Country Perspective’s Top 30 Country/Americana Albums of 2016

The Listpocalypse of 2016 is almost over. You’ve probably been thoroughly beat over the head by year-end lists and awards by now and have grown sick of them. But I can tell you that this is the last one for 2016 from Country Perspective. The year of country music and Americana has come to an end, so it’s now time to take a look back at the very best albums that both country and Americana gave us. It was certainly an interesting year to say the least. We got a wide variety of great music along the way and I certainly had enough to make a top albums list. Originally I had this set at 20 albums long months ago before expanding to 25. As of a couple of days ago, it was still 25. Then I had trouble deliberating over the last few in and decided to expand it again to 30. I’m pretty happy with it at 30 and I feel this list is a nice snapshot of 2016 for country and Americana.

One last thing: You’re welcome to disagree with this list as much as you want and I encourage you to do so. However keep in mind this is my list, therefore you can’t tell me I’m wrong because we’re entitled to our own opinions. You are welcome to make your own top 30 (or whatever number) list in the comments below. In fact I encourage this too. Share your favorite music, as we can all benefit from this.

So without further ado, here are Country Perspective’s Top 30 Country/Americana Albums of 2016:

Wheeler Walker Jr Redneck Shit

#30 – Wheeler Walker Jr. – Redneck Shit

There’s a perfect symmetry with the artist topping this list helping make the album at the bottom of this list happen in the first place. Sturgill Simpson told fellow Kentuckian Ben Hoffman to follow a crazy idea, introducing him to super producer Dave Cobb. Simpson told him to go “full Kauffman” or he never wants to see him again. Wheeler Walker Jr. was born and the world has never been the same. Walker’s debut album is full of filthy, raunchy country goodness. Once you get past the heavy swearing, dick sucking and jerking off though, you get some pretty fine country music. There’s plenty of steel guitar and some surprisingly deeper songs than meet the eye dealing with heartbreak, losing your job and of course sex.

Best Songs: Can’t Fuck You off My Mind, Fuck You Bitch, Eatin’ Pussy/Kickin’ Ass, Better off Beatin’ Off

Randy Rogers Band Nothing Shines Like Neon

#29 – Randy Rogers Band – Nothing Shines Like Neon

Randy Rogers came off one hell of a year in 2015. He teamed up with buddy Wade Bowen and they released one of the best albums of the year. They won both Country Perspective’s 2015 Duo/Group of the Year award and Country Perspective’s 2015 Song of the Year with “Standards.” This year Rogers returned with a new album with his own band, a return also to Texas after trying their hand on Music Row. The result is an album full of plenty fiddle and steel guitar and some of the sharpest writing we’ve heard from the band. It has me excited to see what comes next from the band, as this album puts them on a great path going forward.

Best Songs: Old Moon New, Look Out Yonder (feat. Alison Krauss & Dan Tyminski), Tequila Eyes, Neon Blues


#28 – Brent Cobb – Shine On Rainy Day

Brent Cobb is a name that I’ve come across a lot in country music the last few years. But we had yet to hear an album from Cobb himself. That changed in 2016. Cobb released his debut album Shine on Rainy Day, the type of album you can throw on any time and enjoy. It’s all-around solid and doesn’t have any filler on it. The relatable themes and the southern rock meets country sound is going to win him more and more fans. Cobb reinforces with this album why I’ve kept my eye on him because his talent and artistry is quite high. Shine On Rainy Day is the beginning of what I believe is the start of a bright and fruitful career.

Best Songs: Country Bound, The World, Shine On Rainy Day, Diggin’ Holes

Mark Chesnutt Tradition Lives

#27 – Mark Chesnutt – Tradition Lives

Nobody predicted new music coming from Mark Chesnutt in 2016. And it was probably one of my favorite surprises of 2016. The 90s country star delivers one hell of a “comeback” album in Tradition Lives. It took years for this album to come together, but it was well worth the wait. The steel guitar and fiddle are thick and will bring a smile to the most jaded of country fans. Chesnutt still sounds as great now as he did in his prime and is another shining example of why writing off older artists is just plain dumb. Chesnutt more than still has “it” and if he’s up for it, I imagine this isn’t the last music we’ve heard from the Texan.

Best Songs: Lonely Ain’t the Only Game in Town, Is It Still Cheating, So You Can’t Hurt Me Anymore, Oughta Miss By Now

11 - Pure & Simple cover - Dolly Parton

#26 – Dolly Parton – Pure & Simple

Like I said, don’t write off older artists. The ageless and timeless Dolly Parton returned with yet another new album at the ripe age of 70, despite solidifying years ago she’s a legend. From the very listen of this album I was immediately hooked and couldn’t stop listening. She wrote, arranged and produced this entire album (co-producers are Richard Dennison & Tom Rutledge). That’s incredible. While radio and the greater mainstream at-large mostly write-off older artists, they’re missing out. There’s not much else to say. It’s Dolly Parton and its great music. It doesn’t get anymore pure and simple than this.

Best Songs: Can’t Be That Wrong, Say Forever You’ll Be Mine, Head Over High Heels, Forever Love

Caleb Caudle Carolina Ghost

#25 – Caleb Caudle – Carolina Ghost

If I had to describe Caleb Caudle’s Carolina Ghost in one word, it would be smooth. He makes everything on this album sound so smooth and easy. It’s full of quality songwriting and you couldn’t make it more country if you tried. Caudle’s style and approach to music is very unassuming and allows the music to really reach out and grab the listener. The songwriting is beautifully uncomplicated and the instrumentation elevates it in every way. Carolina Ghost is the real deal and shows he has a very bright future in country music.

Best Songs: White Doves Wing, Wasted Thursday, Borrowed Smiles, Steel & Stone

Addison Johnson I'm Just A Song

#24 – Addison Johnson – I’m Just A Song

Addison Johnson is probably one of my favorite new artists I came across in country and Americana music this year. Johnson is an artist that was born to make country music.This album is full of traditional country goodness that will leave you wondering how the hell is this guy is not getting more attention. The talent is pretty clear and shows that the sky is the limit for Johnson’s future. His songwriting shows great maturity and should only get better with time. My only real complaint with this entire album is the length. Being only seven songs long left me wanting to hear even more, which I guess can be a good thing. But I hope on the next one we get to hear even more because the world needs to hear more music from Johnson.

Best Songs: My Last Song, Already Been Through, I’m Just A Song, High on the Mountain


#23 – Loretta Lynn – Full Circle

It’s 2016 and we got new music from the legendary Loretta Lynn. How cool is that? Even cooler is this album is up for a Grammy for Best Country Album at the 2017 awards. This is the first album of new recordings from Lynn in over 10 years and features a collection of both covers and folk songs Lynn learned as a child. The album is pretty deep, as Lynn explores death and looks back at experiences in her life. It could very well be the last recording from Lynn and a reminder of how much we need to cherish this legend while we still have her. Lynn is one of the best ever in country music and this is yet another great album from the icon.

Best Songs: Who’s Gonna Miss Me?, Everybody Wants to Go to Heaven, Fist City, Lay Me Down

Aubrie Sellers New City Blues

#22 – Aubrie Sellers – New City Blues

The daughter of Lee Ann Womack has certainly made her mark in 2016. Her brand of garage country on her debut album New City Blues captured critics and fans’ attentions everywhere when it was originally released back in January. It also captured the attention of major label Warner Bros. Nashville, signing Sellers and re-releasing the album under the label in the fall. The album’s unique sound is one you certainly won’t forget and when it comes to Sellers’ vocals you can say the apple didn’t fall too from the tree. Her introduction of garage country could prove to be important, as Miranda Lambert adopted it on her new album and I expect to hear it more going forward. Not bad for a debut, eh?

Best Songs: Dreaming in the Day, Light of Day, Sit Here and Cry, Something Special

Darrell Scott Couchville Sessions

#21 – Darrell Scott – Couchville Sessions

One of the finest songwriters in country music returned with new music in 2016. Couchville Sessions was an album recorded several years ago, literally recorded on a couch in Nashville. Thank goodness Scott remembered and released it because music like this deserves to be heard. I knew this was an album worth my attention from the very first song, “Down to the River.” Scott in his trademark soulful voice croons, “and we won’t give a damn if it’s rock, folk, country or blues.” At the end we get to hear the voice of the late great Guy Clark telling us a short story. It’s a special moment, especially in the light of his not so distant passing. Just one great songwriter paying homage to another great songwriter, like the past greats of music intended.

Best Songs: Down to the River, It’s About Time, Waiting for the Clothes to Get Clean, Love Is The Reason


#20 – Brandy Clark – Big Day in a Small Town

Brandy Clark absolutely nails the small town theme in this album. One of the best in country music today delivers blistering songwriting on rural living and the everyday struggles of the average person. Derek really summed it up well in his review: Big Day in a Small Town is a truly great example of country music evolving. With the help of Jay Joyce, the album has songs firmly planted in country’s traditional styles, yet they’re given room to explore and reach to different heights and areas. Big Day in a Small Town is the best example of a modern country album. With a great production and songs that standalone well, yet fit into a nice, cohesive theme.

Best Songs: Love Can Go To Hell, Daughter, Drinkin’, Smokin’, Cheatin’, Homecoming Queen

Parker Millsap The Very Last Day

#19 – Parker Millsap – The Very Last Day

Parker Millsap proves once again he’s one of the best artists in Americana today. The Very Last Day seamlessly blends genres and tells intriguing stories with ease. Well upon the surface it seems so easy. If you listen to this album casually, you will miss out on some nice subtleties and details that really help make this album shine. It’s the little things on this album that help make the big parts standout so well. The Very Last Day gives you a little bit of everything, as it explores love, death and everything in-between. The standout of this album is “Heaven Sent,” one of the best songs you’ll hear all year and maybe the best song Millsap has ever written.

Best Songs: Heaven Sent, Hands Up, You Gotta Move, Tribulation Hymn

Daniel Meade and The Flying Mules

#18 – Daniel Meade & The Flying Mules – Let Me Off at the Bottom

Daniel Meade & The Flying Mules firmly establish themselves as one of the best groups in country and Americana today with Let Me off at the Bottom. Meade & The Flying Mules are as talented as about any group in country and Americana today. I would best describe them as The Mavericks (the soulful, catchy lyrics) meet Old Crow Medicine Show (the folky, roots sound). The instrumentation is flawless throughout the album keeping it fun when they need to while also setting the tone perfectly on the more melancholy tunes. The songwriting is sharp, witty and even deeper than meets the eyes. Daniel Meade & The Flying Mules are the real deal.

Best Songs: Leave Me to Bleed, He Should’ve Been Mine, Count the Roses, There’s a Headstone Where Her Heart Used to Be


#17 – Flatland Cavalry – Humble Folks 

As that old line from Alabama goes, “if you’re gonna play in Texas, you gotta have a fiddle in the band.” Well Flatland Cavalry has the fiddle part well covered in their music. The Lubbock based band delivers a fiddle-filled debut album featuring a variety of themes and a great dose of both fun and more serious songs. As a country fan you’ll get a little bit of everything you want out of a country album when you listen to Humble Folks. Lead singer Cleto Cordero is one of the more promising vocalists I’ve heard out of Texas in sometime. What’s great is this band is just going to get even better with time and there’s strong reason to believe Humble Folks is the beginning of a really bright career for Flatland Cavalry. Don’t be surprised if some day this band releases an album that ends up near the very top of our year-end list.

Best Songs: Coyote (The Ballad of Roy Johnson) [feat. William Clark Green], Devil Off My Back, A Life Where We Work Out (feat. Kaitlin Butts), One I Want

Cody Jinks I'm Not the Devil

#16 – Cody Jinks – I’m Not The Devil 

While this wasn’t as good as Adobe Sessions, Cody Jinks delivers a really good album in I’m Not The Devil. He’s quickly establishing himself as one of the biggest fan favorites in the independent country scene, as I constantly have Jinks’ fans reminding me of him. He’s clearly got country fans’ attentions. On his new album Jinks does a lot of self-reflecting, exploring love, heartbreak and the struggles of life as a musician. The instrumentation really shines on the album, as it’s equally catchy and appropriate for the songs. The once metal singer fits like a glove in country music, as he’s quickly established himself as one of the best in the genre today.

Best Songs: Heavy Load, I’m Not The Devil, Vampires, Chase That Song

Margo Price Midwest Farmer's Daughter

#15 – Margo Price – Midwest Farmer’s Daughter

Jinks isn’t the only artist to quickly gain a loyal legion of fans. Margo Price has captured her own passionate fan base with the release of her debut album Midwest Farmer’s Daughter this year. It’s an album that is topping or going near the top of many critics’ lists. While it’s very good and places well on my list, I felt other artists delivered her style of country better this year. Still her impact has undoubtedly been felt and she’s set herself up to have her “Sturgill moment” on her sophomore album. Her debut album shows she can deliver that throwback country sound with aplomb and that it’s just the beginning of a very promising career.

Best Songs: Hands of Time, Hurtin’ on the Bottle, Four Years of Chances, This Town Gets Around

Dori Freeman

#14 – Dori Freeman – Self-Titled

Undoubtedly one of the most promising new artists to break onto the country scene this year was Dori Freeman. Her debut album blew me away upon the very first listen. Freeman’s vocals are crisp, pure and undeniably Appalachian. She was born to sing and very few possess her talent. The songwriting is top-notch and I couldn’t pick out a flaw in the instrumentation and production choices. This album excels and thrives in every area. You can pretty much call it flawless. It’s an album that every true country and Americana fan needs to hear and Dori Freeman is a name you need to know.

Best Songs: Ain’t Nobody, Fine Fine Fine, Tell Me, Still A Child, Go On Lovin’


#13 – Miranda Lambert – The Weight of These Wings

The album I’ve always wanted from Miranda Lambert finally came in the form of The Weight of These Wings. Not just an album, but a double album! The amount of pure, raw energy Lambert channeled into the music on this album cannot be understated. Her talent is on full display and truly feels like the birth of an even greater artist. It feels like Lambert is taking the next step up in her artistry. She’s shown an amazing amount of growth and this is an album country fans certainly won’t forget and should savor for years to come.

Best Songs: Tin Man, To Learn Her, Ugly Lights, Runnin’ Just In Case, Use My Heart


#12 – Lydia Loveless – Real

Lydia Loveless has been one of the most promising up and comers in the country/Americana scene for a few years. But we had yet to really hear a complete album from her. Until now with her new album Real. The sonic changes and the album’s not immediate appeal may turn off some listeners. But for those who are patient, willing to give it a chance and don’t fuss over genre labels, they’re rewarded with an album that deeply explores love and heartbreak. The songwriting is quite sharp and I think the production is really solid on each song, a credit to producer Joe Viers and Loveless herself. I also applaud Loveless for refusing to play by “genre rules” and setting out to make the album she wants to make because the honesty of this album really shines through.

Best Songs: Real, Heaven, Out on Love, Longer, Same To You


#11 – Lori McKenna – The Bird & The Rifle

2016 was a long time coming for songwriter Lori McKenna, as she really broke out in many’s eyes with the success of “Humble and Kind.” In addition she released a great album in The Bird & The Rifle. It was simply her year and why she was rewarded Country Perspective’s 2016 Female Artist of the Year award. Featuring her own recording of her hit song, the album also contains some other sharply written phenomenal songs on life, love and small towns. There’s the pointed, but well-intended lesson of “Old Men Young Women.” She reminisces of old times and old plans on “We Were Cool.” “Giving Up on Your Hometown” sees her illustrating the painful realization many come to about their small hometowns and that you can’t keep things the same forever. Then you have aching love song “Always Wants You,” which is about a woman being unable to shake the love of someone she thought she was over. McKenna takes you to songwriting class from start to finish.

Best Songs: Old Men Young Women, Wreck You, Humble & Kind, We Were Cool, Always Want You

Robert Ellis Album

#10 – Robert Ellis – Self-Titled

Robert Ellis’ new self-titled album does an excellent job of crafting stories of love, heartbreak, redemption and life. It also does a great job of incorporating so many different genres together to create some really unique sounds and moments on the album, while elevating the lyrics in the process. This isn’t necessarily a country record and feels more like an Americana record. Country purists and fans of Ellis’ original work might be quick to dismiss this record because it goes so many different places sonically. But music fans will find a lot to love about this album and sink their teeth into because there’s plenty to digest. I enjoyed the journey both the lyrics and instrumentation took me on and it’s an album that I think gets better with more listens. Call it what you want. I’ll call it great.

Best Songs: California, Elephant, You’re Not The One, Couples Skate, It’s Not Ok

Luke Bell Self Titled Album

#9 – Luke Bell – Self-Titled

Luke Bell’s self-titled album is a traditional gem that shines from start to finish. It’s an album that couldn’t be more country if it tried. Bell is such a naturally gifted vocalist who makes it sound so easy when he sings. It can be easy to call Luke Bell a throwback, but really this is just how country music is supposed to sound. Bell is just someone who gets it. This is clear when you hear all of the steel guitar and fiddle throughout each song. It’s clear with the quality songwriting that draws from relatable and simple themes that the common man can connect with and understand through their own experiences. Bell could very well be the next big name to come from the independent country scene. He’s every bit as talented as the biggest names to come from the scene in recent years.

Best Songs: Bullfighter, Sometimes, Workin’ Man’s Dream, The Great Pretender, Loretta


#8 – Paul Cauthen – My Gospel

I’ve mentioned many promising new artists on this list, but if you wanted me to name the very best new act to break onto the scenes in 2016 it would be Paul Cauthen. From beginning to end Cauthen blows me away with My Gospel. It’s hands down the best debut album I’ve heard this year and perfectly exemplifies the distinctiveness that every new artist should strive for in their music. Not to mention you can tell this comes straight from the heart and soul of Cauthen, as it shines through on every aspect of the album. This is the type of music the world needs more of today. With My Gospel Cauthen immediately establishes himself as one of the best in the genre. The sky is the limit for him and I can’t wait to see what he does next.

Best Songs: I’ll Be The One, My Gospel, Still Drivin’, Saddle, Grand Central


#7  – Blackberry Smoke – Like An Arrow

After delivering a really good album in 2015 with Holding All The Roses, they surprised everyone by returning with another new album just a year later. The result: Like An Arrow, one of the best albums of the year and arguably the best of the group’s career, earning Country Perspective’s 2016 Group/Duo of the Year award. Blackberry Smoke continue to demonstrate why they’re amongst the best in both country and rock. What’s amazing is how flawless they make it look. But I probably shouldn’t be surprised. Blackberry Smoke isn’t your ordinary band that goes through slumps and bad albums. They consistently churn out some of the best music you’ll hear today.

Best Songs: Waiting For The Thunder, The Good Life, Running Through Time, Like An Arrow, Sunrise in Texas

Kelsey Waldon I've Got A Way

#6 – Kelsey Waldon – I’ve Got A Way

Kelsey Waldon’s I’ve Got A Way is an amazing album that is 110% country goodness. You simply have to hear it for yourself. This album has no bells or whistles about it. It doesn’t rely on trends and clichés in its songwriting. This is three chords and the truth right here. The instrumentation and production couldn’t be more well-arranged on each song and Waldon just belts it on each track. The songwriting is forthright, honest and cutting. It’s one of the best albums I’ve listened to this year and Waldon has quickly established herself amongst the best.

Best Songs: All by Myself, False King, Travelin’ Down This Lonesome Road, Don’t Hurt the Ones (Who’ve Loved You The Most), The Heartbreak


#5 – Karen Jonas – Country Songs

Country Songs is another fantastic album from Karen Jonas. She’s only two albums into her career and has already delivered better albums than many artists will release over a 20 year career. I know this is quite high praise, but when I listen to Jonas sing I hear something special. She has the potential to go down as a great if she continues to make more albums like the two she has released. All of the praise she gets is deserved and there’s no reason why she shouldn’t be mentioned amongst the very best in country music today. You’re not going to find too many albums better than Country Songs.

Best Songs: Country Perspective’s 2016 Song of the Year – “The Garden”, Wasting Time, Country Songs, Wandering Heart, Why Don’t You Stay, Whiskey & Dandelions


#4 – Various Artists – Southern Family

Many are going to be surprised of how “low” I’m ranking this album and why it didn’t win album of the year. The main reason is simple: a compilation album with world-class talent is supposed to be great, therefore I hold it to a higher standard. It’s not fair to compare this album to your average great release because you can’t compare the work of one artist to a work of many artists. So I couldn’t in good faith give a compilation album top honors nor could I put it above the other album of the year candidates. The other main reason was the best song of this album is a cover and if you recall I penalized Whitey Morgan’s Sonic Ranch for the same reason last year. I must be consistent. Please don’t let this take away from the fact that this is a brilliant album that will hold up for years to come and is yet another shining example of Dave Cobb’s genius. It’s also the best several artists on this album have sounded in a while. Cobb brought out the very best in everyone involved. You can’t ask for more out of a producer.

Best Songs: I Cried, Grandma’s Garden, You Are My Sunshine, Sweet By and By, God Is A Working Man, Learning

BJ Barham Rockingham

#3 – BJ Barham – Rockingham

BJ Barham’s Rockingham will flat-out knock you on your ass. It’s depressing as hell and it’s full of raw emotion. Don’t take this as bad as it’s quite the opposite. It’s a beautifully dark album that paints a poignant tale of the failed American dream, lost hope, the hells of small town living and the trials and tribulations of everyday life. The songwriting is absolutely flawless and couldn’t be any deeper if it tried. While I didn’t spend a lot of time talking about the instrumentation on this album because the songwriting is so excellent, it also shines bright and does a good job of letting the lyrics do the heavy lifting. It doesn’t let up and hits you in the gut every step of the way.

Best Songs: Unfortunate Kind, The American Tobacco Company, Rockingham, Water in the Well, O’ Lover

Chris King Animal

#2 – Chris King – Animal

You have no idea how close I came to naming this album of the year. A lot of albums came and went throughout the year. Most didn’t hold up quite as well as when I originally reviewed it. But Chris King’s Animal has held strong the entire year. This is an actual true album in every sense of the term. Everything on it connects and tells a greater story of a man who loses love, finds his way and regains it all once again. There’s pain and darkness every step of the way in the man’s journey, even he finally regains love because he knows he’s flawed and he’ll mess up again. But he also knows he’s where he belongs. When I say it’s a true album too, I mean it’s meant to be heard from beginning to end to get the true effect intended. Only one of two albums in 2016 could boast this and King should be proud of the art he created in Animal.

Best Songs: Take It Down, Animal, Borderland, Martinez Social Club, Deep End

#1 – Sturgill Simpson – A Sailor’s Guide to Earth

Sturgill Simpson A Sailor's Guide To Earth

As announced yesterday, this is our album of the year. It’s the second time Simpson has won it. Read the full write-up for Country Perspective’s 2016 Album of the Year here.

Best Songs: Call to Arms, Sea Stories, In Bloom, Breaker’s Roar, Oh Sarah, All Around You

Country Perspective’s 2016 Album of the Year – Sturgill Simpson’s ‘A Sailor’s Guide To Earth’

2016 was a great, yet weird year for country and Americana albums. There was no doubt a lot of quality music released. The majority just wasn’t what we were expecting. There was also much debate over country music and defining it. But that’s what made many releases so surprising. Normally traditional acts got away from their usual sound, yet still delivered great albums. To me country music this year was about artists basically deciding the debate over country music for us. It’s no longer really about genre lines. It’s about real music that resonates with the human spirit and everyday life. When an artist goes into the studio to create art, they don’t go in with the mindset of making it fit into a box. They don’t let boxes and parameters determine their art. Their art determines the box it fits in. It simply defines itself. To me one album defined this lesson more than any other this year. That album is Sturgill Simpson’s A Sailor’s Guide to Earth, Country Perspective’s 2016 Album of the Year.

Sturgill Simpson A Sailor's Guide To Earth

I’ll be honest: most of the year I didn’t think I would give Simpson album of the year. I thought for sure another artist would come along and top him. In fact I was wishing and hoping that one artist would force me to give them album of the year. It never happened. I guess I might have fallen into the trap many fell into with this album too and compared it to his previous album, Metamodern Sounds in Country Music. That album after all was flawless from front to back. It won our 2014 Album of the Year. It will probably be viewed as a classic years from now. Yes, it’s true that A Sailor’s Guide to Earth isn’t as good as Metamodern Sounds in Country Music. But it’s not fair to judge this album in this way because this a masterpiece of itself if you at what it symbolically represents.

Before I get to that though let’s point out a crazy fact: Sturgill Simpson decided to release an album about the birth of his child as his major label debut record. An artist who just captured the world by surprise with a future classic album decided to follow it up with an album on fatherhood, some would say is quite corny on paper. No other artist would do something so crazy because they don’t want to risk their newfound position. But Sturgill Simpson is no other artist. He put all of the new fame and expectations aside and made the exact record he wanted to make. He traded the groovy psychedelic stylings for a horns section. He made a record that some wouldn’t even call country. Simpson could have easily put out another Metamodern or even High Top Mountain and given right into expectations. This would have been simple enough, but Simpson has proven every step of the way that he doesn’t take the simple way. Instead he followed his heart. The guts and confidence to do this cannot be understated. This shouldn’t have worked and yet it very well did. Not to mention, Simpson also wrote all eight original songs himself and produced the entire album himself. He did all of his on his major label debut.

Symbolically, A Sailor’s Guide to Earth represents a giant screw you to both sides of the country aisle and critics like myself. It’s an utter disregard for the expectations set by both sides and the boxes each expect artists to hop into. Simpson essentially says screw your box, I have my own. He wasn’t the only artist to basically adopt this attitude with their music. I don’t think anyone out there is more sick and tired of the genre arguments than artists. The fans and some critics seem to be the only ones who care. As I said before, I liken genre labels to aisles at the grocery store. At the end of the day it doesn’t matter what you label something as long as you get what you desire. Why fuss over labeling? Most music fans desire great music and if they get that they’re not going to suddenly rebuke it if the music isn’t labeled properly. They’re just happy to get what they want. Purists can cry about the lack of steel guitar and outlaw themes. Pop country fans and label executives can complain it isn’t catchy or happy enough. Meanwhile Sturgill Simpson is heading to the Grammys competing for Album of the Year and thousands of people are singing the praises of A Sailor’s Guide to Earth. (Funny enough I had decided on this as album of the year before the Grammys even announced his nomination and even had a majority of it outlined)

There’s an old saying: the more things change, the more they stay the same. While Simpson largely seem to go in a different direction with this album, he really didn’t when you get down to the songs themselves. Simpson has always written about life and the real things we can experience, specifically going off his own experiences. On High Top Mountain, the general theme is trying to make and find your way in life. Simpson sings of trying to make it in music and paying tribute to his family and wife who are behind them. On Metamodern, the general theme is finding meaning in life’s experiences and finding true love. Simpson sings of his old drug using days and the trials and tribulations of those experiences leading him to realize he just needed the love of his wife. Then you get to A Sailor’s Guide to Earth, where it’s about a father welcoming a child into the world and trying to show the child the lessons they need to survive the crazy world we live in. Simpson tries to absorb the magnitude of welcoming his first-born into the world and reflecting on his own upbringing to bestow life lessons upon the child.

Simpson always has and always will continue to sing what he knows and experiences. It’s real life put into songs. That’s what every music fan wants out of their music. It’s a powerful thing when an artist can take their own life and be able to present it in a way that others can deeply connect with their own thoughts and experiences. It’s this shared human bond that tells us when the music we’re listening to is special. We don’t remember something for the genre it’s labeled. We remember something for being real and genuine. That’s exactly what Simpson delivers with A Sailor’s Guide to Earth and why it’s Country Perspective’s 2016 Album of the Year.

Country Perspective’s 2016 Song of the Year – Karen Jonas’ “The Garden”

Every year more and more great songwriters are rising up the ranks in country and Americana music. 2016 was no different, as old and new faces all rose to challenge to deliver fantastic music. The bar just continues to rise and at times it feels like there’s too much good music to keep up with. This is a nice problem to have of course. But when it comes down to picking the best song of the year, it’s quite difficult.

There were so many excellent songs to choose from for Country Perspective’s 2016 Song of the Year. Really what it comes down to is your own preference and appeal. Any of the nominations were worthy of this award and you the readers made many great arguments. But there was one song that ultimately stood out to my ears. From the very first listen this song floored me and it’s only gotten better with more listens. So it’s with great pleasure and honor to announce that Country Perspective’s 2016 Song of the Year award goes to Karen Jonas’ “The Garden.”


This song is absolutely phenomenal and it shines in every area: lyrics, instrumentation, vocals, production and distinctiveness. The entirety of Jonas’ sophomore album Country Songs features great songwriting on each song, but it was “The Garden” to me that was the crown jewel of the record. You start with the production, which gives the song the perfect mood of being mysterious, alluring and slightly dark. It meshes perfectly with the lyrics, which are not only poignant, but detailed to perfection. This allows the lyrics to paint a pristine picture in the listeners’ heads of what the song is about: a woman reminiscing of a forbidden love from 20 years ago between a 17-year-old girl and 21-year-old boy. She remembers the night of passion she shared with him and the disapproving mother’s voice upon finding them. And she now looks forward to the day they meet again in that garden to make it whole. The song’s innate ability to perfectly set a scene makes me draw comparisons to one of my favorite novels, Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and the novel’s ability to perfectly set the scenes in your head too.

Jonas excellently conveys the heartache, longing and passion needed to really let the lyrics shine. She also does a great job slowly letting the words roll out. This allows the song to really simmer and carefully sink in. The twangy steel guitar throughout the first three-fourths of the song was enough to win me over instrumentation-wise. But then seemingly out of nowhere producer Tim Bray lays down some smoking electric guitar play to put the big damn cherry on top of this song. It gives the song an almost psychedelic-like feel and adds the type of spaciness to really let the song resonate with the listener and ensures you won’t forget this song anytime soon. It’s a detail like this that allows a song to rise up above it’s peers and go from fantastic to classic.

It really didn’t surprise me at all that Karen Jonas delivered a song like this. She impressed me with her debut two years ago and I knew she would only get better with subsequent releases. Jonas is clearly one of the best songwriters in country music today and there’s perhaps no artist more sure of their sound and writing than her. She’s an artist you won’t forget after you hear her perform. “The Garden” is the type of song you will always remember after hearing, which at this point perfectly represents the talents and skills of Jonas. This is why Jonas’ “The Garden” is Country Perspective’s 2016 Song of the Year.

Country Perspective’s 2016 Female Artist of the Year – Lori McKenna

To say the women of country and Americana had a great year would be an understatement. They were absolutely fantastic the entire year, delivering a variety of fantastic albums. As a whole they outclassed and outperformed male artists. Of course I don’t want to make this a gender thing. At Country Perspective we praise all great music and artists, regardless of gender. The only reason I have separate male artist and female artist of the year awards is it allows me to point out two great artists instead of just one with a unified artist of the year award. Any time I can talk more about great music I take it.

Back to Female Artist of the Year though, it was quite difficult picking a winner. As I said, the ladies killed it this year so the competition was tough for this award. I knew no matter who I picked there would be readers left disappointed. It’s a nice problem to have that so many people care about these artists and speaks how great their music was in 2016. In the end there was one artist I kept coming back to and eventually realizing she was the most deserving. In 2016 she finally got the spotlight she’s deserved after years of being the songwriter behind the stars’ hits. I guarantee that people won’t forget her name now and they shouldn’t because she’s one of the best. So with great pleasure I award Country Perspective’s 2016 Female Artist of the Year to Lori McKenna.


What helped make 2016 such a big year for McKenna of course was the success of “Humble and Kind.” Tim McGraw chose to release it as the second single off of his 2015 album Damn Country Music. The song went #1, has been certified platinum and even got a Oprah approved music video. And one person, Lori McKenna wrote it. This comes after 2015 she helped co-write the hit Little Big Town song “Girl Crush.” But this was even bigger for McKenna. “Humble and Kind” was the first song to reach #1 written solely by one person since Taylor Swift’s “Ours” in 2012. The song went on to win the 2016 CMA Song of the Year, with her only being one of five solo women all time to win the award and the first ever to win it two years in a row. It even went on to win Favorite Country Song at the American Music Awards. Just this week it was nominated for Best Country Song at the 2017 Grammys.

With the song being called “Humble and Kind,” it of course came from a humble place as McKenna wrote it. She says it was written for her family, specifically her five kids, and the lessons she wanted them to know in life. This genuine caring and honesty shines through completely in the lyrics. Everything about the song just makes you feel good inside and is a good reminder for us all to live by. The verse that stands out to me the most though is verse two:

Don’t expect a free ride from no-one
Don’t hold a grudge or a chip, and here’s why
Bitterness keeps you from flying
Always stay humble and kind
Know the difference between sleeping with someone
And sleeping with someone you love
I love you ain’t no pick-up-line
So, always stay humble and kind

Particularly the part about love is what is most important. The last few years we’ve heard love, lust and hooking up all get muddled together on country radio. Countless songs seemingly equated these all together, so it’s refreshing to hear McKenna lay out plainly that there’s a difference and the love should never be used as a pick-up line. At the same time the song is essentially saying sleeping with someone if you don’t love them is okay too. You should just be true in your intentions and don’t mix love up with lust.

“Humble and Kind” isn’t the only new music we got from McKenna this year though. We also got a new album from her titled The Bird & The Rifle. This is where you gain an even greater appreciation for her talent. Featuring her own recording of her hit song, the album also contains some other sharply written phenomenal songs on life, love and small towns. There’s the pointed, but well-intended lesson of “Old Men Young Women” where McKenna warns a young woman dating an older man, her ex. She reminisces of old times and old plans on “We Were Cool.” “Giving Up on Your Hometown” sees her illustrating the painful realization many come to about their small hometowns and that you can’t keep things the same forever. Then you have aching love song “Always Wants You,” which is about a woman being unable to shake the love of someone she thought she was over. If you haven’t heard this album yet, you need to hear it.

While there are plenty of other artists with more flash and bigger names, you’re not going to find too many better than Lori McKenna. Just like the song, she’s always taken a humble and kind approach. It’s served her well throughout her career and in 2016 she finally gets the recognition she deserves. It was simply her year and that’s why she’s Country Perspective’s 2016 Female Artist of the Year.

Country Perspective’s 2016 Male Artist of the Year – Eric Church

You know when it comes to mainstream artists, they haven’t fared too well with my best of year-end awards. Other than Chris Stapleton last year no other mainstream artist has won. Of course not even Stapleton feels like he’s “mainstream” because when you think of mainstream you think of someone who’s been on Music Row and country radio for years. Usually though these type of artists don’t deliver best of worthy music because they’re content just putting out mediocre material that easily has mass appeal. But then one day you finally get someone on the “inside” who isn’t just content with where they’re at and strive to deliver something more. It’s when that artist starts performing to their highest potential and start putting out the best music of their career. It’s the kind of artist all genres need in the mainstream. And in country music this year there was one artist who exemplified this well. So it gives me great pleasure to announce that Country Perspective’s 2016 Male Artist of the Year is Eric Church.

Eric Church Mr. Misunderstood

If you told me a few years ago that I would name Eric Church to one of my best of year-end awards, I would have called you crazy. I was one of the most critical voices of Church, from his album The Outsiders to his single choices to the interviews he gave. Even while delivering all of this criticism of him and his music, I knew deep down he could do better and if he chose to do better he could be one of the best. That’s not to say he hasn’t always tried his best. He always has, but he had yet to find his voice/niche I thought. You would get glimpses of it in songs like “Springsteen” and “Cold One,” but never for an entire album. Well finally in November 2015 we got the album I had been waiting for from Church: Mr. Misunderstood.

It’s the shortest and least hyped album of his career. The whole release was a complete surprise. The bigger surprise though was what lied in the album. Gone was the arrogance, bluster and bombast that had plagued him on his last album. Instead we got humility, grace and honesty from the very first song, “Mr. Misunderstood.” In the song Church reaches out to the misunderstood kid, who sits in the back of the class and gets mocked for his music tastes. That’s because Church says he was that kid at one point. He was shy and backward, listening to the likes of Ray Wylie Hubbard and Jeff Tweedy while his friends got “their rocks off on Top 40 radio.” It’s essentially Church admitting who he really is and what he’s really about, while essentially writing a love letter to music. He says it’s okay to be different and follow the beat of your own drum, damn what others think and that’s something he’s always been about, even if it got muddled along the way.

It lays the groundwork for the rest of the album where he just delivers great song after great song exploring a variety of topics and eventually at the end coming to grips of how much he’s grown up to where he is now with a wife and kids. This self-admitted growth showed to me that we’re getting a different Eric Church now. One who is more focused on the art of the music and less about the hype and awards gained from it. Someone who after years of experience realizes that years from now people will remember you based on what you gave. I said at the end of last year that Church was poised to make a great impact in 2016 if he chose to do so. I said he could bring the quality that the mainstream so desperately needs, especially on the airwaves. He could be the leader and voice this genre has needed for year. And that’s exactly what he did this year.

He’s released two of the best songs off Mr. Misunderstood as singles, “Record Year” and “Kill A Word.” The former is one of the best heartbreak songs I’ve heard in the past couple years, combining sobering heartbreak and the resurgent popularity of vinyl. In it the man heals his broken heart going through his vinyl collection, listening to hours and hours of music to put himself back together. He’s had a “record year” and he’s now come out better, finding great music and feeling better about life. Church also pays tribute to some excellent music in the song such as Willie Nelson’s Red Headed Stranger. The latter song brings a message the world so desperately needed this year. It’s a message of fighting back against bullying, hoping to erase the word hate. Not to mention Church gives a platform for the talented Americana artist Rhiannon Giddens to get more notice and recognition. He even sent a special edit to radio with Giddens getting more lines to sing to ensure it says featuring Giddens on the charts.

Church also gave many candid interviews this year, being a voice that the genre has needed. For example in an interview with Rolling Stone, Church was asked about the best part of success and this was his response:

The freedom to do what I want musically. The mistake a lot of people make is the more success they have, the safer they play it. That’s wrong: I think the more success you have, the more dangerous you should play it.

Church most resonating quote though comes from his interview with The Vulture. When asked about being more matured compared to his peers and the youth movement on country radio:

You have to be resolved to the fact that you’re not always gonna be hot. If you’re making music that is truly representative of growth and maturity and of your heart, you’re not gonna continue to maintain the heat throughout that process. That’s okay to me. I’ve always looked at the long game. It wasn’t just something that we made a decision in the moment because we needed to sell another 100,000 albums or a ticket for a tour. When you start making those decisions, you end up regretting ’em. I see the guys now; there’s a lot of them that are my age but try to act like they’re 25.

The problem there is you’re holding on so tight. My question would be, “To what?” To me, it’s just not commitment to the art. When you’re putting an album out there for everyone to compare against all the others, I can’t imagine ever having to make a decision and go, “Gosh, I need to do this in order to have success right now, but I know I’m gonna regret this in a year or two.”

It’s quotes like these that show all up and coming artists out there that you should follow your heart and make the music you want. Despite all of his success, Church knows this is the most important thing for him and his career. It’s an example to his peers that they don’t need to be a cog in the machine to get where they want in life. You can have it all doing it your way. Sturgill Simpson and Chris Stapleton demonstrated this the last few years and now Eric Church has done it this year. Because at the end of the day it’s about what resonates with the fans, who Church says should always come first. To me that’s a lesson all artists should learn and that is also why Eric Church is Country Perspective’s 2016 Male Artist of the Year.