Ranking Mainstream Country Music Artists: Grade B

After taking a look last week at the very best of mainstream country music, it’s now time to look at the artist I view as good, but not quite worthy of an A at the moment. If you missed part one, click here.

Keep in mind these rankings were entirely compiled by yours truly. It’s only my opinion. The only artists I’m considering in these rankings is mainstream country artists that are on major labels and/or still get radio time. I’m also including legends and acts that are too big to be considered independent artists. The way I determine these rankings is by looking at the overall body of work of the artist, as well as taking into account the most recent offerings from them. So bro country artists that have been churning out hit after hit will be lower on the list. If an artist made bad music in the past, but is now putting out better music lately that will help them. But that bad music won’t be forgotten either. One more thing: attitude and respect for the genre will be considered. The rankings will be determined by grade. Now I’ll take a look at part two of this series, the artists I feel are worthy of a B grade.

Grade B

These are artists that I feel are doing mostly good things for the genre, but it’s certainly a mix of different ways they land here. Some of these artists are new and could move up to an A grade if their next album is great. Some of these artists may have once made great music, but have taken a step back lately. Each one is different.

Eric Paslay 2

Eric Paslay – The self-titled debut album from the singer-songwriter earlier this year is pretty solid, including a Song of the Year candidate in “She Don’t Love You.” Paslay also impressed me when I saw him live in concert back in August. He has proven that he can write and perform great songs. Unfortunately he also wrote a few clunkers and not just his own songs. His two debut singles on his album, “Friday Night” and “Song About a Girl” are the two weakest songs on the album. He also wrote “Rewind” for Rascal Flatts and “Barefoot Blue Jean Night” for Jake Owen. If he can stay away from writing bad pop country and deliver a great second album, he can move up in the rankings.

Jon Pardi –  Just like Paslay, Pardi has been hurt by being associated with the wrong crowd at times. His debut single and introduction to the country music world was “Up All Night,” a terrible bro country song. He was playing songs right beside the worst of bro country. This tends to paint an artist in a negative light in my eyes. Luckily his next single, “What I Can’t Put Down,” proved he’s a talented artist worth paying attention to. His debut album is mostly solid and features some hidden gems that can surprise you. At best he can be Dwight Yoakam with his Californian accent and Bakersfield style music that will remind you of the 90s country superstar. I’m worried the industry will corrupt him, but I’m hoping Alan Jackson picking him to open for him on his 25th Anniversary Tour will remind Pardi that he’s more talented than those bro country hacks and shouldn’t stoop to their level ever again.

Maddie & Tae – The teenaged-duo burst onto the scene with their incendiary “Girl in a Country Song” and immediately captured everyone’s attention. They have followed this up with a four song EP that showed they’re capable of good country music that respects the integrity of the genre and yet still sounds fresh. If they can release a great country album next year, then they can move up to an A grade possibly.

Tim McGraw – The country music veteran dabbled with bro country and auto tune for a while, but finally realized how stupid this decision was. He went back to his old sound with his new album this year and we all hope he never releases another abomination like “Lookin’ For That Girl” ever again. A year ago I might have ranked McGraw at a D grade level, but he’s made up for it with a solid album and a solid single in “Meanwhile Back at Mama’s.”

Ronnie Dunn – The former half of super duo Brooks & Dunn has been a solo artist in the last few years and has released some great songs. He’s also had some terrible album cuts. Just look at his last album. It was all over the place and even Dunn admitted to this in a Facebook post. Although it hasn’t been officially announced, Dunn confirmed the rumor via social media that he is signing with NASH Icons. So don’t be surprised if we get a new album from him sooner rather than later. Let’s hope he finds redemption on his next one.

Brothers Osborne – The duo’s summer hit “Rum” may have been viewed as lazy from some, but I thought it featured great instrumentation and the lyrics weren’t terrible. Their new EP proved to their doubters that they can make solid music and we’re still waiting on a full album from them, which is expected in early 2015. That album will determine if they move up or down in my next rankings.

Brad Paisley

Brad Paisley – A year ago Paisley would have been easily ranked at grade A. His 2013 album Wheelhouse was different, fresh and to me one of the best offerings from mainstream country music. Then 2014 happened. Paisley has done a lot of harm to his overall respect over the course of this year. First he released the mediocre at best “River Bank.” Then he announced he was experimenting with EDM on his new album, which outraged me. The missteps continued when he initiated one of the dumbest social media campaigns I’ve ever witnessed where he engaged in a faux battle with his record label over the release of his music. What was even sadder was most media outlets believed it and ate it right up. And then at last his album Moonshine in the Trunk, which I criticized more than any other publication. I’ll admit I was maybe too harsh on the album, but it was such a huge disappointment from an artist I had come to respect greatly over the years. I hope he learned his lesson, but who knows. We’ll have to wait and see.

Carrie Underwood – The pop country superstar is one of only two female artists in the genre to get a lot of exposure. Even so she still struggles at times to compete with the bros of the genre. Despite some bad pop country over the last few years, Underwood has always undeniably had a fantastic voice. Arguably her voice is the best in mainstream country music. Her best work came with her first two albums, but her newest single “Something in the Water” was pretty solid and reminded me she is a great artist.

Martina McBride & Sara Evans – Two veteran female artists that have been forgotten by radio and mainstream country music. Why else do you think Martina made an R&B tribute album here recently? The genre treats the ladies like crap and something needs to change. Another thing Martina gets credit for is inspiring the creation of the fantastic parody account, Fake Martina McBride.

David Nail – Nail’s music has never blown me away and yet has never offended me either. I’ve heard good things about his album I’m a Fire, but I haven’t got a chance to listen to it and review it yet.

Mickey Guyton – The young, up and coming country artist blew me away with her new single, “Better Than You Left Me.” She hasn’t released an album yet, so I can’t put her at grade A based on such a small sample and pure potential. If the first album she releases lives up to her potential, she will easily move up to the top.

That’s it for part two. Part three will be coming soon!

17 thoughts on “Ranking Mainstream Country Music Artists: Grade B

  1. Zack November 24, 2014 / 12:24 pm

    Good list, i’m a bit surprised you didn’t include Jake Owen. “Beachin” aside, he has had some pretty good songs and respects the genre of Country music. Plus he got Keith Urban into Sturgill Simpson’s music

    Liked by 1 person

    • NoahHibiscusEaton November 25, 2014 / 12:02 am

      Jake Owen would be a C artist in my book.

      What he’s got going for him is, firstly, that he has a breezy, positive stage presence and persona. Unlike Jason Aldean and Chase Rice for instance, you never get the impression that Owen is an arrogant douche even when he panders to bro-country cliches. Rather, he has that sort of sunny air of fun-loving innocent youth usually grazing his music. He looks like he is genuinely having a good time and strikes you as that kind of person you’d enjoy having a drink with. Charisma goes a long way.

      Unfortunately, it’s a shame he reverts to formula way too often. Granted his current single “What We Ain’t Got” is a breath of fresh air, but that remains more the exception than the rule in his discography. Despite overtures preceding the release of “Days of Gold” bemoaning the need for more songs that aren’t about Bacardi and red solo cups, a third of the album reverts to bro-country cliches, another third to “bromance” (i.e. not bro-country, per se, but fluffy, insubstantial “love songs” with slices of the same formulaic laundry list country song stock imagery), and the final third slightly left-of-center content. In other words, still mostly a product of the corporate Nashville assembly line songwriting machine.

      “What We Ain’t Got” is a good place to start, but Owen needs to show more leadership if he’s going to have any hope of being promoted to the B range in my mind.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. NoahHibiscusEaton November 24, 2014 / 4:28 pm

    Agree with this for the most part.

    Martina McBride and Sara Evans, however, just haven’t been cutting it lately for me, though. Their voices are still very strong, but they’ve reverted to a bland Adult Contemporary modus operandi, and at this point I’d consider both C artists to my ears. In fact, Martina McBride has pretty much sidestepped country entirely as “Everlasting” demonstrated.

    I’d also argue it’s too soon to grade Maddie & Tae off of only four songs.

    I’d consider Keith Urban and Eric Church B artists to my ears. I can see straight up why you’d disagree with me based on recent dud singles like “Little Bit of Everything”, but there’s no denying Urban’s ability to consistently pen solid melodies and hooks, his musicianship and his emotional commitment to pop country as a vocalist. Keith’s definitely a B artist to me. And Church unmistakably tries harder than most mainstream country/”country” artists and invests more in his craft and live show all around despite having an often unlikeable personality and an inconsistent latest album.

    Little Big Town definitely ranked between A and B on all their earlier albums, but they have become trickier to rate lately because of inconsistency with their single releases and resorting to gimmicks like the “Little Big Tron” shenanigans at the Country Music Awards. Even “Tornado” was an excellent album despite “Pontoon” overshadowing everything, and they remain solid performers live. I just wish they would dispense with the half-hearted desperate stabs at airplay and gimmicks. All in all, they’re still a B artist to me but my patience is being tested.

    I’d also consider Brett Eldredge, The Band Perry (I disliked half their singles from their sophomore album, but their albums as a whole are mostly solid), Eli Young Band and Randy Houser B artists.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Josh Schott November 25, 2014 / 11:16 am

      All of these are great points and believe me I went back and forth a lot with the B and C artists. Really it comes down to personal preference for the B and C artists. I think most people can agree with who belongs at the very top and the bottom of the rankings, but the in-between is very subjective. You’ll see my thoughts on all of these artists and their rankings soon. I don’t want to give it away.

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      • NoahHibiscusEaton November 26, 2014 / 6:09 pm

        I understand, and respect why and where you’d disagree with my assertions in terms of grade assignment! =)

        I recognize, for instance, why Keith Urban has always been intensely polarizing in the genre. I’m sure there are many who respect his commitment to musical craftsmanship that nonetheless feel his signature sound veers too heavily to pop. And I also get why some are inclined to rate him lower because, in truth, he does lean heavily on stock imagery like the radio, fast cars and charming girls in an inoffensive “Aw shucks!” kind of way. I just decide to consider him a B artist because he’s so effective, charismatic and consistent at what he does in an admittedly predictable vein. But I certainly won’t balk at claims he’s more of a C artist. =)

        And with someone like Eric Church, I completely get where you’d swing back and forth between grades even more wildly. On his latest album, in my opinion, he’s got some Grade A songs like “A Man Who Was Gonna Die Young” and “Talladega”, and then he’s got some Grade D songs like “Devil, Devil” and “That’s Damn Rock ‘N Roll” (even though Lzzy Hale made the song a lot more listenable in a live setting). It’s such a scattershot, complete clusterpluck of an album………..and it is for that reason why I respect why some are inclined to rate Eric Church in the C-range. To me, he remains a B artist because you can at least respect him for digging deeper on some album tracks and trying harder and involving himself in all components of the craft compared to most of his commercial peers.

        Anyway, can’t wait for the next installment! =D

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Cobra November 25, 2014 / 7:27 am

    I’m very curious to see where you’ll rank Eli Young Band. I’d put them no lower than a B. Granted, their earlier music was their best work, but they’ve remained very strong. Do you have them anywhere in your rankings?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Cobra November 25, 2014 / 7:30 am

      I also think that David Nail may vastly improve your opinion with his new album (which I mentioned in last week’s post).

      Like

      • NoahHibiscusEaton November 26, 2014 / 6:25 pm

        David Nail’s a B artist, I agree.

        He did dishearten me with “Whatever She’s Got”, which is a painfully immature capitulation to bro-country cliches albeit backed by a much stronger vocalist…………..but his three albums have all been above-average to my ears to date.

        What I wish will happen sooner rather than later is that Nail considers a change in producers. Too often both his producing team, as well as engineer, get in the way of his powerful vocals and they wind up losing some of their potency because they are drowned out either by the cranked-up guitars or synthetic elements of the production. That’s the same issue I’ve always had with some of the production on Miranda Lambert and the Eli Young Band’s albums (without a doubt Frank Liddell is a common link in all of this). So I’d ditch Liddell and pair up with someone who will provide a more intimate space to allow his voice to fully shine. Because Nail is unmistakably one of the best male vocalists in the genre’s mainstream.

        I also wish there were moents that knock you out cold like “The Sound of a Million Dreas” on “I’m a Fire”……………and all of the album’s tracks fell short of that. I completely understood why Nail swung harder for the airplay fences than ever with this album since, after all, artists gotta eat………….and he has yet to score multiple big hits off of a single album. But the tracks were too middle-of-the-road from beginning to end and I was just disappointed there were no moments that completely wowed me is all.

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      • Cobra November 27, 2014 / 10:00 am

        Noah
        That’s surprising. I was completely blown away by “Brand New Day” and “The Secret.”

        “Whatever She’s Got” notwithstanding, “I’m a Fire” has continued to be an album that I haven’t tired of at all this year.

        Like

    • Josh Schott November 25, 2014 / 11:13 am

      Yes they’re in my rankings and you’ll see why I put them where I did. I don’t want to give it away before I post it.

      Like

      • Cobra November 25, 2014 / 6:45 pm

        Fair enough. I’ll look forward to seeing it.

        Like

    • NoahHibiscusEaton November 26, 2014 / 6:16 pm

      The Eli Young Band are a B group in my book.

      I took issue with some of the cluttered, overly compressed engineering and production on their two most recent albums (for much the same reason I’m critical of that aspect of Miranda Lambert and David Nail’s releases)………….but the Eli Young Band make up for it in their populist brand of twangy heartland rock that often resembles Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers.

      What keeps them from being an A group is that they tend to stick to the middle of the road. Also, there was admittedly a lack of the-world-stops-and-freezes standout songs on “10,000 Towns”. It was still a decent, cohesive set, but I’m still waiting for them to release a song that stops you in your tracks and knocks you out cold like “Colder Weather”, “The House That Built Me” or “Stupid Boy” (three of my favorite hit singles in recent memory).

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  4. Lorenzo December 1, 2014 / 4:42 pm

    very good list, I expecially liked that you added David Nail and Sara Evans to it, I think they’re both underrated these days. but I’d have added Keith Urban, Travis Tritt, Easton Corbin and Josh Turner too. Easton and Josh are great true country while Keith puts out pop music but it’s at least very good. As for Travis, sure his latest release was not particularly brilliant in terms of country music but it’s good rock and roll tinged music and its lead single ‘Sometimes love just ain’t enough’ is just amazing.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Lorenzo December 1, 2014 / 4:47 pm

      ok just saw that Travis Tritt is not eligible due to radio ignoring him while Josh Turner had already been added in your Grade A list

      Liked by 1 person

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