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Don't Rock the Inbox: Issue #3
If We Make It Through December (to 2021)
We both love country music and write about it (Marissa’s even working on a book about it!), but finding places to do the latter — especially in the thoughtful, inclusive, nuanced way we aim to — has become increasingly challenging. So we’re making something new: specifically, a semi-regular newsletter with essays, interviews and reviews that reflect what’s happening now in country music, using that term’s broadest possible definition. Put a record on and enjoy Don’t Rock The Inbox! — Natalie & Marissa
In this issue:
Taylor Swift and the Cowboys Like Her
Q&A: Anthony L. Smith
The Unrocked Inbox (a.k.a Mailbag)
Our Favorite Country Songs of 2020
Just Give It Away: A Holiday Request
Recommended Reading: Remembering Charley Pride
Taylor Swift and the Cowboys Like Her
Until last week, there was only a single well-known song in the popular canon called “Cowboy Like Me.” A warm country waltz, it was performed by Cody Johnson, a onetime bull rider from Texas who built a substantial following organically and independently, before finally signing with Warner Nashville in 2019.
Johnson looks like a “cowboy,” as far as mythologies go: stiff jeans and stiffer belt buckles, Resistol hat as big as a trough and good songs with country instrumentation, a salve to the ear of many tired of snaptracks and drum machines. He had six albums under that belt before he signed with Warner, and only did so through a special arrangement referred to as a “50-50 co-venture partnership.” “I’m not gonna let them have a piece of a pie they didn’t help me make,” Johnson told Rolling Stone in 2019. Must be nice to have built-in control and ownership from the get-go, the ability to ride ‘em and rope ‘em freely in the East Texas wind. Must be nice.
The second “Cowboy Like Me” came from none other than Taylor Swift, who released a second surprise album of 2020, evermore, last Friday. Taylor Swift looks like Taylor Swift, with a great collection of wool coats. Taylor Swift had six albums, too, before switching labels from Big Machine: Six albums she does not have a Cody Johnson level of control over – yet - because she never did. It’s harder for young girls, who sign record deals in their teenage years, to be cowgirls – their value is immediately understood, but they are never told how to carry it themselves. Now she is working to regain that ownership, but in reverse, re-recording those LP’s that built her career (and made many men very rich). She has the ability to do that now, because when you’re a woman, that right must be earned painfully, slowly, repeatedly, even for the biggest star on the planet. And even though Nashville’s often let her down, it doesn’t seem as if she’s planning to erase the imprints of that town and that tradition on her music: the snippet of “Love Story” she released earlier this month has more fiddle on it than ever.
It’s a strange thing – approach most anyone in country radio programming, and they will always talk about how Taylor “left Nashville.” As if that gives them some sort of permission to move on, a broken heart in a relationship: you’d think she’d served them with official divorce papers delivered by squad. Taylor made pop records, no doubt, but it never was quite the breakup we’ve been fed, and after the release of her first surprise album this year, folklore, she sent an official single to country radio with “Betty.” Even in 2013, after her migration to pop was well underway, she donated $4 million to the Country Music Hall of Fame to start an education center in her name – not exactly the moves of someone trying to distance herself, once and for all, from the music she grew up with.
Though she’s being referred to as “indie” Taylor now, this era is, in many ways, the most country Taylor we’ve seen yet. And that’s because she is no longer telling explicitly personal tales, she’s telling stories – stories that are the backbone of the genre and its deep and expressive roots that are buried in the dirt. If anyone can agree on anything when it comes to country music, it’s that: stories.
“Betty,” despite passing the marks of familiarity, country radio’s eternal calling card (who is more familiar than the most famous pop star in the world?), is sitting at number 36 on the Billboard Country Airplay chart. It is, coincidentally, right behind the newest one from Cody Johnson, a duet with Reba called “Dear Rodeo.”
But Taylor is not often a woman of coincidence – anyone that has followed the precision with which she laces what fans have come to know as “Easter eggs” in her work will know that well. Which is why it’s hard to imagine that she hadn’t known of the existence of a song by someone sitting right in front of her on the airplay chart, with a much different kind of career than had been laid out for her, one she is now paddling along to reclaim. One only so easily achieved by a man – after all, two albums ago, she had a whole song, “The Man,” dedicated to pondering what her timeline and career and, more specifically, her public perception and ownership, could have looked like if she were a he (did she heed Mitski’s advice?).
“Cowboy Like Me” is the kind of Taylor Swift song ripe for dissection and excavation – it also happens to be gorgeous and worthy of appreciating independent from any sort of mining might one enjoy. Of course, it’s hard not to – it’s a narrative, fictional song, full of cues. But like anything worth its weight, there are layers of personal truth for her and for us (there is also a line that instantly conjures up Shania Twain, another powerful woman who crossed back and forth in the genre realms, just look for the boots under the bed). And, not for nothing, there’s lap steel on this song that also features backing vocals from Americana superpower Marcus Mumford.
Though we don’t always talk about it, maybe because it seems so obvious and so distant all at once, the imprint of Taylor Swift looms powerfully over the women of Nashville as roadmap for how to rethink success – and not only financial success, but success on terms that they are comfortable with and are able to uncover their truth within. For Swift, that was a career-long journey from Music City to New York for a stint and allowing herself to engage in political waters. For other women in country music, it’s been about struggling to shape success this year the way they have for decades, which is by existing outside of the boundaries drawn for them. Maren Morris and Gabby Barrett had massive crossover hits. The Highwomen, snubbed from the CMA Awards, took home almost all the gold at the Americana Honors and Awards. Kacey Musgraves paired up with Troye Sivan for “Easy” (more about that a little later), Mickey Guyton wrote a song with Diane Warren for a documentary. Margo Price made an excellent rock album and continues to be the outcast and the stray. Cam released songs written with the late Avicii and by Harry Styles.
Women are never “country enough,” anyway – too pop, too indie, too anything – so they’re left with no paths but to continually, in the words of Kacey Musgraves, follow their own arrows (and if you are interested in how this has progressed and developed beautifully in the past two decades, well, I happen to be working on a book about that). Women are flourishing in the way that country will allow them to, outside of its own tightly regulated mainstream. They’re cowboys like her, after all.
It’s a route that The Chicks know well, leaving the genre behind like anyone in a relationship with increasingly diminishing returns, if not worse, should do. Gaslighter is a great album but one that feels painful to pigeonhole into country, simply because we all know the damn history. But Swift smartly has almost served as their safe arm back in, their own versions of country outlaws. So it makes sense that “No Body, No Crime” is the song on evermore that is most often referred to as Swift’s country moment on this particular LP – because it’s a classic murder ballad that evokes The Chicks (and, as many have pointed out, Carrie Underwood).
It’s an empowering thing to see Swift, a victim of sexual assault herself, tackle a murder ballad – there’s a bit of righteous ownership there. Of course no one is endorsing murder (obviously, please), but the subtext is that women can and will fight back in packs. Swift began that quest with her public battle against the DJ who groped her in 2013, and became a vital force in the #metoo movement. As far as “Easter Eggs” go, that one felt like one of her most important ones – Swift didn’t need the dollar she won in court, nor does someone with the means to hire a 24-hour security team need protection. But she did signal to everyone that there was more to this story, and that if they followed the clues, they could uncover something deeper. She was right, and the truth was more sinister than we could have imagined.
Watching out for their herd: that’s what the best cowboys do.
Q&A: Anthony L. Smith, songwriter and producer
I met Anthony L. Smith for the first time during a showcase at Tin Pan South, Nashville’s annual star-studded songwriters festival, made up exclusively of writers singing in the round with their acoustic guitars in tow. He sang beautifully, surrounded by other industry veterans; he was also the only Black artist onstage (Jimmie Allen was the only other non-white writer I saw during the festival).
In the 25 years he’s spent in the country music industry, working as an A&R rep as well as a songwriter, Smith has often been in that same position; he’s currently on the board of Nashville Songwriters Association International and has served on the Recording Academy’s country music committee. His breakthrough was writing for Donna Summer’s 1991 album Mistaken Identity, and after that, the Birmingham, Alabama native found he could get as much songwriting and production work in Nashville as he could on the coasts, writing for artists like Reba McEntire, Vince Gill, Jo Dee Messina, Suzy Bogguss and Kenny Rogers. He’s also the co-founder of a new independent publishing company called Porchlight Music. Smith was kind enough to take some time to speak with Don’t Rock The Inbox to speak about his time in country music — what’s changed and what hasn’t.
What was your path to getting into music?
I always wanted to be a jazz trumpet player; I also wrote songs, but I never thought about being a songwriter or producer. I went to the University of Alabama, and after that a friend and I thought we'd go to Nashville to sell some songs because we didn't know any better. But they were published, and I wound up getting one recorded, and I've just been selling them ever since.
Later, there was a country artist on Capitol named Suzy Boguss who knew I had worked with Donna Summer, and asked if we had anything left over that we didn't use. I didn't think very much of it until one year, my wife pointed out that most of my income was coming from country music as opposed to pop and R&B and other stuff. You start adapting.
It was never my objective to do that. But you start thinking about songs you like, and you realize, “Well, I like this kind of a country song, and I can write that kind about as good as anybody. If you're talking about this one over here about tractors, I don't know anything about that, so I shouldn't try to write that.” You would just run into two kinds of people: one would say, "Well, he's Black trying to do country, I don't know about that, I don't trust that," and the others would say, "Wow, you must be pretty good, you're here and you're signed to a publisher and you're doing this, I want to work with you." There was always a path just opening up, and I was just taking it.
There's been a lot of conversations about increasing diversity among country music performers, but have you seen any shift in demographics on the back end, among songwriters and producers?
The funny thing, at least on the artist end, is we saw pockets of diversity in the '70s, when they had Big Al Downing, Freddy Fender and Johnny Rodriguez — country guys of a different ethnic background who were stars, but don't even get remembered. I think one of the things that had changed [to make that happen] was the labels became more nationalized. It tends to be the business and the money, for the most part; there would be a guy coming from New York to run the Nashville office. They were looking at people completely differently — not necessarily trying to change the whole landscape, but not necessarily just throwing you out because you were the wrong color. They were used to different things.
The way people have so much access to so much music, their heroes are sort of across the board. People used to have country music in one little niche: "If you put this in it, it ain't country anymore." But it just eventually has opened up to the point we're at today. The diehard people will retire or, for a lack of a better word, die off, and new people will try different things.
Jimmie Allen would always say to me, "Man, they've gotta let us in, there's gotta be room. There can't be just one." It’s just about getting a chance to get it out to the audience, that's the whole thing. It seems like doors keep opening, and it seems more normal to just see people of color around doing stuff than it ever has. It's just not the shock that it was. Proportionately, it's still very small, but you do see more people [of color] signing as writers and artists — like 12 or 15 people have deals now and are part of the community, where when I was coming up it would be like one or two. It's changed dramatically in the past ten years.
How do you feel Lil Nas X's success impacted Nashville, or didn't?
He's not based out of [Nashville] and trying to do more stuff, but put a lot of things on a very big stage in a very cool way. All the way to the Grammys. It just doesn't get any better than that. I was contacted by a guy the other day who has a Black artist working on Pitbull's label who wants to come in and write. It's attracted some stuff like that. Jimmie Allen wrote a song with Babyface. Those arcs are really important — a guy should be able to participate and not have to live here, like in other genres where you can live anywhere. Get rid of that campy “us vs. them” mentality.
I thought the Lil Nas thing was absolutely wonderful and brilliant, however it happened. I heard so many people go, "Man, what is going on?" But the same people saying that are the same people who aren't doing well in general. They’re not the gatekeepers anymore. They used to be the gatekeepers, so they could afford to use that tone. Now it's moving. They've succeeded in getting this ball that was absolutely cemented to the damn ground up spinning — it hasn't taken off like a rocket, but it's at least airborne. If [Lil Nas X] were to come into town and say, “I'd like to write,” his calendar would be full, because people want to make money.
I feel like there is this whole untapped audience of Black country fans...
And in some ways, I think it would be more than fair if the reason you don't see much diversity at country shows is because Black people and people of color don't feel safe in those spaces.
I was just going to say that. The perception has to change so that going to a country music show is not the equivalent of going to a motorcycle rally with Confederate flags. Where it's not something that if I attended, I wouldn't be sure that I could get out of there in one piece. Where if you went missing, nobody would know what happened. I think that's absolutely right, there's people who wouldn't feel safe going. Until that trend really changes, the Black people in country are basically making music that appeals to a white audience. I don't know what it will take to get that audience to that show, but that's important.
My hope, personally, is that seeing more than one successful Black country singer at a time — Kane Brown, Darius Rucker, Jimmie Allen and hopefully soon on a major scale, Mickey Guyton — might help, but I don't know.
I don't know either. There are places — in the 2000s, I was checking out a band in Mississippi, in some college town....I would have been scared to death to go there. I hang out around the sound man. You just get that feeling...once you're with a label and they know who you are, it's all cool. But would I have just walked up there on a Friday night to go see this band? Hell no. Maybe more high-end shows, stadiums and amphitheaters, will help. Also in crossover festivals, where there's somebody from the pop side. It's interesting to see what it would take to turn that tide, but it's something labels should look at.
I think social media also helps — with all the live-streamed concerts, people can go into these audiences that they might not otherwise. It's been the same challenge [with fans] as it has been with the acceptance of Black people, that we do country music — and you don't have to kick us out just because we're not yodeling. White country singers aren't yodeling either — they might have listened to more Michael Jackson than Merle Haggard.
As someone who has been connected to country institutions, do you feel like the conversations you're having in those contexts have changed? Is there any sense that people are trying to prioritize diversity at that tier?
There's always conversations and concerns, but I don't think they're as prominent as they could be just because they struggle with the whole thing, just trying to get the whole image of country not to be hayseed to the rest of the world. There's so much energy taken up with keeping the dollars we've got and the share we've got. We have been so consumed with fighting for the MMA [Music Modernization Act] — just to keep people paid. I think the conversation is happening more and more, because of the winners like Kane and Jimmie, and I think it could lead to the bigger push. It definitely needs to happen. But there are so many pockets of resistance that are still alive and well. —NW
The Unrocked Inbox (a.k.a. Mailbag)
Have a question for a future issue? Tweet us or email firstname.lastname@example.org!
If you could get a country artist to swap singles with another band (RIP iTunes Foreign Exchange), who would you pick? - Taylor Hicklen, @taylorhicklen
NW: I would love to hear a Miranda Lambert No Doubt cover, for saltiness’ sake. Imagine her doing “Just A Girl”….
MM: I have been dying to hear Tyler Childers take on “Tomorrow” by Silverchair. There’s a high lonesome sound in that song!
Very country music noob question, but is one of the awards programs considered more prestigious than the others? - DT3, @dabigjoker
MM: The CMA Awards are the closest to country music’s Grammy Awards. They also are considered a leader in Music City, and present the yearly CMA Fest in downtown Nashville, which is why they hold an incredible responsibility when it comes to making the genre a more equitable place. A responsibility they have nowhere near lived up to.
I love all music in theory. I grew up in a house filled with lots of it and different genres. Every thing but country. So it's a massive gap in my musical appreciation. It's something I'm aware of and can respect, but never something that I see out or put on outside of the odd Johnny Cash or Bonnie Raitt song. Where would be a good place to start? Is there anything close to the 60's - 70's R&B my parents played that I can use as a jumping off point? — Curt McGirt
NW: Great question without an obvious answer….I almost feel like Don Williams could be a fun entry point? Very chill ‘70s vibes. As far as contemporary artists, Chris Stapleton has a pretty rich sound that (I think) is good if you’re wary of down-the-middle country country. If you love Bonnie, maybe try the Judds (!).
MM: Yes, the Judds! Also Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music by Ray Charles! Or even some Conway Twitty - more lay yourself here on this velvet couch than pick up a cowboy hat. I also really believe that the women making country music right now are an incredible gateway to the genre – Kacey Musgraves and Golden Hour alone could help be your golden gates in. And Natalie is 100% right - starting with Chris Stapleton is excellent advice.
Is "Dicked Down In Dallas" proto-incel country? Self-aware parody? Viral TikTok bait? The long-awaited sequel to Mark Chesnutt's "Goin' Through the Big D"? All of the above, or none? - Jonathan Bernstein
NW: Lord. It feels, to me, like a reaction to boyfriend country’s super-sappy lyrics and cloying aesthetic. After all, all the stylistic touchstones of Real Country are there — which makes the provocation of its straight-outta-PornHub lyrics that much more effective (and maybe close to self-aware parody, though the specific language used feels too Barstool-adjacent to actually be funny). Certainly it worked as TikTok bait, and the strategy — of leaking a tiny fragment and pushing it to go viral on that platform weeks before a single is officially released — is only going to become more prevalent in country music. I am hopeful that its appeal is just as a novelty, since the incel stuff you mention is definitely…concerning (as fellow friend of the newsletter Lorie Liebig noted, “I wonder what her daddy'd say/Maybe he's the one to blame,” is pretty hard to swallow (shut up)). The video kind of doubles down on the slut-shaming, too. But as someone who is moving to the Big D imminently, I’m not…excited about the kind of longevity this song seems like it might have.
Can you write about “Easy?” - @DebberL
MM: Thanks for asking, Debbie! I love this video, song and partnership. It’s not a country song, and I’d hate to see it get the sort of assault that “The Middle” did for not being country enough – because it never tried to be anything but a pop song! I love the vibe of “Easy,” and the concept of the video. I’m sure so many of Troye’s fans can relate to the feeling of having to run from a world that doesn’t accept them, and the metaphor of a runaway fits in perfectly with what Kacey represents, building a home and universe for herself away from Music Row in exactly the way she has always done (also props to Jenna’s Toy Box, pride of Dickerson Pike). Plus it slaps.
Our Favorite Country Songs of 2020
2020, for all its failures and tragedies, was actually full of a nearly ridiculous amount of good music. Here are some of our favorite country songs in completely unranked order (note from Marissa: I did not include songs from the albums I wrote up for my top 10 list over at Stereogum, to spread the deserved attention around, though “Janice at the Hotel Bar” continues to be in high contention for my personal tops and it pained me to leave out here).
“Time for Flowers,” Emily Scott Robinson: An exquisite meditation on how to find the strength to keep going when it feels like the walls are crashing down (or holding us captive), “Time for Flowers” is also a reminder that the good things always come back around, if we wait patiently - but we have to make sure we tend to the garden, because beauty can only grow out of despair if we give it what it needs to thrive. —MM
“Heatin’ Up My Summer,” Renee Blair: So this is barely country, even for me — but it’s got pedal steel! And a completely irresistible beat! Disco strings! And hand claps! A pop confection that made this summer feel a lot more fun than it was. —NW
“Hole in the Bottle,” Kelsea Ballerini: There was no more fun country drinking song this year than Kelsea’s unexpectedly twangy “Hole in the Bottle,” party because it is, like all great country drinking songs, not only just about drinking. I love it. —MM
“In The Woulds,” BRELAND (feat. Chase Rice & Lauren Alaina): A FANTASTIC party song. Banjo and trap-lite pop beats just go together! Why is country radio still fighting it?! —NW
“The Daughters,” Little Big Town: One of the most striking and gorgeous vocal performances from this foursome (led of course by the immense power that is Karen Fairchild) that digs deep into the inequities little girls are born to know, in the context of the religion we’re never supposed to question. —MM
“Breaking Up Was Easy In the ‘90s,” Sam Hunt: Yes, “Hard To Forget,” was the bold, provocative single; but for some reason it’s this more-than-a-little corny tribute to social media stalking that makes me smile every single time I hear it. King back! —NW
“Sunday Best,” Lainey Wilson: A little bluesy and unexpected, which of course makes it fabulous — why can’t we get Lainey Combs-tier shine?! —NW
“Under the Devils Knee,” Tré Burt: With help from Leyla McCalla, Allison Russell and Sunny War, Tré Burt creates a traditional folk classic that lives right in the here and now, where Black men are murdered for existing and guilt lies in anyone able to turn the other way. An essential work built to be passed on to generations not only to force change but to never forget where we’ve been. —MM
“System,” Jacob Powell: I think this song triggers long-forgotten indie rock impulses in my brain, or something. For whatever reason — probably the insanely catchy chorus, bouncy feel and generally smart songwriting — I haven’t been able to stop listening to this since it came out. (Powell’s other songs are pretty great too, making him the rare white guy country act I’m actively rooting for.) —NW
“The Luckiest,” Josh Abbott Band: The Highway Kind didn’t make huge waves outside of Texas when it was released this year, but “The Luckiest” is a standout that deserves a wider audience, if not for it’s swing but for its featuring of Catie Offerman, an “up and coming” artist who has been around forever, and who is making one of my most-anticipated records of next year. Abbott also has a pretty strong history of picking good bets for duets. —MM
“Honestly,” Clare Dunn: One of the (million) great songs by women that would seem to be a perfect fit for radio, with a soaring rock chorus tailor-made to be belted along to while cruising down the freeway. —NW
“Call to Arms,” Sturgill Simpson: While it feels a bit futile to single out a lone song on either volume of Simpson’s bluegrass re-cuts, this one floored me the instant I heard it - it’s the ending of A Sailor’s Guide to Earth, full of wailing horns, spiraling piano and furious guitar. On Vol.2, it’s the fiddle and high lonesome harmonies that bring the urgency, and it’s just as powerful. Simpson makes the genre argument not only boring but moot - great art is great art, and great artists transcend. - MM
“Small Town Hypocrite,” Caylee Hammack: Hammack is singing about the one horse town that she came from, but not with the nostalgic joy that modern country music has made a brand. Instead, she’s questioning herself and the choices she made, and the people who led and mislead her to believe that dreams are made to be stifled. Also, what a damn voice. —MM
“Black Like Me,” Mickey Guyton: The song Nashville has needed for decades. We can only hope that the Grammy nod Guyton received compels Music City and country fans to actually heed its powerful refrain: “If you think we live in the land of the free, you should try to be Black like me.” —NW
“Under the Sun,” Ruston Kelly: I’m always hesitant to label Ruston Kelly as a country artist or put him on country lists because, a) he is not one and b) roping him into that category can often have the reverse effect of keeping folks from diving into his catalogue who are scared off by that label, for better or worse. But as far as songwriting goes, he’s second to none – the sheer craft in his lyricism, the weaving of folk traditions into his singular sound. “Under the Sun,” in particular, has been the song helping me rise each day in this shitshow of a year. When he tells us, and himself, that there are brighter days still to come, I believe him. —MM
“Prisoner of the Highway,” Margo Price: Like Ruston Kelly above, I’m hesitant to label songs from Price’s excellent rock album That’s How Rumor’s Get Started country, not because of any genre wars, but just because when the artist takes care to play outside of a box, it feels rude and fruitless to jam them back in for our own marketing ease. Regardless, Price is still one of the most important country artists around, and “Prisoner of the Highway” is a southern gospel cry to the perils of stardom and of the road made, without coincidence, to really unleash when belted from the stage. - MM
“Dirt Road,” RVSHVD: In a more just world, this would be the sound of radio country’s future: innovative and fun, it speaks directly to the Black, rural audience that the genre has ignored for far too long. —NW
“Janie Blu,” Kip Moore: On the opening track from Wild World, the Black Crowes vibes of “Janie Blue” position Kip Moore as country’s secret heartland storyteller weapon – and one with a rock and roll heart. Here, he’s singing about a woman he wants to hold on to, but he’d never dare hold back. —MM
“Water In His Wine Glass,” Maddie and Tae: I cry every time I listen to this song, a sobering (no pun intended), deeply felt lament about what it’s like to love someone struggling with addiction. At a time when country drinking songs are more inescapable than ever, this rebuttal is not just great but necessary. —NW
“The Dream,” Lori McKenna: Hard to find anyone creating such a lasting songwriting legacy like Lori McKenna, and “The Dream” brings an imagined story to life – the uniting of her children with family members long gone. Sometimes those dreams are the only way we get to see images like that unfold, and McKenna gives us permission to let our minds wander and make the impossible reality. —MM
“Shut Up Sheila,” Ashley McBryde: Tragic without being maudlin, this is McBryde at her storytelling best. Instead of relying on the lyrics to carry the song, though, she amps up the echoey, grungy production to pack an even bigger punch. —NW
“I Remember Everything,” John Prine: In the year that we lost beyond-treasured John Prine, it’s sometimes hard to listen to this last gift he left us without sheer pain or anger. He wouldn’t want it that way – “I Remember Everything” forces us to look back on the joys of our lives, from meeting a loved one to examining a simple, beautiful blade of grass. We won’t forget John Prine, but we also shouldn’t forget to stop and see the world as he did, either. —MM
“Recuerdos,” The Mavericks: I’d never listened to these underrated country titans before this year, when they released their first full album in Spanish — it has a kind of richness and heartiness to it that feels very live and analog, two things that we’ve all been without for a while now. It’s just a beautiful album, front to back —NW
“Cabin,” The Secret Sisters: Though there’s nothing that can compare to the harmonies the Secret Sisters hit when together in unison, the songs of Saturn Return find them often expressing their voices alone - and “Cabin,” written in reflection of their fury over Justice Kavanaugh, reached new personal urgency because of it. But it also served as a stand in for so much secret, stewing rage women all over this country have been holding not just for the past four years, but forever. —MM
“Somebody’s Problem,” Morgan Wallen: Country radio was as dominated by white men as ever in 2020, and one of those men was Morgan Wallen. But I just can’t deny his gift for making a song that would probably really irritate me in anyone else’s hands evocative and compelling! “Chasin’ You,” released two years ago but the year’s top Country Airplay track according to Billboard, could also take this slot. —NW
“Next Girl,” Carly Pearce: I screamed with joy when I heard the first few bars of “Next Girl,” Carly’s delicious warning to any women that come after and are swayed by the lure of a philandering amour - because no one is better to transition that classic, nineties country sound into a modern package than her. The sound fits her like a glove, and I’m dying for an album’s worth of it. - MM
“Stompin’ Grounds,” Reyna Roberts: Kick Gantley Brilbert off the airwaves and give country radio Reyna Roberts instead, full of force and fight. It’s just a snippet of what’s to come, but if it’s anything like the sheer power of “Stompin’ Grounds,” we’re all in for a spectacular ride. —MM
“Long Violent History,” Tyler Childers: What started out as a project to hone his fiddle skills lead to a revolutionary Appalachian anthem about police brutality, Black Lives Matter and the need for everyone to wonder, “what if in my town, what if my white brother, my white father?” “How many, you reckon, would it be, four or five?” he asks, the fiddle crying quietly for justice. —MM
Just Give It Away: A Holiday Request
You’re probably buying a lot of random stuff right now — why not put some of that money towards the Color Me Country Artist Grant Fund, a new fund for up-and-coming BIPOC country artists co-sponsored by Rissi Palmer’s Color Me Country podcast and Kelly McCartney’s Rainey Day Fund?
Recommended Reading: Remembering Charley Pride
We lost the legendary Charley Pride last week, so this edition’s links is devoted exclusively to works pondering his significance and legacy, from those who did it best.
Charley Pride Deserved Better Than What Country Music Could Ever Give Him in Vulture, by Andrea Williams
There's Only One Charley Pride in NPR, by Jewly Hight
On Charley Pride’s Groundbreaking Black Country Legacy in CMT by Marcus K. Dowling
What Country Music Asked of Charley Pride in the New York Times by Jon Caramanica