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.

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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 Female Artist of the Year Nominees

Throughout 2016 we saw many talented female country and Americana artists put out great music. Determining who will win Country Perspective’s 2016 Female Artist of the Year award will be no easy feat. The main guidelines for determining who should win are the following: the quality of music (album/singles) they’ve released in 2016, the impact they have made on the genre over the course of the year and the amount of growth they made as an individual artist.

I will ultimately determine which artist will win, but I also want to hear from you the readers who is deserving of the award. Your comments will be considered for determining who wins and you could possibly sway who should be the winner. It’s going to be especially important for this one, as this is by far the most competitive awards category this year. I had a very tough time just narrowing it down to seven artists. So be sure to sound off in the comments! One thing about the comments too: Just putting the artist’s name in the comments does nothing to sway me. It turned into a giant vote off in this category last year and I don’t want that again. Give actual, objective reasons for why you think a certain artist should win, not because they’re your favorite. So without further ado the nominees for Country Perspective’s 2016 Female Artist of Year (in alphabetical order):

Dori Freeman

Dori Freeman

Without a doubt Dori Freeman turned in one of the most surprisingly great debuts in country music this year. Her self-titled album was a great listen from start to finish and for many is one of the best of the year. I’ll reiterate what I said in my review:

This debut album from Freeman blew me away upon the very first listen. In fact I had to play it several times over because only hearing it once wasn’t enough. 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.

Karen Jonas

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This is the second time Karen Jonas has been nominated for Female Artist of the Year, after she was nominated and won the award in 2014, splitting it with Lee Ann Womack. Her debut album Oklahoma Lottery was one of my top five country/Americana albums of 2014 and had me thrilled to hear what she would release next. Well this year we got what was next, her sophomore album Country Songs and it did not disappoint. She once again returned with compelling songwriting, pure country production and some new wrinkles that helped the album shine too. I’m shocked more people still aren’t familiar with her music, as she’s one of the best in the genre today.

Kelsey Waldon

Kelsey Waldon I've Got A Way

Just like Jonas above, Waldon impressed many with her debut album and many eagerly anticipated her sophomore album. It lived up to expectations, as I’ve Got A Way has gotten near universal praise from country critics and fans. There’s plenty of twangy steel guitar and brutally honest songwriting from start to finish on the album and once again proves Waldon is another talent every country fan should be familiar with.

It’s 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.

Lori McKenna

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Lori McKenna has been around the country music industry for quite some time, but this year many who weren’t familiar with her work are now quite well aware of her. She’s spent most of her career as a songwriter, helping pen hits for some of the biggest names in the genre. Last year she helped write Little Big Town’s polarizing smash hit “Girl Crush” and this year she solely wrote Tim McGraw’s #1 song “Humble and Kind,” which went on to win CMA Song of the Year. But you shouldn’t also overlook the fact that McKenna released a pretty stunning album of her own in The Bird & The Rifle. Featuring her own rendition of “Humble and Kind,” the album has compelling songs on love, heartbreak and life. After the year McKenna has had I don’t think anyone is going to be overlooking her anymore and they shouldn’t because she’s a phenomenal talent.

Lydia Loveless

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Out of all the nominees, Lydia Loveless definitely released the most polarizing album. That’s probably because it’s such a strong contrast to her previous material. Yet her new album Real is arguably her best work yet. Up until this point Loveless has solidly occupied a spot in the alt-country area, but in this new album it’s mixed with glam pop and rock to create a infectious sound. But don’t let this more polished and upbeat sound fool you. The songwriting from Loveless on Real is still just as hard-hitting and deep as her previous material. While it’s fair to argue she’s not really country anymore, she always belong more in the Americana area anyway. She’s unpredictably honest and that makes for some damn fine music.

Margo Price

Margo Price Midwest Farmer's Daughter

Margo Price has been one of the most critically-buzzed country artists in 2016 hands-down. I frequent many different music forums and music critic areas and her name constantly comes up when not just discussing the best country albums of the year, but best albums period. While Midwest Farmer’s Daughter was her debut album, she’s certainly isn’t new and has been around country music for a while. It’s just now people are finally starting to take notice, as she performed on Saturday Night Live earlier this year, as well as performing in other high-profile spots. The old school, honest, honky tonk style of her music is easily appealing to music fans and she’s bound to get even bigger with the release of her next album (think Sturgill Simpson/Kacey Musgraves-like breakout). Regardless her debut album is one many will remember for a while.

Miranda Lambert

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When I started this blog I knew one day Miranda Lambert would find her way onto my year-end award lists. If you asked me after her last album Platinum though, I would have been pretty skeptical her next release would be the one because I was not a fan of that album. But then Lambert went through a high-profile divorce and from all accounts has seem to go through an emotional hell the last couple of years. This emotion though would fuel her new album The Weight of These Wings and it resulted in some of the best music of her entire career. She recruited some of the best songwriters in country today to help and she did some fine writing herself too. It’s the most raw and emotional she’s ever produced and finally in my eyes she’s reaching her full potential after years of flirting with it. She’s reached a creative apex and has grown a lot with this album. In addition, while her new album wasn’t quite album of the year material, she did take a big part in Country Perspective’s 2016 Album of the Year contender Southern Family, performing one of the best songs on the album “Sweet By and By.”