There's been a lot of talk about the rock-radio format taking a nosedive, but I'm hearing that ultra-masculine, modern hard rock sound drifting over to the country-radio format, above and beyond the Def Leppard-style production that's been embraced within the genre the past several years. As exhibit No. 1, I offer Jason Aldean's My Kinda Party, stacked with layer upon layer of muscular electric guitars, which became this year's CMA Album of the Year. My guess is we haven't heard the last of this by a long shot, because it's found a lot of fans. But like Creed or Nickelback — rock bands who deliver blunt, anthemic force and care little for musical or lyrical cleverness — it's not the sort of thing that'll do much for critics. —Jewly Hight
Nashville's worst ongoing trend: songs that consist almost entirely of "Here's how country I am: I fish and I drive a truck and I drink plenty of beer and whiskey, usually in bars." Identity isn't a checklist, guys. And it is almost always the guys — as Rosanne Cash sang years ago, the women are smarter. It's as if rockers sang exclusively about "Here's how punk I am: I know only three chords and wear wallet chains." —Rob Tannenbaum
Lady Antebellum, Carrie Underwood and the Zac Brown Band are no doubt wonderful people, but they aren't my idea of country music. Likewise, a Top 50 survey (Billboard's) where Taylor Swift is No. 1, Martina McBride is No. 40, and Merle Haggard, George Jones, Loretta Lynn and Dolly Parton are not even there, seems strange to me. While I couldn't be happier from a political standpoint about the warm reception given Darius Rucker, I doubt he's what Big Al Downing, O.B. McClinton or Stoney Edwards had in mind when they were stumping for increased black inclusion in country circles. (I know Charley Pride agrees with that as well.) —Ron Wynn
Beyond a great record by Pistol Annies and a near-great record by Pistol Annies pistol Miranda Lambert, country music in 2011 was pretty banal. I enjoyed Randy Montana's self-titled full-length for its verve and pop smarts, but it really wasn't a country record in any sense but the thematic — the young man struggling to find his place in a world bereft of heroism. OK, that was a pretty good theme for a so-called country singer to explore in 2011, which saw the entire concept of American unity and polity go ever farther down the drain than you would have ever imagined. —Edd Hurt
I'm starting to accept the fact that I am no longer part of the desirable demographic for mainstream country music, and what's more, that mainstream country music doesn't really want me listening to it anymore. After all, I didn't grow up in a holler, the sticks, the boondocks or a small town. I grew up in Chicago with 3 million of my nearest and dearest friends. I didn't spend my youth fishin' on a creek bank, drinkin' moonshine on a pickup truck tailgate or goin' skinny dippin' with the preacher's daughter. Instead, me and my friends played at the Aladdin's Castle video arcade at the nearby mall. —Sam Gazdziak
As expected, the country radio listening experience mostly continued to be one big yawn in 2011. While the fiercely un-country sound of the material has been a common complaint, the greater loss has been the ongoing quality slump in lyrical material. There was a time when it seemed country music had more to say than just about any other genre. Now, having been largely taken over by inoffensive message-free schlock, mainstream country music has mostly become music that is about absolutely nothing. —Ben Foster
A glance at the syllabus for the online course Country Music Blogging 101:
Week One: Creative Nicknames for Justin Moore, Gary LeVox and Brantley Gilbert.
Week Two: 50 Ways to Work Emmylou Harris into Album Reviews.
Week Three: The Great Rating Debate: Stars, Thumbs or Scales?
For Final Exams, students must develop an Outlaw-Meter comparing and contrasting Jamey Johnson, Eric Church and Hank III.
Required materials: laptop, iPod, email address set up specifically for comments sections and a cautious respect for the loyalty of Carrie Underwood fans. —Karlie Justus
The best country song of the year combined drugs, alcohol, marital unrest and some insurance fraud for good measure. Standard (or, perhaps more precisely, stereotypical) country fare, one could argue — except for the fact that it appeared on a mainstream album by three females that topped the charts as a digital-only release. The Pistol Annies' drab and depressingly gorgeous "Housewife's Prayer" took a page out of the Loretta Lynn playbook, writing and singing about the grim and gritty side of marriage and motherhood. In heels, no less. —Karlie Justus
The success of Miranda Lambert's scrappy Pistol Annies side project — which debuted at No. 1 on Billboard's Top Country Albums chart on the basis of digital sales alone — shows that country fans are more willing than ever to go online in search of music that moves them. In an extraordinarily underwhelming year for mainstream country radio, that's good news for fans and performers alike. —C.M. Wilcox
Miranda Lambert's fingerprints are all over my lists. She released not just one, but two really good and traditionally country albums in 2011, as well as a great single ("Heart Like Mine") from her previous album. Her records have plenty of left-field rock and indie-snob-friendly touches, to be sure, but if you were to play them for someone who had never heard of her and ask what kind of music it was, the answer would invariably be "country." —Jon Freeman
That the Pistol Annies debut surpassed Miranda Lambert's fourth solo record was no big surprise (the title warned us to lower our expectations), but the vast disparity between the two albums certainly was. She may share the spotlight with two friends, but Lambert sounds hungry as a Pistol Annie. As a solo artist, she has lost some of the fire that distinguished her early albums and sounds almost content to simply release product. It's good product, but there's more of her in one Annies song than in all of Four the Record put together. —Stephen Deusner
More cynical sorts might roll their eyes now that the various acronym organizations have begun to shower Miranda Lambert with honors. Others will speculate that her marriage to Blake Shelton has made her soft. It's clear, though, that commercial success and conjugal bliss haven't spoilt her punk attitude. From the pulp-fiction angst of "Mama's Broken Heart" to the angry funk of "Baggage Claim," Four the Record finds Lambert expressing a young person's aches and pains in more grown-up ways. —Blake Boldt
From first track "Creepin' " to closer "Over When It's Over," Eric Church's Chief is darn near flawless. Rarely does an album begin and end as strongly as this one — and catch me so fully upon first listen. To each line he sings, he adds tics and pops, eccentric signatures that could belong to no one else. From the foot stomp to the tongue wag, Eric may have his share of onstage shtick, but isn't that what makes a great showman? There's no boot-gazing during a Church sermon. —Joe Hudak
At first I thought Eric Church's "Homeboy" was either borderline bigoted or borderline brilliant. I'm going with the latter, which isn't to say the former isn't still true. Playing, as they say, the race card even while avowing its color-blindness like a mantra? Yeah, this is country music all right. So is Church's tempering of his provincial and prejudicial sneering with arm-around-the-shoulder, big-brother concern for prodigal sons and parents not long for this world. Especially that. —David Cantwell
What was once pathos and poetry in the insecurities of country music now feels rote and mean. But Eric Church isn't rote and mean, even though his ideas are as retrogressive as the rest. The home he's extolling, that didn't feel like home to the homeboy brother, is at risk, and he knows it. —Frank Kogan
I'm still getting hate mail over two pans of very different acts, but despite the abuse, I stand by both reviews: Mumford and Sons are still the most insufferable act ever to be categorized as Americana, and Church's "Homeboy" single flirts uncomfortably with racial profiling. Neither is exactly malignant within the genre, but both are ham-handed and thickheaded, carelessly embracing the worst impulses of their respective genres. —Stephen Deusner
Eric Church's "Homeboy" made me feel uncomfortable the first time I heard it, because I could not quite figure out the racial politics, I was worried that Church was asking for the kid not to be black. I think that he is asking him not to be a thug, not to be taken in with a media constructed African-American identity that it is problematic for white kids to adopt. I was also worried that it underestimated how dull, oppressive, and frustrating small-town life is for people who are a little more ambitious — but that may be me being from a small town, and not being able to make it there. After I got over all that, it dawned on me how well-constructed the song was — the three small anecdotes over a lifetime does not forecast the last verse, and the last verse will break your heart. It's a smart song, and one that reflects issues of family, class and location that country has been wrestling with this year. —Anthony Easton
Like Alison Krauss, The Civil Wars are an act that somehow grabbed the attention of mainstream country listeners and seem to be rising on the strength of their music rather than the marketing machine. Maybe country is once again embracing outsider acts like it did in the '80s, when the Steve Earle-coined "great credibility scare" occurred, allowing artists like Earle, k.d. lang and Lyle Lovett to slip through. Interestingly, I had a friend who watched the Austin City Limits Americana awards show and said he wished he'd heard The Civil Wars before seeing them. Something about their look struck him as too slick. Which raises the question: Can you be commercial without the trappings? —Lynne Margolis
Not only would I consider Steve Earle a country musician, I would consider him one of the premier country musicians of our age. In terms of music, instrumentation, lyrical conventions and subject matter, Earle is clearly a country artist. At the end of the day, the argument to exclude Earle from the country fold seems to rest not on anything artistic but on the idea that country music has only one "editorial position" — one with no room for Earle's left-wing feistiness. That is a poor way to define a genre. —Jon Black
Speaking of Americana music, what is wrong with the Grammy voters? I'm not even talking about the Linda Chorney nomination controversy. I'm referring to the fact that the Americana category has become the de facto destination for old rock 'n' rollers. True, four out of the five nominees in the category released great music, but there is no nominee under 50 years old. The current generation of Americana singers, like Hayes Carll, Justin Townes Earle, Jason Isbell, the Drive-By Truckers, The Avett Brothers and many others deserve some notice, too. I wish I knew how they can be marketed to a mainstream audience and gain some much-needed name recognition. The Americana genre is so vibrant, with so many talented singers and songwriters, and it remains the music industry's best-kept secret. —Sam Gazdziak
What did interest me this year, despite my long-held bemusement at the genre itself, was Americana. Todd Snider's live record made it into my top 10 album list, because here's a pot-smoking, liberal guy who writes about the blue-collar, hipster underclass with more humor and smarts than just about any country-as-country songwriter I can think of. And he lives in Nashville. I also enjoyed and admired Hayes Carll's latest, which takes the conventions of the overrated Townes Van Zandt and turns them into something close to what Snider does so well. But there were also ambitious but quite mediocre records by Tom Russell, Steve Earle and Buddy Miller. Hey, if these artists are your beacons of quality as you pit Americana against country music, all I can say is that you live in a world of diminished expectations. —Edd Hurt
My picks for best songs and albums of 2011 include only two alt-country acts: Hayes Carll and Lydia Loveless. I've had far more enjoyment out of Nashville music lately than anti-Nashville music, largely because the latter prioritizes authenticity over wit or spunk or glorious background vocals. I have a friend who's so boring, my nickname for him is The Jayhawks. —Rob Tannenbaum
While many acclaimed artists in the big tent Americana format are undoubtedly more twangy than Taylor Swift, you get the feeling most of them don't really want to be called "country" or associated with the mainstream in any way. Which I get. Country radio has too many cliché songs about pickups and dirt roads ("Dirt Road Anthem" being the lone great exception) and too many sentimental ballads about being young. Sometimes substance is sacrificed for a hook (cf. Luke Bryan's "Country Girl (Shake It For Me)"). Then there's Toby Keith's "Red Solo Cup," which manages to be both stupid AND brilliant. —Jon Freeman
In the wrong mood, Brad Paisley's "This Is Country Music" can find me disagreeing with nearly every line. "Is there anyone who still has pride in the memory of those who died defending the old red, white and blue?" Paisley asks, patting himself and his audience on the back as he sets upon the flimsiest country straw man since Daryl Worley's "Have You Forgotten?" Similarly, "[T]elling folks that Jesus is the answer can rub 'em wrong" is hardly the rebel stance Paisley thinks it is, not in this incessantly proclaimed Christian nation, and anyway it's ain't the "Jesus" that rubs people wrong so much as the "the." But I'll take it as proof that "This Is Country Music" is doing something right if it can have me yelling at the radio — hey, give or take a tractor reference, this is all pop music — even as I'm singing along. And this is the way it's ever been, or at least the way it's been since 9/11, when mainstream Nashville committed itself to identity politics more or less full time. —David Cantwell
For blue-collar workers, bound to time clocks and bank notices, country music has often served as a healing salve. No other genre has offered such a rich chronicle of the cash-poor and their everyday labor. My two favorite performances of the year explored those often grave experiences. A gritty snapshot of the working class, Ronnie Dunn's spare and unflinching "Cost of Livin' " considers uncomfortable truths that are lost on the corporate fat cats. As he completes yet another job application, the narrator realizes his fate but refuses to admit defeat. Along those lines, a young woman dreams of far-off redemption on Pistol Annies' "Lemon Drop." Taking stock of her personal effects — a broken-down car, dirty second-hand clothes — she tries her best to keep on the sunny side. Her hopeful sermon ends with a quiet amen: "I know there are better days ahead," she sings with a shrug. —Blake Boldt
When Alabama sang "40 Hour Week (For a Livin')," a salute to the low-wage worker, their message was one shared by many Americans. Same goes for Dolly Parton's "9-to-5," an upbeat rant against the almighty executive and his greedy ways. But in this day and age, the workweek and workday have gotten longer. A few of this year's hit singles, including Dierks Bentley's "Am I the Only One" and Eric Church's "Drink in My Hand" failed to reflect that shift in reality. The phrase "It's finally Friday!" means precious little when you're punching the clock on Saturday and Sunday, too. —Blake Boldt
What is country music? Every year I ponder this question, and every year, I'm a little conflicted about what to answer. Yes, I believe Lady Antebellum, The Band Perry and similar artists are country. But do I believe that because they show up on the CMA Awards and on the country charts, or because of their music? I'm afraid it's as much because of the marketing as anything else. That is not to say I don't respect these other acts; I think Taylor Swift has got it goin' on — or at least, has her heart in the right place. But like Lady Gaga, she's most impressive when she's sitting alone in front of a piano, pouring her heart out with that fabulous voice. If we strip the glitz from any of the mainstream country acts, would they impress us as much? Some, yes. Others, no way. (I'm lookin' at you, Kenny Chesney. And you, Toby Keith.) —Lynne Margolis
Country radio has long been where old genres go to die. Or, put another way, it's where the blues, swing, Tin Pan Alley, rock 'n' roll, soul, Southern rock, arena rock, singer-songwriter pop and [insert next former Next Big Thing here] can go to enjoy a much deserved afterlife. Country music, in other words, was into recycling way before recycling was cool. With that in mind, I thought I'd save myself some time and submit my 2020 ballot for the Top Country Singles right now:
5. "It's Gettin' Country, Y'allz (Take off Ya Overallz)" by Nelly (featuring Hank Williams Jr.) from the album Country Grammar, III
4. "I Will Always Love You" by Adele from the album 30
3. "Rolling in the Deep" by Miranda Lambert with Eminem and The K-Pop All-Stars (live performance from Super Bowl LIV Halftime Show)
2. "If We Make It through December" by Bruce Springsteen from the album Born To Work: The Merle Haggard Sessions (available in special collectors "compact disc" edition from Hatch Print)
1. "The More Things Change" by George Strait from the album The More Things Change —David Cantwell
Put 10 music critics in a room, ask them to define "country music," and you will get 11 different answers. Whether we like to admit it or not, music is as deeply personal an experience for critics as it is for casual listeners. Each of us will not only define country differently, we will also apply those definitions differently. Therefore, spilling ink over whether this or that artist is or isn't country is not only silly, it is a red herring from our real mission of helping our readers make informed choices about whether or not a particular album or artist will appeal to their individual tastes. At the same time, it would not in a million years occur to me to not consider acts like Lady Antebellum, The Band Perry and Thompson Square as country. If anything, they sound so mainstream-pop to me that I tend to conceive of them as guilty pleasures. —Jon Black
As a child I heard the same things in country music as blues and R&B/soul, though certainly presented in vastly different approaches. Each featured distinctive, impassioned performances that underlined and punctuated emphatic tales of triumph or loss. That's remained my litmus test for whether something was truly country. If it didn't have the expressiveness and soulful wail, it didn't matter how many fiddles or banjos were in the arrangement or how much twang in the vocal. But as country's outreach and appeal expanded over the decades, it has increasingly downplayed those elements. —Ron Wynn
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