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10 Best Country Collaborations of 2015

From Justin Timberlake and Chris Stapleton to Don Henley and Dolly Parton

Justin Timberlake and Chris Stapleton

Justin Timberlake and Chris Stapleton share the stage during the 49th CMA Awards.

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Porter and Dolly. Conway and Loretta. Johnny and June. Country artists have been working on perfecting the duet since time immemorial, and 2015 brought its own share of tag-teamed performances, from Brad Paisley's onstage jam with the Rolling Stones — on a country-tinged number with references to shooting heroin, no less — to Little Big Town's gospel choir harmonies for pop newcomer Tori Kelly.

Then there was Chris Stapleton and Justin Timberlake's collaboration at the CMA Awards, an unlikely duet that single-handedly vaulted Stapleton from underground cult status to the top of the mainstream charts. Over an explosive eight minutes, the singers swapped harmonies and guitar riffs on a pair of songs that helped set a new high mark for collaborative excellence. Understandably, they've topped the following list of 2015's 10 best country collaborations, which also makes room for roots-rock veteran Don Henley, big-voiced Dixie Chick Natalie Maines and Americana kingpins Jason Isbell and Sturgill Simpson.

Justin Timberlake and Chris Stapleton

NASHVILLE, TN - NOVEMBER 04: Musician Justin Timberlake (L) performs onstage with singer-songwriter Chris Stapleton at the 49th annual CMA Awards at the Bridgestone Arena on November 4, 2015 in Nashville, Tennessee. (Photo by Terry Wyatt/WireImage)

Chris Stapleton with Justin Timberlake, “Tennesee Whiskey” and “Drink You Away”

Like the NBA Dream Team dominating Angola's basketball squad during the 1992 Olympics, Chris Stapleton and Justin Timberlake laid waste to this year's CMAs, turning what initially seemed like an oddball pairing into a stomping, show-stealing slam-dunk contest. The two swapped harmonies and high notes throughout George Jones' "Tennessee Whiskey" before tackling Timberlake's "Drink You Away," while the A-listers in the audience — including Little Big Town's Jimi Westbrook, who doubled over in disbelief after one of Timberlake's acrobatic runs, and Jerry Douglas, caught by TV cameras in a crazed, catlike grin borrowed from The Simpsons' Mr. Burns — officially lost their shit. Two days later, Stapleton sat at the top of the Billboard 200, finally catapulted into the mainstream via two drinking songs. Call 'em the shots heard 'round the world.

Brad Paisley Rolling Stones

NASHVILLE, TN - JUNE 17: Brad Paisley joins Keith Richards of The Rolling Stones during The Rolling Stones North American "ZIP CODE" Tour - Nashville at LP Field on June 17, 2015 in Nashville, Tennessee. (Photo by Rick Diamond/Getty Images,)

Rick Diamond/Getty Images

Brad Paisley and the Rolling Stones, “Dead Flowers”

Making their first Nashville appearance in more than a decade, the Rolling Stones cranked up the twang during their summertime show at Tennessee's LP Field (now rechristened Nissan Stadium), reaching into their catalog for the late-Seventies deep cut "Far Away Eyes" before welcoming opening act Brad Paisley back to the stage for an all-hands-on-deck version of "Dead Flowers." Armed with a Telecaster guitar and a Rolling Stones concert tee ("I like your t-shirt, Brad," Mick Jagger noted), Paisley added twang and texture to the song, nabbing his own verse and guitar solo in the process.

Taylor Swift, Natalie Maines

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Taylor Swift and Natalie Maines, “Goodbye Earl”

With more special guests than a Best Western, Taylor Swift's 1989 World Tour rolled across the globe this year like a pop-music party bus, picking up and dropping off new duet partners in every city. Natalie Maines was among those who climbed aboard for Swift's tour stop in L.A., where the two resurrected the Dixie Chicks' "Goodbye Earl" for a sold-out audience on August 24th. While Swift pranced, preened and pretend-punched herself in the face during the "Wanda started getting abused" verse, Maines refocused the spotlight on her own vocal chops, whose muscle and might make next year's Dixie Chicks reunion tour seem like the best idea since Taking the Long Way.

Blake Shelton and Miranda Lambert

Blake Shelton with Miranda Lambert, “God Gave Me You”

Three months before their divorce, Miranda Lambert and Blake Shelton sang together in Wichita, Kansas, performing one of their final songs as husband and wife. "Miranda is the reason I recorded this song," Shelton told the audience by way of introduction, before strumming the opening chords of "God Gave Me You." For a couple whose relationship was famously kickstarted by a duet, Lambert and Shelton's simple take on "God Gave Me You" sounds both powerful and poignant, doubling as a bookend to one of the most famous marriages in modern country.

Don Henley and Dolly Parton

Don Henley with Dolly Parton, “When I Stop Dreaming”

Don Henley didn't need to pack his solo record with Nashville royalty to prove his country cred — the guy co-founded the Eagles, after all — but that didn't stop Mr. Desperado from filling Cass County's tracks with appearances by Merle Haggard, Miranda Lambert and others. It's his duet with Dolly Parton, though, that shines the brightest. Filled with convincing heartbreak and gorgeous harmony, "When I Stop Dreaming" takes its cues from country's golden days, mixing a melody worthy of the Louvin Brothers with Parton's best performance in years.

Charles Kelley Eric Paslay Dierks Bentley

Charles Kelley with Eric Paslay and Dierks Bentley, “The Driver”

A tribute to the live concert experience, "The Driver" tips its hat to those who rarely take the stage, from crew members to ticket holders. There's a bit of self-glorification in the mix, too — particularly during Bentley's verse, where he refocuses the spotlight onto frontmen like himself — but the song's swaying, swooning chorus smooths out any wrinkles, turning Kelley's solo debut into a supersized singalong that deserves its Grammy nomination.

Amanda Shires, Jason Isbell and Ryan Adams

Ryan Adams with Jason Isbell and Amanda Shires, “Jacksonville Skyline”

With a run of four sold-out shows and a December appearance at the Grand Ole Opry, Jason Isbell all but moved into the Ryman Auditorium this year. Maybe it's unsurprising, then, that he took the stage halfway through Ryan Adams' own Ryman gig in April, joining his former tour mate for a stirring "Oh My Sweet Carolina." Five minutes later, Isbell hit the stage again, this time for a performance of Whiskeytown's "Jacksonville Skyline" with Amanda Shires on fiddle. The three crowded around a single microphone, forging an intimate moment in a night otherwise filled with larger-than-life rock & roll.

Randy Rogers Wade Bowen

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Randy Rogers and Wade Bowen, “Standards”

"You won't see my name on the billboard, but every night I pack the dance floor." So goes the refrain of this honky-tonk home run, delivered by a pair of Texans who've been on the road for nearly a decade, making music for the rodeos and roadhouses of their home state. Delivered with equal parts humor and defiance, the song finds Rogers and Bowen sitting down with a record exec who wants them to cover a song about a dirt road. They refuse, and their explanation for avoiding the Music Row machine — "I don't have hits; I've got standards" — may be the best jab at Nashville's country-pop biz since George Strait and Alan Jackson's "Murder on Music Row."

Little Big Town and Tori Kelly

Little Big Town with Tori Kelly, “Should’ve Been Us”

Big hair. Big hooks. Bigger harmonies. Little Big Town's one-off performance with pop newcomer Tori Kelly is the latest in a string of genre-jumping duets with everyone from Faith Hill to Ariana Grande. Performed during LBT's September show in Los Angeles, "Should've Been Us" sounds like a song reborn — stripped down to its acoustic framework by Kelly, then built into a harmony-heavy anthem by a vocal group at the top of its game.

Jason Isbell and Sturgill Simpson

Sturgill Simpson with Jason Isbell, “Amarillo Highway”

When their tours crossed paths during an October night in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, Americana poster boys Sturgill Simpson and Jason Isbell (making his second appearance on this list) didn't just play a show together. They shared the stage, too, turning Terry Allen's "Amarillo Highway" — a song Simpson covered all year long — into a fiery, fretwork-fueled duet worthy of Waylon & Willie.