The Best of 2021
We arrive here at the end of what feels like a pivotal year for country music, reflecting on why, as the longest-running country music blog, we covered less new material than we have in any of our previous 16-plus years. Setting aside personal and professional obligations among our panel of writers, it isn’t for a lack of quality work worthy of the attention: As our year-end rodeo makes plain, there’s truly an embarrassment of riches to be mined.
Instead, it comes back, as it has in each of the last few years, to the idea of gatekeeping and where we– the three white dudes who contribute most frequently here and whose tastes are reflected in our annual retrospective for 2021– fit into that larger conversation about country music, what it means, and to whom. We believe that country music is every bit as deserving of thoughtful, even academic, criticism and analysis as any other art form. Frankly, to believe otherwise is to denigrate country music as being inherently less than literature, visual art, classical music, or theater, and to imply that country music’s audience is neither capable nor deserving of greater rigor. While the perspectives of our writers have always been more diverse in thought and taste than perhaps we’re sometimes credited for, I’m confident in saying that everyone who’s ever written for Country Universe has done so out of a shared belief that country music matters.
But, throughout 2021, there’s been considerable debate about who should be allowed to make country music, what forms those allowed inside the gates are permitted to create once they’ve been cleared, and who is allowed to engage with that work and assess its larger place in the shared culture. Personally, I’ve been far more interested over the past year in listening to the voices of those who have, historically, not been allowed inside the white picket fenced gates of “country music” than in being another loudmouth white man with an opinion on the internet.
I say that not to virtue signal– a phrase that literally always says more about the one saying it than about its intended target, in the sense that it shows a refusal to acknowledge that another person might sincerely and truly value something that challenges their own limited point-of-view– but simply to account for why it’s been far more appealing of late to, for instance, take a look back at what another set of would-be gatekeepers defined as the 1000 greatest songs in the genre’s history than to write about the brilliant work being created by, say, Chapel Hart and Allison Russell.
And there are writers far more gifted than I who have been able to wrestle with the overall discourse around country music– specifically, about its historic and present biases that, by design, marginalize voices that are not white, male, heterosexual, and Christian– who deserve everyone’s time and attention. Start with Andrea Williams, then add in Marcus K. Dowling and Tressie McMillan Cottom, and then you’re well on your way to understanding the legitimate harms that have been done in the name of preserving one precise definition of country music, and how much richer the genre could have been for decades now if those structures had ever been razed and rebuilt more equitably.
Which isn’t to say that there isn’t a place for white, male, heterosexual, Christian men in country music: Of course there is, and no one is actually saying otherwise. That particular demographic has produced some of the genre’s most compelling art, but that particular demographic has also been disproportionately privileged to the exclusion of others that are equally deserving of seats– plural– at the proverbial table. Still, country music has never truly been the cultural monolith that some would like for it to be: Brittany Aldean might have her po-faced, untalented husband model a tee-shirt with the slogan, “This is our [flag emoji]-ing country,” but that speaks only to the depths of her own ignorance of the realities of what country music has been and still is. We’re often focused on the halcyon days of the 1990s’ country mainstream, and that era offers plenty of examples of diverse perspectives: Take the multi-platinum successes of an Ivy League-educated, aggressively liberal folkie (Mary Chapin Carpenter) or award-winning run of a Tejano-and-Zydeco-inspired band fronted by a Cuban man who sang an awful lot like Roy Orbison (The Mavericks).
Those are useful examples among plenty of others, but, even then, it’s critical to note the absence of black voices, and of black women, in particular, and of any queer perspectives. It is essential, moving forward, that country music acknowledge the mechanisms– and there are many– by which BIPOC and LGBTQ+ artists have been excluded and made unwelcome. Would the genre have been even richer had it made space for the likes of Dr. Cleve Francis or kd lang in the early 90s? Absolutely, it would have. There is a real imperative to ensure that artists who don’t look and sound like clones of every other interchangeable white Hollister model are allowed to claim space and are celebrated for doing so.
Is that actually going to happen? There are some reasons to be hopeful. In addition to the greater prominence of voices like Williams’ and Dowling’s in country music discourse, grassroots organizations like The Black Opry continue to gain traction and prominence in booking venues and pushing for substantive change. The CMA, which remains deeply problematic for a litany of reasons, has at least made surface-level concessions toward inclusion of more diverse artists, including Mickey Guyton and Brothers Osborne.
But there are still plenty of folks who view all of this as a zero-sum game and have, predictably, pushed back hard. The Aldeans, of course, have made their perceived persecution into a brand, a reality-denying move for someone named Artist Of The Decade by the Academy of Country Music and who continues to score chart-topping hits at country radio.
And, of course, there’s the ongoing redemption tour that’s been engineered for Morgan Wallen, whose album has sold huge less because of its quality than because purchasing a copy is a middle-finger to perceived “cancel culture.” Wallen’s all-too-easy use of the N-word presented an opportunity for the country industry to reckon with its racism and to push for meaningful, structural overhauls– to make an attempt to be better than it has been before. Instead, many on Music Row– note that Aldean, Luke Bryan, and Tyler Hubbard of Florida Georgia Line all eagerly embraced Wallen on their shared concert stage– decided that there are plenty of Americans who agree with Wallen, and their money spends just fine, so why gamble on demographics they’d alienated over the course of decades?
Given the chance to stake out a position based on moral clarity and equity, the country industry put a deeply incurious man-child in a brief time out and then let everyone go along as they always have without any meaningful reflection about what they could have done differently or why it mattered that they should have done anything at all.
In writing his annual Best-Of feature for FilmFreakCentral, film critic Walter Chaw observed 2021 in this way: “… When life is so valueless that the worst thing we could do to someone else is ask them to be accountable for their brutality. We let the moment of crisis come and go, and we were not up to it.” Chaw was writing about COVID, but the analogy to where country music stands is one that I can’t shake.
For the record, I tweeted this mini-review of Wallen’s album on January 10th, before the video of his casual use of the N-word kicked off an immediate redemption narrative for a cash cow whose udders are distended and septic:
“Morgan Wallen, Dangerous (*1/2): He has nothing at all to say on the co-writes and can’t sing for shit on the ones he didn’t write; good on Chucklefuck McMullet for his mastery of marketing, though, because it’s literally the only thing he does competently, let alone does well.”
Wallen’s a marginal talent and always has been, a fact that’s incidental to his success and the willingness of Music Row to ensure that he comes out just fine from being caught saying the quiet part out loud. So, as though there were any doubt, Wallen’s album didn’t make our year-end list, but rest assured it wouldn’t have even if he hadn’t put every bit of his ignorance on display for the entirety of the last year.
What might be more surprising, then, are some of the other artists who didn’t make the cut. 2021 was a year in which long-time favorites faltered. Loretta Lynn and Willie Nelson released albums on which, for the first time, they truly sounded their respective ages, recasting, “They sound tired, but they don’t sound haggard,” as a lament. Ashley Monroe, Charlie Worsham, Kacey Musgraves, and Gary Allan offered highly anticipated new records that were at turns misguided in their aesthetic choices or were just ungodly dull. And Alan Jackson offered an album that played as the Abe Simpson “Old Man Yells At Cloud” meme in song form, and it was heartbreaking in the ways you don’t want a country album to be. We’ve championed those acts countless times over the years, but not a one of them made our individual ballots this time.
That left room for more exploration under the very big tent that is the “country” universe. While there are some familiar names you’ll see crop up here, there are even more surprising choices who’ve not been featured before. There’s Bluegrass and Southern Gospel. There’s contemporary pop-country and whatever “Americana” means. There are interpolations of hip-hop, and there’s one of the biggest pop stars in the world.
All of it, in some substantive way, speaks to what we believe country music can be at its very best. As we move into 2022, we’re looking forward to finding different ways to showcase more of this variety and more of this current music, along with the more historic-focused content that you’ve come to know and (hopefully still!) love.
We’ll kick off our 2021 Year-End Rodeo with the first of four “conversations” about the 20 Best Country Singles of 2021.
The Best of 2021