All over country music, opposing forces reflected the social and political divides that dominate the rest of America. Just as Black artists—Mickey Guyton, Jimmie Allen, Brittney Spencer, Charley Crockett—made headways into country radio and continued to shape country music, the biggest country act of the year, Morgan Wallen, was caught on video using the N-word. At the AMC Awards, a teary-eyed Allen accepted the trophy for Best New Artist. Yet, at the same time, country acts took the stage in arenas to Let’s-Go-Brandon chants, indicating that the genre still has a long way to go in terms of inclusivity.
In any case, the progress we saw this year shows promise, and the pandemic, as with other genres across music, allowed for bursts of productivity from country acts across the spectrum. A glance at our Top Ten reveals artists of every stripe—young and old, Black and white, traditionalist and progressive—all producing some of the most satisfying country music we’ve heard in years.
10 Charley Crockett—Music City USA [Son of Davy]
The album’s title and cover art spell out what the music inside confirms: Charley Crockett is genuine Ryman-era country. Even his recording pace—a new album, sometimes two, every year since 2015—is a throwback to a time when Nashville greats haunted Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge and the Ernest Tubb Record Shop. The video for the title track of Crockett’s new album was filmed in that very store, as Crockett stands and strums next to a mural of the Texas Troubadour himself, both men in white Stetsons.
Crockett carries on Tubb’s brand of handsome honky tonk, and Music City USA, Crockett’s ninth studio album, is his most direct tribute to the sounds of Nashville yet. Also, in country-boy-goes-to-Nashville tradition, Crockett admits that the city isn’t always welcoming to someone like him, a mix of Black and Creole ancestry: “I shouldn’t have come here in the first place/’Cause folks in here don’t like my kind.” However, with the album’s steel-laced ballads, southern-soul horns, Floyd Cramer-style piano, and a voice that sounds encased in barroom cigarette smoke, Crockett sounds like an enduring country lifer that can’t be stopped.
9 Garrett T Capps—I Love San Antone [Vinyl Ranch]
Garrett T Capps likes Austin, but he loves San Antone. That is, like every Texan worth his salt, he can swing with the Willie-esque outlaws, but his heart still wants to fiesta with authentic Tex-Mex soul. Capp straddles all kinds of Lone Star country on an album of songs cut live and loose in the studio with Johnny Bush-style fiddle, crying pedal steel, and accordions at the ready. Featuring Capps’ raw, elastic twang, these are songs about workin’ all goddamn week but dancing in the kitchen and heading downtown on the weekend, all while struggling to keep the devil inside.
More than anything, the album is a breezy tribute to all things Texas, namechecking icons like George Chambers and Ray Price and bringing in cameos from Austin mainstay Kathryn Legendre (“Neon Luv Waltz”) and legendary accordionist Santiago Jiminez, Jr. (“Margarita, Margarita”). Before tearing into the uptempo “Everybody I Know,” you can hear Capps declare, “This is going to be the hit!” In a perfect country world, Capp would be right.
8 Alan Jackson—Where Have You Gone [ACR]
When thinking about his first album in six years, Alan Jackson drove his truck around in pandemic isolation and sang snippets of melodies into his phone. He ended up with a 21-song album, Where Have You Gone. The lead track and title song begins like a classic hard-hurtin’ my-woman’s-gone song, but his lost love ends up not being his girl after all; it’s “sweet country music” that has gone missing. For the rest of the 83-minute record, the Country Music Hall of Famer answers the question that he poses in the title.
Country traditionalism might be on life support, but Jackson still has plenty of old-fashioned weepers, waltzers, drinkers, and dancers to offer the world. That is, Jackson’s style of neo-traditionalism is shut out of country radio these days, but he continues to be a supple stylist of drain-the-glass tippling songs (“Wishful Drinkin'”, “Way Down in the Whiskey”) and a fleet-footed wordsmith of country hot-steppers (the Timberlake-jacking “Back”). Plus, Jackson still knows where the money is: Two different heart-yankers on the album come with the subtitle “(Written For Daughters’ Weddings)”.
7 Mac Leaphart—Music City Joke [Mac Leaphart]
Like Charley Crockett, Mac Leaphart stuck Nashville’s nickname into the title of a record that simultaneously pays tribute to country traditions while giving the genre a modernist’s jab in the ribs. The self-deprecating joke in the title refers to the longshot odds of an old soul like Leaphart filling the shoes of country legends when those shoes have long fallen out of fashion. Nevertheless, raised on ’70s country traditions, the South Carolinian keeps it twangy with a hummingbird vibrato and a wry eye for droll details.
With spare arrangements textured by pedal steel and his poised picking, Leaphart is aces with drinkin’ songs (the outlaw thumper “Blame on the Bottle”), fiddle-abetted party tunes (“Honey, Shake!”), and harmonica-and-banjo picaresques (“That Train”). Another track is a talkin’ blues told from the perspective of a badly-played guitar, complete with a bungled G-run at the end (“Ballad of Bob Yamaha or a Simple Plea in C Major”). There’s also a breakup ballad about leaving his girlfriend at a Willie Nelson show, and there’s nothing sadder than that (“The Same Thing”). Be still my leaping hart!
6 Connie Smith—The Cry of the Heart [Fat Possum]
The Cry of the Heart, Connie Smith‘s first album in ten years, starts with the a cappella sound of the Country Hall of Famer’s legendary voice, huskier than in her hit-making heyday of the 1960s and 1970s, but still strong and unmistakable in its trademark contralto and wide vibrato. Long-considered among the Nashville old guard as one of the greatest “girl singers” in the biz, Smith mines some forgotten hits from the ’60s (Kitty Wells’ “All the Time,” Billy Walker’s “A Million and One,” Jean Shepard’s “Heart, We Did All We Could Do”).
But the new songs like “Spare Me No Truth” and “Here Comes My Baby Back Again”, written with husband Marty Stuart, who also produced the album, sound just as timeless and authentic as anything else in Smith’s catalog. With picking help from Nashville ringers like Hargus “Pig” Robbins and members of Stuart’s band, Superlatives Kenny Vaughn and Chris Scruggs, the 80-year-old Smith made the most welcome and satisfying country comeback of the year.