Twenty-thirteen was decidedly a year in which the ladies put a collective boot in country's ass. And we’re not even talking Tay Tay, who didn’t release an LP, though Red kept selling like Saturday night longnecks at Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge. Ashley Monroe, Kacey Musgraves, Brandy Clark and Caitlin Rose, young women all, wrote and recorded outstanding records that shone with songwriting smarts and mostly ignored the bogus line dividing "country" and "Americana." (And three of the four, we couldn’t help noticing, wrote trenchant songs involving weed — although Musgraves got bleeped when she sang hers during primetime on the Country Music Awards.) That’s not to mention the Pistol Annies, with Monroe and Miranda Lambert — the badass who helped get this gal-led renaissance rolling — who doubled down similarly on a fine second LP.
The men, meanwhile, mostly played it safe, cranking out partytime bullshit about trucks, babes and beers. On the other hand, mainstream standardbearer Brad Paisley fumbled, spectacularly, with a hick-hop apologia for a Lynyrd Skynyrd t-shirt that engaged LL Cool J in a well-meaning but regrettably wan exchange about southern history and slavery. (Paisley might have done better with Kanye, who was recently rocking a confederate flag emblem on his warm-up jacket.) There was more potent music from guys working country's fringes, where Sam Baker and Jason Isbell, among others, demonstrated the quiet power of storytelling craft. And in the end, we were thankful for Aussie mainstream mercenary Keith Urban, who wrote probably the year’s best song about a girl and a truck (“Cop Car”), while accessorizing with dance-pop touches that echoed those favored by Music City’s reigning crossover princess. Dude was smart enough to recognize that when you can’t beat 'em, why not join 'em? BY WILL HERMES
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