Whose country is it? Well, country (the music) is no different from the country (the USA): Everyone thinks their country is the real country. Indeed, country music in 2022 tends to be like American politics—dominated by extremes with both sides ridiculing the other. It’s no-airplay traditional country versus the rock-oriented radio-hit country and rarely the twain shall meet.
So which is countriest—the mega-bro arena-rockers and pop-country Vegas aerialists playing enormo-domes or the indie honky-tonkers and Hag acolytes playing the corner saloon? Or is the best representation of modern country music somewhere in between? Or was the only perfect country-and-rock symbiosis that delightfully bizarre moment when Dolly Parton and Rob Halford formed a two-headed crossover creature on “Jolene” at the Rock Hall of Fame induction this year?
Yes, the definition of country music is an ever-widening landscape in which anyone can self-identify as a country artist, but good luck telling the ghost of Lester Flatt that Lil Nas X is a country artist. In any case, most fans’ identification of country music is a twist on the old Supreme Court ruling on pornography: They know it when they hear it.
Of course, the mainstream keeps getting further from traditional country roots, unsurprising when Let’s-Go-Brandon acts like Morgan Wallen and Luke Combs are filling football stadiums. Nashville is now defined by bachelorette parties on pedal taverns headed to glitzbars, and the CMAs are filled with more hair extensions and spray tans than you can shake a fiddlestick at. (But you can’t because there are no fiddles at the CMAs anymore.)
But that-ain’t-country complaints are now worn-out bromides; it’s unlikely to find anything Ryman-y on the radio or at the top of the streams or in the hockey arenas. Ironically, the artists who seem to revere the old country legends the most are roots-rock artists (think Brandi Carlile’s recent exhumation of Tanya Tucker) while the mainstream country acts and their fans were all raised on rock. Go see Carrie Underwood today and her walk-on music is Motörhead’s “Ace of Spades.” (Seriously.)
Over on the country charts, it continued to be all dudes in 2022. The entire year saw only four weeks when Morgan Wallen’s Dangerous: The Double Album was not the number one album in the country. Of the 30 singles that reached number one on the Country Airplay chart, just four were by female singers. What should be the color of the wristband we start wearing for the underplayed female artist on KBRO 95.3 The Bull?
In Memoriam: We lost Sister Bobbie, a foundation of Willie Nelson concerts since the beginning. RIP Mickey Gilley and Ronnie Hawkins and Ralph Emery, one of the great country music ambassadors of all time. Dallas Frazier, writer of “Elvira,” giddyupped and oompahed off to the great Hungry House Cafe in the sky. “Convoy” singer C.W. McCall’s 10-20 is now in the Great Beyond. Naomi Judd died the day before her Country Music Hall of Fame induction; Jerry Lee Lewis died a week after his. We said goodbye to Olivia Newton-John, who was once considered country, remember? (Just ask George Jones, who was so incensed in 1974 that ONJ won a CMA that he organized an official protest. See? We’ve been at each other’s throats forever.) And, of course, the Honky Tonk Girl herself—the Decca Doll, the Blue Kentucky Girl, the Coal Miner’s Daughter. Farewell, Loretta, the First Lady of Country Music.
Here is our 15 Best Country Albums of 2022 list, which probably contains the kind of country music you like and the kind you hate, from hard-country bands to traditional true-believers to indie-country renegades to pop-country superstars. Plus, some Oklahoma kid who went from unknown YouTube uploader to festival-headlining sensation despite having zero radio airplay, a story that sums up the fact that when it comes to country music, the rules and boundaries are always changing.
A Beautiful Time
Another one! In terms of record-making prolificacy, Willie is really the King Gizzard of octogenarian country music legends. Released on his 89th birthday, A Beautiful Time offers some things old, some things new, some things blue, some things Ringo. Willie’s recent originals have typically been about either death or weed, a trend that continues here, and as usual, he tackles mortality with a bit of drollery: “Live every day like it was your last one/And one day you’re gonna be right” and “I don’t go to funerals/and I won’t be at mine.” But the legend gets serious on matters of love, still singing affectingly on heart-tuggers like “I’ll Love You Till the Day I Die” and the title cut with its poignant refrain, “When the last song’s been played/I’ll look back and say it’s been a beautiful time.” Indeed it has.
Mr. Saturday Night
Following the 20-year rule for nostalgia, we should be nearing the end of the 1990s revival craze, but don’t tell that to Jon Pardi. On his fourth album, the California-born singer still wants to Pardi like it’s 1999, with a new set of crowd-pleasing, old boot-scootin’, heart-hurtin’, fill-’er-up-again country. It’s odd that something this slick is considered a return to basics, but here we are. Pardi loves the fun country wordplay, pairing “I’m Mr. Saturday Night” with “I missed her Saturday night”, claiming that dance-floor love happens at “Neon Light Speed”, and lamenting that he wants to get over a lost love but still has a “Longneck Way to Go”, a collaboration with fellow 1990s-minded band Midland. Pardi’s voice is drenched in drawl with a wide-open tone that pairs well with the steel guitars and fiddles that two-step behind him. If you take Pardi’s advice on the album, Mr. Saturday Night also pairs well with a double-shot of Crown.
It’s tempting to demand perfection from Miranda Lambert, mainstream country’s most consistently superior recording artist: She came into the year with seven superfine albums under her spangly belt. Now make it eight. Palomino gallops along with three tracks (“In His Arms”, “Geraldine”, “Waxahachie”) from last year’s excellent stripped-bare project with Jon Randall and Jack Ingram, The Marfa Tapes, given the full-band solo-Miranda treatment here. Elsewhere, we get the sly swamp-country of “Actin’ Up”, the slinky road-trip groove of “Scenes”, the swoony barfly ballad “That’s What Makes the Jukebox Play”, and the wistful fingerpicking beauty “Carousel”. Clearly, Miranda remains the best vowel-bender in the game, but she is often under-credited for her shiv-sharp writing and her singular mix of bombast and sensitivity. Palomino ponies up all of it.
The Last Resort
These guys don’t miss. Last time out, the trio from Dripping Springs, Texas, released a song called “21st Century Honky Tonk American Band”, a moniker that fits Midland’s throwback sounds and sly contemporary attitude, marked by teflon playing, sorghum-sweet harmonies, and a sharp versatility in style and tone. On their third album, the band has eased away from their unshowered, party-loving Gator Boys image and has tenderized their musical edges by finding a sweet spot between 1970s soft-rock country and 1980s neo-traditionalism. Midland still traffic in tried-and-true country topics—drinking whiskey, living paycheck to paycheck, trying to get over her, being buried in blue jeans, etc.—presented this time with a sultrier, more sophisticated feel. From the gulf-’n’-western title cut that opens the album to the Tijuana brothel vibe that closes it, The Last Resort is first class.
“I’m what they used to simply call…country music,” Joshua Hedley sings. Yes, Hedley was country after country was cool, and he doesn’t tire of telling you about it. For Hedley, authentic country music petered out about 1996, so the handsome honky tonk he crafts on his sophomore release, Neon Blue, is a fond return to a time when fiddles and steel guitars in country music were bedrocks not tokens. Hedley’s lower-register is often a ringer for Merle Haggard’s, with a supple bounce in his twang and a barrel-aged tone that sounds fine at both ends of his considerable vocal range.
So Neon Blue is a nice tour through Carter-era country archetypes with enough Telecaster-string-bending and pedal-steel-bawling to make Hagolytes wet their barstools over an album that gets the misery-and-gin sound just right. Plus, on “Broke Again”, Hedley boasts the year’s best country stutter this side of Miranda’s “Geraldine”. Bonus: The album ends with a lovely version of Roger Miller’s “River in the Rain”.
Fortune Favors the Bold
On their fourth album, Virginia’s 49 Winchester demonstrates what makes them one of the most trusty, twangy, and tenacious groups in the game. A hirsute outfit of fine instrumentalists, 49 Winchesters has toured hard (they won “Stankiest Van in Country Music” last year) and lived to write about it in styles all across the country map. See the western alt-country of “Annabel”, the traditional hayseed song “Man’s Best Friend” (which is either Jesus or Jim Beam, depending on the day), the Lynyrd Skynyrd-like road anthem “All I Need”, and the coming-home manifesto “Russell County Line”, a splendid ballad built on acoustic guitar and piano counter-melodies. 49 Winchester cover the country tropes—making corn liquor, heartache in a bar, and dead-end towns—plus “Damn Darlin”, the saddest Christmas song Hag never wrote. Isaac Gibson’s gritty lead vocals, somewhere between Chris Stapleton and Tyler Childers, is alone worth the price of admission.
There have been no dull moments for Maren Morris lately. She had a baby, joined roots-ladies supergroup the Highwomen, became an outspoken advocate for more racial diversity in country music, made news by referring to Jason Aldean’s MAGA-wife as “Insurgent Barbie”, and released the terrific Humble Quest. As the album’s title would suggest, Morris scores by not trying to do too much. MaMo favors a lusher sound on Humble Quest, moving her further away from country-radio prescriptions and into classy adult-contemporary pop. Morris still sings with her native Texas drawl, and, if you squint, you can hear a stray dobro or steel now and then. But, more than ever, Morris presents a singular voice on songs like the existential beauty “Background Music” and the harmony-rich stunner “The Furthest Thing”, helping to secure Morris into her alluring place in the country ecosystem.