Christopher Polk/Getty Images for Stagecoach
Kacey Musgraves had one of country music's biggest albums of 2018, but it came only after she shrugged off any lingering obligation to pursue radio airplay.
Christopher Polk/Getty Images for Stagecoach
Kacey Musgraves had one of country music's biggest albums of 2018, but it came only after she shrugged off any lingering obligation to pursue radio airplay.
Christopher Polk/Getty Images for Stagecoach
From a distance, it was difficult to spot any motion in the country world in 2018. The definition of country-pop underwent a dramatic mutation earlier in the decade, fueled by Nashville's borrowing of beat-driven production and rhythmic vocal cadences from pop, R&B and rap. As the shift occurred, swaggering, party-hearty acts deploying that formula took up residence at the decidedly male-dominated center of the format. The hits generated by many male stars may have taken on a softer, more gentlemanly gloss since — usually without any great growth in emotional insight — but from a certain perspective, the center has essentially held. In early December, Billboard reported that none of the top 20 slots in its Country Airplay chart were occupied by women for the first time in the 28 years that that chart has tracked radio data. (Most of the major country playlists on streaming services aren't any better.)
Music criticism tends to interpret artists as either upholding or rebelling against the principles of their resident genres, but that conceptual framework breaks down when you try to apply it to contemporary country music, which to some degree maintains its own professional processes, attitudes and aesthetic values. For country artists, stylistic malleability and absorbing outside influences doesn't necessarily equate to an overall outlook of openness or optimism toward fluidity, nor is reverence for the past always linked to a worldview that resists change. To see past the appearance of stagnation to the subtle moves made on multiple fronts this year requires taking note of artists gently tweaking popular templates, altering their relationships to standard Nashville music-making practices or trying to find less mediated ways to collect and connect with audiences.
Here's where the real action was: A rising generation of singing and songwriting women has been figuring out how to circumnavigate roadblocks in the system and stake out space right in the middle of things with all sorts of shrewd professional and artistic strategies. So instead of writing a standard "best of" list, which would be too static to capture the diffuseness of these developments, I opted to zoom in on 25 music-makers adopting varied approaches at varied stages of their careers, some of which I've grouped together thematically, in hopes that I could offer a more revealing portrait of how country adjusted in 2018 – and, for that matter, how it might look going forward.
Upon the arrival of Kacey Musgraves' Golden Hour this past spring, people almost immediately began declaring it the country album of the year. Her timing was impeccable; with very little help from radio, she'd spent half a dozen years getting listeners used to the idiosyncrasies of her approach, an arch and meticulous blend of western kitsch, indie irreverence and writerly wit, long enough to see other young singer-songwriters, many of them women, come along feeling like she'd given them permission to lace their work with delicate barbs and casual eye rolls. (As I pointed out in an essay at the beginning of the year, her groundwork made their efforts appear seamlessly in step with this moment.)
With this latest 13-song set, Musgraves shrugged off any lingering sense of obligation to pursue radio airplay and, in collaboration with writer-producer-instrumentalists Daniel Tashian and Ian Fitchuk, expanded her expression in multiple directions at once: toward quiet self-reflection and sentimentality, thoughtful composure and airy surrealism. On both artistic and professional fronts, it felt like she'd raised the bar in her field once again. By the time Golden Hour was named CMA Album of the Year and garnered a Grammy nomination in the all-genre Best Album category, artists across the stylistic spectrum, but particularly in a country scene long stifled by narrow playlists, were invoking her achievement as heartening proof of what's possible.
Another heroine who spent 2018 sidestepping a system still stuck on smooth-talking male acts was Ashley McBryde. She's disproven a lot of gender-specific industry wisdom of late by building a growing, devoted fan base as a new artist who's neither a hot, young thing nor the least bit concerned about that fact. Not since Gretchen Wilson broke through in 2004 had a singing, songwriting woman possessed such red-blooded, blue-collar, naturalistic appeal. McBryde's major label debut Girl Going Nowhere had unfussy magnetism and bluesy warmth that registered more of an impact on critics than the charts, but her live shows were the source of her greatest momentum; she has the ability to shrink the distance between herself and her audience members and make them feel that her songs are both seasoned and toughened by personal experience.
McBryde took a detour through behind-the-scenes Music Row songwriting on her way to stepping out front, where she'd always intended to be. Heather Morgan is one of a growing number of professional songwriters who took a while to acknowledge that they wanted to own their own perspectives as performers. She'd spent the last decade co-writing for Dierks Bentley, Kenny Chesney, Keith Urban and other established names before venturing into album-making this year with Borrowed Heart. There's a lot about her sensibilities and vocal approach that sets her apart from her more pop-fluent peers; her soprano is both delicate and wiry and she gravitates toward the sophisticated side of stone-country expression, her vibrato and curlicues calling to mind Lee Ann Womack, with whom she shares an occasional attraction to the rawboned throb of Appalachian melodies. But Morgan also seems comfortable with contemporary production touches like atmospheric synths and the gut punch of a hard rock-esque dynamic leap to a big chorus.
Also prime examples of the increased priority placed on self-expression: Caitlyn Smith, a hit writer who released her own rich, Moak-produced album this year, and Lucie Silvas, who'd settled into a period of staff songwriting in Nashville after her early days as a U.K. pop-rock act. They're professionally linked to the country music-making community, but neither strictly identifies as a country artist.
Jillian Jacqueline is a great example of an artist who's explored and adjusted to what seems possible in Nashville in real time. She watched her sisters' group struggle on the traditional, radio-assisted path to stardom and had her own very brief experience heading in that direction before pulling back and committing herself to something closer to an intimately detailed singer-songwriter posture. That's what ultimately got her signed, a testament to the growing awareness among Nashville's decision-makers that it makes good business sense to partner with artists whose careers will no doubt look different than yesterday's stars'. Her EPs, last year's Side A and this year's Side B, made the most of her flexibility as both a spare, unvarnished communicator and a singer whose moodiness can be accentuated with gently embellished, beat-driven production.
There are plenty of ways of applying the knowledge gained from a failed deal on a Nashville major label, but Kelleigh Bannen's seem particularly resourceful. She had modest chart success in the years leading up to Tomatogate, when the gender imbalance at country radio was already glaring but the programming practices behind it hadn't yet been spelled out in such inflammatory, food-referencing fashion. Since then, she's been self-releasing individual tracks and, most recently, her digital EP The Joneses, drawing on the prickly, domestic subtleties of relational attachment. Bannen is also two seasons into co-creating the podcast "This Nashville Life," applying insider familiarity and a touch of earned skepticism to discussions of topics like what goes into shopping a song, glamming up an artist's look and engineering opportunities for women, exactly the sort of demystification that's useful right now.
Kalie Shorr was already a serious student of Nashville professionalism as a Maine teenager, reading up on publishing deals, taking early steps toward promoting herself by posting bedroom performance videos of covers and originals on YouTube and working two jobs to save up for her move to Music City. Her drive to start building her career, along with the way she treated songwriting both as a diaristic outlet and a craft to refine and put her reedy vocal instrument to confiding and effervescent use, initially brought her comparisons to Taylor Swift. But Shorr quickly realized that she was working in an industry climate less friendly to young, female contenders than the one in which Swift plotted her rise in the aughts.
Shorr's strategy has been to self-release her digital mixtapes and EPs , and like many of her peers she's made the most of organized efforts like CMT's multifaceted Next Women of Country campaign, the weekly writers' rounds of Song Suffragettes and the town hall-style meeting and mentoring of the Change the Conversation initiative, all of which combine various elements of social advocacy and promotional muscle. She's also pounced on headlines about the exploitation and marginalization of women in the entertainment industry with topical tunes that have generated a bit of buzz for her individually and the Suffragettes collectively. By positioning herself as fervent participant in the conversation, she's became a go-to source for media reporting on the topic and the co-host of a daily segment on women for Radio Disney Country (along with her friend and fellow Suffragette Savannah Keyes), which most listeners will access via satellite radio, streaming platforms or apps. While Shorr's still a country-pop act at heart, fluent in concise, hooky songwriting, this year's Awake, with its moments of angsty disclosure and cutting emo guitar riffs, prioritized personal authenticity over country radio-friendliness.
Since long before #MeToo, there's been a defiant undertone to much of the country music being created by women; they've taken up for themselves, owned the messiness of their lives and told off deadbeat guys with stomping indignation, sly humor or self-possessed impatience. It's no wonder that artists have felt the need to flex their female strength; they've been painfully aware that they're openly dismissed and devalued by the radio and streaming sectors of their industry. After paying her Nashville dues, participating in Song Suffragettes rounds alongside Shorr and landing a plum publishing deal, Lainey Wilson released a self-titled EP this year from a vantage point that was both unabashedly down-home and unflappably worldly. With a pronounced drawl and sweetened sting, she sang of willful recklessness, wielding the power of damaging secrets and feeling empowered by allowing herself outbursts of irreverence.
Country-to-pop crossover has usually been a journey that artists begin with both feet firmly planted on the country side of that divide, but Kassi Ashton sought a new kind of record deal — one that would simultaneously position her on both country and pop label rosters from the get-go. The persona she's presented so far reflects a similar fluidity, part proudly backwoods tomboyishness and part fashionably sharp femininity. She's the first to admit that Musgraves' cool critique of small-town romanticism, along with the embrace Chris Stapleton's country-soul ruggedness, helped her conceive of where she might fit in musically. In 2018, Ashton introduced herself with a swaggering, post-Musgraves statement of ambivalence toward provincialism and a kitschy kiss-off that felt like a mash-up of warped garage pop and theatrically caustic country-soul.
Tenille Townes is one of the most promising arrivals in mainstream Nashville's burgeoning singer-songwriter movement. She may have based her earliest understanding of what it looked like to connect with an audience on the extravagant arena spectacle of her fellow Canadian Shania Twain, but Townes' music also betrays a clear kinship to Patty Griffin and Lori McKenna, whose work is usually categorized as folk or Americana. Townes channels ardent empathy into her observational narratives, and her performances begin with fluttery intimacy, then flare with warmth and intensity. She signed to a Nashville major label this year and tested the waters with her Living Room Worktapes digital EP, introducing herself to U.S. audiences with what felt like revealingly unvarnished demos, then followed up with a fully produced version of the song "Somebody's Daughter." She's also opened some arena shows without a band, suggesting that she'll be able to translate her soul-baring to a larger scale.
The story circulated in Rachel Wammack's promotional materials was that she was discovered performing in a piano bar by a label executive and if she'd been born into a different musical generation, she might've been viewed as a potential pop heir to Sarah McLachlan or Kelly Clarkson. In her first single "Damage," Wammack acknowledged lasting relational wounds with a swelling display of compassion and composure reminiscent of McLachlan. Elsewhere on this year's digital EP, the younger singer-songwriter mustered a bit of soul-pop heat from an empowered posture. As to where she fits in the changing landscape, Spotify put her on its Country Coffeehouse playlist, alongside Townes, McKenna, Musgraves and an assortment of acts who might ordinarily be classified as indie-folk, roots rock, the pop side of bluegrass or the gentle side of country. As with so many Spotify playlists, vibe seems to be the primary organizing principle; everything leans ruminative and acoustic, a distant, rootsy cousin to the unobtrusively chilled-out pop that Liz Pelly has described as a Spotify-driven "streambait" genre.
The sonic flattening of the country radio format was in full effect before Spotify exerted such influence. (Recall how a seamless 2014 mash-up illustrated bro country's easily replicable formula, all hard rock guitar bluster, lumbering, digitized backbeats, singsong melodies and labored, hip-hop-schooled flow.) Few acts have played the long game more effectively than Brothers Osborne, a sibling duo that arrived with an in-the-pocket yet open-ended attack just in time to weather the ascendance of the bro-branded sound, then gradually won favor in the industry, sweeping the CMA Awards' Vocal Duo of the Year category for the last three years running.
While that designation is technically accurate, the interplay that the Osbornes lean on most is that of T.J's loose and low-slung yet subtly sensual singing and John's capricious voice on lead guitar, a configuration that stands out in a country scene in which instrumental prowess takes a backseat. Their second album, this year's Jay Joyce-produced Port Saint Joe, showcased the vivid, easeful musicality they've cultivated with their road band. It was their second time working with Joyce, who has a knack for capturing a dynamic yet digitally sharpened band sound. See also: the Joyce-helmed 2018 albums from ambitious veteran Eric Church and a pair of rising acts, the shimmery, anthemic heartland pop-rockers LanCo and the moodily supple crooner Devin Dawson.
The country-pop ranks are currently overflowing with gentlemen, as they've been since the flippantly flirty, masculine posture softened a bit, but Dan + Shay have proven themselves to be by far the most musically accomplished and persuasive in the crowd. Lead singer Shay Mooney has the vocal chops to execute sensual, splashy R&B runs (that's no doubt what once got him signed to T Pain's Nappy Boy Entertainment as a solo act) while harmonizing multi-instrumentalist and producer Dan Smyers is a studio rat who pays meticulous attention to detail. They'd found chart success with their first two albums, but elevated their game with this year's self-titled set. From the suavely swooping melody of "What Keeps You Up At Night" to the fluent romancing of "Speechless" and the unreserved, youthful pining of "Tequila," Smyers and Mooney treat tender ballads as an exalted, affective craft.
While it's hardly a widespread trend at this point, a few newer male voices are incorporating the heartier country accent of the early '90s (think: Brooks & Dunn) into the country-pop of the moment. The combination helped Luke Combs break through in 2017, and it could also be heard on If I Know Me, the digital-only album that Morgan Wallen released this year. He delivers its strongest tracks from the personably scruffy posture of a good ol' boy with an easygoing sense of humor, including the rollicking, mischievous breakup number "Happy Hour," the self-deprecating seduction "Talkin' Tennessee" and "If I Ever Get You Back," a hard-charging, '90s-reviving boogie that's full of lighthearted, underdog boasts of gentlemanly intentions.
There's no more fascinating embodiment of downhome inclinations and elastic, contemporary identity than Kane Brown's. No one quite knew what to make of him early on, since he built his initial buzz online, well outside of the Nashville system, and presented himself as a biracial kid who loved Randy Travis's neotraditional singing but was also comfortable with how thoroughly hip-hop's influence had seeped into every corner of the cultural landscape. After signing to a major label, Brown developed his artistic identity in a steadily intensifying spotlight, achieving one of the mainstream country's most convincing, dually fluent hybrids. One of his strengths as a singer is the way that he steers clear of the falsetto deployed in much R&B-style seduction, yet makes use of its molten, crooned cadences and the country tradition of mellow, resonant, masculine romancing.
There's a stoic suaveness to the performances on Brown's 2018 album Experiment. "Homesick" is a sentimental slow jam with finger snap backbeats, "Work" merges steamy balladry with ruminations on effortful commitment and "Short Skirt Weather" is a beat-driven update of a frolicsome '90s line dance boogie. He's brought self-awareness to his role as his format's newest star of color; his album cover photo shows him in profile, with a neck tattoo, a small, diamond stud earring and a perfect line sliced into the side of his hi-top fade, and its bonus tracks is a duet with the Latin pop singer Becky G, that set the familiar country fantasy of young lovers escaping down a back road to an almost reggaeton groove.
Across generations, African-American country performers have often been misunderstood, miscategorized and denied a broad platform. Recognizing that they had to clear an unjustly high bar of perceived authenticity in order to find acceptance in the country world, some shrewdly emphasized their affinities with country music's sounds and values and minimized the ways that their racial identities might set them apart from the music's falsely whitewashed lineage. That's why Brown's breakthrough is important, and why Priscilla Renea's independent album Coloured registered, to the too-few who heard it this year, as an accomplished, clear-eyed, consciously confrontational statement. She internalized the rules of writing and recording for pop, R&B, hip-hop and country markets during a decade of crafting hits for other singers, then artfully bent them with her own vision of country music, powerfully reimagining themes of rootedness, patriotism and blue-collar stability. Over the course of 10 tracks, she made it compellingly clear that her music was informed and enriched by her perspective as a black woman.
In the footage of Willie Jones's 2012 audition on The X Factor USA, the celebrity judges act like he's pulling a bait-and-switch. Seeing an African-American teenager walk on stage sporting a hi-top fade and Air Jordans, Demi Lovato compliments him on his "very 'Fresh Prince of Bel-Air'" style. Then his backing track begins, laced with pedal steel, and he strains for the courtly, cavernous notes of the Josh Turner hit "Your Man." The camera captures a highly quizzical look from L.A. Reid, who's playing up the drama of Jones defying expectations. While Jones didn't get far on the show, he soon began working on original music, inspired by the beat-driven sounds he was hearing from Sam Hunt and Florida Georgia Line around that time. This year, Jones independently released a pair of laidback music videos — both "Runs In Our Blood" and "Windows Down" notable for the way they show primarily young, African-American actors staking their claims to the contemporary country motifs of field parties and leisurely drives — and signed to a Nashville label, potentially setting himself up to benefit from greater promotional muscle.
It wasn't a huge stretch for Delta Rae to shift from presenting itself as a folk-leaning pop-rock outfit to trying to carve out a space in the country scene. The coed sextet, comprised of siblings and longtime friends, is earnest and charismatic and grasps the affective power of rootsy imagery and the sweetening, Little Big Town-proven appeal of creamy, finessed harmonies. But 2018 saw Delta Rae distilling its focus to sweepingly emotional tunes and social commentary that privileges the perspectives of the women in the group while making the active solidarity of their male comrades felt. With its barely contained fury, the testament to gendered double standards "Hands Dirty" is a far more pointed statement than acts in the country field usually dare to make, and Delta Rae wagered that the group's open-hearted spirit would help the message land.
Maddie & Tae, a duo comprised of Madison Marlow and Taylor Dye, enjoyed instantaneous buzz when they skewered the pick-up lines of the bro country formula with their impeccably timed debut single "Girl In a Country Song." That proved a difficult act to follow for a pair of singer-songwriters who'd instantaneously been crowned as country music's smart-assed, young satirists. They've been striving to round out their image ever since, with their 2015 album Start Here and, after they'd parted ways with their first label and regrouped, with a new pair of tunes in 2018. The strongest of the two, "Die From a Broken Heart," arrived in October, deftly capturing the disorienting nature of early heartbreak with conversational clarity and burnished, naturalistic production that pointed toward sure-footed work to come.
As explosive as their banishment from the country radio format was in the early aughts, the Dixie Chicks remain one of the most beloved and frequently invoked reference points for blending sass and sentimentality, harmonizing in bright, sweetened fashion and updating western flavors. Maddie & Tae have made mention of them here and there, but the Chicks have truly been an ever present point of comparison for the trio Runaway June. Its members, Jennifer Wayne, Hannah Mulholland and Naomi Cooke, each pursued solo careers before deciding to shift their focus to the group. (This is the second go round for Wayne, who was briefly in another trio a decade back.) On this year's self-titled EP, they applied the sleekness of their harmonies and high-gloss twang of their chosen instrumental textures to late-night, barroom expressions of feminine independence and disappointment.
The all-woman lineup that received the warmest reception in 2018 was the Pistol Annies' Ashley Monroe, Angaleena Presley and Miranda Lambert. They're technically a veteran supergroup, comprised of three artists who are each at least two solo albums into establishing individual identities and career trajectories that vary widely in scale. (On her own, Monroe did some very fetching things with classic country and pop languages of longing this year.) But teaming up after an extended hiatus gave the three of them the opportunity to operate in a different, more playfully provocative mode on what amounts to a bigger stage for Monroe and Presley.
Historically, country music was home both to hillbilly rube characters who earned knowing laughs by pretending they had no better sense than to air their dirty laundry (the comedian Minnie Pearl's self-deprecating tales of rejection by men; much of the clowning on the rural variety show "Hee Haw") and a wealth of songs that bore the weight of undeniably adult concerns (Merle Haggard's "If We Make It Through December"; Loretta Lynn's "The Pill"). But as country has evolved in ever more youthful, suburbanized directions, newer generations of performers have found little worth in depicting domestic hardships or being the butt of a folksy joke. That's why the Annies' Interstate Gospel was such a welcome disruption this year; they're clever, experienced craftspeople who together applied down-home outlooks, womanly, been-there candor, melancholy reflection and knowing, mischievous exaggeration to comedy and tragedy alike, a move both timely and timeless.