Music

The Best Country Music of 2015

Dave Heaton and Steve Leftridge
Chris Stapleton

In country music, the old and the new are never that far away from each other. They’re at least on speaking terms.

5 - 1

Artist: Dwight Yoakam

Album: Second Hand Heart

Label: Warner Bros.

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Display Width: 200Dwight Yoakam
Second Hand Heart

Back in the Aughts, Dwight Yoakam appeared to have an elusive relationship with his songwriting voice, as most of that decade consisted of cover albums that felt a thousand miles from Yoakam’s hitmaking late ‘80s/early ‘90s heyday. It’s safe to say that Dwight is back, hitting an impressive resurgence with 2012’s widely acclaimed 3 Pears and now this year’s Second Hand Heart. Backed by his slick-picking, hard-hitting touring band, Yoakam wrote every song here except for the chugging, rocked-up take on “Man of Constant Sorrow” and Anthony Crawford’s winsome album-closing “V’s for Birds". Elsewhere, like its predecessor, the new record scores not by attempting to replicate the Bakersfield redux of his glory days, but by lending that signature pliant whine to new tapestries of sound, bringing in everything from power pop influences (“She”), fuzzed-out Elvis boogies (“The Big Time”), reverby ‘65-Beatles romps (“Liar”), and dreamy folk-rock (“Believe”). Dwight purists need not panic -- see the Telecaster twang of “Off Your Mind” -- but Second Hand Heart moves the needle impressively in the career of a great American artist. -- Steve Leftridge

 
Artist: Randy Rogers & Wade Bowen

Album: Hold My Beer, Vol. 1

Label: Lil’ Buddy Toons

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Randy Rogers & Wade Bowen
Hold My Beer, Vol. 1

With Lloyd Maines producing and playing in the band, Texas singers, and frequent touring companions, Randy Rogers and Wade Bowen sound like they’re having a blast running through old honky-tonk sounds on Holy My Beer, Vol. 1, a collection of originals, plus a couple Merle Haggard songs and one by Joe Ely. The general story told is here’s some musicians who live to tour and record country music, no matter how successful they are (“I don’t have hits / I’ve got standards”, goes one chorus). I might cast this aside as too purposely ‘real country’, if this wasn’t such a loose yet impeccable recreation of sounds and themes essential to the genre. There’s a song about spending all your time hanging out in bars, and that’s the sound they pursue and achieve on Hold My Beer, Vol. 1; music made by, and for, folks used to hanging out in country and western bars. -- Dave Heaton

 
Artist: Kacey Musgraves

Album: Pageant Material

Label: Mercury Nashville

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Kacey Musgraves
Pageant Material

There’s some real Nashville-songwriting-factory brilliance going on here, built around the stage persona of Kacey Musgraves, which has a dose of small-town-country-girl-gone-celebrity, some smart-ass or not Miss Manners-style advice and a truckload of sentimental cliches, often sung so we can’t 100% tell if she knows they’re cliches, though we suspect she does. It’s strange the extent to which reviews and Internet fan talk have used her as an example of “real” or “authentic” country music, considering the way she plays every angle at once and puts a gorgeous sheen on it. The title track may make fun of the idea that she’d be “pageant material”, but this album is pushing her further into the mainstream, through music built to take pleasure in, whether it’s a tune, a clever turn of phrase or the polished, pretty sound of the album we’re enjoying. Those neon cactuses she likes to put on stage are for me the visual embodiment of this album - a bit kitschy yet filled with their own emotional and historical resonance. -- Dave Heaton

 
Artist: Chris Stapleton

Album: Traveler

Label: Mercury Nashville

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Chris Stapleton
Traveler

Did Chris Stapleton single-beardedly make contemporary country music, well, countrier in 2015? The long-term effect of Chris Stapleton’s recent star-making appearance on the CMA Awards is yet to be seen. Still, on his solo debut, the former SteelDrivers singer flexes his formidable talents on a range of smart, old-school country that refuses to kiss a square inch of new country-radio butt. That Traveller is a number one album (across all genres) in 2015 is a remarkable shot in the arm that proves there’s still plenty of room for 1978-style outlaw country in today’s mainstream landscape. The slow-baked version of George Jones staple “Tennessee Whiskey” might be the breakout cut, but everything else here showcases Stapleton’s peerless gift for melody and trademark chainsaw vocals: the smoldering “Fire Away", the driving “Parachute", the drain-the-cup ballad “Whiskey and You", the Willie-esque “The Devil Named Music". The Best New Artist award is silly, as Stapleton has been around for years, but as a killer back-to-basics country reboot, Traveller deserves its many accolades. -- Steve Leftridge

 
Artist: Ashley Monroe

Album: The Blade

Label: Warner Music Nashville

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Ashley Monroe
The Blade

Once again working with Vince Gill and Justin Niebank, who also co-produced 2013’s Like a Rose, Monroe, for The Blade, expands her musical range on 13 stellar new songs, all co-written by Monroe herself. On The Blade, Monroe at turns evokes ‘80’s-era crossover Dolly (“On to Something Good”), sassy honky-tonkabilly (“Winning Streak”), and throwback fiddle-and-steel waltzes (“I’m Good at Leavin’”). In doing so, the Knoxville knockout continues to prove her singular knack for bringing contemporary crackle to classic country arrangements. Throughout, especially on the ballads, like the gorgeous “Bombshell”, Monroe demonstrates her remarkable gifts as a singer: In this era of country bluster, she serves the songs with unerringly great vocals--lovely, nimble, nuanced--while refreshingly avoiding strident bombast. As a result, the total product--the graceful production, the first-rate playing, the near-perfect cycle of songs, Monroe’s superb performances--makes The Blade the year’s most-satisfying and timelessly great country collection. Steve Leftridge

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