This year was a difficult one. 2017 brought a lot of great country music. But it also brought a horrific mass shooting, which took place at a top-tier country music festival. It took a lot of legendary talent, from Gregg Allman to Glen Campbell to Don Williams to Tom Petty. And of course, the untimely death of Troy Gentry. There were movements. And there were embarrassing moments. It was, simply, one for the books.
Let’s take a look at the best and worst country music moments of 2017.
The Best: Sturgill sticks it to the man
Early in the year, Sturgill Simpson won the coveted Grammy Award for Country Album of the Year for A Sailor’s Guide To Earth. A few months later, he didn’t even get an invite to the ACM Awards. And then the CMA Awards left him off the guest list later in the year, too. So Sturgill did what he does best. He made a point about it.
Simpson showed up outside of Bridgestone Arena during November’s CMA Awards taping with his guitar in hand. He busked outside the event with his guitar case open and a sign saying any proceeds were going straight to the ACLU. The best part? He put his Grammy Award in the guitar case.
The Worst: Blake Shelton is apparently The Sexiest Man Alive
In a surprise “upset,” PEOPLE named Blake Shelton the “Sexiest Man Alive,” which is apparently something people really care about. The Twitter world, in particular, voiced its discontent. One particularly funny post shared a picture of another attractive man named Blake Shelton and basically said Blake Shelton isn’t even the most attractive Blake Shelton alive.
But is it really a “worst” moment? Well, it certainly dug up his problematic history of making homophobic, racist and misogynistic jokes, which doesn’t do much to dispel the negative stereotypes around country music. For his part, Shelton took it in stride and went with his typical good ol’ boy humor. “I can’t wait to shove this up [The Voice coach] Adam’s ass,” he told the magazine. “As proud as I am and honored that you guys asked me, that’s really the only thing I care about.”
The Best: Miranda Lambert floors everybody with “Tin Man”
There were a lot of good music moments this year, but if you’re going to hang your hat on one truly “wow” moment, it’s Miranda Lambert’s ACM Awards performance of “Tin Man.” Standing in the national spotlight with nothing but a guitar in hand, she bared her soul and reminded everybody just how powerful music can be. It’s not too far-fetched to argue that moment is the exact reason Lambert and “Tin Man” are nominated for not one, but two Grammy Awards at the upcoming ceremony.
The Worst: Country radio still ignoring female artists
Despite the universal acclaim for “Tin Man,” it peaked at No. 22 on country radio. But it’s not just about Lambert. Radio continued its head-scratching trend of ignoring females and propping up the status quo.
A grand total of two solo females topped the Country Airplay chart — Carly Pearce and Lauren Alaina. Little Big Town also topped the chart with the Karen Fairchild-led “Better Man.” So that means only three songs led by female singers topped the radio charts all year. Three out of 34, to be precise.
Maybe there’s a reason one of the biggest radio conglomerates in the country, iHeartMedia, probably won’t last another year. Fans don’t want to be told what to listen to anymore, especially when it doesn’t reflect the overwhelmingly positive reaction to new country music.
The Best: Women take a stand (and a knee)
Women throughout the music industry said “no more” to much of the abuses in the industry. Taylor Swift won her lawsuit against a radio DJ who groped her while she was still in the country space and then donated a “generous” amount to survivors of sexual abuse.
Meghan Linsey stood up for what she believes in by kneeling after her performance of the national anthem at an NFL football game, generating plenty of conversation. Rosanne Cash penned a passionate op-ed about gun control asking country musicians to stand up to the NRA. And Katie Armiger once again shined a light on sexual abuses within country music, and then began the process of defending herself against a lawsuit for doing so.
The Worst: The Webster PR scandal and the “Island of Morality”
The biggest scandal by far to hit country music this year, however, was the Webster PR scandal. After news of Kirt Webster’s serious history of sexual abuse hit the newswire, the company fired him and tried to rebrand. But it still lost a sizable portion of its clients.
And just a few days before all that took place, Cold River Records label head told Billboard that Nashville was an “island of morality” and exempt from all the sexual abuse scandals. Talk about tone deaf.
The Best: Musicians rally in the many faces of tragedy
Tragedy struck all corners of America this year, but musicians rallied to help their fellow humans. Texans rose to the challenge for Hurricane Harvey relief (including two huge benefit concerts put on by legends George Strait and Willie Nelson). Kenny Chesney also personally took it upon himself to help the U.S. Virgin Islands after Hurricane Irma devastated the areas. He even flew pet food and supplies in his personal plane and partnered with an organization to help save abandoned dogs.
And then, of course, there was the shooting at the Route 91 Harvest festival in Las Vegas. Even if Congress won’t do anything about gun violence, country stars took it upon themselves to do what they could to heal hearts. From massive donations to new songs to personal visits to the stirring CMA Awards tribute, country music showed great poise in the face of tragedy this year.
The Worst: The CMAs try to silence journalists
But the CMA itself really put its foot in its mouth when it tried to silence journalists from asking country singers about guns, politics and Las Vegas. Leading up to the awards, the CMA banned those topics in press interviews.
The response from artists, including co-host Brad Paisley, was swift. It took the CMA about a day and some strongly worded tweets from superstars to rescind the gag order and go sit in the corner to think about what it did.
The Best: Country Music goes straight to the top
Commercially, this was a big year for plenty of artists. Chris Stapleton’s bold two albums in one year experiment paid off and Jason Isbell’s new album was a hit. Aaron Watson is having the best radio success of his career (which seems cool if you ignore one of the earlier items on the list above). But country music showed up big in the grand scheme of things, too.
Thomas Rhett and Shania Twain both topped the all-genre Billboard 200 albums chart. That’s a historically tricky feat for country music. Plus Brett Eldredge almost did it too, but peaked at No. 2. Sam Hunt’s “Body Like A Backroad” found plenty of success and, after years of people complaining that pop infiltrated country radio, Florida Georgia Line infiltrated pop radio too with their song with Bebe Rexha.
The feather in the cap, then, may be that The Washington Post named Midland’s debut album On The Rocks as the best album of the year — in any genre.
The Worst: Texas acts embroiled in controversy
Meanwhile, in Texas, promising artists keep making headlines for the wrong reasons. Sam Riggs ruffled some serious feathers with his guitar on fire stunt at Larry Joe Taylor Fest. And Dalton Domino escalated an online harassment fiasco of his own making.
But in perhaps the most-distracting story of the year pertaining to any one country artist, the aforementioned Midland found themselves under the microscope at the peril of the “authenticity” argument. The whole conversation kind of dominated their album release, unfortunately. But they’ve since earned a few Grammy nominations, which just might put that whole situation in the past.