribulations. Her family didn’t just lose their farm when she was a kid; as “Heart Of American” makes clear, it was taken from them. She didn’t just get battered around by Nashville; as “Pay Gap” makes clear, that city’s sexist culture is part of a larger problem. America in the 2010s is the subject of this smart and compassionate follow-up, and she’s resourceful enough as a singer-songwriter and her backing band is dexterous enough to reflect the vast diversity that title might imply. And that album-ending title track might be her finest moment, a sad-hearted indictment of a particularly American strain of anomie that was written for her former band Buffalo Clover and already sounds like it’s from another time. Her prayer to Tom Petty, penned long before he passed, will catch in your throat, and her wondering “if the president gets much sleep at night” is more credit that you know who deserves.
1 Lee Ann Womack – The Lonely, The Lonesome & The Gone (ATO)
Was there a better country song this year than the title track to Lee Ann Womack’s latest album? Was there a better country song about country songs? The genre rarely ponders its history with as little sentimentality as Womack does on “The Lonely, The Lonesome & The Gone,” which admits that “nobody writes goodbye notes and takes off to God-only-knows on trains anymore.” Strip malls have replaced the honkytonks, and Hank Williams “never sang about watching a Camry pulling out of a crowded apartment parking lot.” That image is powerful in its banality, in its everyday-ness, but it hints at a larger question almost too painful to consider: Does old country music have anything to say to us today?
Womack knows she’s a little out of touch with Nashville at the moment, but The Lonely, The Lonesome & The Gone makes that a strength rather than a weakness: a means of distinguishing herself as a true country music auteur who understands that certain kinds of heartache persist from Hank to Taylor to Sam Hunt. She went down to Houston, Texas, to record these songs, getting far from the Nashville machinery and surrounding herself with a talented group of songwriters and players. But looking to the country music of her youth, she’s not confining herself to one particular way of doing things. Instead, she sees boundless possibilities in the past, which means she moves fluidly from the bluesy opener “All The Trouble” to the countrypolitan “Hollywood” to the gritty gospel shouter “Take The Devil Out Of Me.” Arguably the most adventurous country album of the year, The Lonely, The Lonesome & The Gone is somehow both traditional and avant garde, looking backwards to move the genre forward.