In some ways, this isn’t the greatest time for fans of country music. And by “fans of country music,” I mean “people who genuinely like to listen to good music, not loud, mindless party anthems.”
For one thing, ageism continues to rear its ugly head: Lately it seems like Reba McEntire can’t get arrested on country radio, and George Strait, beginning to face a similar situation, recently announced his final tour.
For another, many of the songs that rocketed to the top of the charts in the last several months were mediocre, by-the-numbers odes to cutoffs, tanned legs, bikinis, feet on dashboards, and other assorted clothing items and body parts.
These have become so pervasive, and so bad, that they’ve begun to sound like self-parody. The first time I heard Florida Georgia Line’s “Get Your Shine On” on the radio, my first thought was that the DJ was playing some sort of sick practical joke.
I won’t say that these songs aren’t “real country,” as so many do, because I don’t believe that any one person has the right to make that judgment. However, I will say that they’re depressing.
Hope springs eternal, though. This year will bring new albums from some of the best acts in country. The Band Perry has a new album coming, for one; judging by our first sample of it, Better Dig Two, it’s going to be something special.
New albums are also due from “Redneck Woman” Gretchen Wilson, who’s been absent for far too long, and from Ashley Monroe, who has one of the best voices around. Pistol Annies, the group that Monroe formed with Miranda Lambert and Angaleena Presley, is promising a second album. And there are rumors that my favorite country artist, Chris Young, will put out his fourth album before too long.
Trends may come and go, but fortunately, there are always a few artists out there making decent music. So even as we hope for better things in 2013, let’s take a moment to honor the best of 2012.
5. Jana Kramer, Jana Kramer: She’s best known for her role on the CW’s One Tree Hill—but don’t hold it against her. Kramer can really sing, and not just in some manufactured-pop-princess way. Her song choices and twangy, yearning vocals reflect a real love and respect for country and its traditions. Kramer’s debut single, Why Ya Wanna, made it all the way to #3 on the country charts. With the country scene currently experiencing a dearth of solo female artists, Kramer’s first success feels like a good sign both for her and for the industry in general.
4. Easton Corbin, All Over the Road: Corbin has frequently been compared to George Strait, not just because of their vocal similarities but also because of his neo-traditional sound. His sophomore album, containing the exuberant singles Lovin' You Is Fun and the title song, is as strong an effort as his first one, and helps cement him as one of country’s most exciting up-and-comers.
3. Kellie Pickler, 100 Proof: One of the biggest travesties of the year (yes, even bigger than Get Your Shine On) was the poor performance of what was widely considered one of the best albums that Nashville has put out in years. With this album, Pickler tried out some of the rootsy sounds she’d always loved. The results were stunning, landing 100 Proof on many “Best of 2012” lists, and fully justifying her name-checking of country greats like Tammy Wynette. But as her label failed to promote the album, sales were poor and its two singles (Tough and the title song) did badly on the charts.The good news is that Pickler has since moved on to a new label, and is said to be readying a new album in the same vein. If there’s any justice in this world, this one will be a hit.
2. Josh Turner, Punching Bag: Turner is the Jimmy Stewart of country music: steady, wholesome, and always to be relied on for a brilliant performance. Punching Bag offers more of the gorgeous bass vocals and meaningful songs that Turner’s fans love. The song Time Is Love made it to #2 on the charts, and his current single, Find Me a Baby, is hands down my favorite single of 2012. (Josh’s wife and kids can be both seen and heard in the video, if you pay attention.) I’d vote for either Cold Shoulder or Pallbearer for his next single, were they not a little too traditional for today’s country radio programmers. But both of them are beautiful, haunting, and well worth a listen.
1. Edens Edge, Edens Edge: I’ve been waiting for this album since the day I first heard Edens Edge singing Amen on the radio, and it did not disappoint. You won’t hear lovelier harmonies or instrumentals anywhere, and the wide variety of songs—from aching ballads like Feels So Real and Last Supper, to the driving Too Good to Be True—pays tribute to their diverse influences. I recommend ordering the Deluxe Edition that they did for Cracker Barrel. The three extra songs on that version—especially the sweet Little Bird and the bluegrass romp Roots—should not be missed.
Honorable Mention: Various Artists, The Music of Nashville: ABC's Nashville has fulfilled all my musical hopes, and then some. Not only does it show an authentic, warts-and-all picture of the country music industry, and play some of my favorite artists in the background, but it also features excellent original songs, sung compellingly by the show’s stars. Although the album isn’t quite as complete as I’d like, it does include some of the show’s best musical moments, including If I Didn’t Know Better, Undermine, Wrong Song and No One Will Ever Love You.