The 2019 Music Club features critics Carl Wilson, Lindsay Zoladz, and Ann Powers, with additional entries from Jack Hamilton, Julianne Escobedo-Shepherd, Jewly Hight, and Chris Molanphy.
Greetings fellow club members,
Lindsay left off with Lilith Fair, which made me think of the ways women in the country music industry have used solidarity to work against their marginalization, the ongoing reality that I also wrote about during last year’s correspondence. This year, I worked with Canadian scholar Jada Watson, who’s done powerfully clarifying analysis on chart stats, to put on a conference panel made up of women writer-performers ranging in age from early ’20s to late ’70s, and they commiserated about a half-century of defeating experiences. As Ann and I showed in a year-end list we planned for NPR Music, 2019 was a year when professionally secure female music-makers applied their influence to calling out biased streaming algorithms, grieving in song for the wounds inflicted on young women by patriarchal worldviews, making albums meant to bring a female elder her due, and uniting female talent and perspectives on a project difficult to ignore. (As you might’ve guessed, I’m talking about the Highwomen, a quartet that models a combination of unflappable unison and harmony even in its vocal blend.) And every one of country’s big female headliners of the moment—Miranda Lambert, Carrie Underwood, Maren Morris, Kacey Musgraves, and Brandi Carlile—assembled all-women live lineups.
When I flew to Connecticut to see Lambert kick her tour off at a casino, one of the many topics we discussed for a sprawling profile was her memory of a radio station visit to promote her first single—during which a male programmer laid out 15 headshots of other young female hopefuls to drive home the idea that they were all competing for one slot—and her subsequent decision to show active appreciation for the prowess of other women in her field anyway. I could sense her fatigue, and I certainly share it myself, since women’s prospects in her format have only worsened in the decade and a half since. What we’re seeing now are the current methods of fighting an old fight. Even Lambert’s campaign to convince the world that Underwood deserved to win the Country Music Association Award for Entertainer of the Year, the ultimate mark of all-around excellence and enterprise, wasn’t enough to tip things in her peer’s favor, which made for a pretty damn disheartening end to an awards show telecast billed as recognizing women.
Carl, you observed that Taylor Swift’s critique of male-dominated entertainment industry power dynamics has a lot more heft than her other attempts at statement-making. I don’t think that’s a coincidence. In the format she left behind, nothing has generated more pointed political and professional advocacy than gender inequality because it’s been right there in our faces for years, redefining what fits in the format, reshaping the mainstream, and affecting the bottom line.
As for the string of country tunes that have arrived at regular intervals throughout decade, benignly endorsing decency and friendliness: Politics, and identity politics in particular, have long been fraught in country music. In Rednecks, Queers, and Country Music, which I’ve quoted no less than five zillion times, Nadine Hubbs lays out how working-class sensibilities have functioned as a foil for the social movements claimed as the province of middle-class respectability; they’ve been cast as the ignorant other to whatever counts as the enlightened stance at a given time. Because country is now a gigantic and prosperous industry numerous generations into middle-class upward mobility, and urban and suburban migration, it’s home to attitudes that can seem awkwardly contradictory: maintaining a sense of where you came from but also adapting to change with optimism.
Listening to Dolly Parton’s America, I couldn’t help but pick up on host Jad Abumrad and reporter-producer Shima Oliaee’s disappointment at Parton’s firm commitment to staying apolitical. Their podcast muse is undeniably calculating, but her understanding of her role as a crossover superstar who never left her country-ness behind is that she’d be acting self-indulgently, letting a lot of people down, and abdicating her core responsibilities as an accessible entertainer if she voiced her political beliefs instead of just living them out. Many current country acts, haunted by the Dixie Chicks’ excommunication, tend to soft-pedal their private allegiances, probably out of some similar mixture of commercial canniness and conviction.
They’re aware that showing you’re “in touch with the people” has taken on multiple meanings: Which people? Generations back, country’s most compelling social commentary tended to arrive in the form of down-to-earth storytelling, à la Loretta Lynn and Tom T. Hall, but that approach has regrettably receded from the mainstream, and bending over backward to avoid specifics yields very few works that are actually satisfying as songs, this year or any other. Still, Vince Gill, in his sage and gentle way, made a valiant attempt at expressing empathy and indignation in light of the revelations of #MeToo.
Nothing made Nashville seem more stuck this year than the explosion and chart expulsion of Lil Nas X, not only because it spotlighted the hypocrisy of utilizing vocal cadences and sonic textures from rap and R&B while welcoming relatively few black performers into the format, but also because it underscored how inflexible the Nashville system can be. “Old Town Road” came from outside that system, and it was handled accordingly, until Billy Ray Cyrus hopped on. We were quickly presented with an interesting contrast in Blanco Brown, an experienced writer, producer, and vocal arranger from the Atlanta recording scene who’d already spent a few years fleshing out a sound he called “trailer trap” and entered into a partnership with a country label (part of the same company that had Cyrus on its rosters, incidentally). While he wasn’t exactly a Nashville insider, he’d signaled openness to participating in its processes. Five months into 2019, he released his debut single on the label, a hip-hop line dance novelty that benefited from a little bit of country radio airplay and a lot of TikTok exposure and found chart-topping legitimacy in the format.
Another “Old Town Road” remix appeared in July featuring Young Thug and Mason Ramsey, the latter of whom had emerged the previous spring via the kind of virality that was a comfortable fit for country: the circulation of a phone video of him yodeling like Hank Williams in the aisle of a Walmart. At 13, Ramsey is younger than Lil Nas X—which was reflected in Ramsey’s cute, Razor-scooter–referencing “Old Town Road” verse—but the contrast between them was striking to me: Lil Nas X was the then-teen trickster, savvy about the overlap of meme ephemerality and pop pleasure, and Ramsey was the gifted kid whose throwback approach endeared adults. It made the yearslong, bro-country–powered shift toward youth in the format seem, in the end, not that youthful at all.
For all of Lil Nas X’s strategizing, both his world-dominating tune and the EP that followed it felt very off-the-cuff. Nashville moved nominally closer to that release approach this year. Artists, gunning for first breakthroughs or trying to regroup, released loosies and EPs, sometimes without much advance notice (a far cry from past promotional approaches), and veteran album-makers Blake Shelton and Sheryl Crow insisted they were done with the form.
But as we’ve already established, the album as an ambitious unified work is hardly dead. That’s one place where country’s sturdiness shined. Some of most well-crafted albums out of Nashville, Texas, and elsewhere embodied the 2019 version of traditionalism. Those from Jon Pardi and Luke Combs had significant commercial momentum behind them, one of the clearest signs of course correction in the format, but the impact was far more diffuse than that, thanks to Erin Enderlin, Tanya Tucker, Midland, Randy Houser, Reba McEntire, Dee White, Mike & the Moonpies, Paul Cauthen, and the Likely Culprits. When Ann mentioned the many ways she saw artists this year incorporate the personal and poetic, it made me think of the sly self-mythologizing and self-knowledge tucked into Miranda Lambert’s latest album, a fine demonstration of balancing personality with pleasing polish, and the vividness and vision with which Emily Scott Robinson, Kalie Shorr, and especially Allison Moorer excavated trauma and tragedy.
I got no less swept up in conceptual or story-driven song cycles issuing from other corners of the musical landscape, including those by Brittany Howard, Jamila Woods, Ari Lennox, and Raphael Saadiq that Ann already mentioned, along with Summer Walker and a couple of new pop and R&B voices bubbling up in Nashville, Houston Kendrick and Jake Wesley Rogers. Julianne, I’m glad that you brought up the rich work being done by artists looking to de-center the West. I loved Burna Boy’s album too, as well as the diasporas incarnated in the source selection, style-blending, arranging, and narration done by Camila Meza, Ile, Che Apalache, Leyla McCalla, Rhiannon Giddens, and the group the latter two are part of, Our Native Daughters.
I’d love to hear more about how you all defined artistic ambition in 2019.
I’m here for the habit,