Finally, we are approaching the end of the most exhausting year in recent memory. World events and American politics weren’t the only areas where the news seemed like a never-ending roller coaster of emotion. Country music also had its fair share of lows and memorable highs. As we head into the New Year, we take a look back on some of the most impactful country music stories from this year, from the good to the bad.
Best: Garth Brooks is Bigger Than the Beatles/New Music/Going Independent
Garth Brooks returned to form in 2014, but 2016 truly marked his amazing return. He notched an unheard of 7th diamond album — one more than The Beatles — and released not one, but two new records. Oh, and he did it all independently after leaving his record label.
Best: Randy Travis On The Mend
After suffering a debilitating stroke in 2013, most doctors didn’t give Randy Travis a chance to walk again. Travis made remarkable progress in 2016, even showing up for his Country Music Hall of Fame inauguration. Then, he made Bridgestone Arena misty-eyed when he sang the final “Amen” in a star-studded tribute to open the show.
Best: Texas Star Cody Johnson Heads to the Top
One of the most interesting narratives in country music is the success independent country artists are finding outside the normal Nashville channels. Cody Johnson is a rising star from Texas who is making waves across country music without the help of country radio or a major label. When we caught up with Johnson in his home state of Texas back in April, it was clear that his trajectory was taking him well beyond the state’s borders. Eight months later, he’s one of the format’s most prominent independent artists. He recently took his new album, Gotta Be Me, to No. 2 on the country charts, and is continually packing large venues across the country. Listen to his songs and see his electrifying live shows, and you’ll see why. Johnson’s success, and the success of other independent artists, is a positive trend in country music, and we expect to see more of that in 2017.
Best: Traditional Country Begins Gradual Return to Radio
Want a tough go at life? Try being a traditional country artist in 2016. The path is riddled with constant obstacles, an income stream that’s like a trickle in a dried up stream, and endless days on the road. Despite those odds, there are many artists out there who are keeping country, well, country. There is a hunger for it across the nation, and the tastemakers in radio are gradually catching on. In 2016, we saw traditional-leaning artists signed to both major and independent labels notch No. 1’s on the charts. Country has always been cyclical, and it’s beginning to revolve back to the center of what the genre means to most of the core fanbase.
Best: King George Makes a Comeback
If you’re as big of a superstar as George Strait, do you ever really retire? In late 2016, country’s most beloved artist came out of retirement to celebrate the release of his career-spanning box set, Strait Out of the Box, Part 2. In tandem with the release, Strait planned a few concerts, including a secret show at the Texas dancehall where he got his start in 1982. Strait also announced a string of dates in Las Vegas with Kacey Musgraves and Cam in the new year.
Worst: Granger Smith Calls Texas Country the “Minor Leagues”
Granger Smith ruffled some feathers when he equated the Texas country scene to minor league sports after seeing mainstream success. Wade Bowen offered a snarky response and then fans and other artists started flaming each other on social media. The pair finally cleared the air, but the impression was made.
Worst: Meghan Linsey Sexual Assault
Former Steel Magnolia singer claimed she’d been the victim of a horrifying sexual assault years ago involving a prominent member of the music industry. She shared how her label tried to silence her. The relevant parties denied the claim, but Linsey’s ex-fiancé Joshua Scott Jones confirmed Linsey’s account.
Best: More Female Artists in the Forefront
It will be a truly great day in country music (and music in general) when we no longer have to talk about the ratio of male to female artists. Still, 2016 marked an encouraging uptick in female voices in the genre that’s worth noting. Thanks to buzz worthy and breakthrough artists Maren Morris, Margo Price, Kelsea Ballerini, Aubrie Sellers, Cam and Raelynn, the world of country music felt a little bit more balanced this year. Of course, artists like Miranda Lambert and Carrie Underwood also helped light the way for this new generation of voices. Let’s keep our fingers crossed that this is a signal of a much needed long-term change in the musical landscape.
Best: Music Row Sticks up for Itself
Music Row received great news in its step to become a protected landmark. The National Parks Service endorsed research into the area’s contributions as a historic area, meaning as many as 65 buildings could gain protection. Plus, a lot of great studios, like the now-protected House of David, announced new tours open to the public.
Worst: Glen Campbell Family Controversy
In an ongoing saga, Glen Campbell’s children from a former marriage claimed his fourth wife Kim refused to let them see him in his care facility. She and her current children vehemently denied Debby and Travis’ claim, but the pair nonetheless raised money to fight Kim in court.
Worst: Twitter User Unearths Blake Shelton’s Old Tweets
A Twitter user unearthed dozens of controversial deleted tweets from Blake Shelton’s earlier tweeting days. Many fans noted the homophobic, misogynistic and racist nature of the “jokes” he made. Shelton eventually offered a half-hearted apology after first trying to sweep them under the rug.
Worst: Craig Morgan Losing His Son
In July, the country world was shocked by the death of Craig Morgan’s teenage son, Jerry Greer. The 19-year-old was tubing with friends in Tennessee’s Kentucky Lake when his tube collided with a boat, causing Greer to be pulled underwater. His body was pulled from the lake the following day. Morgan mostly stayed away from the spotlight following the tragedy, but recently thanked fans via Facebook Live for their support during the difficult time.
Best: The Return of the Dixie Chicks
Say what you will about the Dixie Chicks, but country music hasn’t been the same since they were ousted from the mainstream back in 2003. After the backlash from their controversial comments about then-President George W. Bush, it was rare to hear any of their hits spinning on country radio stations. This year, the trio made headlines by embarking on their first U.S. headlining tour in a decade. But they officially made their comeback during a surprise performance at the 50th annual CMA Awards for a fittingly controversial performance with pop icon Beyonce. With their twangy rendition of her “Lemonade” track “Daddy Lessons,” they proved that their talent is as strong as ever.
Worst: Shania Twain Fan’s Fake Abduction
Shania Twain urged her fan base to help find missing super-fan Rachel Mattice after her friend reached out to Twain on social media. It turns out the well-meaning Twain was duped, along with everybody else. Mattice faked her own abduction and then lied to the police about it. She now faces charges.
Worst: Every Singer/Musician Who Died in 2016
We lost more of beloved country artists and songwriters this year than any other in recent memory. Some of the most notable deaths included American music icon Merle Haggard, singer Joey Feek, songwriting legend Guy Clark, and bluegrass patriarch Ralph Stanley. Here are some of other treasured artists and songwriters we lost this year.
- Little Jimmie Dickens
- Leon Russell
- Jean Shepard
- Curly Putman
- Glenn Frey
- Red Simpson
- Holly Dunn
- Jim Ed Brown and Bonnie Brown
- Joey Floyd
- Sonny James
- Chips Moman
- Steve Young