The songs on the Billboard country charts that stayed at #1 the longest this year were by Jason Aldean, Florida Georgia Line, and Luke Bryan. That fits the impression one might get from spending much time listening to country radio this year—that the dominant storyline of country music continues to be the “bro-country” one, that the genre is populated with macho men and their cars and trucks, which their women often like to dance in the headlights of, preferably near a riverbank or a dirt road. Take more than a quick glance at the genre, though, and you’ll see the country music landscape as more varied than that—in terms of gender, age, experience and song content. Its rich history is alive and well, and still being tweaked and refined.
Last year threatened to be considered a “year of the woman” by the press—a gimmick that nonetheless meant deserved attention to songwriters and performers like Brandy Clark, Kacey Musgraves, and Ashley Monroe. That attention shouldn’t be confined to one year, and these artists shouldn’t be categorized as merely “critics’ darlings”. In 2014, Miranda Lambert was a presence on the sales and radio charts with her sixth album, her Pistol Annies cohort Angaleena Presley released her outstanding debut, and Lee Ann Womack released what might be the best album of her career.
Meanwhile, new artists continue to twist and turn the sounds and styles of the country tradition, while living legends solidify and refine the same in interesting ways. If you just scan the horizon of country music and don’t invest yourself in the songs and albums, you perhaps can be forgiven for thinking country as a genre is moribund. Especially if that’s the conclusion you’re expecting to draw. Spend real time with the genre, though, and if you’re looking for reasons to be excited by country music in the year 2014, you will find them. Dave Heaton
The Secret Sisters
Put Your Needle Down
This is your grandparents’ country music. The production by T Bone Burnett locates the sonic sweet spot for the sisters, traveling through the homey sounds of the late 1950s, including rockabilly, girl-pop, the Nashville sound, and swamp-rock. At points, however, one has the sense that the production palette might be no more than the icing on the cake. These sisters might tackle these songs a cappella and sound just as compelling. Offering a throughline from the high lonesome sibling harmonies of the Louvins and the Everlys, one would be hard-pressed to find harmonies more natural than those conjured here by Laura and Lydia Rogers. Moments like the bridge of “Black and Blue” and the sweet, low singing at the start of “Luka” quaver with bone-tingling accuracy. And while the sisters wrote or co-wrote the bulk of the songs, the co-writing credits should not be overlooked, which include ace contributions from Brandi Carlile and Dan Wilson. Taylor Coe
Free State Serenade
Since honky-tonk throwbacks BR549 went on hiatus, true-blue country troubadour Chuck Mead has released three sharp solo records that have continued to reinforce his credentials as one of our most authentic hillbilly torchbearers and country connoisseurs. On his third album, this year’s Free State Serenade, Mead again boogies like it’s 1966, but unlike his 2012 all-covers set, Chuck returns with a fresh batch of first-rate originals. Mead is still an ace roots-music mimic—Bakersfield honkytonk here, Western swing there, now some banjo frailin’, now some Hank-style heartbreak—but with this record’s neurotransmitter-tickling melodies and clever wordplay, it’s the most fun you’ve had with Chuck Mead since those beer-spillin’ ‘49er shows back in the day. Steve Leftridge
Marty Stuart & His Fabulous Superlatives
Saturday Night/Sunday Morning
Saturday night is a raucous party at the local honkytonk, Sunday morning is church. That’s the conceit behind the double-disc Saturday Night/Sunday Morning. Yet Saturday night’s country songs, as barn-burning wild as they get, are also expressions of absolute heartbreak and devastation. And Sunday morning’s gospel songs are rollicking blues and soul numbers (starting with a version of “Uncloudy Day” featuring Mavis Staples, with Stuart playing Pops Staples’ guitar). Both discs are impeccable forays into these styles and songs, as befitting a musical historian/legend like Stuart, and his crackerjack band. The Sunday Morning half exemplifies and furthers country’s long association and intermingling with gospel. The Saturday Night half harkens back to early rock’n'roll’s relationship to country, and to train songs, down-and-out songs, and good old fashioned divorce songs. Dave Heaton
Little Big Town
All those Fleetwood Mac comparisons come into full bloom on this album. Little Big Town has always had the awesome harmonies and catchy tunes, but this time out those skills are married with a willingness to experiment with different musical ideas. This is country-pop at its best, bent on giving us a slice from every pie, jumping from drinking anthem (“Day Drinking”) to troubled love ballad (“Tumble and Fall”) to reggae-inflected pop song (“Pain Killer”) from one track to the next. The women, in particular, shine on this album: Karen Fairchild gives a master-class in pop performance on “Girl Crush” and Kimberly Schlapman lets loose with the fiery “Save Your Sin.” Holding this seeming potpourri together is the striking production from Jay Joyce, who inserts detail like the churning ‘70s-rock guitars of “Faster Gun” and the marching band drums of “Day Drinking”. With Joyce in the driver’s seat, Little Big Town is a force in country to be reckoned with. Taylor Coe
Set the patience and steadiness of Don Williams’ singing against most contemporary music, country or not, and take a breath. Reflections finds the gentle giant of country music in acontemplative mode, but even when the songs are not, his voice reflects a life of earned wisdom and experience. There’s a no-nonsense quality to it that is eternally country, and a placidity that echoes back images of C&W landscapes—mountains, rivers, prairies. Reflections is not a standout Williams album necessarily, but a rock-solid one. He sings of getting back to the simple things in life, of praying for strength, and of the way calloused, weathered hands can also be healing hands of love. He capably covers Jesse Winchester’s “If I Were Free” and Merle Haggard’s jailhouse anthem “Sing Me Back Home”, and opens the album with a version of Townes Van Zandt’s “I’ll Be Here in the Morning” that is devastating in its stability. Dave Heaton