Looking back the year in country music, it would be easy to focus on the continuing question of what constitutes country music these days. George Strait? Luke Bryan? Florida Georgia Line?
But instead, a consideration of the previous 12 months leads to a few very bright spots.
The biggest surprise by far was the trifecta scored by Chris Stapleton at the Country Music Awards in November. Heck, one trophy would have sufficed as a huge surprise, but somehow the veteran singer and songwriter emerged with CMAs for Best Country Album for "Traveller," Best Male Artist and Best New Artist.
"Traveller" may have garnered much deserved praise, but the album didn't much sell, and Stapleton did not have any hits or near hits either. He toured opening for Eric Church, and an arena felt too big for Stapleton (I've seen him in a far smaller venue when he was a member of The SteelDrivers, and he was fine).
But it sure was refreshing to see Stapleton win big and see his career enter another orbit. Now, I'm not and never have been a big fan of these awards shows, but at least in this case, it sure helped. Can't argue with that.
Sales of "Traveller" have been big since the CMAs (It has now gone Gold for sales in excess of 500,000). His performance with Justin Timberlake of "Tennessee Whiskey" quickly shot that song up to number one, although with scarce radio play. A few singles ("Traveller" and "Nobody to Blame") have charted, and his shows are predictably selling out. With radio still not much playing Stapleton, let's hope that his good success continues.
Another outsider, Kacey Musgraves, had an excellent 2015. "Pageant Material" proved a worthy follow-up to "Same Trailer Different Park," and, in fact, her soph major label effort was one of the best country discs of the year.
Musgraves has a knowing sass about her, hits the twang quotient with believability, dresses the part and knows her way around a traditional country song. Interestingly, like Stapleton, she has not gotten radio play, but she's earning her spurs the old-fashioned way - by putting out great material and touring.
Eric Church continues to mine the outlaw side of country, limited as it is these days. Church has steadily progressed as a performer, even if he's not exactly rock solid country either. More like a southern rock vibe going on, but "The Outsider" was a superb, meaty piece of music (okay, it came out in 2014, but he toured heavily behind it in 2015).
Church topped it off by the surprise release of "Mr. Misunderstood," a more subtle piece of work, but quite robust in its own right. Church has the breadth, depth and vision of artistry. He has progressed mightily live, showing that his decision to headline at the arena level was a smart move.
As for Strait, he put a surprise album as well, "Cold Beer Conversation," in the fall. The Texan may have retired from active touring (he's doing some Vegas shows in '16), but, fortunately, he is not relying on his past. Strait sounds great vocally, and he chose songs that work for him - meaning two steps, traditional country and some Zydeco sounds.
Strait's always enjoyed a quiet consistency about him. That cowboy hat is not fake. Neither is Strait and his music.
While some tend to lose sight of the music that drives country in favor of the latest gossip mongering, it's quite refreshing to witness the success of Stapleton, Musgraves, Church and Strait, among others. They certainly did their part to make for an enjoyable 2015.