Gone Country: The year that was, and the best albums of 2017

3:32 p.m Friday, Dec. 22, 2017 Music

Country music in 2017 was kind of frustrating, to be honest. There were some great highs, as this list will show, but there were also some terrible lows. Sam Hunt’s “Body Like A Backroad” being the biggest smash for the genre all year was one of those lows, but that song’s success is symptomatic of country music radio’s bigger issue: Cumulus Media just filed for bankruptcy, iHeart Radio is billions of dollars in debt, and the radio industry at large is struggling mightily to keep up with streaming platforms. 

Related: Gone Country: Miranda Lambert gets snubbed, silence is golden and Sturgill busks for the ACLU at the 2017 CMAs

Well, that’s not entirely true. They just end up playing songs from artists that have been shoving “country” music into streaming platforms, regardless of if the sound is traditionally “country” or not in an attempt to get younger listeners. 

All of that has been going on for years, but that, plus the country music industry’s insistence that “we’re all just a big, happy family” felt fake and tired in 2017. If country music has room for everyone, then why is the majority of country radio a bunch of white dudebros singing about a type of farm life that doesn’t exist or singing about girls half their age? There’s hardly any diversity in subject matter on country radio anymore, and that’s only going to get worse.  

More: Country Music Association rescinds ‘ridiculous and unfair’ press restrictions for CMAs

There wasn’t even a lot of room for questions in the face of tragedy this year. At the Route 91 Harvest Festival in Las Vegas on Oct. 1, a gunman opened fire, killed 59 people and injured hundreds more while fans were taking in a country music concert. To this date, this is the worst mass shooting in America’s 241-year-old history.

More: Las Vegas shooting: At least 59 dead, live updates

A month later at the CMAs, the Country Music Association pre-emptively barred reporters from asking any questions about “the Las Vegas tragedy, gun rights, political affiliations or topics of the like,” lest those reporters have their press credentials “reviewed and potentially revoked via security escort.” 

Obviously, there was backlash among artists and fans, and the CMAs finally gave up on their infringement of First Amendment rights shortly before the ceremony. But country stars who spoke up about gun control, or who spoke up about any political opinion that did not adhere to the stereotypical party line, were mocked.

Related: Country guitarist changes mind after Vegas massacre, calling for gun control laws

Country music as a genre has to come to terms with the growing amount of diversity in this country, in all shapes and sizes. That doesn’t mean expanding the definition of country music. That means making country music a more accessible genre for people who are not white, straight, male and Republican. That means giving women more radio play. That means making room for more nuanced songs about difficult topics. That means shining a light on the rampant sexual assault that goes on in the industry. (Think it doesn’t happen in country music? Think again.) Make that “big ol’ family” dynamic that is trotted out on press tours actually mean something. 

More: ‘Woman Walk the Line’ book highlights the influence of women in country music

I love this genre, but country music as most of the American people know it is going to become even more irrelevant if the industry can’t get with the times.

But enough doom and gloom. Despite all of the ranting and raving above, there was plenty to love about country music in 2017 if you looked in the right place. All of the albums below are proof that good country music does still exist. You’re just not likely to find it on the radio.

As with last year, keep in mind that this list isn’t conclusive and only includes albums I’ve actually listened to. If you think I missed anything, let me know here, through email at jharris@statesman.com, or on Twitter @jakeharris4.

10. “Freedom Highway,” Rhiannon Giddens

Giddens, mostly known in the folk world, earned some new fans last year when she was featured on Eric Church’s “Kill a Word” from his award-winning “Mr. Misunderstood.” 

More: Rhiannon Giddens blazes brightly with her band at ACL taping

An award-winning musician herself— she was the first woman and non-white musician to win the Steve Martin Prize for Excellence in Banjo and Bluegrass— Giddens is equally versed in American roots music and Gaelic instrumentation, and both feature prominently on “Freedom Highway,” a record that painfully examines America’s racist past while looking hopefully toward its future. This is a Gospel record, as far as I’m concerned.

More: ACL Fest 2015 review: Rhiannon Giddens busts outta the tent

Favorite Song: The rousing chorus of “At the Purchaser’s Option” belies the terrifying story told in the verses. “You can take my body, you can take my bones, you can take my blood, but not my soul” is the thesis statement for this album.

9. "Way Out West,” Marty Stuart and His Fabulous Superlatives

I have never done the drugs or pills Stuart describes in this indigo haze of an album. But after listening to his and his band’s blend of psychedelia, surf rock and Bakersfield country, I wouldn’t be opposed to taking one of those little pills from the title track. The soundscape the elder statesman of country cool creates here is as vast and untamed as the Wild West in the 1800s.

Favorite Song: The title track is the finest slice of psychedelic country I’ve herd since Sturgill Simpson’s “Turtles All the Way Down.”

8. “God’s Problem Child,” Willie Nelson

Willie’s 84 years old, but that don’t mean s---. He can still play with the best of them, and his songwriting skills on display here are the best they’ve ever been. 

Catch up on all of your Willie news right here on austin360.com

“God’s Problem Child” finds him contemplating his own mortality, in ways both youthful (“Still Not Dead”) and wise (“Old Timer”). From start to finish, it’s fantastic.

Read our review: Willie Nelson’s new album proves how musically sharp he remains at 84

Favorite Song: “Still Not Dead” cribs Mark Twain’s quip about exaggerated rumors of demise and faces all of those Internet hoaxes about his age head-on.

7a. and 7b. “From ‘A’ Room: Vols. 1 and 2,” Chris Stapleton

Yes, the ‘A’ does need to be capitalized, as this was recorded in Studio A of Nashville’s RCA Records. With this album, the Stapleton phenomenon continues. The first half of Stapleton’s sophomore solo effort became country music’s first gold record of the year with hardly any radio airplay. It also took home a CA for “Album of the Year,” and “Vol. 2” will surely be nominated for Album of the Year in the 2018 awards cycle. 

More: Chris Stapleton keeps it humble, understated at first ‘Austin City Limits’ taping

Taken as 9-song parts, the songs here may not seem like a lot compared to his debut, “Traveller.” But there’s depth to be found here, especially once you play both albums back-to-back. Stapleton doubles down on his voice for many of the songs.

ACL Fest 2016 review: Chris Stapleton keeps it simple on big stage

Favorite Song(s): Stripped down to just your voice and a guitar, there’s nowhere to hide. Either you can sing or you can’t. “Either Way” in the hands of many country stars would fall flat because of the raw vulnerability of the lyrics and the staging. Stapleton makes it sound effortless.

From “Vol. 2,” my current favorite is “Friendship.” It’s not often you hear songs about the joy of platonic relationships, especially on country radio. This will probably be a fan favorite at shows. 

More: A tale of two concerts: Chris Stapleton and Hank Jr. on one bill is like night and day

6. “Purgatory, Tyler Childers

The Kentucky native’s sophomore album was produced by another Kentuckian — none other than Sturgill Simpson. That’s what everyone talks about first when they talk about this album, for better or worse, but if that’s what it takes to get this album in more people’s ears, so be it. It’s a bluegrass country rock romp from start to finish. And Childers’ work here belies his age, touching on nostalgia, family and the very nature of music itself.

Favorite Song: The title track is the best bluegrass song I’ve heard in a long time. 

5. “All American Made,” Margo Price

Price’s debut “Midwest Farmer’s Daughter” (Gone Country’s Best Album of 2016) was about her story and her hardships. Her follow-up “All American Made” is about her worldview and her opinions. It sounds just like her first album, which isn’t a bad thing. the familiar East Nashville grooves set the stage for some truly introspective songriting— this is the only country album that discusses the women’s pay gap and Nashville’s “gone country” phenomenon on the same disc. 

More: Margo Price has a toe-tapping melancholy time at ACL taping

Favorite Song: The tender, heartfelt Willie Nelson duet “Learning To Lose.”

4. “A Long Way From Your Heart,” The Turnpike Troubadours

Remember earlier, when I talked about how country music needs to start recognizing songs about a variety of experiences? This album is a perfect example.

More: The most energetic country show you’ll see this year is The Turnpike Troubadours at ACL Live

The Troubadours have always had a way with wordplay and turning the short story form into song. “A Long Way From Your Heart” is the Troubaours at the top of their game, creating an Oklahoma landscape filled with recurring characers all experiencing different things — a friend lamenting the loss of a friendship to crime, a friend warning another friend about the dangers of dating a much younger woman, a man grieving the loss of a loved one, a budding romance set to a tornado. Every song here is a delight, and the bass playing, steel guitar, the fiddle and the accordion are some of the best the band’s ever recorded. 

Related: Review: Turnpike Troubadours’ ‘A Long Way From Your Heart’ is a rousing, thought-provoking country short story collection 

Favorite Song: “A Tornado Warning” is a perfect marriage of subject matter and musicianship. 

3. “Trophy,” Sunny Sweeney

Sweeney was always known for the honest sense of humor she put in her songs (also often showcased on her Twitter feed). But with “Trophy,” she goes deeper and gets funnier at the same time. The wry title track sits right beside emotional cuts like “Bottle By My Bed,” which isn’t about the bottle you would think. Co-written with Lori McKenna, the whole album is a wordsmith’s delight.

More: Austin360 On The Record: Sunny Sweeney

Favorite Song: The raucous “Better Bad Idea” is a barn-burner. 

2. “The Lonely, The Lonesome & The Gone,” Lee Ann Womack

Womack’s first studio album in three years is soulful, tender and full of East Texas vibes. Listening to this automatically takes you toa  barroom in a small town, or a honkytonk with a dance floor. Womack wrote half of the songs here, and manages to work in a few stellar covers as well. It’s lovely.

Favorite Song: “He Called Me Baby” shows off Womack’s voice, features a bluesy rythym, and has the best use of “Baby, baby, baby” since Reese Witherspoon as June Carter in “Walk the Line.” 

1. “The Nashville Sound,” Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit

Isbell’s return to rock’n’roll with his band The 400 Unit was hotly anticipated by the time it came out in June. It is both more political than anything he has released thus far and more introspective, the recent joys of fatherhood having impacted his writing process. His wife Amanda Shires features prominently here as well, co-writing many of the songs and singing and playing fiddle. 

More: Jason Isbell raises the bar for Americana at ACL Live

In the future, a lot of critics will point to certain pop culture as being “the movie/song/book of The Trump Era.” It may be too early to say this, but “The Nashville Sound” is one of the few pieces of media to earn that superlative. The songs here are about a Southern white man reconciling his (and his ancestors’) place in this country while never forgetting the working-class Alabama town he came from, all the while looking to human decency and compassion to make sense of it all, hoping that the world his baby daughter has been born into will be better off by the time she is old enough to inherit it.

Related: Jason Isbell and Amanda Shires find the light in the dark at ‘Austin City Limits’ taping

Regardless of your own political beliefs, that’s something anyone can relate to.

Favorite Song: I’ve only been able to bring myself to listen to “If We Were Vampires” a handful of times (and two of those were live). Isbell’s and Shires’ thoughts on the finite nature of life and love are haunting and gorgeous. If “Southeastern”’s “Elephant” made you cry, “Vampires” will make you blubber and tear up like a little kid whose dog just died. And, for what it’s worth, it’s beautiful live. 

Previous Gone Country album lists:

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