The year has been full of surprises for country music fans. Some, like Loretta Lynn’s first album in more than a decade, were pleasantly welcome. Others, like Ronnie Dunn covering an Ariana Grande song, not so much.
But, as much as the naysayers and prognosticators like to bemoan the loss of “real country,” whatever that means, 2016 still had plenty of moments for country fans to be thankful for, no matter if you’re a staunch traditionalist or a pop-country crossover fan.
Young up-and-comers proved they belonged
This past year has been great for young country artists trying to make it in the industry. Jon Pardi and William Michael Morgan finally scored the recognition they deserve in “California Sunrise” and “Vinyl,” respectively. Cody Johnson, a Texas act whose album almost went No. 1 before Blake Shelton sold his latest album for a discount, proved you don’t need the support of a record label if you make good music and have dedicated fans.
On the other side of the spectrum, Maren Morris exploded onto the scene with a No. 1 hit. Cam, whose album dropped late last year, finally got some traction and touring recognition this year, as well as being nominated for two CMAs. Traditional and well-done pop crossover country are being kept alive and well in the work of these artists and many more.
Netflix’s “The Ranch” championed country music and its fans
If you haven’t seen “The Ranch,” Ashton Kutcher’s Netflix comedy about a down-on-his-luck ex-NFL quarterback named Colt (Kutcher) who makes his way back home to Colorado to tend to the family farm with his dim-witted brother Rooster (Danny Masterson), stern father (Sam Elliott) and bar-owning mother (Debra Winger) … I’m not saying you should watch it, but if you’re looking for easygoing Red State laughs, you could do a lot worse. The punchlines are predictable from a mile off, and some of the stereotypes get old after a few episodes, but the show kept me watching through the first part of its two-half season for two reasons:
- It’s a sitcom filmed in front of a live audience, but it’s aired on Netflix, which means you’ll get a normal three-cam setup on a streaming service and you’ll hear audience laughter after a joke where a character drops an F-bomb. The novelty of that juxtaposition never quite goes away.
- There are a ton of references to country music in this show, for artists of all stripes. All of the episode titles from the first half of the season come from Kenny Chesney songs, and the second half titles cull from the catalog of none other than George Strait. The theme song is a “Mamas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to be Cowboys” cover from Lukas Nelson and Shooter Jennings. Other artists like Turnpike Troubadours, Corb Lund, American Aquarium, Justin Townes Earle, Brandi Carlile, Nathaniel Rateliff & the Night Sweats, Ashley Monroe, Chesney and Luke Bryan also appear throughout the show. And there’s a lot of jokes that revolve around country music, too. If you’re a country fan who’s willing to endure the occasional terrible joke about herpes to hear the music you love get some exposure on a national platform, then “The Ranch” is for you.
Wheeler Walker Jr. inverted country music tropes
Wheeler Walker Jr. is the comic country creation of comedian Ben Hoffman. His debut album “Redneck S—” was released in February and hit No. 9 on the U.S. country charts, No. 6 on the independent albums chart and No. 1 in the U.S. comedy charts. The album is decidedly NSFW. But it sounds like an outlaw country record from the ’70s and ’80s. The only difference is that instead of, say, using metaphors to express his pain over a breakup, Walker just tells his ex what he feels in the moment, with all the profanity and explicitness one could imagine. Hoffman modifies his voice just enough to sound country, and keeping traditional instrumentation makes the parodies hit harder. That he has a huge following only adds to his legitimacy as an act and further blurs the line between what’s real and what’s comedy.
The Brothers Osborne won best vocal duo at the CMAs
The Brothers Osborne have had a hell of a year. The January release of their debut album “Pawn Shop” yielded three hit singles and earned the duo two CMA nominations and a Grammy nomination. Their win for best vocal duo at the CMAs was one of the biggest upsets of the night — Florida Georgia Line was poised to win the award four years in a row. This may not mean anything to you if you’re not a fan of country music awards shows or what they represent (and I don’t blame you; at my last unofficial count there were, like, 500 of them), but it signals a tide change in bro-country. Florida Georgia Line lost a prestigious award to an up-and-coming group with a more traditional sound. Bro-country might finally be on its way out, and that’s something we can all give thanks for.
The Dixie Chicks ran off into Wide Open Spaces again
In case you didn’t hear, the Dixie Chicks made an appearance at the CMAs with Beyoncé. That moment was important for country music and the awards show it was featured in, but that stop was one of the last on the Chicks’ tour, during which they routinely covered Bey’s “Daddy Lessons” on stage. The DCX MMXVI World Tour tour was only their second full-length tour since 2007, after the band toured to promote “Taking the Long Way” in the wake of lead singer Natalie Maines’ comments about then-President George W. Bush.
Many country stars are Democrats, but few express those views openly. In 2016, it’s easy for a country star to fire off an opinion on Twitter or go on a Facebook rant. Technology plays a huge part in that, no doubt, but no matter what side of the political aisle you fall on, if you’re a country star and you have an opinion, the Chicks helped pave the way for you to express it within the industry. For the best-selling country group in the world at the time to spout an opinion contrary to what many of their fans believed was a watershed moment for country music in 2003. The Chicks’ return to the touring stage this year is a sign of how much the times have changed, and how much they’ve stayed the same. Speaking of which. …
It was a big year for the ‘tomatoes’ of country music
Last year, radio programming consultant Keith Hill compared women in country music to tomatoes in a salad, implying that they exist only to complement the more “lettuce”-like stars of the genre (aka the men) who make more money and are more successful. Unfortunate fruit and greens metaphors aside, the comment was shortsighted, misogynistic and further drove a wedge between female country artists and the radio system that helps promote them.
Fast forward to 2016. Loretta Lynn, Margo Price, Brandy Clark, Lori McKenna, Carrie Underwood, Miranda Lambert, Kelsea Ballerini, Maren Morris, Kacey Musgraves, Dolly Parton, Reba, Martina McBride and Cam either released stellar new albums, were nominated for several awards, were honored for a lifetime of achievement or all of the above, oftentimes with more radio play than female artists received in 2015. We still have a long way to go — a recent study revealed that country music has slowly become more misogynistic — but this year was decidedly better than the last for women in the industry. Hopefully 2017 will get even better.
A lot of great albums came out this year
I was just as surprised as the next viewer when Eric Church’s “Mr. Misunderstood” won album of the year at the CMAs. Unceremoniously released a year ago to no fanfare, the album doesn’t lend itself well to radio singles, and it’s best experienced in a full listen to get the full effect of the album. And that wasn’t the only great album released within the last year that bears repeated listening to.
In today’s country music radio format, it’s rare when an album arrives that’s not just a collection of singles and is ready to take you on a thematic journey. In no particular order, some of those albums this year that were more than the sum of their single parts:
“Midwest Farmer’s Daughter,” Margo Price
“Lovers and Leavers,” Hayes Carll
“California Sunrise,” Jon Pardi
“Vinyl,” William Michael Morgan
“The Weight of These Wings,” Miranda Lambert
“The Bird and the Rifle,” Lori McKenna
“Big Day in a Small Town,” Brandy Clark
“American Band,” Drive-By Truckers
“Sailor’s Guide to Earth,” Sturgill Simpson
“Rockingham,” BJ Barham
“Black,” Dierks Bentley
“Shine on Rainy Day,” Brent Cobb
“Southern Family,” produced by Dave Cobb
“I’m Not the Devil,” Cody Jinks
“Full Circle,” Loretta Lynn