11 mainstream country artists worth listening to
by Ivan Raczycki
April 2, 2014
You’ve been saying it since grade nine orientation, with your Fred Durst hat on backwards atop a highlighted buzzcut, Led Zeppelin ZoSo shirt complimenting your pre-ripped Warehouse One jeans: you’re open-minded when it comes to music. You listen to everything! Everything, that is, except rap and country, and especially country. Everything churned out of Nashville these days is an auditory tap-dance on Johnny Cash’s grave and nothing will get you to turn off that new St. Vincent record, let alone a soulless hillbilly hit single.
But there’s been a tide change the past couple of years—somewhere, hidden amongst the redneck anthems and bro-country hick-hop travesties, are artists willing to engage with country music’s roots and sing about things other than tailgate parties and beer. Check out these trailblazers (and bong blazers…you’ll see) changing the game for popular country music.
2013 was dubbed the “year of the woman” in country music circles based on three wonderful records by leading ladies of the genre, the most notable being Ms. Musgraves’ major-label debut, Same Trailer Different Park. Popping up on a plethora of year-end lists (present company included) and knocking T-Swift off her throne with a Best Country Album win at the Grammys, Musgraves put together a series of pleasant, poppy country ditties with a progressive bent, celebrating controversial themes—at least in a highly conservative industry—like homosexuality and recreational drug use. With a Katy Perry opening slot alongside Tegan and Sara and Capital Cities this summer, Musgraves’ momentum only means good things for the community and culture of country music.
With his aviators and Von Dutch hat permanently affixed atop his shit-eating mug, Eric Church looks the part of a bro-country sleazeball (his Aldean/Bryan collab didn’t help). But Church is a pot-smoking, Springsteen-loving, Svengali outlaw impersonator taking country music into the 21st century with style and smarts intact. His latest record, The Outsiders, was a bold, multi-dimensional experiment far from the genre’s roots but close to its heart, with hints of pop-metal and Haim-like studio precision. “I think genres are dead,” he said in an ABC special. And while that sounds counterproductive to country’s cause, esteemed outlets like Rolling Stone and NPR are just a few of the millions of folks behind this platinum-selling artist’s monogenre revolution.
Zac Brown Band
Georgia’s Zac Brown and Band play rollicking southern rock, littered with virtuoso pickin’ and sugar-sweet hooks and harmonies. Sure, “Chicken Fried” made your Hank Williams-loving heart go cold with its clichéd, laundry-list approach to country music tropes. But that just got Brown’s foot in the door. Since then, he’s proved to be one of the last bastions of Waylon-esque badassery and balladry, collaborating with Dave Grohl, launching the career of Blackberry Smoke, and calling Luke Bryan’s “That’s My Kind of Night” the “worst song I’ve ever heard” on a Vancouver radio station. (And yes, Mike Judge made the above video.)
Jamey Johnson is a champion of country’s old guard. Getting into the industry via the elusive and embarrassing world of songwriting (yes, he did co-craft “Honky Tonk Badonkadonk”), Johnson has since put blinders onto pop-country trends and charted his own creative course, celebrating tradition over commercial success. Case in point: his last release Living for a Song was a tribute record to legendary songwriter Hank Cochran (“Make the World Go Away,” “I Fall to Pieces”) with guests like Merle Haggard, Willie Nelson, and the recently deceased Ray Price. I’d like to see Florida Georgia Line pull that off.
Ashley Monroe, one-third of the aforementioned holy-country-lady trinity, got the co-sign from Miranda Lambert by teaming up with her for country’s other wicked woman trio, the Pistol Annies, who climbed charts and turned heads with songs about cheating, drugs, and booze (just like country used to, and should, be). On last year’s Like a Rose, she showed her deftness as a songwriter, mixing raunchy humour and real heart all the way to the top spot of Rolling Stone‘s best country record roundup. And leave the posies at home—she’d prefer “Weed Instead of Roses.”
Miranda Lambert/Pistol Annies
And while we’re at it, let’s not leave Miranda out. She’s been semi-sidelined in the discussion about strong female presences in CMT rotation, but her output, though spotty, has shown grace and good spirit in handling the evolution of modern country music (unlike her husband Blake “The Voice” Shelton). And seriously, check out the Pistol Annies; even Neil Young couldn’t stop rambling about them in his recent autobiography.
Brad Paisley took a lot of flack for that accidentally racist “Accidental Racist” LL Cool J duet, but if you’ve been paying close attention, you’d see the man’s far from the goofy, aloof hick who’s been hosting the CMAs for the past six years. Paisley’s played the part of catch-all country everyman, charming his way into listeners’ hearts with songs about ticks and camouflage to enormous success. But, sleuthing like a West Virginian James Bond, Paisley subversively preaches tolerance and open-mindedness to a close-minded audience in a language they’ll listen to. Check out how “American Saturday Night” celebrates multiculturalism, or how “Southern Comfort Zone” encourages exploration outside the Mason-Dixon line (“Not everybody drives a truck, not everybody drinks sweet tea/Not everybody owns a gun, wears a ball cap boots and jeans”). The man’s smarter than he seems (and he also positively rips as a guitar player).
The Civil Wars
The sensual alt-country duo of Joy Williams and John Paul White classed-up country music for the unwashed masses with their Grammy-winning album Barton Hollow, scored a hit Hunger Games track with Taylor Swift, and no doubt inspired ABC’s idyllic, tasteful depiction of Music City in their smash show Nashville (if only the real Nashville put out music that consistently good). Turns out things were too good to be true. They broke the frick up, but not before releasing their self-titled follow-up last year. Here’s hoping the Wars rage on (/puns).
Guys, let’s not forget that the weed-puffin’ Willie Nelson is still alive and well and, at 80, almost more prolific than Ty Segall and The Men combined (but not quite Lil B). He’s put out five records in the last four years, including last October’s To All the Girls…, a duets album with the varied likes of Dolly Parton, Mavis Staples, the Secret Sisters, and more. And did you hear “Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die,” his final will by way of Kris Kristofferson/Jamey Johnson/Snoop Dogg collab? This octogenarian is still on a major label, still in the studio, and eternally “On the Road Again,” proof people still love real-deal country music.
Brandy Clark is the last of the leading ladies on this list that ruled 2013, but she might also be the strongest case of country music’s ideological upheaval. Where Musgraves sings about kissing girls, Clark lives it as an out lesbian operating within Nashville’s rigid worldview. But rather than being some country music case study, she’s really just an excellent songwriter (she’s penned hits for a ton of other stars, too) who also happens to be gay. Her radio-backed single “Pray to Jesus,” from last year’s 12 Stories, is just one example of her lyrical craftwork and descriptive depth; is there a more perfect mantra for the working class than “we pray to Jesus and we play the lotto”?
Without Swift proving the commercial viability of country music in the EDM era, we wouldn’t have major labels taking the chance on artists who carve their own path, who take risks in a genre reviled for its safeness. Without Swift, there might not be a Musgraves, let alone many of the artists celebrated on this list and beyond. And no, Red was not at all a country album, but remember: all her previous records were written by Swift the young songwriter, not some villainous think-tank of shady industry execs. Like it or not, you gotta respect this powerful pop icon. Don’t be mean.