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This is the fourth year I’ve done this list for Vinyl Me, Please, and I always try to open these with an essay on The State Of Country Music, but this year feels too similar to last year for there to be too revealing: The main problem in country music this year, as it’s been forever, is that it’s extremely hard for people who are not white men to get their music on the radio or on the major labels that control so much of the country music business. There was a literal supergroup of country women formed this year in response to how hard it is to hear a woman on any hour-long block of country radio, and nothing changed. Someone in the country business also probably called Billboard to have Lil Nas X’s “Old Town Road” forcibly removed from the country charts, even when it was as clear as day that that song was a country song and after it was clear it was going straight to No. 1 (for more on how black artists have been written out of country music, read this.
Despite all the same old shit, this was an extremely good year for new country albums: A mix of young upstarts, old warriors, and supergroups all made great albums. Cutting my list down to 10 was extremely hard this year — which hasn’t always been the case in the past — but without further ado, here they are:
Paul Cauthen makes music that sounds like someone trying to put words to their 7 a.m. drive home from the after-bar, coming down from coke and whiskey, trying to make sense of what just happened, and hoping to atone in some small way. Room 41 is filled with regret, bad decisions, and partying, and Cauthen’s booming, dexterous voice. The 2019 Hangover Album we all needed this year.
“He’d rather be dead, than alive one more minute, in this god-forsaken town / when he was a kid, oh, he never’d have dreamt it, all the ways a city can bring a country boy down,” Tyler Childers sings on “Creeker,” one of the nine heartworn songs on Country Squire about hard-working people trying to make sense of days spent breaking their hands and backs for little reward. The sentence might as well be a thesis for the suddenly exploding Childers and his relationship with the country music infrastructure, as Childers went from a punk kid from the hollers of Kentucky playing a mix of bluegrass and roots country to a performer who sells out theaters across the Midwest in a matter of months. Country Squire is a stunning achievement of form, a modern John Prine album delivered by a son of Appalachia for the sons of Appalachia. If Purgatory was the breakthrough, Country Squire is the one that proves that Childers is here for the long haul.
Robert Ellis recasts himself from an alt-country guitar-slinging troubadour to a white-suited, top-hatted barroom pianist making an album full of jaunty stompers about growing up and growing sober (“Topo Chico” and “Nobody Smokes Anymore”) and acerbic, affecting love songs (“Fucking Crazy” and “Passive Aggressive”). Seeing him tear down a set at SXSW was one of my live music highlights of 2019, and this record is a perfect companion for all the turns 365 days can throw at you.
When Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, Johnny Cash, and Kris Kristofferson joined forces as the Highwaymen in 1985, it was as a victory lap: four titans, joining together for some high-grossing tours, well-selling albums, and a movie tie-in (1986’s Stagecoach). When the Highwomen — a group of superstar Maren Morris, Brandi Carlile, Natalie Hemby, and Amanda Shires — formed in 2018, and released this, their debut LP in 2019, it felt downright radical. After all, country radio still has problems with representation — the group started when Shires didn’t hear any women on country radio when making her solo album — and doubling down by having four women make an album about womanhood is a grenade tossed at the country music establishment. The group ended up proving the thesis that launched them correct: All of these songs should be ringing out of every country radio station, but they are not. Correct that by jamming out to this now.
Like the ‘90s country that is clearly their lodestar, there’s something so warmly reassuring about Midland; you know that every album will have 4-5 songs that you’ll have lodged in your cerebral cortex, and that the group’s soft harmonies will feel like a warm blanket around your AirPods. Let It Roll is an improvement on everything they did great on On The Rocks; according to my Apple Music Year in Review, I didn’t listen to any song this year more than “Cheatin’ Songs,” for my money the song of the year.
After limiting her output after 2016’s superlative Hero to a song you cannot escape in your local pharmacy, Morris was extremely busy this year, touring and releasing an album with the Highwomen, and releasing her anticipated GIRL, her second major-label LP. GIRL hasn’t been as massive as Hero, but that’s because it wasn’t designed to be; where the latter leaned into THIS IS MY MOMENT songwriting, Girl is concerned with more internal things like womanhood, the ups-and-downs of committed relationships, making out, and trying to be a good person. Morris is one of country’s best songwriters, and best songcrafters, and GIRL rewards repeat listens; each pass reveals new turns of phrase and new words to live by.
The weirdest interview I had in 2019 was telling Lukas Nelson & The Promise Of The Real all about Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves To Death. You don’t expect to spend Memorial Day talking media theory with the son of a country legend, but the group’s album from this year concerns itself with heavy ideas like giving up your phone and how the news is making us all miserable. The album doesn’t provide answers, but just hopes all is not lost.
Thomas Rhett has ridden two waves of Bro-Country (he co-wrote with Florida Georgia Line) and post-Bro-Country (his Life Changes is basically ground zero for country’s gentlemen wave), all while being perilously close to delivering a pop-country classic, a mixing of the Sugar Ray choruses and the populist moves of Garth Brooks that Rhett flirts with on every album. Center Point Road finally delivered on that; it’s a hopelessly catchy album, the kind of record everyone imagined Justin Timberlake was making when he claimed Man of the Woods was a country album. I mean that as the highest compliment.
Tanya Tucker returned this year from almost 20 years of self-imposed exile to deliver this, her own answer to Johnny Cash’s American recordings, an album co-produced and co-written with Waylon Jennings and Brandi Carlile. The songs here are about finding some closure in the trauma of your life, fighting on against the dying of that light, and kicking ass. Like Willie Nelson’s 2019 album, Ride Me Back Home, it’s a meditation on doing you, despite it all.
You can buy the Vinyl Me, Please edition of this album right here.
Kelsey Waldon feels like an anachronism: She’s just a great songwriter writing great songs about basically everything. It makes sense that she’d release this album for John Prine’s Oh Boy Records: It’s an album filled with small details, big ideas, and bigger feelings. Waldon deserves to be the next Tyler Childers or Sturgill Simpson: A person selling out theaters on the back of her songs.
You can buy the Vinyl Me, Please edition of this album right here.
Andrew Winistorfer is Senior Director of Music and Editorial at Vinyl Me, Please, and a writer and editor of their books, 100 Albums You Need in Your Collection and The Best Record Stores in the United States. He’s written Listening Notes for more than 30 VMP releases, co-produced multiple VMP Anthologies, and executive produced the VMP Anthologies The Story of Vanguard, The Story of Willie Nelson, Miles Davis: The Electric Years and The Story of Waylon Jennings. He lives in Saint Paul, Minnesota.