Country music is more political than ever, and it’s not the Trump supporters who are making the most noise.
Even Keith Urban awkwardly tried his hand at something intersectional with “Female,” which goes to show how imperative it must feel right now to say something of depth. Budding stunners like Sarah Shook and Karen and the Sorrows aren’t just doing important activism, but as bastions of queer country with lyrics are as lovelorn and personal as anyone’s, they’re political simply by existing. The following recommended songs and albums are just a small, impressive sampling of the important statements, broad and specific, that Americana artists had to offer this year.
Cory Branan—“Another Nightmare in America”
For his dark new album Adios, this budding cowpunk recruited plenty of A-listers on the order of Laura Jane Grace and Amanda Shires, but it's this acid-humored power-pop tune that really cuts to the bone, with lines like "What you're calling a tragedy / I call just another night" and "I'll fill out some paperwork and sleep like baby Jesus" over Attractions-style organ swells.
Cam’s new single, released just this week, is some kind of landmark moment for women supporting their own in country music. It’s a full-throated answer song to “Jolene,” with the woman who Dolly Parton begged not to take her man pleading innocence, insisting she “would’ve noticed a gold wedding band.” Jolene nevertheless sympathizes with the wife she helped wrong, singing “I’d rather you hate me than not understand,” and wishing she could give back all the nights she spent with Diane’s husband.
This update of David Olney’s heartless 1991 prophecy “Millionaire” is more frightening and relevant than ever. The protagonist begins by robbing his own brother, then murders a ship captain, marries rich, and drives his wife to suicide. The chorus implores “How many of you wanna see me dead / How many of you wanna have my head” before implying that the listener’s just jealous, setting up a final verse that’s no longer a joke. It begins “bought myself a cheap politician” and climaxes “That’s just how it went boys / Now I own the president.” Who’s laughing?
Rhiannon Giddens—Freedom Highway
Singer/songwriter/string-player Giddens wastes no time thrusting uncomfortable history directly into her audience’s faces. On her sophomore album’s stunning opener, “At the Purchaser’s Option,” she inhabits the personage of a woman from the 1830s who was for sale, along with her nine-month-old. Then there’s the funky “Better Get It Right the First Time,” which shakes its head at the inevitability of police brutality against good, young black men. Is it any wonder why she chooses to go out on the title tune, a Civil Rights anthem no less relevant in 2017 than when the Staples Singers sang it in 1965?
Hamell on Trial—“Not Aretha’s Respect (Cops)”
Hyperspeed folkie Ed Hamell has resented and shot down bullshit for two decades during his surprisingly solvent DIY career as a strummer. He’s also a father, which factors into his strongest and most intense song in years, off the politically weary and trenchant as ever Tackle Box. For three talking-blues-goes-Motörhead verses Hamell details tragicomic encounters with police that all end with “Hey fuckface, I’m trying to teach my kid there’s some authority that needs to be respected, but we’ve got no respect for you/ Now I’m trying to teach him to not get shot.” Then comes the final punch: “…and I’m white.”
Hurray for the Riff Raff—The Navigator
While Alynda Segarra’s been more of a “country” artist in the past, her cosmopolitan beaut of a sixth album is a conceptual triumph against gentrification and other contemporary evils that befall Puerto Ricans, all rendered heartbreakingly in a gorgeously produced fusion between Cuban son (the best-in-show “Rican Beach”) and folksy Americana (all over the place) that surges towards an emotional climax with the anthemic “Pa’Lante,” which growls, “Colonized and hypnotized/ Be something.” She’s the latter and anything but the former.
Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit—The Nashville Sound
The always class-conscious troubadour hit an artistic peak this year with his surprisingly knowing takes on white privilege, first poking fun at folks who clap “on the one and three” and soon following it with the more serious “White Man’s World,” a James Brown update that needs no introduction. When he sings that he thought the world could be his daughter’s one day, “her mama knew better.” Genuinely sad, no exclamation point needed.
John Mellencamp—“Easy Target”
Mellencamp takes on an unrecognizable, Tom Waits-style croak for this piano-bar blues-and-fiddle horror tale of first-person Trumpism: “All are created equal / Beneath me and you.” He and whatever one-percenter he’s singing to rejoice in the abundance of “easy targets” while they’re “living here in sucker town, baby me and you.” Who would’ve thought the old heart-on-sleeve rocker could play a snake-oil salesman so convincingly, so nightmarishly? Then again, who would’ve thought we’d be in this mess?
Maren Morris feat. Vince Gill—“Dear Hate”
While it’s not particularly astute in 2017 to say that hate is “colorblind” (yikes), Morris debuted this well-meaning, sweet and sad single the day after the Las Vegas shooting because she's “sick of not doing enough.” It may take more than a hook that ends in "love conquers all" for art to really engage meaningfully with our serious gun problem, but referencing Selma and the Twin Towers as symptoms of the same hatred isn’t a bad start.
Willie Nelson—“Delete and Fast Forward”
On his 83rd album God’s Problem Child, Shotgun Willie is no less in step with the current moment, tossing off this goofy but not-unnecessary missive at fake news: “The elections are over and nobody won / You think it's all ending, but it's just settin’ in.” He’s lived too long to kid himself that this is rock bottom.
Brad Paisley—Love and War
Judging by “Accidental Racist” and the odious new “Selfie#theinternetisforever,” which includes a transphobic joke that’s below him, we don’t need Paisley to try and fake clever anymore as he closes in on age 50. What he’s good for is diplomatic feeling, as in the agnostic’s gospel, “I don’t know if you believe in heaven / I don’t know if you believe in hell / But I bet you can agree that the devil is alive and well.” The title song recruits who else but John Fogerty to screech, “They ship you out to die for us / Forget about you when you’re gone,” Elsewhere he continues to capture the horny domestic bliss he mastered on 2007’s sui generis “Ticks” (“Let’s go to bed early / And stay up all night”), though in the context of tunes like “Last Time for Everything,” it’s all the more fleeting and fatalistic.
The most class-conscious member of the Pistol Annies gets more personal on her second album, attacking the Bible for shaping our gender roles (“Rather eat dirt than bake another prize-winning cherry pie”) and her own big dreams for being fraudulent (“I thought I’d change the world with three chords and the truth”). For now she’ll settle her score with country radio in a send-up where she chews Skoal, mock-claims “anti-gay,” and lets loose a stream of consciousness sarcastic spew fit for a Das Racist song: “Fourth of July, white t-shirt, apple pie, barefoot, bigfoot, bushy beard, here comes the hook.”
Margo Price—All American Made
One of Nashville’s brightest new upstarts continues killing it on her avowedly more polemic sophomore effort. Her message cannot be mistaken on the pro-woman “Pay Gap” (“tearing my dollars in half”) or “Heart of America,” where people with no money “get by on their own two hands,” though the grandiose title track, more literally political, buckles under its own weight. But even the breakup songs have an uncompromising Women’s March feel to them: “Don’t say you love me when you treat me this way.” Has that ever been put so succinctly?
Tim Heidecker—“Trump Talkin’ Nukes”
Heidecker’s Father John Misty-styled Americana album Too Dumb for Suicide is mostly too on the nose to be funny; of particular disgusting annoyance is the one speculating the color of “Trump’s dumps.” (Because he’s addicted to fast food, geddit?) But in its surprising moments of earnestness it somehow manages to beat the comedian’s gross-out wheelhouse, especially on this highlight, where he details what his dad had to go through with desk drills during the nuclear scares of the ‘70s. “Crazy how it only takes a maniac,” he trails off, because we (hopefully don’t) know how it ends.
Becky Warren—War Surplus [Deluxe Edition]
Warren’s incredible, underheard 2016 album gets a second shot at life this year for those who still need to play it—which is everyone. Brad Paisley might’ve have named his album Love and War, but few others have put together a song cycle about breaking up with a soldier, spitting in his face and singing “If you think a good lost cause is exactly what you need” on the very first track. The best song, “Stay Calm, Get Low” details “Days of smoke and fire / And half of what they told / Was a lie,” but manages to uplift with the best sha-na-na chorus in recent memory. “We’re all gonna make it home,” she promises, which is also half a lie. “You’d be amazed at what you learn to ignore,” Warren deadpans.