If you ask Twitter — or your teenage nephew in Los Angeles — the story of country music in 2019 was Lil Nas X and “Old Town Road,” the song that became infamous both for breaking chart records and being booted off one, too. For those outside of the sphere of Nashville, the trajectory of the TikTok star embodied everything they needed to know about the genre’s seemingly exclusionary, insular world, where Lil Nas X couldn’t be accepted as “country” even with Billy Ray Cyrus in tow. It was a good scapegoat for the outside world to once again hone in on Nashville’s myopia, warranted or not.
But as fun a story (and a bop) as “Old Town Road” is, it’s not truly the picture of country music in 2019, a year rich with developments both bold and subtle, and with so many great albums that collecting only 10 is a near impossible feat. “Old Town Road” wasn’t the most captivating country moment, and it wasn’t even it’s most interesting cross collaboration: Maren Morris’ year, for one, saw her funneling the steam of a massive pop hit, “The Middle,” into her sophomore album GIRL and then taking a hard left turn into the Highwomen, where she harmonized on pure country songs alongside Amanda Shires, a brilliant artist much more known to the Americana and indie rock worlds. This, truly, is where things really got interesting and fruitful, breaking down lines not just between genres but also within them, and the boundaries we’re supposed to accept.
Country music — always in that battle between mainstream (radio-friendly) output and the independent world — took many steps like this towards a new era where collaboration, and cross-pollination, meant something different. Luke Combs, arguably the biggest mainstream breakout in country in the past two years, played at Willie Nelson’s ranch (and made a good album too). Tyler Childers signed a major record deal and snagged a Grammy. Artists like Midland and Jon Pardi embraced country so twangy and traditional it’s almost more Americana than country radio.
Brandi Carlile became an omnipresent force: as a part of the Highwomen, on Maren Morris and Zac Brown’s albums, and co-producing Tanya Tucker’s triumphant return, While I’m Livin’. So universally beloved and so genuinely good — both in heart and in talent — Carlile’s almost becoming the Dolly Parton heir apparent. (Just look at Newport Folk Festival this past summer, where they sang together.) A leader for the genre who is openly lesbian, dedicated to charity work, speaks her mind freely, and still snags an invite to the CMAs? Yeah, sign us up for that future.
Country radio aside, the genre’s as rich and interesting as it’s ever been, particularly from its independent voices: That scene birthed excellent records from Kelsey Waldon, Michaela Anne, Caroline Spence, Erin Enderlin, Emily Scott Robinson, Dori Freeman, Ian Noe, Kelleigh Bannen, Kalie Shorr, Gabe Lee, Charles Wesley Godwin and many more from Texas to Canada to New York and back. It bred fantastic EPs, too, from Hailey Whitters, Charlie Marie, and Ruston Kelly. Some blended in singer-songwriter approaches, some were deeply traditional, some conjured up emo influences that worked shockingly well with the direct nature of country lyricism. (Kelly’s cover of Dashboard Confessional’s “Screaming Infidelities” is a gift).
The best albums this year, though, proved just how diverse the palate of country music can be, even when it exists well within genre walls. They toyed with expectations and rules: with how country is supposed to sound, how teams are supposed to only play amongst themselves, of the narratives that the genre is supposed to tell. They elevated women’s stories, stories of Appalachia and rural America, of love from all angles and the boundaries of who gets to participate in the genre to begin with. But, most of all, they told the truth.
10 Kalie Shorr – Open Book (Self-released)
Kalie Shorr could easily become a pop sensation if she wanted to. She understands the dynamics of hooks, how to connect with a fanbase, and pure saccharine fun just as good as the best. But she’s too damn honest, too damn country for that game. “I’ve never been worse, thanks for asking,” she sings on the first track of Open Book, “Too Much To Say,” which is the answer song to any “how are you” question that never really expected an answer, or wanted to hear it if it came. But you want to listen to Shorr — singing about pain and drug addiction and loss and sex in such a no-bullshit way that it never feels like you’re being asked to carry her emotional baggage — you’re just invited to drop yours along too. Country music needs this kind of fire.
9 Michaela Anne – Desert Dove (Yep Roc Records)
It’s so hard to pigeonhole Michaela Anne — there’s a strong singer-songwriter thread, a well-versed instrumentalist, an Americana faithful, and a true lover ’90s greats (Shania Twain, for one). It gives her a perspective so uniquely her own on Desert Dove, an album that paints a story of a life lived on her own terms (“By Our Design,” a song sure to spark your own longing for a personal rulebook), of a woman who won’t take any of your shit (“If I Wanted Your Opinion”), and of the importance of being kind to those that are suffering (“Be Easy”). Anne’s vocals make the lessons go down easily, and her writing makes them impossible to forget.
8 Emily Scott Robinson – Traveling Mercies (Tone Tree Music)
“There’s nothing that I cannot do with a double latte and dry shampoo,” sings Emily Scott Robinson on one of Traveling Mercies’ lighter moments, “White Hot Country Mess.” It’s a universal truth, though, that feeling of making it through anything with a little push of caffeine and some no-shower cover. That’s what Robinson continually captures perfectly: monogamy that gets better over time (“The way we fight a little less now,” she sings on “Better With Time,” “make love a little more”), the toil of going town to town, just trying to make a living on “Borrowed Rooms And Old Wood Floors,” the hopelessness of working to win back someone who will never return the feeling (“Pie Song”). The album’s centerpiece is “The Dress,” a song that encompasses the impossibly complex mix of emotions that linger in the mind of a rape survivor in one brilliantly haunting line: “Was it the dress I wore?” she asks. No sexual assault is ever the fault of the victim, but that carried guilt, that shame, that self-blame is as heavy a weight on the shoulders as anything.
7 Maren Morris – GIRL (Columbia Nashville)
It’s the anthem we knew we needed but had not yet been delivered: “GIRL,” the title track from Maren Morris’ second LP, became a rallying cry for every woman in 2019 who felt under-appreciated, over-compared, run down, and discouraged. That’s the kind of inertia that starts GIRL, with a whole load of permission for both the audience and Morris herself to take a ride free of judgment.
That’s how Morris operates, too, when she’s making music. She has a rich ear for a country lyric (“We took a hard left, but we’re all right”), a huge grasp of a hopelessly fun melodies, and a fearlessness when it comes to never landing her songs in one box or another. Co-produced with the late Busbee, GIRL bucks any and all conventions, with Morris singing about bridging political divides and recruiting Carlile for a duet on “Common,” getting sultry as hell on “RSVP,” and writing a classic ode to keeping a relationship strong on “The Bones.” Coupled with her work with the Highwomen, she’s one of the most versatile artists in any genre, let alone country.
6 Tyler Childers – Country Squire (Hickman Holler)
Tyler Childers’ follow-up to his breakthrough debut, Purgatory, came with little surprises for his devoted fans. That’s because every single song of Country Squire was worked out and played on the road, tested and developed in front of real, live humans. For that reason, it’s almost easy to take its greatness for granted — but that would be a damn shame. In nine tight country-ass tracks, written to precision, Childers sings of passion and small town life and remaining devoted on the road — sure, “Ever Lovin’ Hand” is about masturbation, but it’s really about the struggle to stay true to the ones we love — in his high-lonesome howl, so young and so aged all at once. And it’s wonderful to hear Childers, who is so strongly connected with that classic country, mountain sound, show that there’s not much of a line between Motown ballads of adoration and his own point of view on “All Your’n.”
5 Kelsey Waldon – White Noise/White Lines (Oh Boy Records)
John Prine’s label, Oh Boy, hadn’t signed anyone in 15 years when it announced it would be adding Kelsey Waldon to its roster. Those who had never heard of the Nashville-based, Kentucky-born Waldon figured this had to be something good: You don’t wait a decade and a half for mediocre. And those who had been listening to Waldon for years knew something even more certain: That it was about damn time someone snagged her. Waldon writes with detail and humanity, thoroughly connected to the roots of the genre, and her own roots, but always moving forward. Songs like “Kentucky, 1988″ tell her story so vibrantly you can see the knotty pines, the aging trailer and the plains, and feel the struggle of trying to love a father for all his imperfections. White Noise/White Lines is a fully realized album, flowing like one long journey into what keeps Waldon up at night, and what made her who she is.
4 Tanya Tucker – While I’m Livin’ (Fantasy Records)
Addiction, checkered pasts, personal struggle — for the men of country music, specifically the “outlaws,” those are the things that build “character,” a story of redemption or edginess or authenticity or however you want to fold it. For women, particularly older women, though, those things are often career-ending. It’s the same formula that had many dismissing Tanya Tucker for good, a singer so influential that she’s shaped everyone from Miranda Lambert to Margo Price to Brandi Carlile — the latter of whom teamed up with Shooter Jennings to producer Tucker’s new album, While I’m Livin’. There’s no album from a “veteran” of the genre that sounds so fresh this year, maybe even this decade. From the mischievous boogie of “Hard Luck” to the priceless lessons of “Bring My Flowers Now,” it feels like Tucker’s just getting started — again.
3 Yola – Walk Through Fire (Easy Eye Sound/Nonesuch)
Many artists before have tried their hands at country-soul, but no one’s done it quite like Yola, who hails from Bristol, England and not the American south. It takes approximately one minute into her debut LP, the Dan Auerbach-produced Walk Through Fire, to know that this is no usual songwriter, and no usual voice. That song is “Faraway Look,” which has now been nominated for a Grammy and bursts with longing, passion, and a goose bump-inducing wall of sound. Only Yola can pack all of this superhuman stuff into a track that also reminds you she’s very human — lyrics like “Nobody moves the way you do, walking ’round the grocery store” shoot you so directly back into everyday life, it’s nearly unsettling — or take a retro spin through heartbreak on “Ride Out In The Country.” There’s no more exciting new Americana artist out there, full stop.
2 Miranda Lambert – Wildcard (RCA Records Nashville)
“Is happiness on the highway,” sings Miranda Lambert on “Settling Down,” “Or is it parked in the driveway?” No one can pack as much into a simple phrase as Lambert, nor sing so personally about things so universal. On Wildcard, her first album produced by Jay Joyce (Eric Church, Brothers Osborne), Lambert’s digging deep into her own very human conflicts. How do you choose love, when you love the road? How do you change when everyone knows your history? (Answer: You wash that shit out with a Tide Stick.) How do you honor the roots of country music while continually expanding your worldview, the way an artist should?
Lambert works through all of these on Wildcard, ending up with some of the most potent country songs of the year (“Bluebird,” “How Dare You Love”) while also having plenty of fun, too. And just when you think you know Lambert, she throws a curveball: There’s nothing as thirst-quenching as hearing her take those world-class vocals all gritty on the country gospel “Holy Water.” It makes you want to sin just so you can take a sip.
1 The Highwomen – The Highwomen (Elektra Records)
When news broke that Brandi Carlile, Maren Morris, Natalie Hemby, and Amanda Shires would be forming a project together, the internet dissolved into a near panic. When? Where? How? There have been country supergroups before — the Highwaymen, of course, and on to Pistol Annies and beyond — but this was something different. A movement meant to directly confront country radio with women’s stories, stories rarely heard on the airwaves in a sea of beer songs.
Part of the joy of the Highwomen is how selfless it felt in nature: Morris, one of the few female country artists who actually gets spins, taking attention and time away from her solo career to make an album that includes a lesbian love long? Shires, who released such an excellent, very non-country album To The Sunset last year, pivoting back to her roots for the sake of equality? Word-class writer Hemby, who could probably cook up 10 number-one hits in a day if she wanted, digging so deep and personal it’s hard to listen to her words without crying? And Carlile, on the crest of a career tidal wave, making her next move out of Grammy glory a battle for the unheard? Even Jason Isbell happily agreed to noodle away in the background, and out of the limelight. The Highwomen didn’t just feel like a group gathering. It felt like a calling.
All that powerful stuff aside, it’s the music that matters most. A key element here is empathy. Right out of the gate, their stunning rewrite of the classic Highwaymen anthem isn’t just Johnny Cash riding around inexplicably on a spaceship, it’s stories of the forgotten women who died in sacrifice for others, for her children, for human rights, for her neighbor. There’s empathy in songs like “My Name Can’t Be Mama Today,” a raucous slice of truth in a world of mombloggers painting parenting as constant perfection — this one gives permission to say it’s OK to, just for a minute, dream of not having that extra mouth to feed or bed to make. There’s empathy in “My Only Child,” Hemby’s gut-wrenchingly honest tribute to both great disappointment and great, great love, where Shires’ fiddle cries gorgeously on her shoulder. There’s empathy for the aging, in Shires’ exquisite “Cocktail And A Song,” and for those who live on after loss.
But there’s deep, deep power too. Power in “Redesigning Women,” the band’s radio single that hits on every corner of the modern woman (is there a better feminist rallying cry than “Some of us are saints and some of us are surgeons?”), power in the unity of “Crowded Table,” in Morris’ kiss-off “Loose Change,” in “Wheels Of Laredo,” a classic being made in real time. And there’s power in these voices: Morris’ unparalleled and raw riffing at the end of “Old Soul,” Shires’ Parton-like warble intimate and warm, Hemby’s mournful howl for the child she never had on “My Only Child,” and Carlile, who can sing literally anything better than, well, anyone, using her spotlight moments to transmit twangy country passion on “If She Ever Leaves Me.”
Some critics took issue with the group’s unison singing, but, in truth, it actually works perfectly. Democracy’s the point, and anyone can chant along here. Sure, this foursome could tackle the most complex of harmonies, but then these couldn’t be sung around campfires, couldn’t rotate different ranges and tones with ease. It makes the “sound” of the Highwomen more important, and more accessible, than any of the individual parts. (It sure helps, though, when the individual parts are extraordinary.) And it makes it able to live forever, in the voices of anyone who joins along. These songs will.
Listen to a playlist of key tracks from each album on Spotify.