My 2021 Country Music Year Review – Lesley Hastings

I can’t remember looking back on a year that gave us so much amazing new country music as 2021 and this list of my top releases of the year is in no way comprehensive… I’m sure there’s some I’ll be kicking myself for omitting as soon as it’s published but those I have included all sprang to mind pretty easily which was my way of deciding what to include!
But before I begin, in a year where gigs were obviously off the agenda for much of the time I must mention two absolutely stunning artists I actually got to see perform live towards the end of the year. My first gig in forever was at one of my favourite venues, London’s Green Note, where Nashville-based Candi Carpenter held the audience in the palm of her hand for the entire set . I’d met Candi briefly a few years ago at a Song Suffragette’s show in music city, but the new music she showcased on this occasion really took her to an entirely new level as a writer and performer imho. A lot of soul searching has resulted in some phenomenal songs which although very personal in nature are also very relatable… and don’t worry, they aren’t devoid of her trademark humour. Hoping 2022 sees her stepping into the studio to cut at least a few of these if she hasn’t done so already. I must also give a shout out to her opener, UK’s Jade Helliwell who always impresses on every level as a live performer and she released some excellent singles this year too. Shortly after that gig I saw Irish siren Megan O’Neill as she brought her extensive UK and European tour to an end, shows to help celebrate the release of her album “Getting Comfortable With Uncertainty” (which is something we all need to learn to do these days!). This amazing collection of songs was in no small way inspired by the changes in her life in recent years, a beautifully reflective collection which I must also include in my albums of the year list. Both these shows acted as a reminder not only how special live music is but also how much I enjoy sharing the experience with like minded people and meeting up with familiar faces from the close knit country music family we have here.
Ok, on to the hard task of picking my releases of 2021… I’ve stuck to albums and EP’s otherwise the list would be endless, and as mentioned earlier this is really just a snap shot of music I’ve loved from the past twelve months. Most you’ll no doubt be familiar with (B&G has covered a lot of my selection) but I’ll kick off with one you may not have hear about as (controversially?) it’s from a male artist ! Scott Sean White’s debut album “Call It Even” was released in March, a collection of eleven of the most beautiful and thought provoking songs I’ve heard in a long time and if you are fans of the singer/songwriter style of artists such as Lori McKenna then please give this a listen. I was drawn in from the opening line of the very first song/title track, delivered over sparse piano chords by the Texan native, and throughout the album he continues to paint incredible pictures through his phenomenal lyrics. If a gun was put to my head this would be my album of the year.

Continuing in the singer/songwriter vein, but fast forwarding to later in the year, Emily Scott Robinson gave us her well-received album “American Siren“, every time I listen I hear something new (something that always makes an album very special for me) but the tracks that jumped out immediately and remain my favourites are “Things We Learn The Hard Way“, “Cheap Seats” and the heartbreaking “Hometown Hero“. I really hope Emily makes it over to the UK next month as planned for her first ever London show.
An album that I’m sure will make it on to numerous year end lists (and already has I note!) has easily made it on to mine… and that’s “29 Written In Stone” from of course new Opry member Carly Pearce. Nothing I can say that hasn’t already been said about this one I’m sure, Carly returning to her country music roots and pouring out her heart but ultimately looking forwards to moving on after her short-lived marriage. Every track incredible, but I must single out that collaboration with Ashley McBryde for a special mention (phew that performance at CMA’s!).

Next up are debut albums from artists I’m confident we will definitely be hearing a lot more from. Lainey Wilson was already on our radar over here after her appearances at Country Music Week and C2C in 2018/9. Following on from her EP ‘Redneck Hollywood” we finally had a full album’s worth of her music this year when the LA native (of course, that stands for Louisiana as she explains on one of the tracks!) released “Sayin’ What I’m Thinkin‘” in February. Like any great country album there’s a mix of heartbreakers and hilarity throughout the Jay Joyce produced project, with clever word play a common feature. Favourite track? Possibly “Keeping Bars In Business” but honestly, I love each one for different reasons. In September Ashland Craft’s debut album “Travellin’ Kind” put the rising star firmly on the map, the eleven track release representing her one-way ticket from S.Carolina to Nashville and proving that, like Lainey, she is a vocalist and songwriter to be reckoned with. Yes, the rock/blues side of country music is in safe hands with Ashland for sure. Again, another album where I struggle to pick out a top track but “Your Momma Still Does” and “Last 20 Dollars” are possibles! I can’t wait to see what the future holds for these two exciting artists.
At the other end of the spectrum we got an album this year from three very well-established names in Country music, who have been friends and collaborators for some time. “The Marfa Tapes” (Jack Ingram, Miranda Lambert and Jon Randall) is one of the most atmospheric albums I’ve heard in a long time and the connection these three share is tangible as you listen to this stripped back recordings of the 15 tracks. Often accompanied by the crackling of the campfire you can picture them sitting around as they play and sing, I immediately got transported to the Texan desert. Some tracks were familiar, having already made it to studio albums (including Tin Man and Tequila Does) but I loved the simplicity of their arrangements here. Favourite tracks? “Ghost“, “Geraldene” and “Two-Step Down To Texas” have to feature.
On the subjects of collaborative album releases AND debut albums, “Lucky Break” from Side Pony, released in October, ticks both the boxes! Alice Wallace and Caitlin Cannon are both artists in their own right and got together to fund this project via a Kickstarter campaign… sounds like they had a ton of fun writing and recording it and I love the varied, stunning instrumentation and wonderful vocals . Stand outs for me are “Heels” which is such a great gal-power anthem and “Old Woman“, a well-observed love song with a difference . Rumours are the the duo will be visiting the UK in the Spring… fingers crossed!

Finally (phew I hear you say, if you’ve even made it this far!!) my two EPs of 2021 came from Erin Enderlin (“Barroom Mirrors“) and Callista Clark (“Real To Me“). Now recording and producing her own music, Erin has stepped into the limelight in recent years having of course previously had cuts by the likes of LeeAnn Womack and Alan Jackson, and this concept EP focuses on the various individuals in a bar, each with their own reasons for being there. With Terri Clark and Rosanne Cash featuring on a couple of tracks, tales of heartbreak and whiskey drinking abound (Erin’s trademarks!) and it’s definitely an EP for those who love their country music in the traditional vein. Callista Clark is a really exciting young artist whose sound draws on not only her love of trad country music but a wide variety of genres, and her EP is a great introduction to what we can expect from her going forwards. Her song writing, vocals and playing are all insane, when I interviewed her she seems so level headed and I was so thrilled to see her name included in the line up for C2C 2022. 
Well, there you have it. Can 2022 top 2021 for new music? There’s already strong rumours about forthcoming album from several of my favourite artists… but like most of us I’m sure my biggest hope is that for my next “year end” piece I will be able to reflect on many more live shows here in the UK. See you out there! 

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