Gone Country: The most anticipated albums of 2017

Country fans had a lot to celebrate last year, but 2017 is shaping up to be just as good, if not better than 2016. Artists like Maren Morris and Eric Church are headed back on tour, and old legends like Marty Stuart and Reba McEntire are recording new material, and young up-and-comers like Luke Combs are poised to make 2017 their breakout year.

While there’s been a fair amount of speculation on who’s headed back into the studio, there are still a lot of confirmed release dates that are already on my calendar. Here’s a list of the albums I’m most excited for, divided up by month:

February

Alison Krauss, “Windy City,” Feb. 17

Jamey Johnson and Alison Krauss perform at the Willie Nelson Fourth of July Picnic at Austin360 Amphitheater on July 4, 2016. Photo by Erika Rich for American-Statesman
Jamey Johnson and Alison Krauss perform at the Willie Nelson Fourth of July Picnic at Austin360 Amphitheater on July 4, 2016. Photo by Erika Rich for American-Statesman
Krauss’ first album in 17 years is a collection of bluegrass and country rarities and standards by artists like Brenda Lee, Willie Nelson, Bill Monroe and the Osborne Brothers. Her take on Brenda Lee’s “Losing You” is heartbreaking and beautiful, replacing the trumpets on the original with lilting steel guitars.

Rhiannon Giddens, “Freedom Road,” Feb. 24

Rhiannon Giddens plays ACL Fest 2015. Suzanne Cordeiro for AMERICAN-STATESMAN
Rhiannon Giddens plays ACL Fest 2015. Suzanne Cordeiro for AMERICAN-STATESMAN
2016 saw Giddens’ profile rise after she became that year’s recipient of the Steve Martin Prize for Excellence in Banjo and Bluegrass and also sang the backup vocals on Eric Church’s election-year antidote “Kill a Word.” Oh, and she also played a killer set at her “Austin City Limits” taping. The Americana/roots artist is slated for a Feb. 24 release of “Freedom Road,” only her second album. The 12-track LP will feature nine originals plus a Staples Singers cover (the title track).

Aaron Watson, “Vaquero,” Feb. 24

Photo from Flickr user Amy Claxton.
Photo from Flickr user Amy Claxton.
Watson’s 2015 album “The Underdog” shot him to a wider audience in 2016 after it became the first album from a male artist to ever reach Number One on the country charts without a record deal. While the title may belie the fact, “The Underdog” was Watson’s 12th album. His next, “Vaquero,” seems to stick to his formula of traditionalist country with a little bit of modern flair.

March

Sunny Sweeney, “Trophy,” March 10

Sunny Sweeney.  JAY JANNER / AMERICAN-STATESMAN
Sunny Sweeney. JAY JANNER / AMERICAN-STATESMAN
Texas-born Sunny Sweeney’s latest album features four songs penned with Lori McKenna and guest spots from Trisha Yearwood, Ray Benson and Jack Ingram.

April

Willie Nelson, “God’s Problem Child”

Willie Nelson tapes a piece in the Pedernales Recording Studio for the US premiere of the Irish music series Other Voices on October 3, 2016. Suzanne Cordeiro for American-Statesman
Willie Nelson tapes a piece in the Pedernales Recording Studio for the US premiere of the Irish music series Other Voices on October 3, 2016. Suzanne Cordeiro for American-Statesman
Nelson’s latest album will feature “Delete and Fast-Forward,” his take on the 2016 election, as well as a song co-written by Jamey Johnson. The Red-Headed stranger’s age hasn’t slowed his creative output, and I’m hoping Austin’s favorite hippie finds a way to live forever.

May

Zac Brown Band, “Welcome Home,” May 12

The Zac Brown Band closes out the concert season at Circuit of the Americas. Photo courtesy Shore Fire Media
The Zac Brown Band closes out the concert season at Circuit of the Americas. Photo courtesy Shore Fire Media
After taking a detour with “Jekyll + Hyde” and Brown’s ill-advised side-project Sir Roosevelt, ZBB is going back to their stripped-down style, complete with a new tour to go along with it. The “Welcome Home” tour will kick off in Atlanta on the same day as the album’s release.

“The album will be straight back to our roots, ‘Foundation’-style,'” Brown told Rolling Stone Country.

To Be Announced

The following artists have all promised upcoming albums this year, but haven’t set dates yet:

Jason Isbell

Isbell tweeted on New Year’s eve that he was hard at work on a follow-up to “Something More Than Free.” Early reports say Isbell will again put Dave Cobb at the controls, and that the album has started tracking this month.

Marty Stuart, Early 2017

Stuart’s followup to 2014’s “Saturday Night/Sunday Morning” will focus on California, where the bulk of the album was recorded.

Shania Twain

Twain’s last album was the 2002 double-album “Up!” In the 15 years since, she’s performed a residency in Vegas, gotten divorced and written a book. Expect some personal material from the Canadian superstar.

Chris Stapleton

Stapleton’s sophomore album should be coming soon, and he’s already been trying some of the songs out on tour. It’s rumored to be coming out in the spring; a single should be released in the next couple of months.

Margo Price

One of the biggest travesties in country music last year was the lack of major awards recognition given to “Midwest Farmer’s Daughter,” Price’s debut. She tweeted on Dec. 21 that her new album was in the works. She told Rolling Stone Country in December that she’s “been writing a lot, because there is so much going on in the world and so much going on with me internally.” Her NPR Tiny Desk concert from November might point to some of the album’s subject matter.

Corey Smith

The Jefferson, Ga. wordsmith is famous in the southeast for three things: his rigorous touring schedule, his poignant songwriting and his N.W.A.-by-way-of-the-Mason-Dixon-Line anti-police screeds “F The Po-Po” and “Chattanooga.” He tweeted in November that he has new songs and is going out on tour again. In the meantime, his latest, “While The Gettin’ Is Good,” is available now.

Straight-Up Speculation

None of these have been formally announced, but I’m holding out for these dark horses for 2017:

A Jamey Johnson album

Johnson hasn’t released a full-length solo project full of original songs since 2010’s “The Guitar Song.” He’s been content to write songs for others for the most part, and those are all fantastic, but hearing other people sing his words just makes me want a new album even more.

A Cody Jinks album

The Fort Worth native just today announced a new song, presumably a cover of Pink Floyd’s “Wish You Were Here.” That might mean he’s following up the stellar “I’m Not The Devil” with something more experimental. Or it could just be a one-off.

A Josh Turner album

Turner’s been in the middle of album woes (presumably brought on by his record label) for five years. His last full-length album, “Punching Bag,” came out in 2012. “Lay Low” and “Hometown Girl” have been the only singles he’s released since then, and he’s told news outlets as recently as 2015 that he has an album ready to go, but it’s his record album that’s holding him back. Hopefully this will be the year his deep-based voice gets released from record label purgatory.

A Gary Allan album

Allan is in the same boat as Turner. “Set You Free,” Allan’s last album, was released in 2013 and he’s only put out some lackluster songs since then. He was supposed to have a new album out in 2015. Maybe this year will be his year.

A Dixie Chicks album (live or studio)

You don’t go on a world tour and NOT release a DVD, or an album, or something. Come on.

Gone Country aims to thoughtfully explore the country music genre and where it’s headed, with a focus on national trends and buzzworthy news of the week. For info about album releases and concerts, check out this week’s Country Music Roundup.

Questions, comments, suggestions? Let me know on Twitter @jakeharris4 or through email at jharris@statesman.com.

A tale of two concerts: Chris Stapleton and Hank Jr. on one bill is like night and day

 

Hank Williams, Jr. may not have known who Chris Stapleton was before adding him to his current tour this summer, but the Austin crowd at the Circuit of the Americas Saturday night certainly knew the name of the Grammy-award-winning singer.

Hank Williams Jr., left, joins Chris Stapleton at Austin360 Amphitheater Aug. 13.
Hank Williams Jr., left, joined Chris Stapleton at Austin360 Amphitheater Aug. 13.

At the beginning of the show, the crowd’s roar for Chris Stapleton was much louder than it was for Williams, but that’s probably because most of the people who only wanted to see Stapleton left midway through the show.

When this tour was announced, a lot of people, myself included, wondered why Stapleton was opening for Williams. Sure, Williams has the family name and is the larger celebrity, but at this point in time, why wasn’t Stapleton headlining this tour? And yeah, the two artists are country stars, but one plays Americana-tinged traditional music and came up in a bluegrass band; the other may be most widely-known for singing the theme song to “Monday Night Football.”

Hank Williams Jr and Christ Stapleton, with guest Wade Bowen, perform on their Summer Tour 2016 at the Austin360 Amphitheater at The Circuit of The Americas in Austin, Texas on August 13, 2016 - Photo Credit: Scott Moore/for American-Statesman
Chris Stapleton performs at the Austin360 Amphitheater at The Circuit of The Americas in Austin, Texas on August 13, 2016 – Photo by Scott Moore/for American-Statesman

Watching the two different performances Saturday night at the Austin 360 Amphitheater felt like experiencing two completely opposite ends of the country music spectrum, each with its different and desired effects. Stapleton proved why he is the hot ticket item in country music at the moment with cuts from his award-winning “Traveller” album, and the 67-year-old Junior showed he still knows how to put on a show.

PHOTOS: Hank Williams Jr. and Chris Stapleton, with guest Wade Bowen perform at the Austin360 Amphitheater

After a surprise appearance from Wade Bowen to start things off in the rain, Stapleton took the stage and launched straight into “Nobody To Blame.”

Stapleton got an assist from the weather. The constant drizzling rain during Stapeton’s set, combined with the earthy, lived-in sounds of “Outlaw State of Mind” and “Was It 26,” created an intimate setting in the 14,000-capacity amphitheater. When it came time to perform “You Are My Sunshine” under dim stage lighting with his wife Morgane, it felt like sitting around a haunted campfire.

Stapleton ended his set with three of his most popular songs to date, allowing the audience to sing along. The hushed reverence the audience reserved for most of Stapeton’s songs gave way to enthusiastic singing for “Traveller,” “Fire Away” and closer “Tennessee Whiskey,” which set the stage for the party antics of Bocephus a few minutes later.

As Stapleton closed down his show, the rain halted, which signaled a bigger sea change than just a drier climate. Even though this whole affair took place after dark, the difference in the crowd for Hank Jr. was like night and day.

A lot of people booked it out of the stands after Stapleton left, leaving all of Hank’s rowdy friends who clearly came over to COTA to party.

Hank Williams Jr and Christ Stapleton, with guest Wade Bowen, perform on their Summer Tour 2016 at the Austin360 Amphitheater at The Circuit of The Americas in Austin, Texas on August 13, 2016 - Photo Credit: Scott Moore/for American-Statesman
Hank Williams Jr performs at the Austin360 Amphitheater at The Circuit of The Americas in Austin, Texas on August 13, 2016 – Photo by Scott Moore/for American-Statesman

Taking the stage to a mash-up of Hank Williams and Hank Williams, Jr. musical name-drops from everyone from Alan Jackson to Kid Rock, Bocephus started his set off with a cover of Waylon Jennings’ version of “Are You Ready for the Country.”

The fans that remained might have been from a different generation than Stapleton’s fans, but their enthusiasm was just as palpable.

Williams covered a lot of ground in his set, from the aforementioned Waylon Jennings cover to “If Heaven Ain’t a Lot Like Dixie” to fan favorite “A Country Boy Can Survive.”

Where Stapleton’s set felt like a meditative, slow-burning candle, Williams’ show felt like a dynamite blast, bursting with energy and stage banter. They might not have known all the songs, but everybody in the audience was ready to party.

Stapleton let his music do most of the talking for him, but Williams spoke freely to the crowd, regaling them with stories of his father’s musical heritage, often launching into cover songs from that era.

He imitated his late father’s voice to a T on “Lovesick Blues,” treated the crowd to a jam session that included “Your Cheatin’ Heart,” “There’s a Tear in My Beer” and “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On” and included the ode to his father that he performed with the late Waylon Jennings, “The Conversation.”

At times it felt like Williams relied too heavily on jam sessions, medleys (which seemed rushed and haphazard at times) and covers of his father’s songs, but when his father is one of the greatest country artists to ever live, can you blame him?

Plus, Williams made it clear that he doesn’t care what people think about him anyway.

I’m gonna play where I want to, when I want to, with who I want to, for who I want to, and I’m spoiled because I’ve got the most loyal fans in the business,” he said towards the end of his show.

 The night ended with “Family Tradition,” where the famous chorus goes “Why must you live out the songs that you wrote?/Stop and think it over, try and put yourself in my unique position/If I get stoned and sing all night long, it’s a family tradition!”

For Williams, the biggest family tradition is performing, and he certainly carried that tradition proudly. And while at first it seemed odd to have him and Stapleton on the same bill, by the end of the night, it became clear that subverting expectations was another part of the Williams Family Tradition as well.

Setlists

Wade Bowen

  • “God Bless This Town”
  • “Trouble”
  • “A Battle Won”
  • “Sun Shines on a Dreamer” 
  • “Ain’t No Sunshine When She’s Gone”/”Mood Ring” medley 
  • “Saturday Night”

Chris Stapleton 

  • “Nobody to Blame”  
  • “I Ain’t Living Long Like This” (Waylon Jennings cover) 
  • “Outlaw State of Mind”
  • “Midnight Train to Memphis” (Originally by The SteelDrivers, Stapleton’s old band)
  • “Was It 26”
  • “Might As Well Get Stoned”
  • “You Are My Sunshine” 
  • “Traveller”
  • “Fire Away”
  • “Devil Named Music” 
  • “Tennessee Whiskey”

Hank Williams, Jr.

  • “Are You Ready for the Country” (Waylon Jennings cover) 
  • “If Heaven Ain’t a Lot Like Dixie”
  • “Move It On Over/Mind Your Own Business” medley
  • “The Conversation” 
  • “Just Call Me Hank”
  • “Keep the Change”
  • “All My Rowdy Friends Are Coming Over Tonight”
  • Jam Session
  • “Kaw-Liga” (Hank Williams cover)
  • “Your Cheatin’ Heart/Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On” medley (Hank Williams/Jerry Lee Lewis cover)
  • “Dinosaur” 
  • “There’s A Tear In My Beer” (Hank Williams cover) 
  • “All My Rowdy Friends (Have Settled Down)”
  • “Dukes of Hazzard” theme song/”Walk the Line” (Waylon Jennings/Johnny Cash cover)
  • “Redneck Paradise” 
  • “Lovesick Blues” (Hank Williams cover)
  • “A Country Boy Can Survive”
  • “Born to Boogie”
  • Jam session
  • “Family Tradition”/”Hey Good Lookin'” medley (Hank Williams cover)

 

Country Music Roundup: Hank Williams Jr. doesn’t know who tour opener Chris Stapleton is

This Week’s News

Despite Chris Stapleton opening for Hank Williams Jr. on his latest tour that kicks off this Friday, Williams says he doesn’t really know who Stapleton is.

HankJrStapleton
Hank Williams Jr., left, joins Chris Stapleton at Austin360 Amphitheater Aug. 13.

Ahead of his Tampa gig this Friday, Williams wrote in an email interview with the Tampa Bay Times that he hasn’t heard Stapleton’s award-winning album “Traveller,” and that “I don’t listen to much radio, so if it’s somebody that I don’t know, I probably don’t know their music either.”

Williams goes on to write that “I have not worked with Chris in the past, nor do I remember ever meeting him,” but that he always asks the artists he tours with to come out with him at the end of the set to perform “Family Tradition,” if the artist knows the song.

But this tactic isn’t new; Williams told the Tampa Bay Times that he regularly doesn’t interact with his opening acts.

“Normally I don’t know who is opening a show until I get to the show just before going on stage,” Williams wrote.

Williams and Stapleton are coming to the Austin 360 Amphitheater Aug. 13. Tickets are still available here.

This Week’s Best New Song

If “Surrender Under Protest” was a warm-up to the political subject matter of Drive-By Truckers’ September 30 album “American Band,” then latest single “What It Means” is the band in full game time mode.

Patterson Hood’s thick Alabama drawl combine with the Truckers’ acoustic and electric guitars and rousing church organs to deliver a scathing indictment of race relations in America at the end of an Obama presidency.

Invoking Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Trayvon Martin and countless other black victims of police shootings, Hood plaintively asks “what it means”:

“If you say it wasn’t racial
When they shot him in his tracks
Well I guess that means that you ain’t black
It means that you ain’t black
I mean Barack Obama won
And you can choose where to eat
But you don’t see too many white kids lying
Bleeding on the street”

But then again, politics are nothing new to the Truckers, they of the proponent of “The duality of the Southern Thing” in “The Three Great Alabama Icons.

Hood told Rolling Stone Country that he wrote the song a few years ago “protesting the Ferguson decision and the Trayvon Martin killing. Unfortunately, the song is still timely today. I hope and pray that one day it won’t be.”

Whether you agree with Hood’s politics or not, you can’t fault them for at least voicing their opinion in a genre that’s typically devoid of political discussion.

This Week’s Worst New Song

Kenny Chesney delayed his album release for this? In previous interviews Chesney said that his latest collaboration with P!nk would be “a song of being,” would “capture the best part of being alive” and that P!nk’s voice would elevate the song to a better place.

Instead, “Setting the World on Fire” sees Chesney churning out another boring pop-country crossover, as is the trend of late. There’s nothing particularly bad about the song, but it’s not really great either. It’s entirely middle-of-the-road, which is why Chesney’s hype machine for the song makes it feel like such a letdown. But it does sound tailor-made for radio, which was no doubt Chesney’s intention.

 

This Week’s Best Country Show in Austin

Was there any question? The Dixie Chicks are back in Austin for a sold-out show at the Austin 360 Amphitheater.

dyc fire concert 43
The Dixie Chicks play Sunday at Austin360 Amphitheater. 2011 photo by Deborah Cannon/American-Statesman 

Tickets went fast for the return to the concert stage of Natalie Maines, Emily Robison Strayer and Martie Maguire for their first U.S. tour in a decade. There’s no new album, but this is a big deal regardless, especially in their home state. Natalie’s father, Lloyd Maines, will sit in with the backing band, which also includes Austin bassist Glenn Fukunaga. We’ll have more about the show in Sunday’s American-Statesman, including an interview with Lloyd Maines. Vintage Trouble and Smooth Hound Smith open. Sold out. 7 p.m. 9201 Circuit of the Americas Blvd. austin360amphitheater.com. — Peter Blackstock

This is the Country Music Roundup, a weekly blog where we’ll give you the latest news in country music releases and local country shows. For a more in-depth analysis of the genre and where it’s headed, check back with our weekly Gone Country blog every week.

Questions, comments, suggestions? Let me know on Twitter @jakeharris4 or by email: jharris@statesman.com.

Chris Stapleton spent his Fourth of July at Fort Bragg with 40,000 troops

Chris Stapleton wasn’t at Willie’s Picnic this year, but he had a good reason for his absence.

The “Parachute” singer instead spent his Independence Day with 40,000 of America’s soldiers at a Budweiser-sponsored show in Fort Bragg, North Carolina.

Chris Stapleton poses in the press room with the awards for album of the year for "Traveller", new male vocalist of the year, male vocalist of the year and song of the year for “Nobody to Blame”, at the 51st annual Academy of Country Music Awards at the MGM Grand Garden Arena on Sunday, April 3, 2016, in Las Vegas. (Photo by Jordan Strauss/Invision/AP)
Chris Stapleton poses in the press room with the awards for album of the year for “Traveller”, new male vocalist of the year, male vocalist of the year and song of the year for “Nobody to Blame”, at the 51st annual Academy of Country Music Awards at the MGM Grand Garden Arena on Sunday, April 3, 2016, in Las Vegas. (Photo by Jordan Strauss/Invision/AP)

“I can’t think of a more appropriate thing to do,” he told “People.” “No one who lives in the United States of America doesn’t owe these guys a debt of gratitude. Anything we can do to honor them is a real treat to get to do.”

The Grammy-award winning star also presented the check for Budweiser’s $1 million donation to Folds of Honor, an organization that provides educational support to spouses and children of fallen and disabled soldiers.

Stapleton has been using his status as a celebrity to give back to various communities ever since he made it big. The son of a coal miner, Stapleton donated to the United Mine Workers of America in 2015, and went back to his hometown in March to play a concert at his old high school, complete with a donation of $57,000 in musical instruments.