New faces and new movements are always washing up on country music's shore, so how do you know if one new wave matters more than the others? Well, if the nation's country music critics agree that the year's best new artists are also the year's best overall artists, that's a good clue.
That's what happened in the 14th annual Country Music Critics Poll, when 98 voters from all over North America declared that Kacey Musgraves, Brandy Clark and Ashley Monroe were not only 2013's Best New Artists but also 2013's Best Artists. Musgraves topped both fields and the Best Album category but only by narrow margins over Clark and Monroe. In the Best Single voting, the trio accounted for an astounding eight of the Top 10 songs as singers and/or writers. They were also named as three of the Top 4 Female Vocalists.
- Brandy Clark
What we have here is the most heralded crop of new country artists since 1986, when Steve Earle, Dwight Yoakam, Randy Travis, Lyle Lovett and Marty Stuart all made their major-label album debuts. It's true that Earle and Lovett made a minimal impact on the country charts (just as Clark and Monroe have so far). But music lovers who don't actually work on Music Row would likely agree that Earle and Lovett have had a more lasting impact on the genre than, say, a hit maker like Ricky Van Shelton, who also debuted in 1986. And the whole point of asking critics for their opinion is to measure the health of country music's art, not of its cash flow. Believe me, you don't want to ask them for financial advice.
When it comes to business, 2013's big story was "bro-country," the wildly successful radio format of guys singing about driving their trucks down a dirt road with a girl in tight blue jeans in the shotgun seat, a case of beer on the floor and one Hank or another on the radio. The critics were not impressed. Well, some critics were impressed by these records' production values — the way the rhythm tracks burst like precision artillery and the way the guitar tone was seemingly squeezed out of a hand-lotion tube — but most critics recognized that nothing gets old more quickly than any one year's technological breakthrough.
Florida Georgia Line, the year's Top Country Artist according to the music-business bible Billboard, could do no better with the critics than the No. 24 single and the No. 143 album. Luke Bryan, the runner-up on Billboard's list, was voted the No. 44 single and the No. 30 album by our critics, who also voted Blake Shelton (fourth on Billboard's list) the No. 19 single and the No. 23 album. Jason Aldean (sixth on Billboard) was voted the No. 28 single and the No. 68 album.
If the critics are right — and I think they are — the bro-country artists will cash their big checks and fade from memory, just as such 1986 chart-toppers as Dan Seals, The Forester Sisters, John Schneider, Judy Rodman, T.G. Sheppard, Exile and Janie Fricke have. In a quarter century, we're likely to still be talking about Musgraves, Clark and Monroe, just as we're still talking today about Earle, Lovett and Stuart.
- Ashley Monroe
Although she qualified for our New Artist category by releasing her first nationally distributed solo album in 2013, Monroe had already made a big splash in the poll as a member of Pistol Annies, who won the Best New Artist, Best Group and Best Album voting in our 2011 poll. And let's face it: Musgraves' and Clark's breakthroughs would never have been possible if Pistol Annies (Monroe, Miranda Lambert and Angaleena Presley) hadn't opened the door for witty, edgy songs from iconoclastic women.
But the first Pistol Annies album, which seemed such a rule-breaker when it appeared in 2011, now seems tame compared to Musgraves' Same Trailer, Different Park, Clark's 12 Stories or Monroe's Like a Rose. When the Annies sang about drinking, drugging, fighting and sleeping around, they made it clear that their tongues were firmly in their cheeks, that it was all joking hyperbole. You could tell it was all make-believe, because there were never any consequences to their actions. There's nothing wrong with comic fantasy, of course, and Hell on Heels is still a great listen.
Nevertheless, Hell on Heels doesn't carry the same weight as this year's poll-topping albums. When Musgraves, Clark and Monroe sing about those same topics now, there's no make-believe — no let-me-off-the-hook wink. Every decision is made with full knowledge of the likely consequences. This year, Pistol Annies released their follow-up album, Annie Up (No. 5 in our poll), which was actually a stronger, deeper record than its predecessor, but it didn't cut nearly as deep as the three solo albums the Annies inspired. That's how much the standard has risen in just two years.
The Annies' biggest star, Miranda Lambert, didn't release a solo album in 2013, but her single "Mama's Broken Heart," a marvelous mini-drama in just three minutes, was No. 2 in the poll, right behind Musgraves' "Follow Your Heart." Both songs were written by the trio of Musgraves, Clark and Shane McAnally. McAnally also co-wrote the No. 3 single (Musgraves "Merry Go 'Round"), the No. 4 single (Musgraves' "Blowin' Smoke"), the No. 6 single (Clark's "Stripes") and the No. 7 single (The Band Perry's "Better Dig Two"). Clark co-wrote the latter two songs, and Monroe co-wrote the No. 8 single (Pistol Annies' "Hush Hush") and the No. 10 single (Monroe's "Weed Instead of Roses"). That's dominance.
The No. 4 album in the poll was Southeastern by Jason Isbell, who was also voted the No. 1 Male Vocalist, the No. 3 Songwriter and the No. 4 Artist of the Year. He got sober, got married and finally released a solo album that was the equal of his best work as a member of the Drive-By Truckers. It might have done even better in the poll if some voters hadn't harbored doubts about whether it was really a country album. Yet Southeastern was clearly the male equivalent of Clark's 12 Stories: a non-hit album on a small label, a collection of songs that takes a thoughtful, witty, singer-songwriter approach to Southern music and Southern themes. The only difference between the two is that Clark has written some country hits for other singers and Isbell hasn't.
Some of those bro-country stars would be wise to record some songs by Isbell or his former Drive-By Trucker partners Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley. Or those celebrity pickup truck drivers could borrow some credibility from crusty old Texans such as Steve Earle (No. 6 songwriter, No. 20 album) or Guy Clark (No. 8 songwriter, No. 14 album). After all, Darius Rucker scored the poll's No. 5 single (and a No. 1 Billboard hit) by covering "Wagon Wheel," co-written by two Americana stars: Bob Dylan and Old Crow Medicine Show's Ketch Secor.
Speaking of Dylan, his Another Self Portrait, which unveils his 1970-71 Nashville sessions in their revelatory pre-overdub form, won the splintered voting for Best Reissue, followed by the re-release of The Bottle Rockets' terrific first two albums with lots of welcome bonus tracks. Other veterans to get recognition were The Mavericks, Vince Gill, LeAnn Rimes and Alan Jackson, who all placed their latest albums in the poll's Top 15. The neglected tradition of female-male country duets had a mini-revival in 2013, as Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell's Old Yellow Moon and Kelly Willis and Bruce Robison's Cheater's Game both placed in the poll's dozen Best Albums.
Musgraves, Clark and Monroe weren't the only heralded newcomers. Retro-honky-tonker Sturgill Simpson scored the No. 8 Best Album; Memphis's folk-blues enchantress Valerie June had the No. 16 album, and mainstreamer Charlie Worsham came in at No. 25. Nor were Musgraves, Clark and Monroe the only feisty women to march through the door Pistol Annies kicked open a couple of years ago. Holly Williams (No. 9 album), Patty Griffin (No. 13 album), Caitlin Rose (No. 18 album) and Kimberly Perry (No. 19 album) all Annied up.
And then there's Taylor Swift, the unavoidable conundrum of 21st century country music. Even though she didn't release a new album in 2013, Swift still sold enough records and downloads to be the year's third-best selling artist, according to Billboard. She also impressed the poll voters enough to win the Best Live Act category, and her collaboration with Tim McGraw and Keith Urban on "The Highway Don't Care" was the No. 9 single. At 24, Swift is still one year younger than Musgraves and still has the time and the talent to become whatever kind of artist she wants to be.
But what does she want to be? A country-pop diva like Shania Twain or Carrie Underwood? A pure-pop diva like Mariah Carey or Katy Perry? Or a landmark country/Americana figure like Rosanne Cash or The Dixie Chicks? A year ago it seemed as if the future of country music hung on the answer to that question. Today the answer seems less important, as Musgraves, Clark and Monroe seem perfectly capable of filling the Cash/Chicks role no matter what Swift decides.
Continue reading the Country Music Critics' PollKacey Musgraves tops this year's poll for one simple reason: good, smart songs
- Photo: Kelly Christine Musgraves
- Kacey Musgraves